Preview of Coming Attractions

Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit http://www.thecatbehaviorist.com/ . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Indiana State Prison, Michigan City, Indiana: A Better Place for Everyone

Cats started the Indiana State Prison cat program. One by one, over the years, they arrived, entering the prison through the bars of the North Gate, depositing litters of kittens into the eager arms and hearts of the inmates there.

Indiana State Prison is a men’s maximum security prison. Before coming here, I had mentioned my impending visit in various conversations. Concerned cat lovers had fretted over the fate of cats confined with such a rough crowd. 70% of the offenders incarcerated at Indiana State Prison are there for murder.

However, during my interviews, I found that whatever the complexities of their relationships with other people, most of the offenders in the cat program have always been animal lovers. And their devotion to their cats goes beyond providing these felines with security. These men adore their cats. Again and again, they affirmed that the cats had changed their lives, calming their anger, offering them love and teaching them about the joys and sacrifices of responsibility.

“When I arrived here, I had nothing to lose.” Explains ‘Bear’. “When you have nothing to lose—you can get yourself into a lot of trouble. When I got my first cat, it changed me. There is something about holding a cat that makes your anger melt away. And if someone does something that upsets me—I have to remember my cat. I can’t keep my cat if I get into trouble.” He smiles wryly, reaching for little Ziggy. Bear’s last cat died recently from a pulmonary disorder. Bear was devastated, as were the other men on his floor. Because the cat died of natural causes, he was able to get a new kitten. Ziggy was sourced through a local animal shelter that works with the prison.

He and his cellmate, Tom (who also has a cat, Booger) had to ‘kitten-proof’ their cell. They took down the cat tree that they had constructed for Booger and the previous cat, concerned that the very energetic and inquisitive kitten might injure himself on it. They also built a makeshift ‘cage’ for Ziggy to keep him safe when Tom and Bear have to be away from the cell.

According to the rules, all the cats are supposed to be leased at all times, but the guards and administration are very lax about these regulations, observing closely and using their discretion in individual cases, always with an eye toward the safety of the cat.

The gorgeous, fluffly Milo tends to stay in Mark Booher’s cell. Though the cat’s outgoing, sociable personality draws many visitors to his cell. The showers are immediately adjacent to Mr. Booher’s cell and Milo will pad over to stay close to his person. “A while back, I had a court date so I was gone for 10 days. The last thing I did before leaving was to shower. Milo followed along. When I got back, everyone told me that whenever he heard the showers turned on, Milo would hop over to see if it was me. It was nice to know that he was missing me.” Mr. Booher continues, “I was really lucky to get a cat like Milo. He has softened me. In a place like this, you have to keep your front up all the time, but not with Milo.”

Mark’s mother has always been a cat lover. Being able to swap cat anecdotes helps him stay close to her. “If it wasn’t for Milo, there wouldn’t be much to talk about.” He gestures out at the prison. “The cat program is the best thing happening here. It gives my life a purpose.”

James Stone got his first cat ‘Jinx’ years ago, well before the prison formalized the cat program. An inmate in his building had found a cat in the yard and brought it to his cell. “James, something is wrong with this cat.” The inmate called on him because James had a reputation for caring about animals.- Examining the cat, James assured him that the cat was fine—just in labor. Both men attended the birth. As the kittens matured, the other man sold these highly prized companions to other offenders for hundreds of dollars. But the runt of the litter was twitchy, with a crooked tail, poor balance and patches of fur missing. “He was real pathetic and nobody wanted that kitten. The guy was asking $300 cash, then a week later he dropped the price to $200, then $100—then $50 in kit. Finally, he just wanted to get rid of it. I was afraid he might kill it, so I took it.” Like the tale of the Ugly Duckling, ‘Jinx’ grew to be the most handsome and popular cat of the litter. “Even Major Cabanaw loved him. I’d come back to my cell and the guys would tell me,’The Major was here, hanging out in your cell with Jinx.’”

Indeed, Major Cabanaw has a photo of James Stone and Jinx on the bulletin board in his office. “I am 100% in favor of the cat program.” He proclaims proudly. “I don’t know of any other corrections facility that has a program like this—but I would recommend it for all prisons. The bottom line—it gives the offenders a reason to behave. It changes them. I’ve got guys in here who caused all kinds of problems—then they got a cat and thats it—they settle down and haven't caused any trouble since.”

