“Once-Starved Cats and Other Tragedies”

Fall2012 - Snoopy001Call me a cat person. As a child my favourite story was “The Colour Kittens.” It was the first story I learned to read on my own —I knew the words by heart. Back then, when I was four years old, I saw a basket of kittens at the Farmers’ Market one cold autumn morning —free kittens— and my parents gave in to my doe-eyed pleadings. Ever since that day, when I brought home my first flea-bitten ball of mewling fur, my soul has been enriched by the company of felines. I believe cats are the very best companions for people who need affection only intermittently, but also need to know it’s genuine. Humans can be remarkably cat-like and not even realize it, and cats can teach us a great deal about love and affection if we’re willing to learn.

But before all you dog lovers out there get uppity on me, I am not one of these cat lovers who insist that cats are better than dogs. Cats are not better than dogs or any other animal for that matter. Dogs are wonderful companions for some people. But let’s face it dogs are sluts —greet one with a scratch on the head or a milk bone and he’ll love you on sight. A cat is a different story. Unlike dogs, cats don’t offer their affection lightly. When a cat seeks you out to offer comforting you can be certain that the offer is profoundly intended.

Whenever I found myself slumped on the couch after a long day, maybe from being stood up for the third time that month, or maybe from getting raked over the coals by some psychotic professor, one of my cats would always seek me out. My cats offered loving company, the simple presence of another mammalian heart —another warm body in need of a tummy-rub. (Incidentally, I’ve always been suspicious of people who count reptiles as companions. Shivers!)

I’ve known many cats in my thirty-plus years on this planet but called only three my own. I once had a domesticated barn cat with an almost limitless patience for the boisterous, young, human male she was stuck with while growing up. Of course, the cat grew up much faster. And when her limits were tested this cat would, like a veteran school teacher, make her displeasure known with hissing clarity one day and be purring and playful again by the next.

I also knew a cat born in the wild and which lived in the wild for years until, on one cold Valentine’s Day, he came upon a riverside camp grounds. This wild, vagabond cat (to be aptly named “Valentine”) decided to make the camp his home and stayed. Now, many people don’t know this, but wild cats don’t generally meow. Meowing is a cat’s way of trying to communicate with us. Valentine, however, was chattier than a prom night limousine and as playful, loving and friendly as any cat you could imagine. For a “wild” cat this was astounding.

But to get to the point, of all the different cats I have known, I know of only one behavior which is universal to them all. Once a cat has starved in the wild, whether it was born there or simply spent one unintended night outdoors, afterward it will never again be at ease when eating.

Even a cat that has been chronically neglected and abused can, with time and love, become as domesticated and friendly as any lifelong housecat. I’ve seen it happen. But after a cat’s stomach has been stroked by the bony hand of starvation it will never again completely enjoy its food. The meal in front of it will always be seen as potentially its last for a long time, and it will always leave a better taste of anxiety on the tongue.

Observe this for yourself if you don’t believe me. A cat that has been even just once-starved will eat —and eat voraciously— but it will never be able to eat slowly, savoring its meal, no matter how tasty the food or safe the surroundings. The cat will always be raising its head, looking about with its ears twitching, scanning the air for potential threats. It will always gobble its food up as quickly as possible while maintaining a tense state of readiness.

Humans, to state the obvious, are not cats. But we would be fools to watch our feline friends engaging in this behavior and not recognize its likeness in ourselves. When I am starved of love I can be remarkably cat-like. I don’t think I’m wrong by saying that there are many of us who, when given love again after it has been taken away, have not ruined that second chance by gorging ourselves at the feast. Or perhaps we eat too quickly while our eyes imagine predators lurking in the shadows, while our ears hear every sound as possible competition and our legs remain tense —ready to run up a tree at the slightest embarrassment.

