All of this is to say
The subject of hygge has me thinking about animals. I don’t think I could feel at home without an animal. Even in college, I had a series of fish in my dorm rooms. In this, I take after my father.
The very first thing I did when I moved into my own apartment was to buy a Labrador retriever puppy, the first one I saw, straight out of the newspaper and exactly how one is not supposed to pick a puppy. My grandmother had given me a few hundred dollars and emphasized that I was to spend it on something I really wanted, just for myself, and this was what I wanted more than anything. Grandma Ode likely expected (or at least held out some hope) that I would buy a special dress or a piece of jewelry. She never acknowledged her role in my having this galumphing lug of a dog, though I told her thank you many times.
I named him Strider, after the Lord of the Rings character. He was my heart and soul, my protector, and my partner in crime for 13 years. When I returned home in my twenties at various temporary points, he was the bane of my mother’s existence; indeed, he was a disruptive force wherever we went. He was big, and wild, and vocal, and sweet, and horribly behaved. I accepted—I relished, I treasured—every trait.
Strider could find anything with wings. When I lived in Nebraska, my father and I would take him to public lands to flush every kind of game bird. When I lived in Dayton, he once broke away at a dead run; when I caught up to him a quarter mile later, he flushed a grouse at the edge of some patchy woods of city park. Wherever I was, and I was in many places in those years, I found a place for him to swim. He loved to retrieve anything on water, and he would swim until his legs buckled upon reaching the shore. I dreamed of training Strider to compete in field trials, where dogs retrieve a variety of birds that they have seen fall from a distance, or that have been hidden and they must be directed to with hand signals.
Strider eventually learned to sit at curbs, and to run away no further or faster than I could catch up.
Following Strider was another Labrador named Atticus, who lived past 16. He was my steadfast companion from my thirties into my fifties. Whereas Strider and I were love at first sight, Atticus and I were more like a successful arranged marriage, in which each learns to appreciate the other and each grows to love the other over time.
I did train Atticus in “dog games.” In fact, Atticus and I became something of a thing in the AKC Hunt Test venue (not quite as difficult or competitive as field trials, but there is nothing easy about it). We finished many tests of skill, talent, and teamwork; we collected many ribbons and titles, and earned a big ribbon and a special plate for a national event. I added a flat-coated retriever girl named Raven to the household while Atticus was still in his prime. She was a bit of a rehab project (and a long story), but we earned ribbons and titles, too. Raven could read my mind, and she was fiercely loyal. Before long, and pushing the bounds of reason, I added a puppy I named Cooper. He is a work in progress and a fine dog, the best behaved and most talented of the bunch. He has a sweet, willing demeanor and exuberance to spare, and he is the best sidekick a gal could have. I love him so much it makes me nervous.
The challenge of working with an animal to make an obedient team is a challenge and a pleasure that I find especially satisfying, and it creates a special relationship. But my dogs have never been simply a hobby or pastime. They aren’t people, of course, but they keep me company at any hour. They provide a schedule, and a reason to keep to it. They entertain me. They give me something to care for, and talk to. They have seemed to know me, or at least want to know me—my habits, my moods, maybe even my sense of humor–and I like to think that I’ve known them. A dog or two or three (though not human and no substitute) have been a prominent part of my family for most of my life.
All of this is to say—I am a dog person.
I have given a second thought to very few cats in my life, and I did not grow up with them. My best friend Lorena had a cat, Bridget, whose wicked life I became accustomed to saving—when it scratched the baby, when it began to pee outside the litterbox, when it scratched the baby again when she was a toddler, when she developed an expensive kidney condition—but I believe I did so out of simple contrariness. At one point several years ago a one-eyed cat began to frequent my vegetable garden, and I briefly thought of taking him in, but that was mostly because I wanted to name him Jack (as in One-Eyed Jack—which still makes me giggle).
