People have been trying to get me to write an essay about cats for over a year. No, no, I said, a bunch of people are going to unsubscribe. That may be true, but I think I’m to the point where I don’t give a crap.
I have been a cat lover my whole life. Even as a toddler, I didn’t play with bricks and blocks—I played with stuffed toy cats. I gave them names, and we had grand adventures together. But I couldn’t have an actual cat—because I was violently allergic. Later, after my parents divorced and I moved in with my mom, I found that I wasn’t allergic to cats at all. I was only allergic to cats when I was around my father. In a sense, I was allergic to my father. All of this is true.
I got my first real live cat when I was seven years old. A humongous, bruising orange mackerel tabby I named Carrots. Carrots was about 19 pounds of solid muscle, and pretty much only ate what he killed in our backyard. We used to give him cat food, but he would pretend to bury it and then go out and catch a ground mole. He would kill it and eat it—the whole thing, head and feet and all, leaving some random internal organ on our doormat. But he was so gentle with me. Unfortunately, Carrots was an outdoor cat, and caught one of the first strains of feline leukemia, before there was a vaccine for it, and died at the age of five. I had a few other cats when I was younger, but they were all outdoors, and didn’t last long. This, obviously, was before people started taking better care of their animals.
I got my first cat as an adult in January of 1999. We adopted a scraggly three-month old black kitten and named him Otto. Otto was the smartest cat in the world. He knew about 30-40 different words, and he could spell. He knew the word “treat,” and then he knew when we were spelling “T-R-E-A-T.” He did the same with O-U-T, because we used to take him for walks on a leash. He was a strange sort of cat—unlike most cats, he loved riding in the car. When we moved from the West Coast to the East Coast, Otto made the trip with us in the back seat of the car—we didn’t even have him in a carrier. Since Otto was so smart, it wasn’t like a normal human/pet relationship. My relationship with Otto was complicated. There was a lot of drama, and we didn’t always get along. But on the weekends, when I’d be reading Barron’s on the couch, he’d curl up on my chest and go to sleep, purring. Otto made the move with us to South Carolina, and came down with gastric lymphoma in 2013. He died in February 2014, and I have never grieved any death, human or animal, as much as I grieved Otto. He was my buddy, and we had been through a lot together, to say the least. He saw me at my worst, and he was still my cat.
After Otto, we thought we would take a break from cats for a while. One, so we could travel, and two, well, we had just gone through so much pain with Otto’s death that we weren’t sure we wanted to do it all over again. But about 3-4 weeks later, we were already looking to get a cat. The house was just so lonely. The vet’s office was sometimes giving away cats, so I went in there one day, and there were two cats in a cage in the front office. A tiny brown spotted tabby, and a feral dilute tortoiseshell. We adopted them, and named them Uma and Vesper. In a sense, we were trying to fill the hole that Otto left in our hearts, but it was a mistake to even try. Uma and Vesper were great girls, but they could never be Otto. They were hard cases—Uma was found under a dumpster behind Outback Steakhouse, and Vesper was a feral cat who had been hit by a car. Vesper turned out to be total lovebug, and Uma turned out to be a grouch—she’s a little stand-offish, but we think she is hilarious.
About a year later, a realtor friend found a calico cat while showing a house, and we adopted her and named her Wendy. Wendy had been abandoned by her owners and was starving outside. Ever since then, she can’t stop eating. Two years after that, we adopted a brown tabby kitten and named him Tars—Tars had been rescued from a kill shelter only hours before he was scheduled to be put down. Tars has a huge amount of personality, and is such a male cat—he loves to wrestle and fight and be a jackass. Then we adopted a white/tabby mix from the local cat café and named her Xenia—pronounced Zenn-ya. Xenia had been surrendered to a shelter by a divorcing couple. Then we adopted a black-and-white longhaired cat named Stripe—Stripe was a stray and has a big scar on his lip to prove it. And finally, just last year we adopted a gray kitten named Yellow. We don’t have any information on her—her paperwork simply said “abandoned by owner.” Yellow is incredibly well-behaved, and purrs if you simply touch her with one finger.
