Wikipedia: The cat (Felis catus) is a small carnivorous mammal. It is the only domesticated species in the family Felidae and often referred to as the domestic cat to distinguish it from wild members of the family. The cat is either a house cat, a farm cat or a feral cat; latter ranges freely and avoids human contact. Domestic cats are valued by humans for companionship and for their ability to hunt rodents.
I am besotted with a cat. I, whom no one has ever described as an animal lover, have fallen in love with a feline, a mixed-breed mostly-Balinese cat of great beauty, beauty, in fact, extravagant enough to be justification all on its own of her existence. Were I an Egyptian long ago, I am sure I would have worshipped and set up graven images of her in my temple. Though I had no granaries to protect, the patrolling of which to rout vermin would have been her sacred role, her comeliness alone would have made her worthy of worship. She is the Mona Lisa of cats, the Venus of her species, the Helen of felines. I will soon convince you, dear reader, of her other endearing and admirable qualities; for now know that, however shallow it may immediately seem, I was first won over by her good looks.
Now I embark upon the history of our relationship, the bare facts of her journey from homelessness to animal shelter to foster care and, finally and happily, to my home. But wait! I have left her nameless so far, dependent on a pallid pronoun when she deserves further identifiers. When I first met her in the good care of a woman devoted to rescuing and finding homes for cats, sometimes minutes before their euthanasia in a kill shelter, said rescuer had named her –I shudder to repeat it –Heidi Klum. I realize that the name was chosen to acknowledge the exceptional beauty I have already described, but anyone who knows me knows I could not endure life with a cat named after a bosomy blonde model. My first question was “May I change her name?”
Hearing an affirmative, I immediately began calling her a name chosen long ago when I was considering rescuing a dog. She is now SAPPHO, in honor of the great Greek poet who opened a school for girls on the Isle of Lesbos, more recently known as an island flooded by refugees arriving on inadequate boats, leaving as witness to global indifference their piles of life preservers and dead bodies on the shore. She has a middle name –Simona – in memory of Simone de Beauvoir, one of my feminist foremothers. I added the “a” to the end instead of the “e” at the request of a beloved granddaughter who has a friend named Simona. So Sappho-Simona is the name to which my beloved kitty sometimes answers, when she chooses to acknowledge my existence.
Back to her history: My daughters, each of whom adopted a rescue dog into her family to happy effect, decided that I, who lives alone, should adopt a dog. I put my foot down immediately, having watched people in my building trudge out in all kinds of weather hauling reluctant or eager dogs on leashes for the necessary walks. (I have also taken note of the stains on our hallways’ carpeting and the puddles in the elevators, testimony to bad timing and owner reluctance to brave the elements quickly enough.) Not for me, I said, not at my age. We had dogs when the children lived at home – Guinevere, Lancelot, and finally Merlin, all of whom came to sad endings. We also had cats on and off over the growing-up years. The most fecund, Amy, came and went, bore several litters and finally met her own sad end. Over the years, I fed her and nagged the kids to change her litter, but I never found time or money to have her spayed. I felt no particular affection for her.
There had been no pets in my home for many, many years when my daughters decided I needed company. The facts that I had developed a rise in blood pressure and that research alleges pets help bring it down added to their coercion. When I claimed the allergic symptoms I had shown in my later years in the company of other people’s pets, they countered with evidence that some breeds are less allergenic because they have some genetic variation that causes them to produce less of the Fel d 1 protein that causes trouble for folks with allergies.
I knew I was beginning to weaken when I found myself browsing rescue sites for cats in my area, particularly those of breeds alleged to be less allergenic. My search was desultory compared to that of my daughter Alida, whose tenacity when set upon a search task is legendary in our family. As luck would have it, the woman fostering Sappho/Heidi Klum had just put up a photo of the cat on a pet search site where Alida spotted her under the search term “Balinese,” that being one of the less sneeze-inducing breeds. Within a couple of days, I had been coerced into contacting the rescuer who had Sappho/Heidi in her care. She let me know that I probably would not be considered as an adopter because this cat needed special care in a home with no children, no other pets, and an owner who would be patiently willing to help her adjust. Not sure exactly what she meant, I explained that I ticked all the boxes, even claiming to be patient, one alternative fact in a world full of them.
So next came the visit, the moment of connection, of decision, of life-changing significance. Alida’s twin sister Shantih went with me to meet the cat. Her rescuer maintains a non-kill rescue shelter that encompasses the third floor of a lovely old Victorian in a nearby suburb. The rooms are cat friendly in every way: feeding stations, litter boxes, many toys and soft beds for cats and kittens. When we got up there, Sappho/Heidi was tucked tightly into a pod on a cat-climbing tree by the window. We could see little of her besides furry areas being extruded by the pressure of her body from the portholes on either side of the pod. When we approached, she turned her face away from us and contracted her whole self into a tighter ball. She allowed us to touch whatever small part of her we could reach through the porthole like openings. She obviously did not, however, appreciate our contacts, cringing at each one.
