Monday, February 24, 2014

Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            Leo hates me.
            When he was very small I let him come into the house, because I thought it was cute that he should present himself fearlessly at the back door and just march in.
But he quickly became a nuisance, hiding in the children’s toy boxes and refusing to get out of them when coaxed. Stealing Artemis’s food while she stood back, with a puzzled expression on her face, wondering what was going on. Begging for attention and then scratching me when I stroked him. So, to drive him away, I was deliberately cruel to him. I chased him around the living room, shouting and flicking a tea towel at him and stamping my feet until he was as scared as he could be and started mewing piteously. I then opened the back door and let him shoot out, under the fence and back to the next-door neighbour’s place where he belonged.
Now he hates me and he has never dared to saunter back into our house.
That was my intention.
Leo is now fully-grown and quite mature. He’s lived next door for over a decade. It took the neighbours a long time to get him neutered, and for some years we could hear him going about his ginger-tabby-tomcat business at night in quite an aggressive manner. Now he lacks cojones and is getting old, he spends more time sitting passively in the sun, watching the world with the inbuilt cynicism of a creature who thinks he’s a little lion and the Lord of Creation. I have noticed, however, that he can still be aggressive to our Artemis, should he meet her at the fence-line. But he hardly ever comes onto our property now, which is also the way I want it.
Seeing Leo sometimes causes me to be mildly sadistic. Our en-suite loo is on the second storey, looking right over the fence and onto the neighbour’s back doorstep where Leo frequently sits. Should I see him dozing there when I have occasion to be in the loo, I sometimes do a very convincing and loud tomcat growl and meouw, and have the pleasure of watching him pricking up his ears and looking around in alarm to see if some rival for his territory is in view.
We had our Artemis spayed when she was a kitten, and as far as I know she has never had any mating instincts. Occasionally we hear a scuffle and a screeching catfight when unknown young males wander through the property and get the wrong idea about her. I go outside and shoo the other cat way. Artemis then dashes inside in panic, body-fur and tail-fur puffed up, and watches anxiously out the window until she is sure that the intruding monster has gone. Then, being a cat and knowing that her servant has given her no more than her due, she yawns and curls up and goes to sleep without so much as a ‘thank you’.
Artemis is a nondescript old tabby, a mongrel-moggy now getting rather fat and picky about her food. In the evening we give her real chopped-up meat, to which she has no objection. But we’ve started buying fancy little tins of cat-food for her breakfast, because she began to turn up her nose at the biscuits she used to eat at dawn. Indeed she would every so often regurgitate the biscuits onto the kitchen floor to show her displeasure. Then, for variety’s sake, she would sometimes sniff her own regurgitation and eat it again.
She is a cat.
I am trying not to anthropomorphise too much, but it is very hard when you have a familiar pet. Being a cat, Artemis would, I know, readily desert us if she were made a better offer of free accommodation and free food. Being a cat, she probably sees me as little more than a source of food and a source of warmth whenever, at night, she wants to commandeer my lap as I sit in the armchair in my study and attempt to read a book. A real nuisance she is too, either sitting down on the book and preventing me from reading; or sitting on the arm of the chair and asking me to worship her by tickling her chin and the erogenous zones beneath her ears. Does she have a racial memory of being worshipped as a goddess in Egypt? Whenever Artemis behaves like this, I start wondering about how much she needs the affection and affirmation of another creature. I also wonder how much we have distorted the lives of cats (and other animals) by making them live without others of their kind. If my thoughts go really weird, I imagine I am a de-sexed human being, living without other human beings but in the company of much bigger, more intelligent creatures than me who sometimes feed me.
But I am getting anthropomorphic here, aren’t I? The fact is that a domestic cat is living a social life totally unlike the one for which nature and evolution designed her. And the further fact is that, if Artemis’s intrusion into my reading is too annoying, I simply push her off the armchair and onto the floor.
Still, I imagine Artemis is my companion, really liking me when she butts her head against me and purrs, even if she is just asking for food. As I work at this word-processor in the afternoon, I sometimes hear strange groaning sounds. Then I realize it is just Artemis snoring in one of her favourite hiding places, behind the armchair. At such moments I imagine I am Saint Jerome, this is my cave or cell and she is my lion companion.
And I do think I have some real evidence of her affection.
If it is sunny, one of my favourite reading places is in the back yard, on a bench, under the shade of a tree right next to the fence. It is on the opposite side of the property from the fence behind which Leo lives. As I sit there reading, it is not unusual for Artemis to wander around the corner of the house and then, seeing me, to bound over, perch on the bench next to me, and fall asleep there. I have the impression that she really is choosing my company in the great outdoors.
The bench under the tree brings me to another cat. If Artemis does not appear as I sit there, Ava often does. Ava has almost the same nondescript tabby pelt as Artemis, though a little lighter in colour. Ava is a much leaner and younger beast than Artemis. With the grace of a dancer or young athlete, she will walk across the back yard, look at me without fear, and even come almost within arm’s reach. But she will not let me touch or stroke her. She is so beautiful that I feel privileged to be in her company. Artemis, however, has other ideas. If Artemis spots Ava on her territory there is an angry growling contest, which sometimes escalates into a screeching catfight. Then, out of loyalty to Artemis, I have to shoo Ava away, much as it grieves me to see her lovely form skulking off back to the people who think they own her. They are our next-door neighbours on the opposite side of our property from the owners of Leo.