A Major is the highest ranking corrections officer in the system. Indiana State Prison is only supposed to have one major overseeing the internal workings of the prison. My guide for the day, Vince Morton, is also a Major, but he was promoted to an administrative position overseeing prisoner grievances and other special programs (like the cat program.)

I asked if Major Cabanaw had concerns for the safety of the cats. “Of course, we always want to ensure the safety of the cats, and the staff is great about keeping an eye out for them. But mostly, it’s the offenders keeping them safe. I have never once seen an offender kill his own cat. We screen them to be sure they have no history of animal abuse. But I’ll tell you this, there was a guy killed in here because he had spit soda pop onto someone else’s cat.”


Kris St. Martin, a corrections officer, tells me, “There was a guy here whose cat was killed a couple of years ago. The guys on the floor put out a contract on that cat killer. No one was ever able to figure out who had done it, but if they had, well, as I said, there was a contract on him…Mostly these guys are really protective of the cats and they all benefit from their presence. A cat will visit with the offenders in their neighboring cells, and it means a lot to all of them. Occasionally, we get someone who has issues with casts, so we move them out to another building.”

When I visited, James Stone was providing a bit of ‘kitty day-care’ for another offender's cat, while he looked after his own cat. “Yeah, I take care of this guy’s cat while he’s at work.” James smiles proudly. This seems to be a fairly common practice among the cat program participants.

Jinx passed away from natural causes. The local shelter helped James find a cat that look a lot like Jinx. “ ‘Jinxster’ has the white paws, which Jinx didn’t have, and his personality is different, but he is still a great cat.”

Jinxster walked right up to me and offered a friendly overture as James continued to speak. “I have a temper. One time some things happened and I was feeling pretty serious about doing something. I was ready to do something. But Raol put Jinxster in my arms, and I just held him until I didn’t need to do something anymore.”

Slightly sheepish, he claims, “During my first 15 years here, I was trouble. I was out there in the yard, just making trouble.” Vince Morton and Kris St. Martin nod their heads knowingly, they both knew him before his first cat. “But Jinx changed all that. I’m a different person now.”

He shows me the marvelous cat house he built for his cats from scrap lumber and other odds and ends. I am amazed at how intuitively these men have responded to their cats needs. All of them have responded to the cats desire for height by constructing shelves for the cats.

“They certainly are innovative and resourceful.” Vince Morton affirms. Cat toys made from found pigeon feathers, boxes, string, scraps of carpet and fabric retrieved from dumpsters. A faux lambs wool paint roller makes a terrific cat toy.

The Assistant Superindent of the prison tells me, “I know there are people out there who think the offenders shouldn’t have cats. Some people don’t want them to have TV or anything to do. But I would support this cat program at any prison. Those cats humanize the men. The cats give them unconditional love, for many of those guys, that may be the only love they have ever experienced in their lives. And the bottom line for me, is that my staff are safer because of it. Every day that none of my staff gets hurt—that’s a good day. Watching over these guys is a dangerous job. And anything that makes that job safer is good with me.”

The administration and the staff that I spoke with emphatically supported the program. “I’ve been here for over 25 years, and I have seen a lot of offenders transformed by the cats.” Vince Morton is the man who kindly organized my visit and took a morning away from his vacation time to show me around. “This is an important program, I’m glad for an opportunity to tell people about it.”

My last interview was with Michael Overstreet, on death row. The program was only recently opened to Death Row inmates. Mr. Overstreet applied to the program and six weeks later received a darling black kitten, whom his seventeen year old daughter named ‘Athena’.

The cat program is virtually cost free to the prison (and tax-payers!) The program participants are responsible for all the expenses relating to the cat, including food, litter and veterinary bills. They can earn that money through work programs or through financial support from their families. “My grandmother is a real cat person.” Mr. Overstreet explains, “I asked her if she would sponsor my cat and she agreed…This cat has brought me so much happiness and order to my days. I used to sleep all day and be up all night. But now I have responsibilities.” Athena runs around the cell investigating everything, pressing her head through the bars to inquire about me. I was able to enter all of the other prisoner’s cells, but the rules are different on Death Row. No one enters the prisoner’s cells unless the offender is handcuffed, for one thing.

With each interview, I shook hands with the offenders. Vince Morton had advised me, “Most of the staff don’t know the specifics of the crimes these guys have committed. I find that its better not to know. It helps you be fair with them, if you aren’t thinking about what they did—and you absolutely don’t want to bring it up.”