Her rescuer explained that she had taken Sappho/Heidi out of an urban shelter, after which, as is her custom, to a vet for spaying and vaccinations, and vetting for diseases. The cat was fine and, surprisingly, had already been spayed, a condition that became obvious only after she was anesthetized and shaved for surgery. She then went to a foster family where some traumatic event seemed to push her over the edge into terror of human or even cat contact. She mostly hung out compressed into the cat pod on the cat tree. The camera in the room revealed that she emerged at night to eat and use the litter box. She would permit no contact, no cuddles, no play. As I heard her sad story, my maternal instincts overrode warning signals. In addition, the rescuer practically begged me to adopt Sappho. (I had already dropped the name Heidi Klum from consideration.) I have to admit that I was flattered to be so in demand as the savior of this animal. Her rescuer offered to include her bed, transportation to my apartment, a waiver of the adoption fee, and a guarantee to take her back if the cat and I couldn’t work it out. How could I refuse? When Shantih added her approval, the deal was made. Sappho would be delivered to me the following week.
And so she was, crying in a towel covered carrier. I had never heard a cat cry! As soon as the rescuer pulled her out, attempting to hold her gently to console her, Sappho bolted from her arms and disappeared behind the toilet in the nearby bathroom. She was a sadly funny sight because she is a big cat, so both ends of her protruded from the sides of the toilet. When we tried to lure her out or to grab her, she bolted again and again, sheltering behind doors, under the couch, and finally in her hut-like bed that her rescuer brought along. I felt better knowing where she was when her rescuer left, after checking to be sure I had arranged for all Sappho’s needs: food, water, litter all easily accessible. And then there we were, two breathing creatures stranded together in uneasy proximity, I, solipsistic human, hoping for some demonstration of gratitude and she obviously terrified. She did not emerge from whatever hiding place she skittered into for over a month, except to eat or use the litter box. She met both of these needs in as much secret as she could. I learned to go into another room or out for several hours to give her time and privacy. She was active at night, after I went to bed. If I got up, however stealthily, to check on her, she would instantly sense my presence and hide again.
It was during this period that I learned I could be patient, in fact a model of patience. I stroked her while she was in her bed-hut; she accepted passively, never hissing or scratching, just seeming to endure my touch. Sometimes she spent the whole day under my bed. The first outright communication we had was when I decided to close my bedroom door so that she would have only the run of the living room, kitchen, and laundry room where I kept her litter. She was asleep in her bed in the living room when I closed the bedroom door. A while later, I heard a caterwauling cry and turned to see her poised at the bedroom door, pushing at it with her head and shoulders, standing up on her hind legs and thrusting at the door with her front paws. She was so frantic that I immediately opened the door, and she dashed to her spot under the bed. Of course that should have been the first sign that she was taking command of our relationship.
I adopted Sappho in February of last year. Sometime in the spring, when there had been little progress toward contact between human and feline, my granddaughters Hazel (11) and Chloe (9) came to visit. Sappho immediately hid herself behind the laundry room door. I told the girls to ignore her, but they were determined to get a good look. Hazel got down on the floor on her belly and slithered into the laundry room up behind Sappho who was squished into the vee between open door and wall. There she talked and sang to her and actually got to stroke her briefly. That moment was the beginning of the breakthrough. Gradually over the next weeks, Sappho began staying out in the open when I was around, allowing me to get close enough that she could sniff my fingers or allow me to drop a treat close to her. She still acted like a creature suffering from PTSD: whenever anyone visited, she disappeared; when I moved by her too fast, she streaked away to a hiding place. But in fact we spent more time in each other’s company each day.
The taming, for taming it was of both of us, was a slow process during which I learned patience, learned to have no particular expectations, learned to be delighted and grateful when Sappho tolerated a contact, allowed me to pet her briefly or to feed her a treat from my hand. One day, feeling overly confident, I bent down and picked her up. I hadn’t realized how sturdy she was. Or how heavy! I tried holding her to my shoulder as one holds a toddler; she panicked and wriggled loose, leaving a row of puncture marks on my arm where she dug in to gain purchase for her push off my body. To this day, I cannot pick her up. She utters a scream such as I have never heard from a cat, and I drop her immediately. I am not sure she will ever permit me to lift her from ground level.
