Jun 08, 2017, 05:55AM

Our Little Creatures

They make us happy, amuse us, and give us something to talk about other than ourselves.

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Cats (other pets too, of course) help their owners/caregivers/slaves get in touch with their own humanity. We learn patience in dealing with them. They amuse us with their antics. They comfort us with their purring and affection. And perhaps, from living with them, we learn to treat humans and other animals with the full measure of respect they deserve as creatures of God.

Mimi and I had disagreed for years about the pet we wanted. We both wanted a dog. But I wanted a tiny long-haired Dachshund: small, gentle, and affectionate. She wanted an enormous, big-headed dog: a pit-bull or a mastiff: a big, brave, sweet-natured animal (unless wicked owners have perverted their love and loyalty by mistraining). We never had space for a big dog, so we didn’t get one.

So we settled on cats.

We began with Minerva in December 2010. She was a beautiful tortoiseshell, sweet-natured, affectionate, and emotionally needy. She was chatty and woke me every morning between 5:00 and 5:30 to remind me to refill the food bowls and, once there was light in the sky, crack the back door so she and the others could go out and play. Then she would return, climb onto the bed, and demand petting and tummy rubbing. We gladly acquiesced. In our six years together, she never clawed or bit any human being. She was gentle and forbearing. Yet she was no wimp: she once charged a nasty feral male who was attacking her kittens, drove him off, never to be seen again, and came home, proudly pulling bits of his fur from her claws. She was heroic in her little way.

She had three kittens in May 2010, Rosalind (tortoiseshell), Sebastian (black, with a little white patch on his chest), and Imogen (yet another tortoiseshell). After she had weaned them, we had Minerva neutered, which calmed her down. When the kittens were old enough, we had them neutered, too, and so there were no more misadventures or unexpected kittens, at least from our cats.

Imogen was a charmer, who always jumped into the front window and mewed when I came home from the courthouse or from errands. She liked to watch me wash dishes from the countertop and play with the soap bubbles when I was done. She liked me and I enjoyed her company. She was adventurous, though, and one day when she went into the back yard, through a neighbor’s yard, and then off the block, a car killed her. It was probably instant: I pray she knew no pain. My neighbor Cathy Vassilakos recognized her and called me and I broke down when I saw the poor little thing, who looked as if she were asleep. We buried her in the garden and planted a rose over her grave, which I hope still blooms every year.

Her brother and sister are still with us and bring us much pleasure. Rosalind is the warrior princess. When we still lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, she wandered from house to house, charming our neighbors, many of whom gave her treats, and always came home by dark.

Sebastian, the Black Prince, is a swashbuckler: the sort of fellow who knew every in and out on the block and loved to tease our neighbors’ dogs into a frenzy of barking. From time to time, he caught birds: we made him deal with them in the back yard because Mimi doesn’t care for little corpses in the house.

But he came to love our former upstairs neighbors, who loved him, and when they moved to Maryland he fell into a depression from which he did not recover until our move to New Hampshire. For months, he would stand at our apartment’s front door asking to be let into the hallway. I went out with him. He sat at the foot of the stairs, looking up toward their former apartment. I stroked his head and told him that I understood.

No human who has ever been in love cannot understand longing and regret. Sebastian loved us nonetheless. But he missed our neighbors with all his little heart.

Anyway, in 2012, two things happened. First, a friend of Mimi’s from Jersey City asked whether we would adopt a kitten from a litter born in a parking garage. We chose a tiny marmalade, which we named Cordelia after King Lear’s loyal daughter (the other two ladies being disloyal). She won me over when, one night, I realized this tiny thing had climbed up the side of the bed to be with us (imagine climbing a 60 foot wall with only your fingers and toes and you have an idea of what this meant for Cordelia). She pulled herself under the covers and onto my stomach. She then paused, and exhausted by her climb, made water on me. I clutched her to my chest and rolled out of bed. My body and pajamas were the only items damaged. So I wiped her with a kitty wipe (she then groomed herself), rinsed and tossed my soiled pajamas in the hamper, showered, put on a fresh set of pajamas, and returned to bed. Cordelia had meanwhile fallen asleep in her basket.

She grew into a beautiful long-haired enchantress, deeply affectionate, profoundly feminine, and flirtatious with all males, feline and other. As I’ve said to Mimi, borrowing a line from the author Gwen Cooper, “Cordelia is beautiful; Cordelia knows she is beautiful; and Cordelia knows that you know she is beautiful.”

Cordelia brings us to the second thing that happened in 2012. Pat, our neighbor two doors down, told us that kittens had been born under her garden shed. There were four of them, and a feral mother. When Dublin, Pat’s sweet, goofy Labrador retriever, poked her nose under the shed out of curiosity, Mother raked it with her claws. Pat would harm no creature of God’s, but Dublin was her dog. So I told Pat that Mimi and I would take care of the problem.

I began working my way through the Animal Control people (a useless City agency that doesn’t send anyone out to pick up stray animals) and the Mayor’s Task Force on Animal Rescue (more meaninglessness). Finally, I found a private group, Alley Cat Allies, which taught courses on TNR. That means Trap/Neuter/Release. Most feral cats aren’t adoptable: they’ve returned to nature and can’t be socialized. But if you fix them, they’ll stop having kittens and spraying and yowling when in heat. If you release them back to the community, they’ll take up living where they had lived, and, being territorial, keep out other feral cats. So, I took the TNR course and, with Mimi’s help, managed to trap two of the five ferals. Cathy trapped the other three: she had a knack for it that I lacked.