All of our conversations focused on the cats, the logistics of prison litterbox maintenance, the importance of the cat relationship, anecdotes and one cat’s preference for ice water (all the inmates on Milo’s floor keep his water bowl nicely chilled by constantly refreshing his ice—since he has expressed a preference for cold water.)

I hadn’t known what to expect, never having been to a prison before. My entire idea of this world was based on The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Prison Break. I had anticipated mind-games and all sorts of possible unpleasantness. Instead, I found these men to be humble, respectful and profoundly sincere in their humanity and love for their cats.

In spite of the setting and the non-specific knowledge that their presence here was caused by unthinkable actions, I left the prison surprisingly uplifted, being so impressed by the compassion of the staff and the transformational impact of the cats.

When I arrived at my hotel two hours away in Lafayette, Indiana and had unpacked, I sat at my computer to download the photographs I had taken of the prison cats. Curiousity overcame me and I did a google search for ‘Michael Overstreet’.

As soon as I read it, I knew I would not look into the pasts of my other acquaintances.

Mr. Overstreet’s crime is the stuff of every woman’s worst nightmare.

On a deeply spiritual level, I believe in compassion for all beings. I believe in the right to rehabilitation. I believe that the entire universe benefits every time a heart is opened to true love. I believe these convictions so deeply that I believe that no matter how heinous the crime, that as long as the animal is safe, this cat program is good and right, not just as a reward for present good behavior, but because learning to love selflessly—even when the soul learning that love is about to be extinguished—the ability to experience that kind of love lightens the world. It makes the world a better place for everyone.

No studies have been done examining the impact of prison animal programs on recidivism. But Superintendent Buss assured me that the data for prisoner conduct within the facility is conclusive, the cats make the prison a better environment. The whole program is incredibly inspiring regarding the potential for animals to heal humans.

But Vince Morton was right, there are some things that it is better not to know.

Tonight I sit with great discomfort about Michael Overstreet, who loves his little cat Athena, and his four children and the grandmother that is sponsoring his kitten. Michael Overstreet whose hand I shook and with whom I spoke about the vagaries of love.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Nashville, TN: Rehabilitation

Cats have changed me. For as long as I can remember, I was a moody, brooding person with a natural attraction to tragedy and anxiety. But over the past few years, the deepening of my relationship with cats has opened my soul to joy. The love that I share with these graceful light-hearted creatures has allowed me to let go of old grudges and reconcile my relationship with my long estranged father. It has helped me to overcome my crippling fear of flying. I have also observed the calm and gentleness that they evoke in my emotionally turbulent daughter. I have great faith in the rehabilitative power of our relationships with cats.

Over the last two weeks, my marriage has crumbled. I have cried so much that I burst a blood vessel in my eye. During these dark days, I forgot much of what cats have taught me. My own dear cats, cuddly and kind as they are, seemed distant and beyond the breakdown of my family.

Last night, unable to concentrate on my more technical reading, I pulled an untouched book from my cat library. With the first few pages, I was flooded with feline joy. “A Cat Called Canoe” isn’t a work of literary genius. It is sometimes awkward , sometimes overwritten, but it is none the less full of one man’s exhuberant love of his comical, yet strikingly beautiful cat called Canoe.

Every page lifts me up, reminding me of the happiness a feline perspective has brought to my journey. His retelling of Canoe’s antics, his clever cat dialogue (putting English words into Canoe’s mouth) and the combined affections of the author and his wife for their cat all come together to make me laugh and remember all that cats have brought to my life. I am so happy to be reminded.


My Cat Odyssey began as a quest to learn more about cats and those that love them. In wanting to learn more about how to rehabilitate cats, I have discovered the cat's fascinating ability to rehabilitate people. I know that many humans have had similar experiences in their relationships with dogs, horses, dolphins, even elephants, otters and bees.

This is where my cat odyssey—my infinite love and curiousity for cats—starts to expand to an investigation of how animals are able to heal people.