The next breakthrough also came when the granddaughters visited. Chloe was up on my bed, reading, when Sappho came into the bedroom. Chloe beckoned her, called her to come up on the bed and, mirabile dictu, Sappho sprang up and settled down beside Chloe. Chloe began to pet her and then tried applying the brush Sappho had dramatically rejected many times. Sappho permitted vigorous brushing that resulted in piles of cat hair in the wastebasket, so much that Hazel hand-felted and wove some of it into a bracelet. Since then, progress has been steady. Sappho demands stroking whenever she sees me sitting on the couch or lying on my bed. She has gotten over fear of the brush. And she has decided to sleep with me, a decision that gives me pause because, sadly, she, a mixed breed, is not entirely hypoallergenic. I suffer some sneezing and wheezing on an irregular basis, having something to do, I think, with how frequently the apartment is vacuumed and dusted, if the furnace is blowing air, and if I am not careful about washing my hands. So I use an inhaler and sometimes an antihistamine. I know if a doctor told me to get rid of the cat, I would refuse and seek instead an allergist to prescribe relief. Love is not rational and, as I said, I am in love with my cat.
I am too much a creature of the mind not to interrogate this new, unusual condition of infatuation with a cat, however beautiful and soft she is. I have read about animals relieving loneliness and giving purpose to older people. Now I believe that it’s true. In the morning, Sappho jumps down from our shared bed and rubs around my ankles and feet as I rise. She follows me everywhere, hunkering down to wait patiently as I complete whatever task I am about. Remember when your kids hung around in the bathroom while you were putting on your makeup or shaving? The other day I was involved with my bathroom mirror and some eyebrow pencil when I had the feeling of being watched. I glanced over my shoulder to see Sappho folded up over her legs, gazing at me intently, her body just over the bathroom threshold. I felt strangely gratified by her attention. At night, when I wake up for one old-age reason or another, my arm reaches out in the dark to seek her furry self, asleep on the pillow next to me.
We have our separate sides of the bed, hers covered with an easily washable beach towel. She knows not to cross on to my side, and I guess we know that I respect her space as well. I usually watch a film at night or read on the couch. If it gets later than our usual bedtime, she appears by the couch, meowing loudly, a stereotypical “meow,” until I get up, turn off the lights, and get ready for bed. She watches and waits and then springs up onto the bed, stretches out to be stroked or brushed. If I am too slow to respond, she head-butts me aggressively until I give in to her demands.
After she thinks I am asleep, she heads back to the living for a noisy session of play with the only plaything out of many expensive choices she enjoys –one of those circular plastic things with a scratch pad in the center and a ball trapped in a trough. She bats the ball, attacks the ball, and runs back and forth at the ball with great enthusiasm. She has no interest in laser light spots or stuffed animals or the new pricey marshmallow bed that the ads claim will seduce any cat into sleep. Occasionally she sits in the window to watch the trains come and go from the nearby platform. Dangle one of those wands with feathers at the end, however, and she regards it with disdain before stalking away, insulted by the offer of such an obviously inferior plaything.
So what is, you and I ask, so enthralling about this beautiful creature? I think there is a connection that goes beyond the language-driven relationships we have with fellow humans. The first analogy that occurs to me is that of a parent with an infant. The contact is wordless and tactile; they need us to care for them. We are conditioned to see them as ours, to want to care for and protect them. They are vulnerable to us. All of that is true for Sappho and me, I guess. But she actually demands very little of me. I feed her; I keep her litter clean. I pet her and brush her and share space with her on her terms. She will not, for example, be picked up or sit on my lap.
We are two breathing creatures, at different places on the hierarchical chain of being, but both animate and mortal. (I have already made arrangements for her care after my death; she is a young cat and I am soon 80 years old.) My cultural training accepts the idea of species hierarchy so I have never considered animals on a par with humans. We are thinking creatures with language at our command after all. Cats are all instinct with few ways to communicate their ideas or dreams. The fact of shared mortality makes us companions, of course, but she will never write a poem about death or the dangers of illness and pain. Cogito ergo sum, I remind myself. Then I came across this poem by Marge Piercy.
The Cat’s Song
Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing
milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.
Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.
You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?
Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
walking round and round your bed and into your face.
Come I will teach you to dance as naturally
as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word
of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg
and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass
Simplistic? Perhaps, but animal lovers who accuse us of “speciesism” have advocates as illustrious in academic circles as philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton. Singer published Animal Liberation in 1975, a book that has influenced the animal liberation movement. In it Singer argues that “the greatest good of the greatest number” is the only measure of good or ethical behavior. Singer also contends that the boundary between human and “animal” is arbitrary.
