Me, cats again, more cats

I saw something when I was a girl that disturbed me greatly. I was in our front yard, on my way to a neighbor’s house, looking for a good time, a game of Rummy or Cootie or Uncle Wiggily. I stopped to wait for a car to pass. Meanwhile, across the street, a dog was chasing a cat. I hadn’t seen the dog before, but it was a beautiful white and brown Pointer. When I was a child, dog breeds for a hundred was my jeopardy category.

 

The chase was on, full speed, much barking, considerable commotion. The cat ran alongside the road for a minute or so. Then it turned, streaked my way, the dog close behind. The cat got faster. The car hit and killed the dog.

 

I went crying to my mother. When my father got home that night, I told him what I’d seen, my clear and terrible sense that the cat had planned it just the way it happened. He asked me why I thought that. The cat had run alongside the road first, I said, and only crossed when the car was close. The cat had stopped running the minute the car hit the dog. It had come into our yard, sat unconcernedly on our sidewalk, cleaning its face with its paw. It looked at me afterwards, I said. It gave me a look.

 

My case was not a strong one. Dad attacked at my weakest point: the look. A cat can look at a king. Doesn’t mean it knows he’s royalty.

 

My father and I had a long-running argument on the subject of animals and their brains. I grew up surrounded by cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, turtles, rats and a snake named Melpotamus Jones. I believed, based on my own observations, that some of these animals, the dogs and cats, at least, could think.

 

My father was a behavioral psychologist. (Another child might have realized that this was his area of expertise and she was just a six-year-old, seven-year-old, eight-year-old child, but that’s not the kind of child I was.) He believed animals acted in response to changes in their environment. Through conditioning and reinforcement, he believed animals could learn. But he did not believe they could think. Or at least he felt it was a hypothesis not proven, which was his way of not believing. He was always cautioning me against the sins of anthropomorphism.

 

But it now seems to me that the refusal to anthropomorphize is not the value-neutral stance that it appears to be. You can demand that something be proved or you can demand that it be disproved; either choice has implications.

 

Weeks later I saw that same cat behave in that same way. On this occasion, its timing was off – the car braked; the dog, a mix of various Terriers, made it safely across the street. They were both still running when I last saw them.

Me, Cats, Tunch in particular

I spent the morning thinking about cats.  Cats in general, cats in particular, my life as a series of cats.  In chronological order, here they are, my personal cats:  Whiskers, Pepper, Salt, Chimera, Max (short for Maximum Cat), and Ollie.  Also many kittens, who came into my life briefly and went when they were weaned and whose names I no longer remember.

 

When I was a girl in Bloomington, I remember witnessing the delivery of two of Pepper’s three litters.  The first time, she had two kittens, but only one of them was alive despite her desperate licking.  She had three, all fit and kicking, in her second litter, five in her third, and then my parents, who could see the trend, finally had her spayed – over my protests, I imagine, but do not remember.  I loved having kittens underfoot and we never had any trouble finding homes for them.  Perhaps taking in a cat seemed like less of a commitment then, when they all spent most of their time outdoors, entertaining themselves in nefarious cat ways.  Pepper often didn’t come home for days and she was always in fine fettle when she did return from her merry old time.

 

(I am a big proponent now of the spaying of cats, having watched from the front row as my friend Debbie, cat rescuer extraordinaire, all around cat hero, dealt year after year with the inexhaustible flood of kittens.)

 

Our house is catless at the moment, which means birds and squirrels are free to frolic at the feeder, which I like, though the neighborhood cats – one white, one black – are beginning to show up with some regularity.  My vegetable beds are apparently ideal as litter boxes (why are they called litter boxes when they are not for litters?) – so we are engaged in permanent, but friendly disputation concerning them.

 

But the cat most on my mind this morning never lived with us.  In fact, over the last several years, I’d grown attached to a cat I never met – Tunch, the guiding spirit, the enormous heart of the political blog Balloon Juice. www.balloon-juice.com

 

I was so deep in travel and book promotion last summer that I spent little time on the internet, which had its own rewards, all that time spent in the actual world, but caused enormous shock when I learned, long after the fact, that Tunch had died untimely.  He was, as John Cole continually reminded us, a very large, very fat cat, but he cast a truly gigantic shadow, reaching all the way to me here in California.  I woke up this morning and realized I was missing Tunch, which seems a very odd fact, one odd data point in the virtual world of my virtual cats.