At a prison in British Columbia, the local humane society began an experiment. They created a cat shelter in a nearby men’s prison, allowing the inmates to care for the cats, under the supervision of a qualified volunteer. That volunteer, Maggie, witnessed a transformation in many of the prisoners, as a result of their engagement with cats. Most strikingly of all was a young man named Roger. Roger had served 10 years in a maximum security men’s prison for armed robbery. During that time he had completely shut down. He wore a baseball cap over his eyes, blocking any facial contact. He refused to communicate with anyone. His body posture was tight and defensive. This young man was about to be released from his sentence and the warden was gravely concerned about his ability to function in society. So she recommended that he work in the cat program, hoping a miracle might occur before he was paroled.

Maggie was skeptical about bringing this young man into the program, but Roger surprised everyone. He had an incredible intuition for cats and their needs. He understood how to approach even the most frightened, reclusive cat and comfort it into friendliness.

During his time with the cats, Roger’s body language completely relaxed and he began to speak to the cats. Eventually, he spoke to other people.

By the time he was ready to be paroled, Roger had completely emerged ready to engage with the world—but he had also grown very attached to one of the cats at the shelter.

Maggie agreed to let Roger adopt the cat on the condition that he stayed straight on the outside, with a regular job. She believed that with the love of that cat supporting him, Roger would be able to rejoin society positively.

He checks in with her every month by phone. He is working and maintaining a home for himself and the cat, as well as volunteering at his local animal shelter. And he credits cats for completely transforming his life.

There are several cat programs buried in the corrections system in the United States. Tomorrow, I visit Indiana State Prison to interview 3 ‘offenders’, one on deathrow, all of whom share their cells with cats.

I’ve never visited a prison before and I am nervous. But that is overcome by an intense curiousity to understand what these cats mean to these men and how the cats have affected their lives and the way they look at the world.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A brief intermission

Dear Friends--I am taking the next two weeks off from my blog to deal with family issues--but rest assured, my Cat Odyssey will continue. On May 31, I am spending the morning at the Indiana State Prison, a maximum security men's prison, interviewing the inmates that participate in the prison's cat program. Then I'm off to Wolf Park to learn all about wolves and dogs (to gain some perspective)...There are many, many more adventures to relay over the coming months, so I hope you will check back soon--in the meanwhile, please enjoy all of the material that I have posted over the past several months.

Sincerely,

Diana

P.S.
A quick update: Annie (of the Cajun Cats) has been adopted by a wonderful family. And I called Angel's Gate in New York and they reported that Evangeline is doing very well and has integrated nicely with the Feline Leukemia positive population at the hospice. (I will be visiting her there on June 9.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Key West, Florida: Sacred Cats


“You know about how cows are treated in India?” Gary prefaces—and I do remember my astonishment at Brahmin cows meandering the busy city streets and markets, cows settling down in the midst of intersections in New Dehli, while motorcycles and buses careen around them. “That’s how cats are in Key West. As though we have an unspoken agreement that they are to be treated as sacred. I don’t think there is a cat on the island that goes hungry. Key West is a cat culture.”

As the ‘cat manager’ of the Island City House Hotel, Gary stands among the island’s cat caretakers. Guests seek out the hotel because of its friendly feline reputation. “I saw the cats on your website and its why I decided to stay here.” He is often told.

Though Gary does point out the most of the B&Bs and Inns on the island with a garden setting also feature resident cats. Usually, the cats wander onto the property and decide to stay, basking in the attention of the guests. “Its almost like these tourists are on safari or something, as though there weren’t any domestic cats in New Jersey or Connecticut, the way the guests fawn over the cats.” Gary marvels.

And indeed, in those places, there are few opportunities for such casual yet intimate relations with cats not in your keeping.

Perhaps cats provide the great allure of the Hemingway House. Their polydactyl toes and literary connections creating the cornerstone of the museums reputation, such that the USDA has actually determined the residence to be a zoo, needing all the appropriate permits, inspections and fees. Imagine—a domestic cat zoo!

The house itself is underwhelming, one stop on the long literary journey of Earnest Hemingway, but the appearance of a stretched out ginger tabby across a cordoned off bed once belonging to the master of macho delighted the entire guided tour.

As our group strolled through the gardens, our guide dribbled cat treats from his pockets, leading miniature tigers from the scrubs And the crowd waited eagerly to view a cat drinking from the old urinal that Hemingway had claimed from his old haunt, Sloppy Joe’s, when the bar was moved. His second wife, Pauline, had transformed the embarrassing article by attaching Spanish tiles to the sides and setting an enormous clay urn atop the urinal, creating a fountain, which keeps the cats supplied with fresh running water and our guide assured us that if we were patient enough we might even get to watch a cat stand on its hind legs, resting its front paws high on the vase to drink the fresh water that slides down the sides.