Skeptical? Consider this: There are far more differences between a great ape and an oyster, for example, than between a human and a great ape, and yet the former two are lumped together as “animals,” whereas we are considered “human” in a way that supposedly differentiates us from all other “animals.” Singer popularized the term “speciesism,” which had been coined by English writer Richard D. Ryder to describe the practice of privileging humans over other animals. Singer argues for the equal consideration of interests of all sentient beings. In Animal Liberation, Singer also argues in favor of veganism and against animal experimentation.
Piercy’s poem suggests we have much to learn from our cats who are, in many abilities, superior to us. I don’t think I am ready to assert total equality of species, and I will never become a vegan, although I admire the stance of some of that ilk. I do think that many of the crises we face on the planet, including the danger of extinction of species (though surely not our prolifically fertile cats!) result from the assumption that humans “own” all of creation, that God put all of its riches there for us to exploit. More ethically responsible thinkers such as Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg would put it differently. The bounty of the earth is entrusted to us or, more radically, we are but one of many species living on the planet and we should honor others no less carefully than we care for our own kind. (Of course, we don’t do a very good job of caring for those of our own kind whom we view as “other,” do we?)
When I look at Sappho, I feel a swelling of some emotion beyond sentimentality. I could call it love, but that’s not it exactly, unless it is a generalized love of that which is alive, vigorous, and lovely. Perhaps I identify with her life as similar in its needs and impulses to my own. Then there is the daily feeling of awe as I watch Sappho move about a room. Cats bear a strong resemblance to their larger ancestors, tigers particularly. Watching a cat move, stalk a rolling ball, leap from one surface to another with a fearsome grace calls up images of jungle cats or those we have seen in zoos. Sappho will bare her fangs and hiss menacingly if someone approaches her fast, head on. Then she really looks impressively fierce and wild. Later, when she rolls around on the rug, revealing her soft undefended belly, she becomes a playful, harmless kitty again. She is so well designed and assembled, all her small bones and strong muscles, the sheen of her back hair and the fluffiness of the ruff round her neck, that one delights in the anatomical perfection of the design. I am moved here to think of William Blake’s “fearful symmetry.”
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
What indeed? Despite my agnosticism, my rejection of the creator god in favor of evolutionary theory, there are moments that startle me into something akin to gratitude and awe and often terror for all creatures in this created or evolved and much endangered world. Robert Frost’s poem Design limns the dark indifferent side of “death and blight” that remains part of mortality’s inheritance.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
Sometimes when I am caressing Sappho with fingers fluffing the ruff around her neck, I feel the smallness of her skull, the frailty of her neck, and I think how easily I could snuff her out like a candle. The thought scares me, of course, that I should permit it entry into consciousness. I remember once on the hot balcony of the garden apartment to which we brought our first child home, trying to nurse him in the sweltering humidity, he fussing and cranky, I exhausted. I remember having a fleeting thought/desire/impulse to hurl him over the railing. Shocked, I retreated inside and tried to dismiss any remnants of that brief impulse. Now I remember it as I fondle Sappho’s small perfect head, aware that I could crush it in my fist.
I think of the “witches’ broth” to which Frost refers. I think of what Blake was saying about the creator god he worshipped, about the terrifying-ness of created symmetry and beauty. If nature is, as Tennyson said, “red in tooth and claw,”* it’s wise to recognize that humans are as “natural” as animals, our natures both cruel and kind. I don’t know what I conclude beyond the fact that I know Sappho and I are connected in some perhaps spiritual relationship. Martin Buber spoke of the I-thou versus the I-It of relationships, dancing around the connection with the divine. Maybe I am trying to assert an I-thou relationship with a cat! I know, I know. So many scornful, logical arguments against such a link. I am not arguing it, however, merely allowing these voices to speak in my head about my unsentimental….yes, love – for Sappho-Simona, a gorgeous cat who has been commended into my care.
I am sure some of my readers are thinking I have gone soft in the head. My readers usually expect either existential melancholia regarding mortality or irate indignation at the utter inanity of our political leaders. This hymn to the call of the animal world may be an interrogation of our faith in the superiority of the human animal, the age of reason, and the Enlightenment with its deistic faith in the perfectibility of man and the social contracts he creates. (Please note that I choose to leave unamended by inclusive pronoun-ing or added noun the “he” and “man.”) Here I am attempting to consider a more animistic philosophy in which gods can be found in creatures (and trees and rocks and waters) we have evolved to consider ours to despoil, hunt, kill, eat and control. Maybe I am channeling Emerson and Whitman, delighting in Nature with a capital N. Maybe I am trying self protectively to retrain my brain to replace images of McConnell, Graham, and all the Trumps with this living manifestation of the creator’s good taste, my singularly lovely and innocent cat, Sappho-Simona.
*The Tennyson poems from which these lines are excerpted is In Memoriam A.H.H.
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed