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July 5-12, 2006

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Other people's cats

Other People's Cats

Our correspondent reveals a way to enjoy felines' companionship--their ogre-melting charm, seismographic sensitivity, breathtaking athleticism and sometimes-astonishing intelligence--without letting them bite into your wallet

By Art O'Sullivan

John Lennon called it right: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." On a quiet spring evening in 1999, I sat writing at a table behind the slightly open door in my new home. The outer screen door was shut tight; the night was very still, with no hint of a breeze. Suddenly the inner door screeched open, seemingly on its own initiative. Startled, I wondered briefly if the place might be haunted. But then a striped gray baseball-size head with golden eyes, pointed ears and whiskers peered around the door, just above the knob, and a sweet, high-pitched voice addressed me.


The sound ended on a high note--definitely a question. I was relieved and delighted.

"Hi! Come on in!"

I didn't have to tell him twice--or ever again, for that matter.

The cat pulled himself through the small pre-existing hole at the waist-level lower corner of the screen. I had only been vaguely aware of this minor defect in my new residence, but he had already discovered its utility.

Cats are typically beautiful, but this one was a knockout. He was a tabby with markings like a Native American design on his lean, muscular flanks that rippled as he sauntered around my place, checking it out for the first time. Since I'd been living there for a couple of months and had never seen this particular cat before, I suspected (correctly) that he had just moved into the area and was on a mission of discovery.

He jumped up on my lap. His fur was velvet and he smelled like cologne. As I stroked his head and neck, he stared straight into my eyes.

I read his collar. "Sparky. Is that your name?"

He didn't deny it.

The intensity of our eye contact--his were bright and playful--confirmed an instant understanding between us: We're going to be good friends.

Then he was bounding off my lap and heading for the exit. I opened the screen door so he could depart more conventionally than he'd arrived. But that narrow breach in the screen corner through which he'd made his entrance was destined to widen.

Much as I like cats, I've never been able to pluck one from a litter and remove it from its natural family--let alone rescue one from kitty death row and walk away from all the others whose lives still hang in the balance. Then there are the financial, time, space and emotional commitments that have always argued against my taking long-term responsibility for another living being. This policy has never kept me from appreciating felines that live with friends or tolerant neighbors, but it does give some of these relationships a month-to-month quality.

A couple of weeks later, I met the couple who'd just moved in three doors down.

"You're Sparky's parents, aren't you?" I asked.

"Yes," they beamed.

"Well, he comes over a lot."

Their smiles faded, and there was an uncomfortable silence--until I added, "I hope that's OK."

As soon as they realized that I--unlike some of their former neighbors--was not registering a complaint against their pet, they said his visiting was fine with them if it was all right with me. At a previous address, his habit of walking through any open door had bothered neighbors with cat food or small animals he might regard as cat food.

This environment was better suited for him. Our homes belonged to a complex with a large central yard surrounded by trees, bushes and fences--a safe space for multiple feline residents. Sparky's human dad dubbed the spread "Cat Central."

About four years earlier, the couple had rescued a kitten after a mother abandoned an entire litter to starvation. Sparky's foster parents bottle-fed him in their hands, and he was clearly the beneficiary of tender loving care--brimming with pride and confidence.

But soon, after his people took in a second cat, who was traumatized, edgy and dominant, my tabby friend stayed away from home a lot between meals, taking regular refuge at my place. I gave him water and left a scratching pad inside the door so he'd stop sharpening his claws on my vinyl record collection. (He liked the B's.)

Over the next couple of years, Sparky never ceased to amaze me.

He'd get that Joe Montana look in his eyes--the fiery gleam that says, "Nothing will get in my way"--as he performed breathtaking leaps with obsessive determination. Like one in a trance, he'd tune me out completely as he grabbed hold of a tree, clamored up and jumped to the roof.

I watched him bound from my floor to the dining table to the top of the refrigerator, then prepare to leap to the highest kitchen shelf, which was already packed full and obviously had no space for him to land safely without spilling something, so I told him this. Ignoring my advice, he focused, aimed, then shot upward across five feet of air, sliding home on the top shelf, amid the pots and plastic containers--which rattled and shifted but did not fall. The cat sat among them, serenely staring down at me. He was right; I was wrong.

But when I saw Sparky poised on the bathroom sink, eyeing the highest of three shelves in an adjacent closet, I got worried. The top two shelves were made of posterboard, none too securely attached, and already full of my stuff. Sparky got that trippy look in his eyes as he sat on his hind legs and began priming his front paws for the leap. I stood facing the cat, hands on hips, and frowned seriously: "I don't want you jumping up there."

