Cats aren't perfect, but they are nice houseguests

September 17, 2005|By ROB KASPER

IAM NOT a cat person - I once regarded these creatures as mere balls of fluff - but a week of cat-sitting has changed my views about the benefits of sharing a house with an animal.

It has also given me some insight into why some residents of New Orleans were reluctant to abandon their pets as Hurricane Katrina roared in.

The cat in question is a 4-month-old black female with almond-colored eyes. She shares an apartment with our 24-year-old son in Chambersburg, Pa. When our son recently took a long trip, my wife volunteered to take care of the cat while he was gone.

I was not consulted because I was out of town. So while the husband was away, the cat played. By the time I arrived back on the scene, the cat had the run of our Baltimore house. My wife grew up with cats. I grew up with dogs. For me dogs are like boys. They are direct, physical, bumptious at times. They have a hard time being deceptive.

Cats, on the other hand, strike me as having a more feminine temperament. They can be independent, warm one minute, distant the next. You call a dog, he comes. You call a cat, she ignores you.

Somehow during the years we were raising our two boys in Baltimore, we did not own either a cat or a dog. We had hamsters, gerbils, parakeets and goldfish, but nary a dog or a cat.

I am not sure why. Perhaps it was because my wife grew up with "outdoor cats." They dropped in for meals and overnight accommodations but otherwise roamed free. This was western Kansas, where the nocturnal landscape was feral, and every so often my wife would lose a cat to the coyotes.

The Baltimore metropolitan area is, so far as I can tell, coyote-free. Nonetheless the idea of letting a cat roam the city was not appealing to us. Similarly the dogs I grew up with were "outdoor dogs," free-rangers, enjoying a style of canine living that is now socially incorrect in a city.

Our kids, now in their 20s, regarded the lack of a dog in their boyhood as a psychological hardship, one of the many that their wayward parents had inflicted upon them. Each vowed that when he got his own place, a bulldog or a golden lab would be in residence.

One of the interesting aspects of having your kids set up a household is seeing which parts of your old family lifestyle they change. In this case, our older son was quick to get a pet, a kitten picked from a litter that was born next door to his apartment.

So far, the two seem to be a good pair. Our son takes the cat to a vet for checkups and shots. The cat provides good company.

The cat, a kitten really, does need some discipline. One day this week, as I tossed her off the kitchen table for the fourth time and finally resorted to squirting her with a water bottle, I told myself this must be what it is like to have grandchildren. They get away with some bad behavior at their home and you have to straighten them out when they come to your house.

This kitten doesn't seem to fit into my feline stereotypes. She is as playful as a pup, or young boy. The other night as I watched her pounce on the foil balls that I rolled down a hallway, I was reminded that when my sons were small, we used to amuse ourselves by shooting rubber bands at each other in the very same hallway. As she batted the foil, I noticed she had a great left jab.

Moreover, the longer I was around this cat the more I became aware of the animal attachment phenomenon, how a pet can move into your life, filling up the empty spaces. I began to understand why some people in Louisiana were reluctant to leave their animals alone as a hurricane roared in. You spend time with animals and you feel responsible for them.

Predictably, there was some tension in our week of cat-sitting. One day curiosity caused the cat to push open a window screen and explore a neighbor's backyard. I don't know who was trembling more, the cat or my wife, when, 15 tense minutes later, the cat was found under a bush.

I know that when this cat crawls up on my chest at night, nestles down and begins purring, she is attracted to my high skin temperature, not my personality. But it does feel comforting and strangely primal.

I know too that when this cat goes back to her home next week, she won't miss playing fetch the foil ball. I am not sure I can say the same.

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