An Unlikely Love Story: My First Two Cats
I Want a Cat
I didn’t get my first cat the usual way. No “it followed me home.” No choosing from a box of “free kittens”. No. When I was 10 years old, I decided I wanted a cat. My mother grew up with all sorts of animals other than large livestock. She collected eggs for breakfast and baking, and plucked chickens for dinner. Her sister shared most of her own dinner with the feral cats that lived under their front porch.
My father never mentioned any pets, but he had a lively childhood as the middle son of an immigrant family struggling to adapt to the capital of the United States. Between the new language, his siblings, the family store, a brother-in-law and nephew who moved into the house, there was no room for pets. It was almost a relief when WWII enabled some of the sons to leave.
At my parents’ behest, schoolwork was our primary focus. My brothers never dared to express interest in pets or many other hobbies. Sports? Too dangerous. Participating in a soccer team practice resulted in heat exhaustion (and the coach’s resignation). Boy Scouts? Edema from hundreds of mosquito bites. Stamp and coin collecting, chess, bridge, academic teams and going to the library were approved.
So it was left to me to be the rebel. I wanted a cat. I don’t know why. The first time I ran as a toddler was to pet a neighbor’s dog. Later I began clipping and saving the animal care articles from a column in the local newspaper in my quest to be a veterinarian. Maybe because we didn’t have a fenced yard, or maybe because I never saw anyone walk a dog on a leash, I decided on a cat.
It was time to visit the library. The juvenile section wouldn’t do; I went straight to the adult section, took out every book about cats, cat breeds, cat care and cat health and read each one from cover to cover. I analyzed the house for the best spots for the litter box, litter scoop and food and water bowls, and storage for extra food and litter. The laundry room included a little used exit to the backyard; the litter box and scoop would go there. The floor under a kitchen shelf was meant for the food and water bowls, and the garage had plenty of room for extra litter and food. The scratching post and carrier could go anywhere.
I memorized each breed for its likely personality traits and healthcare and grooming needs.
Walter Chandoha’s photographs helped me define the specifications for my cat: 3 months old, so that it was fully weaned; female, so there would be no concern about spraying; short hair for minimal grooming, and to match the family’s growing interest in Asian arts, a Siamese. Not for us would the intense and vocal Seal Point Siamese do; I chose the gentle, playful, energetic and exotic Blue Point Siamese.
My parents agreed to the inevitable; we would get a cat.
Siamese Cats, by Louise Van Der Meid
"Adopt, Don't Shop" - Not an Option in the 1960s
Today I advocate strongly “adopt, don’t shop.” Between www.petfinder.com, www.pettango.com and www.adoptapet.com, there are approximately 200,000 cats available for adoption from at least 17,000 shelters in the United States. A few thousand of those cats have the unique Siamese coat colors on their faces and paws. Veterinarians have checked their health, given them appropriate vaccinations and care, and other caregivers describe their personalities online.
Almost five decades ago, those options didn’t exist. The books warned against “free to good home” advertisements as many websites and media sources do now. Sadly, as the first page of this history of shelters notes http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/animal-sheltering-united-states-yesterday-today-and-tomorrow , “Until the late 1970s, the veterinary community had little input into the management policies of shelters. Instead of focusing on providing humane veterinary care and treatment to the animals, the energies of many shelters revolved around providing a humane death for the many animals that were not reclaimed or adopted.”
We Bring Her Home
My parents got the necessary supplies while I scoured the newspaper advertisements for Blue Point Siamese breeders. I called one and confirmed the appointment time with my parents.
The breeder, an older woman, guided us toward a garage full of crates containing an assortment of cats and kittens. The garage smelled; I didn’t ask why. I accepted the first kitten she handed me. My father handed the woman $40, she gave him the kitten’s purebred registration papers, and we put the kitten into the carrier for the trip home.
Princess Tai Lu was a beloved Siamese cat character in a British children’s magazine, so we all agreed to adapt that name for our new family member. Our Princess would never see a cat show, but the Cat Fancier’s Association would know who she was.
