Often when a cat does something in secret, it's a wicked thing. A certain cat belonging to a relative recently discovered how to enter a lidded hamper full of clean folded laundry, urinate on the laundry, and leap out without knocking over the hamper or otherwise being detected. Until my relative wanted a clean shirt.
But sometimes a cat does a good thing in secret.
Cougars are amazingly secretive creatures. You can spend years in cougar country without spotting a cougar, though chances are good that cougars spotted you. (Cougars are the same as mountain lions, and the same as pumas. Puma concolor.)
So there's not nearly as much information about the customs of cougars as there is about the customs of wolves or the folkways of bears. But new technology is helping. In Wyoming, biologists who put radio collars on cougars are learning things that change the picture of the species.
There was a nice story in the Jackson Hole News & Guide about a female cougar they call F27. She was leading her invisible life, raising three 8-month-old cubs, in wild terrain along the Gros Ventre River. Biologists couldn't watch her, but because she wears a GPS/radio collar that reports her location four times a day, they knew what she was up to. Nearby, another female cougar, F1, was raising her own three 20-month-olds, until she was shot by a hunter. (How do hunters find cougars if they're so elusive? Dogs.)
F27 adopted the orphaned kittens, giving her a sit-com family of six. Because most of the cubs had been collared too, researchers could tell that they all ate, slept, and played together. Since then, one of the adoptees (F69) has declared herself an emancipated minor and gone out on her own, but the rest are still one family.
Biologists used to think cougars were almost perfectly solitary animals, but the more we learn, the more convivial they turn out to be. “This solitary carnivore is actually pretty social when it comes down to it,” researcher Howard Quigley told the News & Guide.
Naturally, there may be selective advantages to this kindly behavior. For one thing, it's likely that F1 was related to F27, so that F27 wasn't adopting perfect strangers, but biological kin. It's possible that F1, an older cat, was F27's mother. If so, F27 has adopted her half-siblings—and she's promoting her own genes. But that doesn't mean that's why she did it. I find the idea of adopting cougar kittens very tempting, and yet there are no cougars on either side of my family.
Quigley also hypothesizes that a large cougar family, especially one including the two hulking male cubs from the adoption, might be able to defend their kills from local wolf packs. It often happens that a cougar will kill a deer or an elk, eat some, step away to nap, and get up repeatedly to eat a little more. But if wolves find it, the pack will gobble it, and a cougar won't dare to rush up yowling “That's mine! Get your own!” Five cougars, though—a cat pack—might able to hold onto their kills.
It's virtuous to do good deeds, and even more virtuous to do good deeds by stealth. (Most of the time.) By this standard of Maimonides, F27 deserves double praise, once for good behavior, and again for being furtive with it. She's not in it for the glory. The only reason we know about it is the GPS data – and it wasn't F27's idea to wear a radio collar.
The truth, I suspect, is that F27 didn't adopt those children because it was the right thing to do. She adopted them for the same reason I would have been tempted – because she liked them and wanted to have them around and take care of them.