I was never a cat person, or a dog person. Growing up, the only animals I knew were the generations of mourning doves my mother kept in aviaries in our garden – and the cats and dogs of friends or neighbors. I made some close friends along the way – PG, the Boston Bull terrier of our next door neighbor Carole Gale was silly, energetic, funny…and a total pig who would do anything for any kind of food, the greasier the better. Years later, moving away from home, going to college, things changed. I had my first cat – no technically speaking, she had me, or rather us since she initially belonged to my girlfriend at the time. But you don’t “have” cats as so many people have pointed out. Often it is the cat who ‘chooses’ you. Cats are funny that way. I came to understand and appreciate their quirks, their oddities, their peculiarities. Later, I shared my life with a cat for almost 18 years. Pushkin began life as a kitten but soon graduated to the stage of an elegant tuxedo’ed gentle-cat, his black fur offset by elegant white glove-paws, a face that was thoughtful, serene and funny at the same time. We went through a lot together. One afternoon, sunning himself on the rooftop of a low-hanging shed, he accidentally fell off – Pushkin was not the most coordinated cat in the world, another reason for my fondness for him, seeing him as a fellow nerd of the cat world – he fell off all of 6 feet into the tub of filthy engine oil which, in my infinite wisdom after attempting to prove my adult competence by changing the oil of my Volkswagen, I had left out for a future trip to the recycling center. When a cat falls into something disgusting like dirty engine oil, instinct takes over; Pushkin’s instinct was to begin a thorough self-vacuuming cleansing session with his tongue, an activity which would have immediately poisoned him. I had no choice: grabbing him and a plastic tub of orange grease-eating mechanic’s hand soap, I raced to the bathroom, shoved the wet, filthy and protesting feline into the bathtub and spent the next hour thoroughly cleansing him with liberal application of the foul greasy pasty soap, mixed with water, until he was completely free of the filthy and cat-poisoning engine oil. Of course he fought back against the indignity, scratching me thoroughly and deeply as I was in process of saving his life but, as in mythology where the hero must grip fast to his bewitched princess as she changes into different life-threatening forms, I held fast…and wound up a bleeding and scratched cat savior.
My current cat, Barkley, was ‘rescued’ from an animal pound in Southern Oregon and has enjoyed a relatively long life in a rural setting where the marauding coyotes, owls and occasional red-tail hawks are child’s play compared to the lethal hit-and-run pickups and cars which rush by at all hours of the night and day, killing many of the local cats who, sooner or later, venture across the road of death. The fact that Barkley has survived as long as he has is either a tribute to his cunning – a gradual using-up of his 9 lives – or special dispensation from the Spiriti Loci, the spirits of the place, which have a soft spot for him. He has a good life, growing his long-hair into a thick winter coat for below-freezing temperatures where he has elevated the practice of lying in front of the wood stove to a high art form.
But in Gold Beach, Oregon – where I just spent several days with my old friends Steve and Nancy, many local cats are not as ‘lucky’ as Barkley or Pushkin before him – if your definition of luck includes finding the right bipeds who will care for most of your wants and needs, no matter how finicky they might seem. Steve’s cat, Jetty – named for the local riverfront/oceanfront Jetty where Steve found him years ago – is black like Pushkin with an impossible kink in his tail and never-ending patience. The Jetty too is – or was – notorious for its spot in local lore – for years, it was the place where you went to dump your unwanted cats, kittens or felines. People in Gold Beach, like people in many other parts of the world, are unsentimental when it comes to getting rid of small furry quadrupeds whom they have no use for. Unwanted litters from non-spayed mothers. Old cats who have become a nuisance. Cats who never learned not to pee inside. The list of feline crimes is endless but the cure was always the same – take them down to the Jetty and dump them.
That was before the advent of Cat House, some two years ago. Founded by your usual small group of do-gooders, Cat House is exactly what the name implies: a small house whose only residents are cats…that no one wants any more.
My reaction, on seeing it, was simple and immediate: why do the Gold Beach cats have all the luck? I want to live there! Nancy assured me that, at any given time, there are somewhere between a dozen and three dozen cats living inside Cat House. 36 cats cohabitating peacefully….think about that for a moment.
The Cat House is run by a woman who works at the local Animal Shelter but who felt that the cats needed a place of their own, a place with no dogs, no barking, no….distractions. Nothing but the house…and of course, the cats. A motley crew of volunteers comes and goes, tending to the basic needs: food, water…cleaning up the endless cat litter deposits.
The day I was there, Cat House was strangely quiet. No noises – no miaows – no caterwauling – nothing but the wind, the sound of the surf….and the house itself. Were they sleeping? Cat-napping? Were they dreaming of a time when cats ran free across the plains, the savannah, the forests? Or were they cautiously sensing me with those oh-so-real feline senses that aren’t just the stuff of kitty literature, but very real. I don’t know.
Of course no Cat House would be complete without a Mouse….
The garage unused….for cars that is. But who needs cars at Cat House?
Supposedly the Cat House functions as a full-fledged adoption center – a place where some come to find a kitty a cat a kitten a pussy – whom others, in their infinite wisdom and species-centric worldview, have discarded as useless or worthless. And what use is a cat anyway? Well…they are good for lying in wait…and pouncing on things.
And so I waved my good-byes….
And left Cat House….wondering as I went….if they were wondering too….about things that only cats wonder about.
Thinking of holidays – and of scares….
And wondering….were I to descend from my lofty perch….what morsels would await me?
My mother – funny how some things seem to begin and end with mothers – used to tell us, when we were small, that she should have drowned us before our eyes were open. Then she would smile. Many is the small sightless mewling newborn feline to whom similar words presaged a dark watery grave. Do we really have room in the world for more cats?
Look into a cat’s eyes….and answer that question for yourself.