At the Real Key West Gallery on Caroline Street, 2 orange tabbies have taken up residence in the tiny garden that separates the gallery from the street. They routinely entice passersby into the gallery. “Its my job to sell the art, but there is no question that the cats help bring in the buyers.” The curator laughs.

There are even resident cats in the courtyard of the Key Lime Shoppe. What could be more Key West than savoring a slice of Key Lime Pie with an authentic Key West Cat!

I ventured to Mallory Square in keen anticipation of seeing the infamous ‘player’ and cat trainer, Dominick, The Cat Man. Samantha had told me that he has a genuine, loving relationship with his cats—and that they jump through hoops of fire and perform other daring feats.

Disappointment! Dominick is on vacation in his native France and won't return for another week! In his stead, however, around the corner, I stumbled upon Dominick’s alter ego, ‘the cut rate catman’, a bumbling drunk who feeds a raggedy band of friendly ferals every day at sunset.

For a dollar thrown in the tip jar , he may coerce on of the cats to sit on a piece of cardboard and through broken teeth and an unsteady swagger, he’ll crow about his rigorous employment schedule and how he spends three to six hours a day tending these cats in spite of the other compelling demands on his time.

The precise nature of his relationship with these cats isn’t clear, though they do crowd around his feet anticipating supper.

Back at my lodging, The Blue Parrot Inn, which also boasts of resident cats on its website, the delightful Tortie named Truffles greets me on the front porch. She invites me to join her on the white wicker furniture and snuggle as we enjoy the breeze through the lush tropical garden together.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Round Lake Public Library, Illinois: One Handed Typing

For centuries, cats were banished to barns and backyards, rarely invited to the hearth. As our relationship has changed, we have gladly welcomed cats into our homes (and our beds.) But what about bringing them to work? (And I’m not talking about tele-commuting!)

Challenging, to be sure, but the rewards bring humor and humanity into the workplace.

Felines Paige, Turner and MisterE (mystery) were not readily welcomed into the staff rooms of the Round Lake Public library, as the reference librarian put it, “As long as I’m not expected to kiss them, I can pretty much ignore them.”

Another staffer quipped, “I am not a cat person. I am a dog person. I don’t have anything against them, but I would never have a cat in my home.” This said as she rubs and ruffles an enthralled Paige, who purrs and rolls in response to the expert touch.

“I can’t have cats at home, because my kids are allergic, but their allergies are low-level, so they love coming to work with me and having a chance to play with the cats. They wouldn’t have any other opportunity to have that relationship.” Another staffer chimes in.

“Our assistant director loves cats too, but his wife is allergic, so this is where he gets to enjoy cats.” Explains Elizabeth Crane, the library director. "And the rest of us just love them. They give the staff something to discuss, when one of the cats is doing something especially cute, intranet emails will fly around the building alerting the staff not to miss the moment. We swap anecdotes about the cats. And when someone is having a bad day, spending a few minutes with the cats provides private comfort. That’s why their official job is Staff Morale Boosters.”

Across the country, there are cats in public, private and university libraries. A cat’s exquisite silence makes it the perfect resident among rows and rows of quiet books. But not all library directors or their boards agree. Usually the presence of a cat tells you a lot about the library director, who truly decides the cat’s fate.

In some libraries the cats are free to roam the entire building. “We considered letting the cats spend time in the circulation area, we were going to attach a magnetic strip on their collars to trip the sensors if they wandered out or someone tried to take them.” But Elizabeth and her colleagues shared concerns about public complaints and allergies—along with all of the other logistics involved. Ultimately they decided it would be best to keep the cats in the staff rooms, though they do come out to visit for special events.

The first cat, Paige, was found outside the library by the President of the local Friends of the Library organization. Just a tiny kitten, she melted the hearts of the cat loving librarians. “Can we keep her, please?” They implored their new director (Elizabetth had only been on the job for two days!) Friends of the Library offered to cover all the food, litter and veterinary expenses for the cat.

Elizabeths response: “Okay, but if we are going to keep her, then we have to get another, because I believe cats belong in pairs.”

Enter Turner.

Things went so well that a third homeless kitten was added months later, the lovable MisterE.

