“Don’t you have any normal pets?” he inquired.
“Actually, no,” I replied.
It isn’t as if I’ve gone out of my way to seek out the unusual, the bizarre, the damaged, the halt, the lame, or the blind when it comes to four-legged, three-legged (or even two-legged, trust me), companions. They find me. And they always have. In Africa, during my childhood, it was monkeys, lynxes, deer and parrots; for the last thirty years, it’s been cats and dogs, with the occasional rabbit or bird mixed in for good measure–not so exotic, but just as capable of worming their way into my affections, a shortcoming and weakness which, perhaps, I need to work on. And I am.
The last pet I made up, out of thin air, that I’d really like to have, and which I deliberately pursued, was an Old English Sheepdog, early in 1986, and shortly before Mr. Right and I moved into a field in extreme Southwest PA to build a house. We got him as a puppy, we named him Wulfie (after St. Wulfstan), and he was a total lovebug. Smart, stubborn, and in terms of any practical application, utterly useless. He died at the age of twelve or so (a venerable age for the breed), probably of a heart attack, leaving Boris (girl, long story, don’t ask) a golden retriever mix we rescued from unfortunate circumstances in the city in 1985, alone. So, what to do?
Enter, out of the blue, the Old English Sheepdog rescue people, who offered up Harry, a three-year-old enormous exemplar of the breed. A people doctor would probably have placed Harry squarely in the middle of the autism spectrum, but this was the late 1990s, and he thrived on the farm. Alongside the creatures who, thanks to the kindness of strangers, kept turning up: Kirby (part Australian Shepherd and unwanted); Duke (appeared on the back porch full of buckshot, three weeks after Boris died at the age of about 18–another trenchant comment that my veterinarian made as some point was along the lines of “My God, I’ve never seen pets live, consistently, as long as yours do”); Houdini and Twiggy, rescued from running loose on the ridge in 2005; Penny, found by a friend of mine wandering at the junctions of SR-40 and I-70 in Washington, thin as a rail and reeking from some awful skin disease; Cinnamon, a small chow-looking mix who died at the age of about 19 and never quite got over what seemed to be a grudge against men in uniforms; my stepson Sam’s Boston Terrier, Leon (who I include here for the purpose of completeness, although small, yappy little dogs are so not my favorites); and Buddy, wonderful Buddy who, already aged and with few teeth when I first met him in 2008 sitting by the side of the road, seemingly with nowhere to go, simply got up, marched into the passenger side of the car, and moved in, living for another seven or eight years, when it seemed his course had already pretty much run.
Since then there has been Levi, dishonorably discharged from his work at the farm up the road, and Xena, his pal, and a gradual decrease in the number of canines on the farm as anno domini and its inevitable effects have taken their toll. I can’t say (as anno domini takes its inevitable effects on the two of us) that Mr. She and I mind all that much. So, at the moment, on the canine front, Xena and Levi are it. (Shhhhh. Please don’t tempt fate on our behalf.)
This says nothing about the regular eruption into our lives of those dogs who don’t belong to us, who aren’t abandoned, and who just need to be returned to their owners. These include Ace, the black Labrador from Claysville who likes to roam, Bear, the Husky mix from a mile or so up the road in the other direction, Jimmy the Chihuahua mix, and (my favorite) Riley, the deaf and geriatric beagle, who occasionally wanders off from his equally deaf and geriatric owner, gets lost in our woods, and stands howling loudly (usually in the middle of a nice little stand of poison ivy or poison oak) till I rescue him and return him home.
So. Those are the dogs. On to the cats.
As the saying goes: “Dogs have owners; cats have staff.”
And never was that more true than with Pookie, the tiny, blind kitten I discovered in the field mewling like–well, like a kitten–with his umbilical cord inextricably wrapped around a blade of grass. He had what my stepdaughter laughingly called “Press-On Fur,” a few scraggly bits of grey fur, here and there, reminiscent of the advertisement for “Lee Press-On Nails” at the time (about 1990) and he was extremely weak. Nevertheless, I put him in a shoebox with a wad of sheep fleece to snuggle into, an alarm clock to listen to, and a cc or so of Jim Beam to warm him up, and disappeared up the road to find the kitten milk replacer. He remains the only cat I’ve ever raised from so very young an age (probably 2-3 days old), and he lived 19 years. He was a pistol. He turned into a beautiful, long-haired Persian-type cat with an aggrieved and jealous disposition, and is the only cat I’ve ever had to ask the fire department to rescue, when he disappeared for about a week and I finally discovered him about 40 feet up a tree, 1/4 mile down the road, just after a hellatious thunderstorm. The first fire department I begged for help laughed at me. (Truly, a mistake on their part. Promise.) The second one sent their truck, their ladder, and their men, for their October “ladder training” to rescue my cat. I’ll always be grateful to them. (And, for that, they get the money. And always will.)