Almost before I'd finished speaking, the tabby launched off with his hind legs, spring-boarded on my shoulder and was headed for that shaky top shelf when I grabbed him. Laughing hard, I carried the disoriented creature back to the living room, returned to my work and forgot about the incident. Moments later, a tremendous crash from the direction of the bathroom announced that Sparky had brought the posterboard shelves down onto the sturdier bottom shelf, where he now stood. He was fine--my precious stuff was scattered. I think that was the first time I ever invited that cat to leave.

I ejected Sparky on a few other occasions, but whenever he came back, it was difficult not to admit him. Once, when I refused to get out of bed to open the door at 3am, and again at 4am, he rousted me by shredding my kitchen screen--causing a huge metallic racket. I swore at him, slammed the window, and he fled. We were both angry, but quickly forgave each other.

So he would scratch at my door at all hours and I usually let him in. Sometimes he'd settle on the couch or a chair--his preferences varied. On winter nights, he'd come padding along my bed in the darkness, or even walk on my chest, and finally curl up behind my knees. Early on cold mornings, Sparky would lie between me and the heater, with his head on my pillow, his nose touching mine, his right front paw on my neck, and my left hand holding him. Then he'd yawn, arch his back and head for the door and home--breakfast time. This was my neighbor's pet, but we clearly belonged to each other too.

Little cats are both predators and prey. To avoid attacks by larger animals, they seek shelter--at my house, for instance. But they also have their natural hunting inclinations--never my favorite trait.

One evening in January 2001, Sparky proudly trotted into my place with a dead mouse in his mouth. He must have brought it to show off, but this was unexpected and unwelcome. I was horrified and yelled at him.

"Get that out of here!"

He didn't leave right away, but took his prize on the quick tour of my place before carrying it outside. From across the yard in the twilight, I watched him picking at his catch, then left on an errand.

When I got home, there on my doorstep lay what had to be the innards of the dead mouse. Disgusted, I scooped the parts into a bag, tossed it in the trash and shuddered.

A little while later, when I heard Sparky scratching at the door, I did not let him. He pleaded, but I told him to go away. By now I was wondering whether I could stay friends with an animal who behaved like this.

Then a thought struck me: His meowing at the door had sounded perplexed--why wouldn't I let him in? Since I had just watched him eating his catch; maybe he'd thought I wanted some. He might have left mouse pieces at my door as a gift. For verification, I called my animal-advocate friend Betsy and tried out my theory.

"Yes," she assured me, this feline was definitely paying me a major compliment by sharing his prey--he gave me the giblets. Oops.

Then Sparky was scratching again, and I welcomed him.

That night, while working at my desk, I gazed over at the creature stretched out on the bed, lying on his side with all four paws reaching toward the heater. He still looked beautiful, but not exactly cute anymore. Because now I realized that --although he was resolutely playful--this was not a big kitten. No, this was a grown-up cat with a part-time job catching mice, and he'd just bought me dinner out of his paycheck.

Soon after that, in February 2001, Sparky's people moved away and took him--leaving a large hole my heart. Evidently, I was not the only one who missed him. So did Sidney.

Sid showed up in July 1999, a couple of months after Sparky's family arrived, and one month after my new next-door neighbor, Tatiana, moved to Santa Cruz to attend the university.

As I walked home one afternoon, I was drawn to the sound of a notably small reddish-brown cat with pale green eyes, staring out Tatiana's window and pleading for my help.

"Meow! Meow!" he insisted. As in "Let me-owt!"

I couldn't help him at that moment, but maybe he already understood something I didn't realize yet.

hen Tatiana went to the SPCA to pick out a cat, Sidney was not her first choice; she had her eye on a female in the cage above his. "But Sidney just kept meowing and meowing and meowing and meowing," so she finally picked him. When he bit the woman who took him out of the cage, hissed and hid under a chair, Tatiana wondered if she'd made a mistake.

However, after she let him loose in her place, he sat on the couch and undertook a major grooming effort, indicating that his new home was fine with him. Estimated at 2 or 3 years old, he already responded to the name Sidney. In those days, the SPCA had the county contract to relocate or kill homeless animals, and space was limited, so by getting Sid out of there Tatiana saved his life. But that was just the beginning. For a while, Sid sometimes sprayed the place to mark his turf, and Tatiana wondered whether she could stand to keep this cat. But she stuck it out, and eventually his spraying behavior ceased.