Perhaps we sit at the dinner table across from our blind date wondering if we’re smiling enough, if we have anything in our teeth, if our breath smells like fish, if they like what we’re wearing, if we’re laughing too much, if we’re not laughing enough. We watch his eyes to see where they go and try to judge what he’s thinking. Did he just stare at the server’s tail? Why isn’t he making more eye contact? Am I making too much eye contact? I wonder if my deodorant is strong enough. Maybe it’s too strong. Did he just see me scratch my ear? What if he thinks I have fleas!?

Our paws start nervously playing with our clothes or twisting the table napkin as though wringing the head off a mouse. We don’t taste what we’re eating but we wonder if there’s too much garlic in it. We wonder if he’s too good for us. We wonder what he’s looking for. Not what he said he’s looking for, but what he’s really looking for. And are we willing to offer it? Maybe if we do he’ll think we’re easy. Maybe we should play “hard to get.” What we get is indigestion. Then we have to worry about hissing in his presence… from one end or the other.

Have you ever been “catty” at a party? Instead of being receptive to the glances from the well-shaped calico at the bar, you’re looking in the mirror playing with your fur, trying to get it to sit flat for the ten-thousandth time that night. Maybe you’re fussing with your collar wondering if the colour clashes with your eyes. Later on you might be staring at a pair of happy tabbies touching whiskers on the dance floor, trying to put yourself in their shoes. Or worse, secretly wishing they would just remove their smiling faces from your sight and find a bed. Now that would be catty, wouldn’t it?

But you see, unlike the cat that comforts you when the food of love has been ripped away, you can choose not to let the experience haunt you. Unlike our cats, who will forever taste bitter memories of past hungers on their sandpaper tongues, we can choose to live in the moment. Each of us can be free from our past and choose to slowly savor the milk of affection whenever it is offered, for however long it is offered —each and every time it is offered. That is what our cats can teach us —they can remind us of our birthright as members of the human race.

But we still must choose.

So maybe we’re less obviously human at times than we might like to think.

Creative Non-fiction Entry:

“Once-Starved Cats and Other Tragedies”

            Call me a cat person. As a child my favourite story was “The Colour Kittens.” It was the first story I learned to read on my own —I knew the words by heart. Back then, when I was four years old, I saw a basket of kittens at the Farmers’ Market one cold autumn morning —free kittens— and my parents gave in to my doe-eyed pleadings. Ever since that day, when I brought home my first flea-bitten ball of mewling fur, my soul has been enriched by the company of felines. I believe cats are the very best companions for people who need affection only intermittently, but also need to know it’s genuine. Humans can be remarkably cat-like and not even realize it, and cats can teach us a great deal about love and affection if we’re willing to learn.

            But before all you dog lovers out there get uppity on me, I am not one of these cat lovers who insist that cats are better than dogs. Cats are not better than dogs or any other animal for that matter. Dogs are wonderful companions for some people. But let’s face it dogs are sluts —greet one with a scratch on the head or a milk bone and he’ll love you on sight. A cat is a different story. Unlike dogs, cats don’t offer their affection lightly. When a cat seeks you out to offer comforting you can be certain that the offer is profoundly intended.

            Whenever I found myself slumped on the couch after a long day, maybe from being stood up for the third time that month, or maybe from getting raked over the coals by some psychotic professor, one of my cats would always seek me out. My cats offered loving company, the simple presence of another mammalian heart —another warm body in need of a tummy-rub. (Incidentally, I’ve always been suspicious of people who count reptiles as companions. Shivers!)

            I’ve known many cats in my thirty-plus years on this planet but called only three my own. I once had a domesticated barn cat with an almost limitless patience for the boisterous, young, human male she was stuck with while growing up. Of course, the cat grew up much faster. And when her limits were tested this cat would, like a veteran school teacher, make her displeasure known with hissing clarity one day and be purring and playful again by the next.