Then we had them neutered and released. The mother, whom we named Callista—“most beautiful” in classical Greek—although Mimi gave her that name because she was a true calico cat, came to live on Cathy’s back porch with one of her sons. A second kitten, female, went to live with Richie, one of our neighbors, who fell in love with her as she did with him. The third and fourth kittens, Henry Plantagenet and Bolingbroke [1] drifted from Pat’s yard to Rob’s yard to Gary’s yard to our yard. There’s nothing for a cat like knowing about an open door and bowls of food.

One morning, while washing dishes (barefoot), I felt a cold nose on my left foot. I looked down. There was Bolingbroke, a tiny, tiny gray tabby, shy as can be, and yet he had come into the house to see who I was. Once he realized that I’d noticed him, he skittered away. Yet he came back, again and again. He eventually came to sleep every night in our back room. He injured himself one day when he was caught in Gary’s fence and unsuccessfully struggled to get out.  Gary, who does not like cats, nonetheless got there first and disentangled him with great gentleness and patience. We took Bolingbroke to the vet; the vet did what he could; and after some shots and medicine, we brought him home. We found that he couldn’t jump as other cats do: his rear legs had somehow been permanently damaged and can’t be fixed. But he wobbles along, sometimes quite quickly. As he is so shy, we call him Mr. Boo, for Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.

His big brother, Henry Plantagenet, is a large, muscular marmalade tabby with white muzzle and paws. He’s naturally friendly and affectionate, although he dislikes excessive familiarity. That’s a polite way of saying that you don’t pick him up unless you want to see bloodshed, all of it your own. So you pet him, he purrs, and you leave him alone.

Henry fell in love with Cordelia. Both of them had been fixed: there was no overtly sexual element in their relationship and yet he adores her and she likes him. That has continued. Henry, too, climbs up on the bed, shoves his head under my hand so I will pet him, and then lies down at our feet and snoozes. Sometimes he lies outside the covers on Mimi, with one of his paws protectively over her. He usually stays until morning.

Often, we’ve found Cordelia and Henry sleeping side by side, often with one of his paws resting on her. He’s a strong, noble character: I love him dearly. When we moved to New Hampshire, we had to trap him because he was afraid. He spent the move in a cage, hid in one of our closets once he was in New Hampshire, and only came out after several days.

Being trusted by two feral cats, which chose to live with us, is touching.

Last and least are Portia and Jessica, the “littleies.” For some reason, I felt strongly at the beginning of 2015 that we should adopt a kitten. I think it was because I’d been feeding two feral cats that lived near my church, whom I nicknamed “Kitty” and “Hungry Kitty.” Then my church’s hardworking maintenance men closed off all the cracks and openings by which the ferals had been able to get warm in the church and the school. I didn’t blame them for wanting to clean up, but it bothered me nonetheless. I later learned that “Kitty” had been adopted by folks living across the street from the church, but I don’t know what became of “Hungry Kitty.”

So we went to a kitten shelter on Long Island with Cathy. We went into the room where they were. I saw these two sisters cuddled next to each other. I didn’t have the heart to separate them. So we took them both. As one kitten was (and is) black with a white chest—a French advocat or an English barrister appears in court wearing a black robe with a white lace jabot, such as Justice Ginsberg wears when sitting in the Supreme Court—I named her Portia, after the female lawyer in The Merchant of Venice. Mimi named the gray tabby Jessica, after Portia’s best friend. Then we brought them home. We kept them in our front room for a month or so, until they were used to us. I often slept on the day bed with them. Then we opened the doors and realized that even our older cats can adapt to new ones.

Like all the others, we had them neutered when they were old enough. To be sure, they all bat each other around from time to time, but I don’t think the claws ever come out, and I notice that they often snooze in the same room, even on the same couch.

Jessica is a quiet, affectionate, sane little creature, a homebody by instinct, who nonetheless enjoys going out into the world for a little bit, only to return.

Portia is a scamp. She’s always rushing from one room to the next, leaping up to couches and chairs and bookshelves and refrigerators. She jumps on the kitchen countertop and mews, which always makes me give her two or three cat treats. This was probably not a good idea, but I can’t change things now.

Two years ago, once we let her into our yard, she immediately dashed into the neighbors’ yards. When we were out in the back yard having a well-lubricated Independence Day dinner with our upstairs neighbors, Jim and his wife Morgan, our neighbor Rob and his guests pointed out that Portia was charging around their roof, three stories up. I was terrified, somewhat, but couldn’t do anything other than call her name. She did not come down. She stared down at Rob and us, mewed, and continued dashing about, jumping from floor to floor and air conditioner to air conditioner. Eventually, as one may gather because I’m writing of Portia in the present tense, she came down in one piece.

Seven is enough, sometimes too much. But these little creatures make us happy, amuse us, and give us something to talk about other than ourselves. I’m glad we took in Minerva, whom we miss, and every one of the others. And as far as their adventures go, I hope and believe that God, who knows every sparrow that falls, takes care of his little ones.

[1] See Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.


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