If you counted them all up, you have calculated that we have seven cats. That’s a lot of cats. But that’s a lot of love in our house. Sometimes people ask me which one I like the best. It’s like being a parent—I can’t answer that question—I love them all equally, for different reasons. But the amazing thing about having a house with seven cats is the politics. Yes, cats have politics, and they’re complete blockheads about having a pecking order. Vesper, the oldest girl, is in charge, followed by Uma, then Tars, then Stripe, then Yellow, then Xenia, then Wendy. Wendy is always at the bottom—she’s passive and gets pushed around by the other cats. We like to call Vesper “The President”—she gets along with all the other cats, like a politician, but they defer to her. She’s so classy about it. And she’s the glue that holds all the cats together—when she passes away, our house is going to be chaos.
Having seven cats can be a bit of a pain. If my wife and I travel together for more than one night, we have to board them, and boarding gets expensive. We took a 5-day trip to Puerto Rico a few months ago, and boarding the cats cost $1,080. We didn’t get a volume discount from the kennel, unfortunately. It’s a lot of litter boxes to clean out, though I don’t mind that so much, and there’s also puke and fur and random poop, and Uma and Yellow pee in the sink. Living with seven animals can be kind of gross, and it’s a struggle to keep the house clean. Not to mention: toys everywhere. I suppose it’s like when you walk in a friend’s house who has four little kids and it’s like Fort Apache, kids screaming and toys everywhere and diaper smell and everything else. Owning cats is a bit like being a parent to toddlers, except they’re toddlers that never grow up. Though Vesper is close to ten years old, and the older cats are slowing down significantly. Even Tars is showing signs of maturity, sometimes.
You want to know how much I love my cats? I got their names tattooed on my arm. Yes, about six months ago, I got stuvwxy tattooed on my right arm at my elbow. I think I feel the same way about my cats as other people do about their kids—I would murder the person who ever brought harm to one of my cats. I would sit in jail for the rest of my life and not feel an ounce of remorse. I will tell you some other things I think about cats: I believe cats (and dogs, and other animals) have souls and I believe I will one day meet all of my cats in the afterlife. You can’t tell me animals don’t have feelings. Prior to getting Stripe, Tars and Xenia had been best friends, and when we got Stripe, Tars ignored Xenia and only played with Stripe. Xenia was despondent for weeks. She stopped washing, her meow changed—she lost her best friend. Our cats have real emotional needs. They have souls. They’re not just animals.
The problem is that the average cat only lives about fifteen years. We’re going to go through what we went through with Otto—seven more times. One thing I’ve been meaning to look into is at-home euthanasia—the last thing I want is for the last feeling my cats experience is sheer terror because they’re in a vet’s office. Our current vet allegedly makes house calls, so I’m going to ask him about it in a couple of weeks. We’re going to have to start making those decisions in about five years, or perhaps sooner. It is entirely worth it. The cats bring us so much joy—every evening is filled with fun and laughter. And fifteen years is a good, long time.
If you are a dog person, just replace “cat” with “dog,” and the foregoing remains true.
Thank you for putting into words much of what I feel about cats. Yes, they have souls in every meaningful sense of that word, and I can't imagine how hard it'll be when we eventually outlive our cat.
For the record I'd also joyfully murder anyone who hurt our cat.
Wonderful read. Cat person here too, grew up in the country. One time we had 6 cats and 2 of them had litters of 6 each. Insanity, and I loved it. In my adult life I've had 3. Alex, total badass, lived to 18. My vet made the house call when it was time. Gabby got to 19, and passed in the night sparing me the awful decision. An act of love and grace. Marmalade Gazpacho was found in my garden after I swore no more. That was 10 years ago. Like one of yours, if she's near you she is purring.