I love our animals with all of my heart, even as one dog climbs into the open dishwasher in search of some un-rinsed molecule of Bolognese, and a cat is in the living room manicuring her claws on the couch. I grew up with dogs, and then adopted a series of cats beginning with Emily, who lived a clandestine life in my Boston dorm room until my father picked me up at the end of the school year. When we moved into this house, Rob went on a business trip and I went to the Humane Society intending only to adopt the sad-eyed beauty I had seen in the newspaper; somehow, by the time he called to check in on things at home, I had adopted not only Maisy, but the hyperactive beagle-terrier mix we fell in love with as he jumped several feet into the air over and over again. I couldn’t leave him there. The next time he traveled I adopted a cat named Max (after which, I assure you we had a Come to Jesus about my activities when he was away from the house).
Two years later, Rob called me from a trail ride in the woods of Northern Michigan to tell me that they had found a beautiful, stray cat on the trail who appeared to be ownerless and starving. Would I, he asked guilelessly, mind if he brought her home as a Sweetest Day gift for me? So then we had four. Before the ink was dry on the calendar for the spaying appointment, the new cat, Sophie, found a fellow in the neighborhood and was pregnant. Well, or she might have been pregnant when she came to us; we’ll never know. A week after the Fourth of July she gave birth to four kittens in our basement, two of whom are now our Teddy and Stripey. We lived, henceforth, in a house full of furry creatures who slept in our beds, required walks and vets and futile attempts at training, and who we all love ridiculously and sentimentally. When Max died of cancer two years ago, our holistic, “visiting” vet gave me the syringe of chemicals that would send him on his way to relief. She said I would know when it was time. I did, and he died on my lap in his house, my tears falling on his beautiful grey-blue fur.
I tend to anthropomorphize these creatures, now five, who are so much a part of my life. I think of them as characters from Rabbit Hill, Watership Down, or Nana, the dog who cares for the Darling children in Peter Pan. I believe that I have a spiritual connection with Teddy, who comes when I call, answers when I speak, and seems also to be able to communicate with the ghosts in this very old house, standing on his hind legs on the post at the foot of the stairs, looking into space and waving his forefeet as if conducting a symphony orchestra. When I am sick and I crawl into bed, they come to me; Charlie under the covers by one hip, Teddy on the other side, Stripey astride my blanketed stomach, Sophie perched nervously at the foot of the bed and Maisy in her armchair, watching over me. It is easy, during those cozy moments when I hear a round of gentle animal breaths and feel their warmth against mine, that we are all friends, and that they love me.
They are, however, animals. Every one of them. The dogs are fond of eating used tissues, and we reflexively elevate trash receptacles during the cold and flu season to save ourselves from the necessity of harvesting a carpet of shredded Puffs. They also eat out of the litter box, steal food left unattended, and tip over the trash. Worse still, they kill things when they have the opportunity, because that is precisely what they were born to do. The outdoor cats deposit chipmunks, baby mice and other lifeless miscellany on the porch for our enjoyment, and in the days before Maisy was old and deaf, she once escaped and brought us a freshly-slaughtered squirrel. Since I have no other friends in my life who enjoy stalking, chasing and killing, it is always a shock to be reminded that I am not living in a Disney movie, and that even if I were Snow White, and the forest creatures were helping me with my chores, you can be damned sure that half of them would have killed and eaten the other half before I had made the second bed.
Last night, we stepped into the cold night after hearing cat screams, and saw Teddy literally locked in combat with Enemy Cat, another male who lives around here somewhere. They rolled together, screaming terrible screams, and there was no way to gloss over or sentimentalize the fact that Teddy really wanted to kill that cat. My cuddly, pink-nosed baby was a descendant of lions and this fight was somehow hard wired into his nature in ways I didn’t understand. Rob separated the combatants, and brought me a bloody-nosed Teddy, a string of blood and spit hanging from the corner of his mouth, a gash on his face. The once pink nose was red, and he sneezed and gasped furiously, trying to clear his nose and breathe through his mouth. Rob held him, and I did my best to clean him off, assess the damage, and decide whether it was vet-worthy or something that would heal on its own. Spent and conserving energy, Teddy made it to our bed and slept for hours, waking only occasionally to sneeze out the irritating blood that prevented him from breathing in his usual fashion. The other cats seemed to have received some sort of vestigial jungle memo; they came with a few feet of him and retreated, though he did not so much as raise his head to wither them with a slit-eyed gaze.
Teddy is on the mend; there is no structural damage to his face, and he has eaten and drunk, albeit cautiously, accustoming himself to new “work-arounds” as humans do when they have a broken tooth or a sprained wrist. He is docile today, staying close to me and seeming to want nothing more than rest and comfort.
For all I know, though, his interest in me stems from the fact that I am statistically likelier than other family members to be seated or lying down, thus providing a Warm Body. I love him, I love all of them, but surely they don’t “love” me back. I feed them, I pet them, I am kind to them, but whatever bond they feel, regardless of their domesticated state, is something I do not understand. I cannot be shocked when they hunt, or kill or fight, because they are not part of the touring cast of Bambi; they are real, live animals, with big cats and wolves in the bloodline.Years ago, my brother and I loved a cartoon in which a dog contemplated its adoring owners, with a thought bubble that says “I wonder if they taste like chicken.” Maybe they do wonder; how would I ever know?
I think, at best, that we are companions for our household animals, part of a recognized pack. Not their parents, not their friends, necessarily, but some sort of alpha creature that is in charge of food and water and the opening of doors. If I can remember this, and be a little more realistic in my interpretation of their behavior, there will be nothing shocking about the fact that they behave…like animals. If we accept them for what they are, no matter how much we train them or pamper them or carry them around in purses (and no, I do not), the best we really have is a sort of truce in which they will do as we ask of them because they want to please us, but that there is a primordial switch we cannot and should not want to turn off, even if it would sanitize things and prevent, uhm, bestiality.
Perhaps we should be honored that such magnificent and independent wild things consent to live among us and follow (most of) our rules. We should be flattered that they allow us to love them and cuddle them and impute upon them our ridiculous imaginings about their emotions. I’m off to hang out with Teddy now; I’ll probably stroke him and sing to him, and he’ll probably let me.