The First Crisis
We all loved her. She loved the scratching post and the little plastic balls with bells inside. She quickly understood the litter box location; as the books recommended, I placed her in the new box three times shortly after we brought her home. When she didn’t sleep between my legs at night, she did that with my brothers.
One of the books warned that Siamese found bleach irresistible. Our laundry room had a double tub, one used for clothes awaiting washing, the other as discharge for the water from the washing machine. When the Princess was six months old, she overcame her fear of the loud washing machine noise and lapped a bit of the discharge water. Our veterinarian and my mother nursed her back to health with droppers full of pureed baby food.
Shortly after the Princess was spayed, we saw a silver tabby cat in the backyard. We put food out next to the back porch. The cat ate it, then returned daily for more. The Princess began waiting by the sliding glass porch doors for the silver tabby’s arrival. We propped the porch screen door open and moved the food and water bowls closer to the glass doors. We named this cat Silver Sprite, later reduced to Silver.
The cats communicated with each other through the glass and seemed to like each other. We let him inside. Silver was a handsome unaltered tomcat, content to be outdoors most of the time, happy to play with his newfound sister on colder days. He’d curl up on an upholstered dining room chair while she’d wrap herself around the chair legs to flirt with him.
One spring other silver tabby kittens appeared for a few days, and a few times Silver had scratched ears, but we never saw any member of his harem.
Some days he’d bring a bird or squirrel or chipmunk to the ledge next to the back porch. Some had heads, others did not. The Princess never did figure out his hunting technique; the few times we escorted her to the backyard she meowed at birds with her tail high in the air, then wondered why they flew away.
My Passover Story
Early one spring, Silver went outside and did not return. The Princess checked the chairs and the back porch. We left food and water out. We could not accept the worst possibility. Silver was the master of his universe, invincible and not tame enough to bring to the veterinarian.
A few weeks later everyone but my mother watched the movie, “The Ten Commandments.” The Princess joined us. Charlton Heston raised his arms, ordered the Red Sea to part, and my mother shrieked, “He’s back! Silver Sprite is back!” We raced upstairs. Silver Sprite dragged one of his hind legs.
We got him inside, wrapped him in a towel to sleep for the night, then into the veterinarian the next morning. He needed surgery to repair his femur and pelvis, and his tomcat days ended then, too. After a quick discussion we all agreed that Silver could recover in the least used shower in the house. We lined it with newspapers and set a litter box on one end, and food and water bowls nearby.
Groggy Silver Sprite reeked of antiseptic and veterinary clinic when we brought him home. His hindquarter was shaved and marked with a long streak of stitches. He wore a plastic collar. He’d lost weight. The Princess took one look at this strange version of her beloved and went into catatonic shock. Her pupils dilated and didn’t react to a flashlight. She couldn’t and didn’t move. We got Silver into his recovery room and tended to her.
She stopped eating and drinking. We set her up in a separate room and force fed her baby food and water. She’d recover a little, then hear Silver thrashing around his room and regress.
Silver healed faster than the Princess. He went outside less often though his hunting prowess never diminished. He loved the 17-year locusts that swarmed out of the tall maple tree roots and bark. Eventually he and the Princess resumed their play around the dining room chair.
A few years later the Princess lost her energy and acted as if she were in pain. She’d sit in a tight ball and let us hold her close without squirming. Veterinary visits yielded no diagnosis or prognosis; the imaging and lab tests common today weren’t available 45 years ago. She lay next to wall heating vents, ate less and less until we resumed using the eyedropper and baby food.
One morning we woke to find her unconscious, her head flopped to one side as if she’d had a stroke. My brother had the awful job of driving her one last time to the veterinarian. Afterward, he didn’t leave his bedroom for a day. The Princess had been his confidant during his 15th year, that awful time before the independence a learner’s permit brings, and a year with his older brother in college.
Silver Sprite mourned too. For days he went from one heating vent to another, searching for her. He’d sleep in that dining chair, waiting for her to play. She was gone.
Over the next several years, Silver Sprite mellowed more, permitting us to pet and hold him. Eventually, my brother and I left for college and beyond. Silver would go outside more and more and one day never returned. He was well into his teen years; this time, he would be with his Princess.
© 2017 Cherie Kurland