June 17, 2009

Misanthropy Through a Cat's Eyes

This past winter was especially hard on me in just about every conceivable way, but there were at least two nearby entities who had it worse: the two cats who'd taken up residence in a bush in front of my house for the coldest months of the year. In January, as the temperatures in my area dipped below zero in the evening, these guys were huddling together for warmth, unseen in what was presumably the only somewhat safe haven they could find.

I tried to help them in what little ways I could. Any time I tried to go near them they took off like bolts of synchronized lightning, so it's not like I could scoop them up and give them proper room and board. The night I discovered them, it was already too late to try to coax a volunteer shelter crew or the like out to grab them, so I did the only thing of which my sleep-deprived brain could conceive: I built a miniature shelter. This thing was the very definition of jury-rigged. I took the formidable box in which my exercise bike was originally packaged, taped a fourth wall in place with an entry gap on the right, taped the flaps to lend the structure support, and covered the whole shebang in cut-up pieces of a garbage bag to keep out moisture. I inserted a blanket, food, pat of butter, and water, and placed the contraption on my deck, hoping they'd smell the goodies and make themselves at home.

Next day? Damn thing hadn't even been approached. Plenty of pussycat footprints in the heaps of goddamn snow Mother Nature saw fit to cram up my ass on a seemingly daily basis, but none of them anywhere near the little ersatz cardboard home.

Five months later to the day, I'm sitting near the window at the rear of my house with a beer, feeling more than a little bummed out about life in general, and one of my own three furbabies is bitching about something at the window. With this guy, it's usually nothing I can see or smell, but this time I can tell what he's on about without any difficulty. Sitting on my driveway asphalt is a tiny little black furball the size of my hand. While my orange marmalade boy brays unceasingly at it, I watch her just sit and stare at him.

A moment later, out of the tall weeds — against which I simply don't have the energy to wage war in the traditional lame demonstration of suburban futility — springs a striped tabby kitten. As this litter-mate playfully smacks her around with clawless pads, another little dude, nearly identical in coloration, leaps into the fray.

As I'm sitting there watching this unscheduled backyard wrestling match, who do I see appear around a corner maybe a quarter mile in the distance? One of the cats I'd tried to help during the winter. Sure enough, she slowly but surely makes her way directly to my backyard, and all three greet her like a Queen. As they crowd her and emit those adorable little mew sounds we seem genetically programmed to find endearing, her head is buffeted by bony little kitten tails, all flying at full mast with unguarded affection.

Mama Cat doesn't quite flop to the driveway, but she tilts over enough to allow each access to a nipple. These little guys go to town like they're at a Vegas buffet. I try to stifle a giggle, but one of the little ones hears me, and looks directly into my soul from across the grass and pavement. Soon all four are staring at me and my big orange boy, who continues to piss and moan a running feline commentary on the developing situation.

Now, I figure they're gone. They're going to take off like they just heard hell's own vacuum cleaner start sucking. But no: Mama Cat makes a bee-line for me. She climbs the nearby deck, jumps to the top rail, and meows at me from eye level and a scant few feet away.

I tell her out loud "meet me at the side door" — yes, I talk to cats, blow me — and head over to open the big wooden door, leave the screen door closed, and head back. None of them are anywhere to be seen. Shit, I scared them off, I think, and head back to close it again... but there they are, the whole brood, just hanging out. Mama Cat is meowing at me, and as I turn the lock and open the door a crack, she comes right the fuck into my house. No ceremony, no great show of timidity and hand-sniffing, just a "hey, what've you got in this joint" march right up to one of my own none-too-pleased furry charges.

She's not battered and bruised, but she's definitely neglected. Her ribs are very pronounced against her side, and she wolfs down the food I put out for her like she hasn't eaten anything but scavenged takeout in weeks. It occurs to me that this is the same cat I've seen picking at the neighbor's garbage while I huff and puff on the exercise bike. I don't know what kind of milk those kittens are getting out of this rail-thin parent, but it can't exactly be Similac, you know? By the time her and her kittens are done, they've eaten a considerable quantity of cat food, only had a few tense momentary stand-offs with my own miniature predators, and had the courtesy not to leave any "presents" anywhere.

All the "local" (read: within 25 miles) shelters and animal hospitals are closed. What's more, once fed, all four are gung-ho to get back out into the world. (I did briefly see a fifth cat in the backyard at some point. The patriarch of this crew? Probably, I should think.) So I let them go about their business, give Mama Cat one last tickle under the chin, and hope that she knows she's made a friend, and can come by any time.

As though sensing the sentiment, an hour later she swings by again for a quick snack, and curls around my legs like I'm a lost brother. My heart melts.

I read about a study recently which found that the perceived value of a favor decreases in the eyes of the receiver over time, but increases in the eyes of the giver. In other words, someone might tell you you're a "life-saver" one day for pulling his or her ass out of a fire, but a few weeks later they're bound to think it wasn't too big a deal. This is, to my mind, deeply fucked up, and yet undoubtedly demonstrably accurate. I can't tell you the number of times I've gone to back-breaking lengths for my friends in their times of desperate need, only to see them disappear off the face of the fucking Earth when I find myself in dire straits. These are people who would read about this study and declare "oh, I'm not like that," and then prove by word and deed that they're precisely like that.

But my point here isn't to harp on how disgusting the bulk of humanity is, though Christ knows I could rant for several million words on that particular topic. My point is that one of the beautiful things about cats is that they aren't like that at all. Do human beings a generous kindness, and they've forgotten it before their asses leave your sofa. Do a cat a small favor, and you've made a friend for life.

If that makes me a crazy cat person in anyone's eyes, so be it. But I greatly prefer that the company I keep consider honesty and fidelity inviolable virtues instead of optional ornaments to be jettisoned at the first sign of mild inconvenience.

I'll be worrying about this little furry family wandering around in the cool darkness of a summer that can turn wet and violent in a heartbeat; but I also feel better than I have in a while just for having the opportunity to help an itinerant soul who genuinely appreciated the effort.


Cynthia said...
Those cats knew exactly who to come to for help! I hope you can find a way to have Mom spayed and the kittens adopted. Or at least have them live outdoors or in the garage when it turns cool. The vet bills alone could be high otherwise.

WarriorPoet said...
Great entry, Cameron. Another astonishing thing is witnessing yet again how resilient living things can be.

There is no under-handed stuff with the mother here, she knew it, and so you were filed away as "ally." But, if she can't teach her kids the same way, they'll be feral, with all the joy and suffering that comes along with that condition.

People are lower than animals sometimes for another reason--which is that animals will fight for their own survival, and people sometimes will act as if their lives are nothing worthwhile.


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