I am the Cat

How is it that, as a self-identified cat person, I write so much more often about dogs? True, over the years I’ve shared my home with more dogs than cats, undoubtedly because dogs more easily work out a pack status and accommodate to numbers. For every three dogs, I’ve offered food and shelter to at most one cat. The only time I can recall offering housing to two cats at once, the dominant cat (Natasha) had recently been a mother, her kittens just weaned and off to new homes.

Shifting possessions in a rented storage unit, I heard a frantic mewling coming from behind the building. Huddled under an accumulation of dead leaves blown against the metal siding, was a tiny black handful of fur with a wide open mouth, loudly proclaiming its presence. Chantilly Lace quieted as soon as I picked her up. She dug around against my chest until she found my generously-sized inside jacket pocket, then nestled her way into it and went to sleep.

My chores completed, I returned home uncertain how to introduce Chantilly to Natasha and to the dogs living with me. Isha, a lanky Lab cross, had recently finished her stint as a kitten sitter. She amazed me with her willingness to let Natasha’s brood line up and nurse on her dry tits. Once the last kitten began eating solid food, Isha resumed her role as junior dog in the pack that went daily into nearby fields, to chase rabbits and warn off coyotes. She did not seem disposed to play mother substitute once more. Driftwood (Golden/Collie cross) and Khan (another black Lab cross) showed the normal doggy disdain for felines. No help there.

Not knowing the outcome, I set Chantilly down on the couch between me and Natasha, and waited. My timing must have been perfect; post natal hormones pushed Natasha to wash Chantilly, whose grateful purring response reinforced a bond. The two cats became familiars. I never afterwards saw one without the other. Their preferred sleeping positions were snuggled head to tail (69 position) and belly to belly, Natasha’s grey tiger stripes accented by Chantilly’s glossy black tail, a fur boa draped across Natasha’s neck.

In more recent times, I’ve watched my horses tend to each other’s needs by standing side by side, head to tail, nibbling bugs off hind quarters and those hard-to-reach places that need a scratch or – in the case of the cats – a good wash. Natasha, several years older, nonetheless outlived Chantilly. Alone after years of partnership, Natasha became noticeably more affectionate with me. She would fall asleep against my thigh when I sat reading. Gradually waking from a nap, she was apt to begin licking my leg, her left over habit of grooming Chantilly before and after sleep.

Natasha’s long life ended with a tumor on her jaw that eventually precluded eating. She survived on determination and wet food thinned to drinkable consistency, until the day she climbed onto my lap, looked me over thoroughly, licked my hand and meowed an unmistakable request to be eased on to her next incarnation.

A goodly number of years – and quite a few short-lived cat visitors – later, I was gifted to share space with Haiku, a ginger tom whose disposition was a charming balance of feistiness and affection. He enjoyed the several dogs (a Bouvier, another Lab, a Scottie and my first Shih Tzu) and was not averse to sleeping beside one, or tussling for a bone with another. Indeed, his personality was so like that of Daisy, my departed beagle, that I sometimes wondered if he wasn’t her reincarnated essence.

Handsome Haiku

Handsome Haiku

Haiku was a hunter – solo but also in company with whichever dog felt like going after a rabbit or dove. He would stalk prey, flushing it toward the waiting dog, then join whichever canine (usually the Lab) in pouncing on the heedless rabbit, or jumping into the air to snap at the dove. Together the pair were successful a surprising number of times. Haiku usually left the carcass to his canine teammate – his was indeed the thrill of the chase, more than the achievement of a goal.

Late in his life, Haiku became a test subject for an anti-cancer treatment being developed by a chemist friend of mine, in partnership with a research biologist from Arizona. Haiku grew a tumor on his foreleg which resisted surgical removal, growing back quickly and so deeply that the only further surgery possible would have been an amputation. The anti-cancer medication had, at that point, primarily been tested on mice. Calculating an equivalent dosage for a cat, my friend and I started Haiku on a weekly series of injections to which the tumor responded by softening and growing at a markedly slower rate. My vet followed the experiment with interest – and helped me ease Haiku onward when his system began to shut down as a result of the combined stress of the cancer and older age. He made his mark, not just in my life, but via his test data which went into the pool of information being used in further development of the anti-cancer treatment. A noble contribution from a noble creature.

Miss Socks

Miss Socks

The three most recent cats in my household have been Socks, Limerick and Noelle, all rescues, the first two of whom lived with us for relatively short periods of time. Socks took up with my Bouvier, both of them older and sedate, enjoying sleeping together in the sun. Like a long-married couple, they died only a short time apart. Limerick arrived – and left – by moonlight, spending only a few months with us.

Limerick in the Light

Limerick in the Light

Noelle, now five years old, was a Christmas gift, rescued as a kitten by a neighbor and presented to me “as holiday company.” For an animal born wild, she took to indoor life with alacrity, claiming the utility room as her home and only going out if I carry her to a perch high up under the carport. She hangs out in the rafters, fussing at the dogs and demanding to be transported back to her indoor residence, yet requiring persistent persuasion to come down within my reach. Once back indoors, she hides from just about everyone who has reason to enter the room (she dislikes the noise of the washing machine but hums along with the dryer). Her favorite places to perch are wrapped around the vent pipe for the hot water heater, or atop a box in the room’s south facing window. She has also made herself a hidey hole under a low shelf and it is there she retreats with a flash of tail, if a stranger enters the room.

Noelle

Noelle

Noelle is a talker – but only to me and one aide, who works with my housemate on Sundays. She is affectionate with the two of us, but avoids other people, even those who would lavish affection on her. I don’t know why – she’s not had any negative experience of people in all the years she’s lived with me. Her inscrutable cat reasoning, I guess.

I recently received a cute, animated set of pictures from a friend, illustrating the stereotypical difference between dogs and cats – the dogs generally bouncing in excited response, the cats indifferent to whatever is offered them by their people. What my several cats have taught me is that differences between and within species are more nuanced, closely mirroring the differences between humans.

Or perhaps, what I observe is merely the truism that our pets become mirrors of ourselves? In which case, I guess I defy classification, being sometimes aloof, sometimes affectionate, generally independent, usually friendly, occasionally on guard, rarely wary, never mean, often changeable, my bad moods short-lived. I like to play, love to cuddle, enjoy affection but still, when all is said and done and now that I am in the latter years of my life, I am Kipling’s “cat, who walks by himself.” So be it. Amen.

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