“What is that?”
Our new cat arrived from L.A. dosed with Valium, huddling in her cat carrier in our laundry room. I hadn’t gotten a good look upon delivery, but it did appear that there was a cat in there. We left her carrier door open and went out to dinner with her previous owner/guardian/handlers, hoping she would explore the house while we were gone. When we returned she was nowhere to be found. We called for her. “Crackers!” (That was her name back then.) Where is she? Then we hear her soft mewing coming from someplace. The sound was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Finally, we tracked it to the kitchen. She was hiding under the Wedgewood stove. This is no small feat when you are a 20 lb. (9 kg.) cat. Somehow they can turn themselves into a plastic material that flows through any narrow space and reconstitutes itself as a cat on the other side. But can she get out? By all appearances, she was going to stay under the stove forever.
Time passed, and the Resident Expert and I sat out in the living room and discussed how we would prepare foods without the use of the stove. It was lost to us with a big cat living under it. But then I saw something moving across the kitchen floor. “What is that?”
It was our new cat, soon to be re-named Annie. But this was unlike any cat I had ever seen. It looked like a Raccoon. Tall. Permanently arched back. A riot of camouflage colors, and a big, constantly swishing, striped tail. She sauntered across the kitchen floor, and shambled through the dining room, casting a proprietary and disdainful glance at her surroundings. She approached us in the living room, and I greeted her – “Hello, Kitty!”. She responded with what I assume was a kitty swear word. I knew nothing about cats at the time, but I now know that cats do not care for even minor changes. Move the coffee table a little bit, and you will hear about it. This was like landing on another planet. But since she did not have a driver’s license or another tab of Valium, she didn’t have any real alternative but to stay put. This was going to be her home now.
It was not going to be easy. We’d always talked about having a pet some day, but I’d never imagined it would be like this. If someone rolled up to your house one day and gave you a wolverine or badger, then we would have a lot of common experiences to share and discuss. Shouldn’t the cat be sleeping on my lap or something? When I try to pet her she acts as if she’s being electrocuted. And what about the playful, curious, and inquisitive behavior that is a characteristic of all cats? Our cat doesn’t exhibit these characteristics. Far from it. She seems to have already experienced everything, and has decided she wants no part of it. Other than hitting the food dish, little enthusiasm is being displayed.
But let’s look at this from Kitty’s point of view. If I had been drugged and handed off to strangers, far enough from home that my inner kitty GPS didn’t work anymore, and my whole setup wasn’t set up the way I liked it, I would be a bit disgruntled as well. Annie kept a lookout for a while, hoping that her ride back to L.A. would be showing up, but that was not to be.
Eventually she started to settle in and get things configured the way she liked. We thought she would live in the laundry room, and set up her litter box and scratching post in there. This plan probably lasted about four hours. It soon became clear that we were handing over control of the house to the cat. The furniture would be destroyed. Litter boxes would be placed in convenient (and prominent) locations. And the food supply would be plentiful. But at least we got the stove back.
We did try to make things nice for Annie, and interacted with her to the extent possible. We purchased cat toys, tossed long strings at her, and escorted her outdoors for supervised play time. She tolerated all of this, but it seemed like she thought we were the ones who wanted to play with the cat toys. The laser pointer was described as a guaranteed way to get a lethargic cat up and moving. She roused herself to walk over and look at the glowing red dot for a minute, then turned to look back at the Resident Expert who was holding the pointer. Annie thought, “Oh, I see. It’s a laser pointer.” and resumed her position of leisure. Her viewpoint about cat toys was, “you play with it if you think it’s so great”.
For the first few weeks she would go out in the front yard, and would venture all the way out to the corner and sit under a bush, hoping that one of the many pedestrians would be her former owners. This made us very nervous, as our street can be busy during the morning and evening commute hours. And I had to learn some cat wrangling techniques to get her back inside when it started getting dark. But eventually she gave up all hope of being rescued and spent more of her outside time in the backyard. This would eventually become her own little world. Fortunately for us she didn’t have an inclination to roam. She did go over the fence once, and I had to remove a fence board to let her back in. Over time she came up with enough secret hiding places back there to satisfy her wanderlust.
Annie arrived at our house (her third home) in March of 2005, and by summertime she had made the backyard her own. Look how confident she is easing on down the back steps. Like she owns the place.
On the Wild Side
We didn’t know a lot about how Annie was brought up. Rumor has it that she started as a Culver City alley cat, then lived at her first home for a short while but had to move due to some unspecified interspecies conflict. Then she luckily found a home with folks who eventually brought her to us. She was there for a while – presumably a few years – but had to make another move, this time due to the high volume of allergen dispersed via her beautiful soft fur. That’s how she made it up here. She somehow missed out on being fully domesticated, although her housekeeping habits were excellent. Annie retained a full arsenal of feline weaponry, and wasn’t afraid to use it. At the pet shelter they might refer to her as a “bitey” cat. That was her go-to method of communication. She wants you to stop petting? Bite. She wants you to keep petting? Bite your hand and pull it back to her. And the claws. Very sharp claws. Once she got me on the palm of my hand. I referred to it as the Kitty Stigmata. But that’s the price you pay to be close to such a fantastic cat. Here I am trying to give her a big hug after returning home from a vacation.
We hadn’t been in the house all that long before Annie arrived, and the front and back yard landscaping was a work in progress. She really helped determine how it all resolved. Whenever we considered the layout and plants, we asked the question, “what would Kitty like?”. And it turns out that if you landscape for cats, you get a pretty nice little yard. There were stone paths that warmed up during the day, creating an excellent sleeping pad. A variety of plants created the perfect backdrop for a cat that wants to blend in to her surroundings. And the deck and furniture made great hiding spots when she wanted to just get away from it all. Back then Annie would closely supervise our work, just to make sure it turned out the way she wanted.