The one cat I was actually fond of was King of the Dumpsters at my first apartment, a sprawling, run-down patch of poverty that I could barely afford. He was mostly white, with a large orange patch on his back that extended halfway up his tail, and an orange patch over one eye that made him look like a pirate. He was a big, hardy, sweet tom who made the rounds of his humans (myself included in the group at his apparent whim), purring and winding around your ankles and begging for tuna or some other treat. He never missed a meal, lost a fight, or from what I could tell, was denied an opportunity to mate. Every kitten in the complex looked almost exactly like him. And were there ever kittens! Dozens of orange and white grubby, flea-bitten, ear-infected, crusty-eyed mewling kittens of every size and age.
When I and Strider—at this point a 40 pound puppy that was still two-thirds ears and feet—would take our walks, we would be swarmed by small children, some in diapers and others barely in rags and a few in bathing suits, all barefoot. Strider was every little boy’s and some of the bolder girls’ friend, and for all his awkward exuberance he was gentle with each. More often than not, at least a few of the children also carried a kitten. They would pick them up under one porch, have their play, and drop them off somewhere along the way when they found a lost ball or cracked frisbee more entertaining.
One hot September afternoon Strider and I sat on our stoop after a walk, and his admirers were patting and pulling on him and begging to walk him when a child handed me a kitten. It was a filthy little thing, probably not fully weaned, and justifiably angry at the world and frightened for itself. I was surprised and disgusted, but wished it no harm, so I held it up away from Strider’s large, curious mouth, into which he put almost anything interesting. In the minor melee that ensued, the creature scratched me on the nose.
By Thanksgiving, I had had a fever for close to a month, and a swollen lymph node under my chin had gone from pea to orange to softball. It was a classic case of cat scratch fever, and at the hospital I was a spontaneous learning opportunity for every student and resident. I was thanked profusely for my willingness to share my (rather horrifying) condition, but mostly I was just too fatigued to object.
Cat scratch fever is a real disease, caused by the stealthy Bartonella henselae bacteria. Twenty years later, it was posited that this same Bartonella infection was the cause of some eye problems (thankfully, since resolved), including a sudden bout of vertical nystagmus–in other words, my eyeballs were bouncing up and down. Again, I found myself the teachable moment for a generation of medical students. Perhaps the worst indignity of cat scratch disease is my forever association with 3:41 of the worst of rock and roll, ever. I have never been able to mention the trauma without some smart alec doing his best Ted Nugent impression.
I am a curious person, and I can read about cat diseases for hours upon hours.There are narrative through-lines, vivid descriptions, evil villains, and poignant outcomes. At one point, I became fascinated by the protozoan parasite Toxoplasmosis gondii, best known as the reason pregnant women should avoid changing litter boxes and gardening where cats are known to defecate. The parasite has figured out how to make infected rodents sexually attracted to cat urine, thus luring them to their deaths and helping the tiny animals replicate inside a cat. Toxo infection in humans has been linked to schizophrenia, risk-taking, traffic accidents, and even so-called “Crazy Cat Lady Syndrome.” I have convinced myself on at least a few occasions that I’ve been stricken.
Bartonella and Toxo are only the most famous of the cat-to-human diseases. They are followed by an impressive variety of -osises and -isises and -occuses, including MRSA, plague, and rabies. They carry worms. They are fungus factories. They are allergen engines; their dander (not the only source of allergy) is tiny–one tenth the size of most dust particles–and it hangs in the air for hours upon hours, waiting to be inhaled into sinuses or attached to an eyeball. Cat dander is sticky, and adheres to hair and clothing. I, myself, am particularly sensitive to whatever particles find their way into my eyes.
I have never really understood cats, except as impressive killing machines. They come and go on a whim, they insert themselves into your space, they sit on your work, they bring presents no one wants. They pee and shit in the house, and litter sticks between their toes and finds its way into your sheets and onto your shelves and window sills. Their claws cause damage to floors, furniture, and at least occasionally arms.
All of this is to say—I am not a cat person.
For a while, beginning in 2016, I had three dogs. Atticus was elderly and Raven was already semi-retired from competition, and so I added the promising puppy Cooper to the pack. Cooper’s role would be as a loved pet first and foremost, but he would also train for competition. Three dogs were a lot, but they settled in better than I expected.
I kept an anxious eye on Atticus—but it was Raven who left me first, suddenly filled with cancer in the summer of 2017. She was a difficult dog, and I had put a lot of sweat and tears into her–but she was utterly devoted to me, and when she left, she took a lot of sweetness with her. And so the household was the old man Atticus, the puppy Mr. Cooper, and me, feeling vulnerable to the next loss.
Atticus was increasingly elderly, but never ill; still, with each season I could not picture him living another season. I spoiled him shamelessly. My refrigerator was never without liverwurst, and my bed had a bed on top of it into which I tucked him each night. I had the fireplace cleaned for him, so he could lay by a fire. The more I spoiled him, the closer his leaving seemed to be. I found myself wondering what my house would sound and feel like when my old friend left. I was filled with dread. I was haunted by him before he was gone, a terrible mistake–but not one I will make again, with man or beast. Dogs teach us things.
I thought about getting a small dog before Atticus was gone, to ease the transition without burdening myself with another large animal, but there were problems with this idea. Another puppy would not be fair to Atticus. It would annoy him now, and added to young Cooper might overwhelm him. More importantly, I knew that a small dog is still a whole dog, and after a period of three dogs I wasn’t sure I really even wanted two for a while.
Still, I felt the impending loss. This might have been exacerbated by an approaching holiday season that I could see shaping up as less than Rockwellian—family far, funds low, and so forth. Something nagged.
What about a cat?
What about a fish, a lizard, a parrot, a donkey. Or a better cable package, for that matter.
I am not a cat person.
But the idea would not go away. I kept an eye out for my old friend Jack (One-Eyed Jack, who had been adopted—or maybe I should say kidnapped—by half the neighborhood at this point, and was on the run again). I thought about a kitten—there are always kittens, everywhere—but I wouldn’t know what to do with a kitten. My experience nurturing kittens was making sure any orphans were placed under a porch rather than dropped on the sidewalk to become crow bait.
My experience with actual cats was minimal and mostly unpleasant, with the exception of that sweet dumpster tomcat, the kind of creature I would never subject to captivity behind windows and screens.
And then there was a post on Facebook—nice young cat, living situation changed. White with butterscotch tabby spots, free to good home.
I met him in the woman’s empty apartment. She had moved out months ago to live with a man who would not live with a cat, and she had been coming by a few times a week to feed and water and such. The cat’s name was Mr. B, for some intimate and amusing reason I did not understand. He was pretty to the point of feminine, and he had a whole lot of indignant kvetching to do about the living conditions, mowing and growling and purring and stomping in tiny fits. He did not (immediately) make me sneeze.
My parents were killed in a single car accident six months later. The grief was overwhelming. Atticus lived until after the memorial service without any specific ailment, but when I came home to him I knew I had waited too long. It was a hard loss, but it took a while to feel.
I would like to say that having a cat eased my grief in a way that a dog could not, but this is not true. Mr. B does not accept counseling as part of his job description.
Now, Cooper is an extremely intuitive animal who detects my moods and my limits before I recognize them myself. He is sensitive and playful. He nudges, sighs, and lays his chin on my knee. He sits still and leans in when I put a hand on his shoulder. He reads a situation, adjusts his behavior, and tries again to please me. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can almost feel 30,000 years of DNA shuffling and shifting into the perfect domesticated companion animal.
Mr. B interacts with me when it suits him, as it suits him. If he wants cuddles, he demands them–scaling my person, painfully scrabbling over my belly and breasts and onto my shoulder to knead his claws into me. He generally chooses a time when I am already focused on something else entirely. He has been known to draw blood in this way. Sometimes he will sit next to me and extend a paw, place it on my wrist, and pull my hand towards him until he gets the amount and type of scritches and scratches he believes he has coming to him. To deny him is to extend the inevitable, and generally ends up with him sitting on my laptop or draping himself over a book I am holding.
I wish he would let me pet his belly. He exposes the soft, fatty expanse regularly, with a look that is half I Dare You and half Pretty-Please, but I have learned the belly is off-limits.