Vertical scratching posts hang from office doors, an enormous cat tree dominates the staff entrance. Cat toys are scattered about and whenever MisterE poops there is a scramble to remove his potent, fuming solids from the litterbox.

"We’ve all learned to type one handed when one of the cats wants to be held.” Elizabeth laughs.

A cat’s position in the library lacks long-term security, a change in library directors can predicate a change in policy. Usually, one of the cat loving staff will end up adopting the feline residents.

At one library in New England, the controversy over the library cat became so heated that a major donor threatened to revoke her pledge of over a million dollars if the cat was removed from the library (clearly a dedicated cat lover!). A handful of citizens insisted that the cat be removed from public property.

Battle lines for and against the cat were drawn around town. After a court ruling , the cat was rehomed and the library lost its fuzzy companion, as well as a significant donation.

Imagine a culture where the comings and goings of cats are embraced. Where the prevailing ethic combines aesthetic appreciation for the cat and increased compassion for their well-being. An office cat, a store cat, a library cat, they all challenge the sterility of the workplace and perhaps that is good.

If the staff accepts the cats, does that change the dynamics of office politics? One librarian at Round Lake said, “I don’t really like cats, but these guys arrived as babies and who can resist a baby. I fell in love with them as babies and I still love them now.”

Wow! Love in the workplace, the ability to open hearts without threat of sexual misconduct. Out of 42 staff members at Round Lake, the vast majority cherishes the presence of Paige, Turner and MisterE.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Chicago, Illinois, Samantha’s Amazing AcroCats: Scaring Off Men and other Entertainments

“If a man is bothering you in a bar, just tell him you live with twenty cats—then see how fast he runs away.” Sitting in her living room amidst multiple white cats and orange cats, as well as props from her performing cat show, Samantha’s thirty-something sassiness and trim figure infer that she has plenty of opportunities to scare off unwanted men. “The problem is, of course, that as much as I love cats, I love men too. So when I first invite someone over, I make sure there is only 1 orange cat and one white cat in the living room. The rest of the cats stay in the back room. That way I don’t have to keep track of which cats I had out. When I like a guy, I try to ease him into my cat scene."

Why so many cats of the same color? Stunt doubles for film and television.

“My favorite animals to work with are cats and raccoons. Two animals that most trainers can’t stand—they are a real challenge, with minds of their own, if they don’t feel like doing a trick, if the energy isn’t right, they just aren’t going to do it. Then I have to improvise.”

It is hard to imagine her cats being reluctant to do anything.
As we move through the apartment into her kitchen, a mass of orange and white cats jump onto their bandstand. Voluntarily they pluck at their guitar strings, pump the drumsticks in a steady rhythm and bang on the keyboards—experimental music indistinguishable from reknown composer John Cage’s highly strategized and symphonized plonking.

‘Tuna’ jumps into her spot at the tip jar and taps it suggestively. “Tuna is the star of my shows. She loves training and performing. Can’t stand other cats and doesn’t like being touched but she is a reliable performer.”
Like many trained animals, Tuna’s default behavior is the first trick she learned, ringing a bell. “When we are on stage, we get a lot of comedy from me trying to get Tuna to turn on the light or jump through a hoop, but instead she returns to the bell and keeps ringing it and looking at me expectantly. I’ll try hiding it out of the way, but she still goes after that bell.
The audience loves watching the cats make a fool of me.” Samantha laughs at herself, while Tuna purrs through her entire spontaneous performance, bell ringing, hurdle jumping and light switching tricks.


This cat loves to work.

And so does Bugles. Samantha puts the young black cat in the other room while Tuna is showing off her stuff (she’s a diva and does not appreciate sharing the spotlight.) Bugles is climbing the screen and vocally insisting that he get his turn. “Bugles saved my show once. All of the other cats had called a last minute strike—but Bugles is a union buster—and he didn’t care. He performed the entire show.”

When Bugles emerges from the sidelines, he shows off his skateboarding skills. He hops on the board and rolls down the ramp, then pushes off his hind paw to keep the board rolling. He can’t get enough of this game. “All my cats love to work. That is one of the themes I touch on in my shows, Cats love work. You can extinguish unwanted behaviors in the home by working on these kinds of tricks with your cat—they love having the mental stimulation of figuring this stuff out. You end up with a much more highly interactive cat—and its a lot of fun. And most of all your cat won’t be so bored.”