So here there are three neighbours living next door to one another on the same side of the street. Ava, Artemis and Leo.
Across the road, there lives a lady who does not like cats, as they often poo in her well-maintained garden. Even so, when a cat was recently clipped by a passing car, and crawled under her house to die, she and her husband were sorry for the poor thing and called me over to identify the carcass. For a moment I thought it was Ava, but I was relieved to discover it wasn’t. The cat was totally unknown to any of us, so we never could notify its owners. The following day, as the husband prepared to bury it, I was crude enough in spirit to be almost amused that rigor mortis had frozen it into an angry cat statue.
The incident took me back quite a few years, to when our last cat was skittled and at once killed by a car. He was a placid, neutered ginger tabby called Weasley (after the ginger-headed boy in the “Harry Potter” stories, which our children were reading at the time). The speeding car threw Weasley onto the grass verge, where he was first found, hours later, by our neighbour  - the one with whom Leo now lives. He brought Weasley’s carcass back to us reverently and patted me on the shoulder to console me for my loss. Our youngest children bawled as they all took turns stroking Weasley’s pelt before we held a funeral for him in the front yard, under the tree near the road. I felt like bawling too, but was stupid enough to think I had to set a good example, so I kept a stiff upper lip.
So what do all my anecdotes of cats prove?
Yes, I am an alleurophile, and that can sometimes lead me to remember cats when I can’t remember people. We are friends with our neighbours who own Leo, and we are friends with the people across the road who do not like cats but – oh dear! – I keep forgetting the name of the neighbours who live with Ava, even if we have been living next to them for years. Make of that what you will.
I have kept one pet cat or another for most of my life (always a maximum of one cat at a time, mind). I restrain myself from telling tales of Willy (the first cat my parents let me own); Walter Sox; Mum Cat; the beautiful and brainless long-haired Miranda; Rosy (black-and-white with white paws and a domino mask and the most intelligent cat I have ever owned); ginger Tybalt, who deserted us for an old lady who fed him better; and the much-loved George or “Georgie Bucket” (this being our small children’s corruption of “Georgie Puss-Cat”).
I think I keep sentimentality in check. I know a cat is a cat is a cat, they are ungrateful beasts, and they do not really return our affection. I am fully on the side of my son-in-law when once, having just had a long and fatiguing journey, he shoved a sleeping cat off an available armchair so that he could sit down, much to the horror of the cat’s over-protective owner. I, too, place a cat’s needs much lower than a human being’s needs. For me, one of the attractions of cats is that they do not care for us and give every indication of being quite independent (even if it is the food we give them which keeps them alive). They live the lives we would live if we did not have a single scruple – hunting, sleeping, eating and, if their equipment hasn’t been removed, rutting. I believe dog-owners and dog-lovers are far more prone to see their pets as their companions or equals, because dogs are so much more biddable. (Or servile, as I would prefer to put it.) Over the years, I have made the acquaintance of many dogs and have even come to like some of them. But you would never find a cat doing something as stupid as howling over its owner’s grave. Cats do not have owners. And you would not find many cat-owners foolish enough to imagine that their pet was a substitute child, which is a delusion I have observed in some dog-owners.
Independent and not giving a toss, cats are to be admired for their beauty and their
cheek, and I do not feel I am being sentimental in joining Dr Johnson and Cardinal Richelieu and Christopher Smart and especially Charles Baudelaire in so admiring them. They are nonhuman beasts with whom I am pleased to share the universe.
I end on a topical note. Despite my great love for cats, I can see some merit in Gareth Morgan’s anti-cat campaign in the interests of preserving native fauna and especially native birds. When I was very young, my mother taught a couple of good lessons about animals. One was that, while it was a good thing to swat annoying flies, it was a very bad thing to harm bees, even if they did sting, because bees were useful creatures who made honey. More than once, I can remember my mother carefully ushering out of the house any stray bees which might have flown in. Her other lesson, particularly important for a cat-lover like me, was that cats were to be discouraged from killing birds. Rosy, my most-intelligent-ever cat, would bring her kills to the kitchen door for our approval. If she brought in her mouth a mouse (or, on two occasions, a rat), she was patted and stroked and told she was a good cat, at which reward she would purr loudly. But on those rarer occasions when Rosy was carrying a dead bird, my mother would stamp her foot in exasperation, hiss at the cat and tell me that killing birds was wrong. The problem was, of course, that no such admirable sentiments were going to alter the cat’s predatory nature. That still remains the problem.
I’m at a loss with this one. Gareth Morgan now talks of a campaign to keep cats off “private property”. How can this possibly be done? Am I to be encouraged to prosecute the owners of Ava when (to my delight) she strolls into my back yard? Or will I be prosecuted on the rare occasions when Artemis goes roving? For this to be workable cats, as well as being belled, would have to be kept inside permanently, and I think this would be very cruel to most cats even if I know a few who are already kept all day in city apartments. Personally, I would rather not have a cat than be its jailer.
The campaign needs to be sited down a bit. Prosecution of the owners of cats which enter native reserves, of course. Stronger protection of such native reserves. Compulsory neutering of cats which have already had one litter (but NOT neutering of all cats, which is simply a formula for banning completely all pet cats from the land). But talk of banning cats from “private property”? I think not. This is simply an attempt to enlist knee-jerk sentiment about the sanctity of private property on the side of an otherwise worthwhile campaign.

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