He will meow and look over his shoulder at me and begin a deliberate march, leading me to an empty food bowl. Or a food bowl that is not arranged to his satisfaction: perhaps he has nibbled to the bottom in the middle, leaving a ring of food with an empty hole, or he has pushed half his remaining food to one side, leaving an empty half; these situations need immediate remediation by me. Upon balance in the food bowl being restored, he will walk away without eating. He will do the same when his litter box needs attention. He is happy to drink from the same bowl as the dog, but woe to the entire household if the bowl is empty or dirty.
Mr. B is an agile creature, and I enjoy watching him creep and jump and leap. He remains especially talkative, mowing and harrumphing and chirping until he believes he has made his point clear. When I need consolation, he disappears. When I would like to hold him, he is able to break the law of conservation of mass and suddenly weighs fifty pounds. He can become a liquid at room temperature at will, so he can flow through my grasp like mercury.
He would rather be an indoor-outdoor creature, and I would rather he have that freedom as well, but “cat culture” seems to have changed from the 1950’s television version that shaped my own thinking. Cats simply aren’t let out at night to prowl and carouse any more, and this makes me a little sad. But Mr. B has shown that he can and will escape (without warning) when he is motivated. I have had to get him his outdoor shots and outfit him with a collar with bell and tag (and a checkered bow-tie, the cutest damn thing I’ve ever seen).
His last foray was onto an ice-glazed porch, which he slid across and went flying. He laid wide-eyed in the mud for a moment, and leapt back onto the porch, and slid back in, a perfect reversal. He made it quite clear this was my fault. He seems to be a happy cat when he is not kvetching about something, but I find it hard to be sure. The only evidence is that when he does escape he comes back.
I have spent significant breath complaining about my cat, so much so that I am having a hard time walking back my criticisms; with time, I have found the same Mr. B behaviors I have criticized to be, in fact, fairly adorable, or at least easily dismissed, or simply Very Cat. Even B’s tendency to disappear when I need to hear the sound of purring has become a non-issue. He is Cat; Cat purrs when cat purrs. This confers a certain amount of dignity on him. He has engendered a touch of humility in me.
Perhaps I should not have pounced as I did, but a bold, impulsive move was the only way I would have gone through with it—and I find myself glad I did. My eyes do water from time to time, but now that I am surrounded by juniper pollen, any cat dander is a moot point. I have yet to contract a strange disease (knock wood).
In an interesting development, having a different kind of creature to be responsible for and build a relationship with has kept some uncharted part of my brain active, and I think I may try to learn how to care for, live with, or work with any number of animals. Friends with chickens promise me that different hens have different personalities. I imagine it a bit like having a coop of Golden Girls, I’m the silent fifth, and I also get fresh eggs. There is at least one neighbor in the park with a discreet coop. I’ve now had regular conversations with my neighbor calves, cows, and bull and gained an appreciation for the cow. I am keeping an open mind about goats, but I find their rectangular irises unnerving.
For some time now, I have been interested in getting to know—if not own—a horse before I become too old and decrepit. I imagine there are fascinating differences and similarities to working with dogs. I spent much of my youth attracted to but afraid of horses. They are emotional animals, and they are able to sense my discomfort from surprising distances; I have had both formal and impromptu meet-and-greet encounters with police horses, and they pin back their ears and shuffle their feet, and keep a wary eye on me. While I was only violently tossed once, a half dozen horses have stopped, dropped, and unceremoniously dumped me during a ride. Several weeks of expensive riding camp in high school made no difference. I understand now exactly how much this has a lot to do with confidence and fear, two emotions I have better control of as an adult (and which I could continue to work on mastering).
All of this is to say–I am still getting the hang of This Cat Thing, but I can no longer talk about Mr. B as a mistake or aberration.
There’s a pretty little tortoiseshell that’s been wandering free at the end of the drive. I wonder if I could fit two in my tiny home. Maybe if I made the loft accessible…
~ Greta Ode ~
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