Soon, more of Sidney's past came to light.

Tatiana recalls: "About a month or so after he come to live with me, two friends of mine came over and clearly recognized him as the cat that they themselves had taken to the SPCA" some months before. "They said that he had been abandoned by previous owners in the house they lived in, and that they had many housemates and a high turn-over rate--typical Santa Cruz student house, really. No one was caring for him or feeding him, no one wanted the responsibility, and my friend who ended up taking him in [to the SPCA] was incredibly allergic to cats."

And, apparently, vice versa: When those friends came visiting, Sid stayed far away from the house and looked suspiciously toward his guardian, as if to say: "What are they doing here?"

Sidney never talked about his former life, but he bore the emotional scars. The littlest adult kitty around, he typically greeted other full-grown cats with hostility until he had reason to feel safe with them. Sidney was understandably wary of humans. At first, he would approach me, then run away when I tried to pet him, though gradually he relaxed.

He lived next door, but Sidney also occupied the welcome mat in front of my place. He intimidated Sparky, so I had to pick up the tabby and carry him into my place and prevent Sidney from following. But soon the two cats' people urged them to become friends, and so they did.

Sparky was more athletic. Once, when Sidney followed him up a tree to the roof, Sid got scared and had to stay up there over night until another neighbor could climb a ladder and carry him down. I wished I'd been there to help rescue him--heck, I liked the little guy.

In the summer of 2000, I was surprised and honored when Tatiana asked me to help take care of Sid for seven weeks while she was out of the country. But I agreed to share those duties only on condition she line up several other neighbors to take turns. On the evening of the sixth day of her absence, my official cat-sitting shift was ending. This had already had been the longest time Sid and Tati had been apart since she got him a year earlier, and Sidney was a nervous wreck. After I'd fed him at his place, he was sitting on the right side of his favorite wicker chair. I sat carefully on the left end of the same chair--an invitation to him, but no pressure. Sid approached, laid his head and one paw on my knee and fell asleep. After that, I told the other neighbors: Thanks, but never mind--I would take care of the cat until his guardian returned.

From then on, Sidney and I got along fine.

Winter 2000, with the return of cold weather and Sparky still camping on my couch, Sid used to yowl at my window. Tatiana authorized me to let Sidney hang out at my place, as well as continue to let him into her home to eat, when she was out or away.

So by now I had two cat friends, neither of them technically mine. Some nights, Sparky would be dozing on my couch when Sidney showed up, or vice versa. The new arrival might look surprised to see the other already there, but then shrug and pick his own spot. I found myself playing host to two different neighbors' cats, whom I did not feed, but who could frequently be found dozing peacefully in opposing corners of my couch.

    At some point, my cat friends inspired me to compose a haiku:
    Curled up on the bed
    Dreams of tigers fill his head
    Never change those stripes

Late one Saturday night, I heard a familiar scratching. When I opened the door, Sparky brushed past me as expected, but this time Sidney came meowing right on his heels--as though they'd been cruising the 'hood together and saw my light on. When both cats showed up together, I felt like asking, "You guys want a beer?" I did serve them water and possibly catnip. All right, I got them stoned. Party on, cats.

But that same winter, Sparky's family moved away with him, and the party seemed to be over.

"I think Sidney misses Sparky," Tatiana observed, as Sid sat on the doormat alone and stared out into the big empty yard. That made two of us.

With my tabby companion gone, I began to pay more attention to Sidney. His guardian said he had an inferiority complex, but he was clearly also a proud little kitty--and smart. Having been abandoned twice, jailed and nearly destroyed, Sidney's fortunes had turned: He now had two people who really cared about him, and he made the most of it.

Sidney's delicate green eyes shined with studied innocence, he purred like a pro and my home was part of his home. But he was definitely Tatiana's cat. Amazingly intuitive, he would frequently leave my place to go and wait for her at the end of the driveway about five minutes before she got home. We wondered: How did he know? It remained a mystery.

One thing Sidney had in common with Sparky, typical of their species: After I let him in the first time, he always felt entitled to admission. He had his own way of getting my attention and, for the longest time, I could not figure out what he was doing. Some nights, especially when I was playing music louder than the average meow, a mysterious thumping would start up right outside my door. By the time I'd unlocked the door, the thumping had ceased and Sidney would be sitting placidly on the walkway, eyes wide like a child's, as he accepted my invitation to come in. Finally, there came the night when the thumping started and my door happened to be unlocked already. I swung it open fast, and could hardly believe what I saw: Sidney was standing up on his hind legs on top the screen door. With his front paws holding onto the TV cable above, he was steering the screen door with his hind legs, swinging it back and forth so it kept slamming the doorstop (a medium-sized rock). Using the cable for balance, Sid was working the door like a surfboard, and crashing door against rock with a vengeance. The light wooden door frame maximized the noise of the collisions: "Bam! Boom! Bam! Boom!"