We talk about some of the other performing cats shows around the country, the Moscow Cats Theatre, Gregory Popovich in Las Vegas, the Catman in the Florida Keys. “Oh yeah, I tellin’ ya, that Catman, he’s a player. After his shows, women are lining up to go home with him. The funny thing is—when I do a show, even in my leather cat suit, with the kitty ears and all—not once has a guy waited around to hit on the crazy cat lady.” It is clear that Samantha uses her abundant sex appeal and wry humor to keep her cat show going. When she is on stage and one of her cats refuses to perform, she takes over the stage with her stand up routines.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Flashback, October. 2005: Autumn Comes


The frosty nights deliver warm bodies into my bed.

I sleep on my side, feet buried in Ben’s silky undercoat.

Helen claims the spot by my head—the others don’t dare to challenge her. Wild cat—barely able to tolerate human contact, but so eager to be near me. Radiating heat, she settles inches from my ear.

Gussie finds the lull between my ribs and hip. She kneads the comforter, rumbling. Still a kitten, her tiny blades lance the down and pierce my flesh. When I can’t stand any more, I pluck her off, setting her next to my belly. She folds into a ball and sleeps, nose tucked under paws.

On an occasional night, Ben will wile his way into my daughter’s bed. His amorous attention wakes her. He tries to nurse on her hair. She calls “Mama, get Ben out of my room!”

She is seven. I tell her. “He thinks you are his mommy. You can’t imagine how much he loves you.”

She casts my words aside, “I know Mom. But he’s bothering me.”

He returns to my bed and flops at my feet. Second choice, but none the less, I am blessed. Such a cat! Divinely handsome. Soft as a bunny. Enjoys small children. Tolerates all manner of nonsense.

Some nights, when he is deeply asleep, I reach for him, pulling him into my arms. Some nights, he will stay there. Then he sleeps under my chin, but only on my right side. Because Helen is on my left.

Helen* does everything with her claws out. She is a sheet shredder. Cross-eyed, obese, and very nervous. I rescued her from a gutter in downtown Los Angeles when she was just weeks old and filthy. I washed her seven times before the water ran clear. She loves me beyond measure, then she bites me.

There are nights when I sleep away from home. On those nights, my body longs for even the anticipation of little feet. Midnight’s amorous visitors. The tentative pressure of paw on quilt. Cat weight. Cat warmth. My heart swells at the thought of it.

When Dorothy was alive, she spurned me in the summers, “Oh for goodness sake, it is just too hot!” Green eyes regarded me with glassy exasperation as she wriggled from my reach. Then pink tongue would extend for a thorough grooming, purging any trace of my sweat.

On those sweltering nights, she preferred to stretch out against the cool expanse of hardwood floors. I was jealous, but I knew the change of season would bring her back to me—and it did without fail. Then she could easily be persuaded to nuzzle on my pillow. Burying my face in her gray bristle, I breathed in her dry sweet-grass scent and drifted into happy dreams.

For thirteen years, she claimed the spot by my head. Arriving with a purr like a kiss. A gracious acknowledgement of her affections for me, its cadence gradually eased by encroaching slumber.

Even when it was too hot for her on my pillow, none of the other cats dared to trespass.

Then one night, after weeks of hopeful attempts to repair Dorothy’s failing kidneys, she woke me one last time. She was struggling to rise off of her spot. I lifted her and took her to the cat litter, but when I gently set her there, she fell over. I picked her up and held her tattered frame in my arms.

It was three in the morning and I had already taken her to the emergency vet in the preceding hours. They wanted her to stay in their incubator. But her howling cries told me that she needed to return to my bed. They told me to set her on several towels on top of a heating pad. I did this, and then lay next to her. Even through the illness, she still smelled like the first rainfall landing on an arid desert.

I cradled her the dark kitchen, crying, not knowing what to do. Then suddenly, she was gone.

Nasturtiums and a small granite cat mark her grave. At the burial, my three-year-old daughter assured me, “Dorothy has reincarnated, Mama. I know. She is a lioness in Africa now. She is very happy.”

That night, I slept alone on a wet pillow and dreamed of Africa.

The next night, Ben came. He curled the small of his back into my neck, just as Dorothy had. He smelled like her too—scent of the heat soaked savannah. His fur absorbed my tears without complaint. Each night, for two weeks, he returned. A surrogate for Dorothy.

Then he returned to my feet. And Helen ascended to her current domain.