What’s New Pussycat?

We never had pets when I was a girl. My eldest brother is afraid of animals, and I think my mom felt that having five kids along with all of their friends in the house was quite enough. I don’t recall ever asking for a pet, possibly because of my experience with a couple of good friends’ animals. One girlfriend had a dog which one day, completely out of the blue, bit her brother hard on the arm, and my best friend from grade 7 up had the meanest cat I have ever met. Her name was Mitzy and in the many years I knew her I never once saw her approach a human or accept any affection. She was great at snarling and hissing, but not much else.

All my relatives in the States had pets which I got to hang out with in the summer when we went to Massachusetts to visit. My Aunt Lyda had a dog named Sash and a cat named Buster. Sash looked like a walking footstool. He was low to the ground with a rectangular body and ringlets of unkempt fur hanging down like tassels. He was much like the dog in “Beauty and the Beast”. Sash was very yappy but otherwise quite nice. Buster, on the other hand, was a real devil. He had a mind of his own and was always getting into mischief. My Aunt Lyda had lived for many years in Brooklyn before returning to Fall River after her husband died, and she consequently had a very odd, and quite pronounced, accent. Whenever Buster would misbehave or make a mess she would cry, and I’ll write this out phonetically so you can hear the accent in your head, “Oh Busta you lit-el bugga.” 

Uncle Chuck was a hunter and had three beagles which he kept in a large outdoor cage at the top of the yard. I don’t remember the dogs’ names, but I do remember their gamey smell and the sound of their baying as I approached their enclosure. Uncle Barber and Aunt Alice had a lovely, well behaved poodle named Muffin, and two cats, Bonnie and Clyde. I’ve written before about how Uncle Barber could get Muffin and Clyde to sit nose-to-nose and to stay that way until he released them. They would growl the whole time, but they would obey. Uncle Barber had the most compelling quiet authority I’ve ever encountered. I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice in all the years I knew him, yet I always felt like I wanted to please him.

My Uncle Cesar and Aunt Lucky lived in Cape Cod. They never had children because she’d had a traumatizing late-term miscarriage and refused to get pregnant again. We discovered years later that Uncle Cesar was profoundly bi-polar and thus constantly medicated. This led me to wonder if Aunt Lucky decided to forgo kids not only because of her miscarriage, but also because her husband needed so much care. Whatever the reason, they had no children and got a toy poodle as a surrogate. Her name was Buffy, and she has the distinction of being the most annoying dog I have ever met. My aunt, and especially my uncle, spoiled her rotten and spoke to her in a baby voice – a sugary-sweet tone I don’t even like when it’s directed towards babies. Buffy was hyper-active and totally untrained. She did what she wanted whenever she felt like it, and regularly tore my shins to shreds with her nasty little claws when I visited. Oh how I hated that dog!

Relatives on my mother’s side also had pets – a lovely ginger cat named Tiger, and a beautiful Irish setter named Jonathan. Tiger was very timid and spent most of his time outside, but the few interactions I had with him were always nice. Jonathan was perhaps the most stunned dog I have ever met, but my middle cousin Cameron loved him dearly. Cam was heartbroken when Jonathan was struck and killed by a car after incautiously running into traffic to chase after something or other. It was sad, but none of us was overly surprised. It was just a matter of time until Jonathan’s stupidity got him killed.

I don’t remember ever asking for a pet, but maybe I did. I received a card on my 16th birthday featuring pen-and-ink drawings by my middle sister’s very talented boyfriend. The picture on the front of the card featured a set of drawn theatre curtains behind a small sign atop an easel which said, “Coming soon.” Inside was a drawing of two cats standing on the stage on their hind legs. Their front legs were stretched wide to the side and they had sappy smiles on their faces. The single word “Ta-da!” was printed underneath. I looked up with glee and surprise to have my mother confirm that I was indeed getting two cats for my birthday. I was overjoyed!

We went that very afternoon to the local Humane Society shelter and I chose two kittens. They were brothers, although they looked nothing alike. Shatsy had short white fur with brown spots and a large, solid body. Gato, on the other hand, had long, mottled fur and was quite slight. It turned out that their personalities were entirely different as well; Shatsy was docile and dumb, whereas Gato was testy and smart. Gato regularly beat up his larger brother, and Shatsy simply let him. I’d often wake up to see a clumps of fur all around the house and know that Gato had worked his brother over yet again.

Shatsy loved people and was very domestic. He also loved to eat. He would regularly jump up on the kitchen counter looking for scraps, but was so clumsy and heavy-footed when he jumped down that I would inevitably hear him land. I’d run into the kitchen to reprimand him for going on the counter, something he knew was forbidden, but rather than running away he would always turn onto his back as if to say, “You wouldn’t punish a cat as adorable as I am, would you?” If he’d had eye lashes, he would definitely have been fluttering them. I would speak sternly to him, and he would flip over and lovingly rub up against my leg, too dumb to even understand that he was in trouble. 

One of my favourite memories of Shatsy involves my father whom Shatsy seemed to particularly adore. Dad, who had a fairly dramatic streak, would start walking down the driveway and Shatsy would run up to walk beside him. My father would then begin strutting and put out his right hand as though he were holding an invisible leash. In the end he looked like a pompous nobleman taking the air with his trusty, tethered cat by his side. Shatsy would faithfully keep stride with Dad as many times as he would circle the driveway. It was hilarious.