Once the work was done, she joined us in well-earned relaxation.
She guided us on our decisions about interior improvements as well. We replaced the traditional open hearth fireplace with a gas insert, and figured we’d use that once in a while during the wintertime. But Annie quickly changed that – once it was on, it had better stay on. She would bask in the heat, almost to the point where we had concerns that her little brain would overheat. First thing in the morning, she would position herself in front of the fireplace and stare at it until it came on. I don’t think she knew that it was operated from a remote device. She likely believed that if she stared long enough, it would start. And it usually did.
The big test for Annie’s tolerance for disruption occurred during the kitchen remodel project. There were strangers in the house, loud noises, and daily changes in the household interior. All of these things are bad for cats and other sensitive individuals, and it went on for a month and a half. But she was a real trouper through the whole ordeal. I made her a little “office” in an out of the way location that she trotted off to every morning before we left for work.
And I made a sign on the door to her office complex to discourage entry.
When we came home she’d emerge to tour the destruction with us.
But we were all satisfied with the end result. Just look at how Annie’s beautiful fur contrasts with the linoleum floor.
We made a few attempts to work with Annie, helping her to learn how it is bad to scratch the furniture. All of our attempts failed. It was recommended that we spray her with a water bottle, but it was never handy when the scratching started. By the time we gave her a quick blast the two events were not connected. “Hey, what did you do that for?” she would ask. We then tried counseling her verbally, in a calm and non-threatening but firm manner. This didn’t stop the scratching, but it did calm us down a little bit.
Our most ambitious failure was Door Camp. I installed a pet door in the backyard screen door, which we were otherwise propping open so she could come and go at will. Since she already knew we would either leave the door open or let her in and out per her demand, she did not see the self-service pet door as bringing any advantages. We tried luring her through the door with treats, but eventually she just looked at us, asking “why don’t you just open the door for me?” Here’s a look at how the enticement of treats worked out as a training method.
I will say that Annie never needed any special training on using her boxes. Probably one of the tidiest cats ever. Spent a good deal of time grooming as well.
Music and Books
Annie grew up around musicians, so it was not surprising that she was at her most calm and content with some music playing. It was surprising how much she enjoyed what we called “florid piano”. The more grandiose and dramatic the better. She would roll on her back and imagine herself doing who knows what, with the music providing a suitable soundtrack. She liked instrumental guitar, as long as it was melodic. If it was overly intricate or avant-garde, she didn’t care for it. Once we were listening to a song by Marcus Eaton, which I thought was pretty great – he’s an excellent guitarist – but Annie was not a fan. She climbed up on a chair and attacked the bookshelf speakers. I think I saw her trying to figure out the volume control.
She also wasn’t wild about my own guitar playing. If I picked up the guitar, she would try to find a place to hide. But this was totally understandable.
She was also a good little reader. If you wanted to read something, well damnit so did she.
She wasn’t a huge TV fan, but neither are we so that was fine. At one point the Resident Expert discovered a series of Korean historical dramas on cable, and the two of them got hooked on watching those. Annie might have picked up a little Korean in her travels.
Annie has been a remarkably hale and hearty cat over the years, with just a couple of exceptions. She picked up some kind of bug when she stayed at a cat boarding house when we went on vacation. This was in our early years when we didn’t know any better – after this we had a series of excellent pet sitters to look after her at the house. But this thing was pretty bad. When we brought her back to the house she climbed up on the Resident Expert’s lap and slept for hours. Never happened before, never happened since.
Some time after this the bug really took hold. She stopped eating and was running a high fever. The vet said, “that’s pretty hot for a cat”. After a few days, we were really worried about her. We were out in the kitchen, wondering what we could do, at our wits end. And look who comes walking in, heading straight for the food dish. Crisis averted.
Another time she had an eye infection, and the vet said she might lose the eye or that it would be permanently scarred. But again, just when things looked especially bleak, she turned it around. The eye healed up, and returned to its previous exceptional beauty. Other than that, a very solid and healthy cat.
The Later Years
Do cats retire? In her senior years Annie would usually be found in one of her most favorite spots. She had the fireplace, of course, and the sunny spot by the front door. And then there’s her secret hideaway blanket behind the easy chair in the den. But her main headquarters was up on the bed. She’d head up there in the morning and would be there when we got home from work. I set up a PetCam to see what the hell she was doing all day, and the evidence showed – not a whole hell of a lot. She might roll over once or twice, but she was sleeping pretty much the whole time. Except once in a while something would pass through the yard and she’d go into high alert status.
Here’s one of my favorite pictures of her, at the helm in HQ, protecting the homeland.
Annie was a keen observer of her world. Some cats will observe and take immediate action. You have probably guessed by now that Annie was not like that. Immediate action should always be deferred, and preferably avoided altogether. This worked out well for the birds and bugs who shared the backyard with her. She coexisted. Many’s the time I watched birds flocking around the bird feeder and wondered if they even knew that there was a cat sleeping right below them.
These past few days have been very tough. We had to say goodbye to our great friend Annie about a week ago, after a sudden illness, and we miss her terribly. Thinking back on it now, there were signs that she was getting ready to leave. A couple of weeks ago her non-stop tail swishing suddenly ceased, and she stopped her regular attention to grooming. She had a lot of difficulty getting up and down, and didn’t want to go outside. Then her vet told us she was in big trouble. I don’t really want to write down much about her last few days, because those shouldn’t be granted special powers over the thousands of good days that we shared with Annie. But it should be said that she had one last morning by the fire, and then we were able to say our goodbyes together at home.
I’m just an animal looking for a home and to share the same space for a minute or two.
This Must Be the Place – David Byrne