Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cats

D. Allan Stares
The Christian Renewal.

I have owned a reasonable number of cats in my life and, for the life of me, I can’t really figure out why. If the only option available for a pet was a cat, I could understand the attraction, but when a dog comes into the list of possibilities, the cat automatically drops to the bottom of a very short list and comes to rest immediately above the chimpanzee, which sounds like fun, but really isn’t an option at all. Throw a hypothetical ferret, hamster, or raccoon into the mix and cats start to shift to another list all together.

There is no good reason to have a cat in the house, and yet millions of people, including yours truly, keep them around. Perhaps this is why I find the whole idea of cats interesting. Somehow, the cat has managed to hang on to its position on the pet list despite its obvious distain for humans, lack of intelligence, refusal to engage in anything approaching social behaviour, and general uselessness. This admirable tenacity made me sit back and think about my experiences with cats, and this thinking led me to an unexpected conclusion: I have learned a lot about life from cats.

When I was very young, we brought home a little orange barn kitten from my uncle’s farm in exchange for a rabbit that had gotten too large to be cute and just large enough for my uncle to have found a use for it. George eventually grew into a very large orange cat who feared nothing due to the fact the he had spent much of his early time in our home as the special possession of our dog who had never had pups, but mothered him mercilessly. George was big and cranky and absolutely unafraid of dogs.

I clearly remember seeing him deal with a German Shepard who was surprised to find that George did not know that cats were supposed to run away from dogs. George stood his ground as the unsuspecting dog ran at him and calmly unsheathed his claws when the dog’s nose came into swatting range. There was running away involved, but it wasn’t George. That big orange cat taught me a little about dealing with bullies and the kind of courage that comes from an ignorance of fear.

Last year we brought home an enthusiastic young dog to join my daughters’ cat as a pet in the house. As a Duck Tolling Retriever, Kassy is smart and agile and very good at chasing things, but coming from a very small home without exposure to cats, she had no interest in the resident critter. She looked at the cat a couple of times, but generally ignored it as part of the furniture. As a cat, Hannah was too stupid to let sleeping dogs lie. With all the misguided, fear generated, feline aggression it could muster, the cat stalked the intruding dog until an opportunity presented for the cat to swipe at the dog’s nose. This was a bad plan.

The dog suffered a small scratch on the nose; the cat earned herself an antagonist. It didn’t take Kassy long to figure out that this cat ran when she chased it. She also discovered that pestering the cat was fun and entertaining. Hannah now spends much of her time avoiding the joyful attention of this quick and agile chaser. Of all the examples which emphasise the wisdom of attempting to live, as much as possible, at peace with all men, this one is the most often reinforced for me. I see it every morning when the cat tries to get to its food and every evening when the dog decides that the cat should not be allowed into any room to spend time with the rest of the family.

A couple of months ago I noticed that one of our sons had a series of long scratches on his arm. In response to my question, he relayed a story of discovering a small cat in the neighbour’s yard that had its head firmly stuck in a small plastic peanut butter jar. He had climbed over the fence and had unsuccessfully tried to remove the jar from the cat and had received the scratches as his payment. Since my daughters were also at the table and I don’t like the thought of animals suffering, even due to their own foolishness, we all went on a search and rescue mission.

A few minutes later, I discovered a very disoriented and ratty looking little cat cowering behind the neighbour’s shed. Its head had obviously been trapped in the jar for some time and it was justifiably terrified. When I picked it up I was surprised at how thin it was and how pointy its claws were. It probably had little understanding of its present condition. It could neither see nor hear nor in any way comprehend the bewildering world around it. It did not know that my only intention was its salvation, and met my efforts with the only response it knew. The claws went through a jacket, a sweat shirt, and my skin with amazing efficiency. I guess I should not have been surprised.

I did not let it escape. After some gentle but insistent manoeuvring, we managed to remove the cat from its jar. When I put him down, he ran away without so much as a thankful meow and I have not seen him since. I have come to realize that I learned a few things from this cat.

I learned that even if it is not intended, sniffing around the edge of a jar can sometimes lead to having your head so far in that you cannot get it out. I also learned that when your head is in a jar, it becomes very difficult to understand what is happening outside the jar you are in. I discovered that even when it is clear that the jar is a bad place to be, the prospect of having it removed will often be met with wild and indiscriminate aggression. Perhaps the most interesting thing that I learned was that the secret to removing the jar was persistent and consistent force, in spite of the protestations of the jar’s occupant, and is best done with a second pair of hands. And yes, one should not expect to be thanked for removing the jar, at least not right away.

I will have to sit down and ponder how this cat inspired knowledge can be applied to people. Let me know if you come up with anything.