Gato was much more independent than his brother. He was often missing tufts of fur or bore scratches from the various fights he got into with neighbourhood cats on his nightly rounds. He was also an excellent hunter. Gato often came home with a limp rodent or bird in his mouth which he was always reluctant to drop before coming in the house. One time I woke up to his loud purring, and the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the body of a decapitated bird right beside my pillow. I guess Gato was giving me a gift, but the whole episode put me in mind of the scene with the horse’s head in “The Godfather”. I didn’t yell as long as John Marley did in the movie, but I definitely screamed as I shot up in bed and flicked the corpse across the room with the back of my hand.

My mother took me to San Francisco for a week when I turned 18 to celebrate my upcoming graduation from high school. My brother picked us up from the airport on our return, and my dad was waiting on the porch as we pulled into the driveway. He came down to the bottom step looking distraught, and started speaking as soon as I got to him. He was full of apologies as he explained that Shatsy and Gato had been missing for several days. I was shocked and saddened by this revelation, but of course immediately told him he needn’t apologize as it wasn’t his fault. It turned out that about nine neighbourhood cats had gone missing on the same night. My mother suggested that perhaps someone who worked in a lab had snatched the cats to use in experiments, but my father and I thought another explanation was more likely. We had recently acquired a new neighbour whose backyard was kitty-corner to ours. He kept all kinds of birds caged outside and was constantly complaining about my cats harassing them. Dad and I suspected that he had finally had enough and simply got rid of the cats himself. It’s a real dick move to gather up nine domestic cats from a suburban street in the middle of the night regardless of who did it, especially as most were owned by children.

Not long after this we bought my dad a new cat and called him Merlin. He was a lovely pearl-gray Maine coon with an absolutely beautiful face. It turned out that my father didn’t want another cat, so when my brother Michael and I rented an apartment together in the annex neighbourhood of Toronto, Merlin came with us. Our place was on the second floor of a house with a large deck in the back. Michael and I were concerned about how Merlin would get down to the ground, so we came up with a clever plan to help him out. We got some pressboard and used it to build a long runway which ran from the top railing of our deck down to the picnic table in the back yard. We made it in two pieces with a piano hinge in the middle so we could fold it up and store it on the deck when it wasn’t in use. We even stapled carpet down the middle of the ramp to make it easier for Merlin to get up and down. It took some time to built, but finally it was ready. We put it in place and let Merlin out. He immediately jumped to the top of the deck railing, and without even looking at our glorious catwalk hopped on to a large tree beside the house and shimmied down. Michael and I looked at each other and started to laugh. Oh yeah, cats can climb trees.

The first cat my husband Douglas and I had was a slinky ginger we named George. George was incredibly friendly, and liked nothing better than to lie draped across your chest with his head resting on your shoulder. You could literally wear him around the house like a stole. Douglas and I were planning on travelling for some months and weren’t sure what to do with George. My eldest brother was subletting our place, so there was no way George could stay there. About a week before we were set to go George just disappeared. It was fortuitous timing, but we were both sad when he didn’t come home.

After out travels we got a new cat we called Bemo after the taxis we’d ridden in Bali. Bemo wasn’t overly friendly, but we loved her just the same. One day, after being missing for almost a week, she hobbled into the backyard looking badly injured. We gently placed her on a blanket in the house and tried to nurse her back to health, but after two days of refusing to even drink we decided to bring her to the Humane Society. The vet examined Bemo and told us she would need orthopaedic surgery to deal with the injuries in her back legs and hips. Even with that there was no guarantee that Bemo would ever walk or be pain-free again, and the procedure was going to cost about $1,000. It seemed unreasonable and kind of stupid to spend that much money unless we could be sure of a favourable outcome for the cat, so we decided to have her put down. The receptionist at the front desk was unbelievably rude and condescending when we told him our decision. He not-so-subtly suggested that it was typical of Yuppies like us to bail on our pet when things got expensive. I was already feeling terrible about the decision and burst into tears in the lobby. Douglas instructed me to go wait in the car and that he would handle it. I don’t know if he had words with the man behind the desk – all I know is he came out of the building about five minutes later with an empty box. Bemo had been put out of her suffering.

I’ve had my current cat Mo for 13 years now. She is an unremarkable looking grey cat, but since my kids moved out she has become very attached to me. The first dozen years we owned her she was very anxious. She was extremely skittish and neurotically licked all the fur off her belly, leaving it bald, red and raw. That continued until a year and a half ago when I retired. Mo became much calmer and better adjusted once I was home all the time. She regularly sits with me and likes to be picked up and hugged in the mornings and when I come home after being away. She bumps noses with me and purrs like mad whenever I touch her. She has stopped compulsively licking, and the fur has grown back on her belly. I’ve come to understand that most of her anxiety was due to being alone so much. I feel guilty about not realizing this sooner, but at least now we have each other and are best buds. 

My children have for years encouraged me to get a dog. I see people walking their dogs in the park every day, many of whom are crazy cute and seem to have lovely personalities. Dogs are much more devoted than cats, and love their owners in a way cats simply cannot. They are more human in nature than felines and therefore almost certainly make better companions. Dogs are also more work than cats, requiring much more attention, walks, and baths. Of these three, the attention is what concerns me the most. I already raised two children alone and spent 19 years working in an elementary school, and I’m not sure I want to have to provide unending care and attention yet again. I fear it could become onerous. Cats are beautifully independent – they come to you when they are feeling affectionate, and gladly snub you when they aren’t. They can be real assholes, but I kind of like that about them. I still can’t clearly see if there is a dog in my future, but I’m absolutely sure there is at least one cat.

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