I'm sure Sidney didn't intend to get found out, but when confronted, his eyes gleamed triumphantly down at me: "A-ha! Got your attention!" But caught is still caught. He jumped down from the screen door to the fire extinguisher box on the wall and hit the ground running--disappearing into the darkness and leaving my jaw hanging in astonishment.

Somebody alert the scientists: Cats use tools.

Early in 2004, when Tatiana was finishing graduate school and preparing to take a job over the hill, she asked me whether I would consider keeping Sidney permanently if she could not find another good home for the two of them together. It only took me a couple of seconds to say yes. (I knew in my heart that I would have taken Sparky if his folks had ever asked me.) But eventually Tatiana found a house with a decent yard and ended up taking Sid with her--over his loud objections.

After she moved away, Tatiana and I kept in touch. She reported that Sidney was not getting along well sharing space with her housemates' two cats. In December '04, when she was leaving for a three-week vacation, I suggested that instead of boarding Sid at some impersonal kennel, why not bring him over here to visit? She agreed, and although Sidney was initially freaked out by the abrupt change of scene, he quickly reconnected with his old neighborhood. Over the holidays, it mostly rained and Sid slept in a chair beneath an overhang just outside my door, evidently digging it. When Tatiana returned to retrieve him, he resisted and hid under my bed--though it was futile.

Sid's behavior indicated a love for his old neighborhood in Santa Cruz. But Tatiana felt that she ought to follow through on the long-term commitment she'd made when she adopted him. This cat had already been passed around plenty, and she did not want that to happen to him any more.

Still, our short-term boarding arrangement seemed to work well.

The following August, I received an urgent email from Tatiana: "Sid needs a bit of help." She'd just returned from Europe and wanted to bring him over for a few weeks while she was in the process of moving again. While she'd been overseas, her housemates had rented out her room to a person with a BIG DOG. Sidney had gone into hiding in the garage and not eaten for a week. Tatiana finally coaxed him out, then jammed him into the hated crate to bring him here. She called me from Highway 17, and over the phone I could hear Sidney yowling loudly nonstop--as though he feared the worst was yet to come.

When they got to my place, she released him and he shot from the crate. Looking extremely skinny and screaming his pent-up displeasure, Sid ran outside and disappeared in the bushes. After a while, he reappeared, and we met him in the yard. Tatiana stood over Sidney, who was rolling around on the dry grass in front of her and purring.

Her voice full of emotion, she said, "He's thanking me for bringing him here!"

I called out to the cat. "Sidney!"

Sid meowed, came running over and let me stroke his head.

About then I heard myself say, "If you want ... I'll still take him."

I half-expected a flat-out "no," but Tatiana answered cautiously: "We'll see how it goes."

She wasn't the only one hesitating. Once I realized that adopting Sidney was a possibility, my old anxieties about taking responsibility for another life paid me another visit: What if Sid got sick? What if he needed surgery? What if he vanished?

Then a new worry sank in: I'd made the offer to adopt him, but what if it didn't happen? How many times could I stand to see this cat taken away from me?

That was last summer.

Here it is, springtime again, and as I finish writing this, Sid's sitting on my futon, watching me type. When I reach out, he comes over, extends his head and lets me rub his chin. When I get up, he will pre-empt my chair.

Sidney and I are roommates now. I cover his expenses and brush him. We're in it for the long haul. So Sidney can spend all his evenings doing whatever he does out in the 'hood, and his days napping undisturbed in the big yard--just the way he planned it.

To adopt a cat, contact: Santa Cruz SPCA 831.465.5000. The Santa Cruz County Animal Services Authority (a.k.a. the pound): Scotts Valley 831.454.7303; Watsonville 831.728.6078. Project Purr is a feral cat and kitten rescue organization, not a shelter or adoption agency, but sometimes has felines available for adoption: 831.423.6369 (423-MEOW). Art O'Sullivan's previous Metro Santa Cruz essays received an award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association last year. He is also host of 'The Golden Road' program, which features Grateful Dead for nonbelievers, Wednesdays from 3 to 6pm on KZSC-FM (88.1) Santa Cruz.

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