I am not a cat person. I am a world person.
I feel the need to clarify. I promise this blog isn’t going to descend into some kind of bizarre pagan worship of my cats. If I’m going to start worshipping animals, frankly it will be my dog. My wife likes to joke that I love my dog better than her. At least, I think she’s joking.
I say ‘world person’ because it doesn’t even seem right to say ‘animal person,’ since I also love plants, people, mountains, beaches, language, architecture…you get the picture.
Anyway, I was going to write about my cats today. I’ll apologize to those who find other people’s pet stories tedious. I never have. This brain of mine has catalogued the many pet stories people have shared with me. They are all wonderful because animals are just as funny, strange, and notorious as human beings. These secondhand pet stories are probably burning up valuable space on my cranial harddrive, space which could be used for other things. I can never remember, for instance, which one’s the radius and which is the diameter. In the end, though, I guess my brain-attic (if I can paraphrase Sherlock Holmes) is really a storage area for things that make me laugh.
So I have these cats. Two to be precise, though at times it feels like more. They are both “rescues.” One was the runty kitten of a feral cat—her mom abandoned her one rainy day, probably because she had an eye infection. Maybe it’s because of her feral genes or perhaps because she never got breastmilk, but she’s got a bad case of kitty ADD, if there is such a thing. We took her in while I was working on my Master’s thesis. I can still recall, as I typed away on my computer, the jingle-jingle-jingle of her collar as she blitzed from room to room to room. All. Day. Long. She’s gotten a little bigger and a lot fluffier, but I would never say she’s “grown up.” She’s also high-strung and easily ruffled, a dainty princess with claws.
It’s impossible to imagine my other cat being a kitten. Ever. He was probably born fully-grown with a scarred face and fire in his belly. He’s a fat brown stray that dominated the neighborhood until we locked him up in our old apartment (he’s never really forgiven us for that). He’s got that sort of gravitas bigger cats have, like he’s a half-ton lion instead of a sixteen pound tabby. When I vacuum, I’ve known dogs to flee the room. My tom, however, will not move until I threaten to suck up his tail along with the dust. Even then, he’s slow and deliberate, making it clear that it was his choice to get up.
His ears are notched and he managed to get fat living on the street. Taken together these indicate he was a practiced bully long before we took him in. Naturally, he intimidated our other cat whenever he got the chance. When she was younger and unable to outrun him, he would catch her, push her to the ground, and sit on her. She would claw at his face like an angry little sister, but he could pin her and keep his face away at the same time because his legs were so long. This would go on until she erupted into feverish screeching and a human (or sometimes a dog) would intervene.
This dynamic changed, however, when the tom lost his sight.
If I can be sanctimonious for a moment, I’d like to say something about letting cats outside. Cats are killing machines honed by millions of years of evolution. Letting them out destroys your local fauna. Here in Florida, for instance, our green anoles are in trouble and letting cats out doesn’t help. In Hawaii, cats rained devastation on the beautiful indigenous birds.
Aside from environmental concerns (“yeah, shut up hippie” you’re saying to me now), you might also want to keep your cat indoors for their health. I say this because my tom’s time on the streets came at a heavy toll: he carries the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). For those that don’t know, FIV is the cat version of AIDS. It’s an elegant example of viral opportunism. Whereas HIV passes through humans’ favorite behavior—sex—FIV is transmitted through cats’ favorite behavior: fighting.
His brawling days left a lot more than scars. The FIV robbed him of all his back teeth (despite some expensive dental work). But it wasn’t done yet.
One day he was being quiet. I noticed his irises looked very strange. I rushed him to several different vets with varying degrees of helpfulness before the ophthalmologist could see him. (Yes, by the way, there are veterinary ophthalmologists…and they’re great).
I learned he has glaucoma (I also learned a little about anatomy/physiology, with comparisons between cat, dog, and human eyeballs. I must say: A good practitioner is as much teacher as healer). It’s likely my cat’s weakened immune system let something in, though the exact cause was never found (despite some pricey testing). The pressure built up in his right eye so quickly that the lens popped out from behind the iris, giving his eye an eerie appearance. The lesson here, boys and girls, is that if somebody’s eye looks weird get them to a doctor. I probably don’t have to tell most of you that, though. As soon as I saw his pupils weren’t dilating I threw him in a darkened room and called the vet. There are some things you just don’t dawdle over. Eyes are one of them.
We tried very hard to save his sight—but the damage was done. The ophthalmologist said it would take a couple months for him to adjust. Evidently cats adapt very well to going blind. Their standard equipment—long whiskers, sharp hearing, excellent smell—are designed to keep them operational on moonless nights anyway. Obviously, this doesn’t mean they can survive on their own—but in a controlled environment like a house, they’re fine.
So we brought our battered old tom home. He was cautious, not like his usual self at all. He became a two dimensional creature, keeping to the floors. Within a couple weeks, he was friendly and outgoing again, but quieter and no longer a bully. He’d always enjoyed cuddling with whoever was available: people, dogs, even shiftless toddlers (though almost never the other cat). Here was evidence that he was okay with life again, that his old personality had reasserted itself.
Huh, I thought. The vet was wrong. My stubborn ol’ tom adjusted in just two weeks!
I figured that the new sedate behavior and slow movements were permanent changes. As is often the case, I should have listened to the expert.
A couple months after he went blind, I found him on my kitchen table. I thought it was pretty rash of him, so I picked him up and put him on the floor. Later I came back and the furry lunatic was up there again.
He started climbing up the couch, too. He’d even rest on the back, with his furry paunch hanging off the side. Nevermind that he couldn’t see—he’d feel the damn edges with his paws, thank you very much.
Pretty soon he was running. Not sprinting or anything—he wasn’t a hasty cat to begin with—but he’d get a good head of steam going and charge across the house as if he saw perfectly. If something were in his way—like a toddler toy—his whiskers would detect it seconds before an impact and he would “bounce” away without touching it.
The eeriest thing, though, was how he would “watch” people. He’d come into a room and, I assume from our breathing and subtle shifting of clothes, deduce where a person was. Then he would stare. With that creepy lens-out eye of his. He can follow a person so astutely that several times I wondered if he had his sight back.
Then, of course, he’d run into something, which still happens once in a while when he’s just rolled out of bed and is still groggy (Of course I often run into things when I get out of bed and I can’t blame glaucoma).
One day my tom came into the living room at canine dinner time. He followed the crunching sounds and then tried to take the food. Despite the snarling mongrel. (Before you pity the dog, know that he tries to steal the cat’s dinner whenever possible. Food has always been—and probably always will be—a stressful subject in the Beats household.)
The final development came not long after he irritated the dog. I was sitting on the sofa watching TV. In came the old blind cat. He smelled the floor, felt around with his whiskers, and found the fluffy princess. He paused over her and sniffed. She didn’t run. The bully had been replaced by this gentle old tom, right?
Wrong. The blind cat raised his paw and delivered a solid swat to her face.
She hissed and ran away.
That was when I realized what the vet meant when he said two months for the adjustment.
My cat was truly back—bad habits and all.