With cats, you're never sure you'll ever get on a first-name basis

March 17, 2005|By KEVIN COWHERD

AS A NON-CAT person, the last thing you want to hear from someone is: "We're going out of town for a few days. Could you look in on our cat?"

First of all, I was under the impression that cats could last for months, possibly even years, on their own.

After all, they require very little food and water, and their basic demeanor suggests that if they never saw a human being again, that would be just fine.

But when our neighbors John and Joan went off for a weekend with their kids, the job of looking in on their cat fell to me.

"The cat is doomed," my wife said when she heard this. "Zero chance of survival."

She said giving me the job of looking in on the cat was like giving the head lifeguard job to someone who can't swim.

The cat's name - this is probably more than you need to know - is Pippin.

When John first told me this, I said: "Cool. Named, no doubt, after the seven-time NBA All-Star who teamed with Michael Jordan on those great Chicago Bulls teams."

"Uh, no," John said. "After the hobbit in Lord of the Rings."

Oh, I said.

So right away, I had a problem with this cat.

Then again, you wonder why people even bother naming their cats at all.

It's not as if the cat will come when you call it.

You can call the cat anything you want, and he will ignore you, unless there's food involved, at which point he will saunter over, eat the food, then ignore you all over again.

As I discovered with Pippin, there is a huge difference in looking after someone's cat as opposed to someone's dog.

For one thing, the dog is always thrilled to see you.

The minute you come in the door, he will come bounding up to you, all excited, tail wagging with delight.

If he could talk, he'd lay one of those fawning, Sammy Davis-like raps on you: Oh, man, you are the greatest! No, really, man, you are the grooviest! To come over here and help a brother out when the folks are away, man, that is so cool!

Then there's the cat.

The cat just stares at you when you come in.

His head swivels like a gun turret, keeping you in his sights, as you cross the room.

Then he suddenly bolts off the couch and into the basement, never to be seen again.

And that, in a nutshell, was Day 1 of my looking after Pippin.

I made sure he had food. I gave him fresh water. And I had zero interaction with him.

It was like looking after a house plant.

Except the house plant doesn't spook as easily.

Day 2 found Pippin wildly off his meds.

When I walked in the door, he bolted from the couch and darted across the room, flying over a hassock and onto a chair, then dashing to the couch again.

But, when I went to check on his food, he followed me.

Then he pawed at one of his little cat toys and sort of pushed it toward me.

It almost seemed like he wanted to ... play.

So I played with him for 10 minutes or so. We played with his toys and I spun him around the floor, and he seemed to have a good time - not that you can always tell with a cat.

But he's a cute little guy, and when we were done, I felt as though things were good between us.

I felt we were bonding.

Hah! Boy, did I get taken.

Because now we come to Day 3 of the Pippin Watch.

I walk into the house. Pippin is on the couch.

And because we're tight now, I give him my heartiest greeting.

"Pippin, my man!" I say.

And you know what I get back?

Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Instead, Pippin is back to staring holes through me.

But I don't give up right away. I keep trying to get through to him.

Maybe we can recapture the magic, I think.

Look, when a cat reaches out to you just 24 hours earlier and you feel that connection, you don't just throw your hands in the air because he's a little cranky.

"What's up, P?" I ask, sitting next to him and stroking his head.

And with that he bolts from the couch and down to the basement, never to be seen again.

OK, I had heard that cats can have heavy-duty mood swings. But this was ridiculous.

One day the two of you are pals, having a few laughs, enjoying each other's company.

Then the next day - poof! Just like that, it's all gone.

Now the cat just stares at you like: Who are you? Get out of my sight. You make me sick.

I don't think I could live on that kind of emotional rollercoaster with a pet, which is what I told John and Joan when they returned.

Then again, they gave me a 12-pack of beer for watching the cat.

So I'll probably be available for further cat-sitting. Although right now the hurt is still fresh.

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