I’ve also bonded with my veterinarian over the hundreds and hundreds of dollars (thousands, probably) I’ve spent over the past thirty years, getting the neighborhood and feral cats spayed and neutered. If they’re dumb enough, or desperate enough, to show up in my barn for food, they’re going down. No questions. No excuses. (Only once have I had a medical “incident” as a result; when I got bitten by a cat and ended up with what looked like elephantiasis of my leg, but which was really a variant of “cat scratch fever.” That’s when I was prescribed a massive regimen of “doxycycline,” an antibiotic which I learned was first used to mitigate STD’s, and which led me to wonder if the doctor who discovered its propensity, and so named it had been aware of the eighteenth-century use of the word “doxy” to describe prostitutes. But I digress. Imagine my surprise.) Still, the doxycycline worked for me, and things returned to normal. Apropos of nothing, it’s now the favored drug for treating dogs who have a positive reaction to the ‘lyme disease’ test.
Cats are dumped and released in country surroundings in staggering numbers, every day. While my kinder self wants to believe that people who do this think (kindly) that they’ll survive, this isn’t usually true. (It is especially not true for rabbits. Please do not release domestic rabbits into the wild. It’s a death sentence. Please take them to your local animal shelter, where at least they’ll have a chance.)
I can’t count the number of cats we’ve found, in the woods or in the driveway, or which we’ve placed, been gifted with, given away and kept, over the last thirty years. Dozens and dozens. Perhaps a hundred or more. At the moment, the reckoning is as follows:
Am: My stepson Sam’s cat. She’s very old.
Darlene and Wookie: Gifted by friends of ours in Pittsburgh. There were six kittens delivered under their porch by a mother cat who was thrown out by a woman who lived up the road from them. Darlene is one of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever known. Wookie is one of the dumbest. They’re prone to having little conversations along the following lines:
Wookie: Darlene. DARLENE! I killed a mouse!
Darlene: I highly doubt that.
Wookie: I did! I did! I smacked it off the desk and onto the floor and it was dead!
Darlene: How do you know it was dead? Did its whiskers stop twitching? Did it stop breathing?
Wookie: No, but its batteries fell out.
Darlene: Oh, Wookie!!
Darlene: For the love of God and Two Policemen, Wookie, now what are you doing??
Wookie: Look. It’s a spa.
Wookie: It’s lovely. You get inside, and lots of lovely soft, warm cottony things bat you around, and it blows warm air all over you. It’s very relaxing.
Darlene: WOOKIE!! GET. OUT. OF. THE. CLOTHES. DRYER. NOW!!
Wookie: . . . Whoops . . .
Little Alice, a/k/a “Psycho Cat:” She was a kitten offered to us by a little girl when we were entering the supermarket one day–“Hey, mister, do you want a free kitten.” “No thank you,” I said, on behalf of us both. Second thoughts caused me to wonder if the little girl and her adult companion would give the kitty to a creep who’d feed it to his pet python, so we went back. This little girl was Mexican, was traveling with her family while her dad followed the “fracking” work, and had rescued the kitten from behind the motel where they were staying. She’d gone to Walmart, found the milk replacer, studied what to do on the Internet, and obviously loved this little kitty. But they were about to move on, and her dad said she had to find a new home for the cat. Soo . . . enter, She. In terms of ingratitude, this cat wrote the book.
Psymon: A beautiful orange and white cat I’d been trying to entrap for a several months, who suddenly (after spending the winter in the woods) marched into the house sometime this past March, and hasn’t left since. He’s an angel.
So, I think that’s it for now. Two (very large) dogs, and six cats. Relatively few. Please, may it stay that way for a while.
Of course, there’s the all-black, rather old looking cat who turns up occasionally for a meal and who I haven’t succeeded in rounding up yet. Trust me. It’s just a matter of time . . .
Please. Support your local humane society. They do great work. And get your pets spayed and neutered, unless you’re in the breeding business. And if you are, please keep all the creatures as healthy as possible. Thanks. Bless.
In Memoriam, Zippy the Pinhead. 1998-2001.
A tiny, tailless, sweet little cat who never even made it to four pounds in weight. She was special.