            I also knew a cat born in the wild and which lived in the wild for years until, on one cold Valentine’s Day, he came upon a riverside camp grounds. This wild, vagabond cat (to be aptly named “Valentine”) decided to make the camp his home and stayed. Now, many people don’t know this, but wild cats don’t generally meow. Meowing is a cat’s way of trying to communicate with us. Valentine, however, was chattier than a prom night limousine and as playful, loving and friendly as any cat you could imagine. For a “wild” cat this was astounding.

            But to get to the point, of all the different cats I have known, I know of only one behavior which is universal to them all. Once a cat has starved in the wild, whether it was born there or simply spent one unintended night outdoors, afterward it will never again be at ease when eating.

            Even a cat that has been chronically neglected and abused can, with time and love, become as domesticated and friendly as any lifelong housecat. I’ve seen it happen. But after a cat’s stomach has been stroked by the bony hand of starvation it will never again completely enjoy its food. The meal in front of it will always be seen as potentially its last for a long time, and it will always leave a better taste of anxiety on the tongue.

            Observe this for yourself if you don’t believe me. A cat that has been even just once-starved will eat —and eat voraciously— but it will never be able to eat slowly, savoring its meal, no matter how tasty the food or safe the surroundings. The cat will always be raising its head, looking about with its ears twitching, scanning the air for potential threats. It will always gobble its food up as quickly as possible while maintaining a tense state of readiness.

            Humans, to state the obvious, are not cats. But we would be fools to watch our feline friends engaging in this behavior and not recognize its likeness in ourselves. When I am starved of love I can be remarkably cat-like. I don’t think I’m wrong by saying that there are many of us who, when given love again after it has been taken away, have not ruined that second chance by gorging ourselves at the feast. Or perhaps we eat too quickly while our eyes imagine predators lurking in the shadows, while our ears hear every sound as possible competition and our legs remain tense —ready to run up a tree at the slightest embarrassment.

            Perhaps we sit at the dinner table across from our blind date wondering if we’re smiling enough, if we have anything in our teeth, if our breath smells like fish, if they like what we’re wearing, if we’re laughing too much, if we’re not laughing enough. We watch his eyes to see where they go and try to judge what he’s thinking. Did he just stare at the server’s tail? Why isn’t he making more eye contact? Am I making too much eye contact? I wonder if my deodorant is strong enough. Maybe it’s too strong. Did he just see me scratch my ear? What if he thinks I have fleas!?

            Our paws start nervously playing with our clothes or twisting the table napkin as though wringing the head off a mouse. We don’t taste what we’re eating but we wonder if there’s too much garlic in it. We wonder if he’s too good for us. We wonder what he’s looking for. Not what he said he’s looking for, but what he’s really looking for. And are we willing to offer it? Maybe if we do he’ll think we’re easy. Maybe we should play “hard to get.” What we get is indigestion. Then we have to worry about hissing in his presence… from one end or the other.

            Have you ever been “catty” at a party? Instead of being receptive to the glances from the well-shaped calico at the bar, you’re looking in the mirror playing with your fur, trying to get it to sit flat for the ten-thousandth time that night. Maybe you’re fussing with your collar wondering if the colour clashes with your eyes. Later on you might be staring at a pair of happy tabbies touching whiskers on the dance floor, trying to put yourself in their shoes. Or worse, secretly wishing they would just remove their smiling faces from your sight and find a bed. Now that would be catty, wouldn’t it?

            But you see, unlike the cat that comforts you when the food of love has been ripped away, you can choose not to let the experience haunt you. Unlike our cats, who will forever taste bitter memories of past hungers on their sandpaper tongues, we can choose to live in the moment. Each of us can be free from our past and choose to slowly savor the milk of affection whenever it is offered, for however long it is offered —each and every time it is offered. That is what our cats can teach us —they can remind us of our birthright as members of the human race.

            But we still must choose.

            So maybe we’re less obviously human at times than we might like to think.

2 thoughts on ““Once-Starved Cats and Other Tragedies”

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