Sam of the Banyan Tree

In Hindu mythology, it is said that Krishna, the god of compassion, tenderness and love, rests on the leaves of a banyan tree. In the Phillipines, it is said that the banyan tree houses malevolent spirits. Other tales say that banyan trees represent eternal life, due to their seemingly unending expansion, with branches that drip down to the ground and seem to spring up again as roots, creating an entire forest network from one individual tree.

As I turn onto Banyan Drive, which runs close to the jagged shore in Hilo, Hawaii, the giant Banyan trees are the first thing you notice. They look like something straight from the mind of Tolkein, a spiral network of roots, wide trunks that could surely house a hobbit or two, huge arching branches that provide complete cover from the frequent afternoon rainstorms. You can’t help but stare at them, trying to make sense of their makeup, trying to unwind a hundred years of growth with your eyes.

I am doing just this on my first morning in Hilo, standing under a giant banyan in Liliuokalani Park trying to figure out how something like this grows, when I start to notice the cats.

To be truthful, I was out looking for cats.

I’m in Hilo as part of a massive spay/neuter effort with Animal Balance, sponsored by Alley Cat Allies, so I already have cats on the brain. This particular park is home to a colony of about 80 cats and one of our first targeted trapping sites.

You don’t notice the cats at first. But then a slight movement catches your eye, then another, then you realize that there are a dozen cats in the underbrush, sunning on the rocks, watching you with their, well…catlike eyes. I start to move towards a cluster of them, my camera in hand, aiming to get some great “cats in their element” shots for our website. When I get too close they scatter, darting up and into the twisted trunk of the nearby banyan tree. They scale the branches, pause, give me one last long glare, and simply melt into the tree. You cannot see them from the outside. They are gone.

I circle the tree. Surely I’ll see them on the other side, up in the high reaches of the branches, tucked into the spiraled roots. Nope. They are probably hiding in the open core of the tree, protected from outside threats.

Then I notice one cat has stayed on the exterior of the tree, perched just out of reach, resting calmly in the split of a branch. A handsome tuxedo cat, watching me with interest, making no move to run away.

I have had tuxedo cats all my life. As a cat lover, they are the ones that I am drawn to, they are my spirit animal, with their sassy demeanor, aloof nature, the fact that they’re always ready for a formal event. So, I notice when a tuxedo cat notices me, and this one was noticing me.

As the afternoon rain began to pour, I remained protected under the tree, shooting pictures of this cat. After about 10 minutes, he got bored with me and slowly, like the other cats of the banyan tree, melted into the trunk.

The following morning, when we arrived at our clinic, a MASH setup located in a defunct ice cream factory, there were 62 trapped cats waiting for the medical team. I knew the trapping team had been out in Liliuokalani Park the previous night, so it was no surprise to see my little spirit animal at the clinic, ready to be neutered.

Since this cat and I now had a history, I felt that he was deserving of a name, and we settled on Sam…Sam of the banyan tree. I followed Sam throughout the day, as he was sedated, neutered, treated for an injury to his tail and returned to his trap to recover from the anesthesia. He was one of 147 cats that we fixed on that first day of the campaign, a number that would turn out to be a drop in the bucket of cats needing sterilization on this side of the Big Island.

The next morning, when it was time, I went out with our trapper as Sam was returned to his banyan tree.

The trap was opened, he hesitated a moment and then shot out like a rocket. I had my camera poised, but my shutter was only able to catch him as a blur as he ran by. When he got about 20 yards away he stopped and looked back at me. One last acknowledgement (or he very possibly could have been cursing me as we had just neutered him) and then he made a sharp turn towards the tree, knowing that he was home. We return cats to their homes because, not only is it where they belong, but it will prevent the area from being re-inhabited with more, non-sterilized cats. In this way we can begin to humanely manage cat colonies as large as this one. Personally, I am glad that Sam is back in his banyan tree, which I can see from my hotel room as I write this. He represents the more than 700 cats that we will sterilize this week and is a great reminder that we owe these creatures some dignity and respect, as they belong somewhere just as much as humans do. Sam belongs in that banyan tree, a little feline version of Krishna, a reminder to have compassion, show love and tenderness to all creatures.