animal lovers


E ARLY IN OUR COURTSHIP, GEORGE MENTIONED THAT HE HATED CATS. I COULD HARDLY HAVE BEEN MORE SHOCKED. UNTIL THAT VERY MOMENT I HAD THOUGHT HIM PERFECT IN EVERY WAY; NOW I WAS SEIZED WITH REAL DOUBT.


If someone failed to appreciate the feel of a cat winding sinuously around his ankles, the soft gravity of a cat melting into his lap, the mesmeric vibrato of a purr ---—what could he know of beauty? Coziness? Sensuality?


It’s a testament to George’s other sterling qualities that, despite his tragic flaw, I married him anyway. Like many a wife, I thought I could reform my husband, but I failed. George doesn’t like raccoons or squirrels either, probably because they

remind him of cats.


The first feline in my life was Tammy, a gray and white stray. Before my five- year- old eyes, she gave birth, in my mother’s green chair, to four moist, blind, preposterously beautiful kittens. I named the first one Blackie and the second one Whitie. The third name has been lost to history, forever eclipsed by the fourth, Lovamatuzz.


Although I still remember the inconceivable softness of Lovamatuzz ‘s rust-colored fur, we kept the first one, Blackie, because we were rendered powerless by his white bib and slippers.


A few years later I got Yuki, which means ‘snow” in Japanese. Yuki was an eight-week-old white Persian with one blue eye and one green eye. (George, who never met him, refers to him as Yucky.)


Watching Tamnmy, Blackie and Yuki was like having a perpetual front-row seat at a ballet. What grace and beauty! They were so unlike dogs, who are flawed and messy creatures, amiable galumphcrs capable of clearing your coffee table with one sweep of the tail. Grace rarely ranks high among a dog’s virtues. Who ever heard of a dog burglar? A cat, on the other hand, is the closest thing to perfection we are likely to encounter in our imperfect lives.


“Even the smallest feline is a mnasterpiece,” said Leonardo da Vinci, who drew masterpieces scampering, stalking, wrestling, washing and reclining. Owning a cat, unlike owning a dog, is not a utilitarian pleasure; it’s an esthetic one. A dog, it has been said, is prose; a cat is a poem.


Living with a feline companion is thrilling because, although it will never, unlike some dogs, mortally harm humans, it is a genuine predator. To watch a cat flatten its back, twitch its tail and catapult its hyper-extended body toward its prey—even if it’s only a crumpled ball of aluminum foil, Yuki’s favorite—is to catch a very privileged glimpse of the remanent tiger. Dogs are not natural predators and therefore lack subtlety. A trained attack dog is like a gangster with a very large gun. A cat chasing a mouse is like a master of tai chi.


During their long millennia of breeding, dogs have been twisted like so much pretzel dough into people-pleasing shapes. They’ve been transformed into nearly legless frankfurters or miniaturized into lap-size packages. I believe no self-respecting cat would ever permit itself to be treated like a bioengineered tomato.


Dogs are pliant creatures, as willing to submit to genetic tampering as they are to wear little pink sweaters, walk on leashes, open refrigerators to fetch cans of beer, and balance dog biscuits on their noses . Some say these feats prove how smart dogs are. I suggest that by refusing to lower themselves to such undignified performances, cats prove how smart they are. They are less trainable than dogs because they have little interest in begging, fetching or (God forbid) rolling over and playing dead.


A dog retains a vague memory of its past as a member of a pack, eager to please its leaders. A cat is to its very core a free spirit, incapable of fawning, groveling or licking the hand that beats it. It has been said that dogs are extroverts, cats are introverts; dogs are socialists, cats are anarchists.


I am not surprised that Alexander the Great, Hitler and Napoleon (who once broke into a cold sweat when he suspected there was a kitten in the next room) were all cat haters. The only thing that terrifies a conqueror is something that refuses to be conquered.


A cat will love, comfort and caress you, but it will never truckle to you. People who prefer dogs are uncomfortable with such autonomy and fear that cats consider themselves superior to people. I enjoy the company of my superiors, so I like cats. Love them, I should say.


If my husband wants to get a dog someday, he will do so with my blessing. But my heart really lies elsewhere. Give me Lovamatuzz, curling into my lap in a perfect circle and beginning to purr.




S IX YEARS AGO , I married Anne, a cat lover . Our marriage has prospered even though I come from a dog family.


Our first was a stray my brother Ned had taken in, a small brown mongrel we named Penny. Penny romped around my three brothers and me as we played ball, nosed her way into our laps when we felt low and, whenever we ignored her, splashed the contents of the trash can across the kitchen floor.


The four of us loved her with a fierceness that betrayed our need. Amid the competitive chaos, each of us turned to Penny as the source of love and approval we hadn’t yet learned to give or get from one another.


Occasionally Penny would dig a hole under the fence and wander off, an act that galvanized our family. My brothers and I would bicycle furiously around the neighborhood, calling her name, or pile into the car with our parents, headlights probing the shadows for that small, familiar shape. If we didn’t find her, the very next morning she’d scratch at the door, and we’d smother her with hugs . She always came home.


The histories of dogs and people have long been intertwined. Fifteen thousand years ago, cave dwellers drew canine figures alongside those of humans. Today dogs catch our Frisbees, chase tennis balls, even howl along when we sing.


When we ruminate on the unfairness of the world, they gaze up at us and agree with whatever we’re thinking. Dogs can predict earthquakes; there was a golden retriever who was said to warn his epileptic owner when she was about to have a seizure, long before the onset of visible symptoms.



Cats, of course, are also capable of reading our moods, but they do so only to ignore them. While dogs have been defined by their affiliation with humans, cats are known for their aloofness, intractability and independence. Cat owners call this remoteness “inscrutability,” and anyone who doesn’t appreciate this ernotional sang-froid is told he doesn’t understand cats . I think I understand them; it’s not inscrutability-—it’s antipathy . And the feeling is mutual. My favorite feline is the Cheshire Cat because he disappears.


Dogs boost our self-esteem; cats make us feel inadequate. They sit in judgment. A dog finds us innocent until proven guilty—and even then treats us as if we’re innocent. A cat finds us guilty until proven innocent—and even then treats us as if we’re guilty.


I prefer the scruffy feel of the dog to the putting-green smoothness of the cat, a tail that wags happily to a tail that curls and uncurls like a cobra, an exuberant bark to a maddeningly complacent purr. Dogs lick you as if you were an ice-cream cone, with grateful, life-affirming slurps; cats perform exploratory, clinical swabs with their tiny, emery-board tongues.


Through the ages, dogs have guarded homes, herded sheep, sniffed out bombs and drugs, and collared criminals. They comfort the elderly, and some have been used in trying to lure autistic children out of their shells. Canines have a record of heroism approaching that of humans.


Altruism is anathema to the feline nature, however . Even if a cat were physically capable, it’s hard to imagine one leaping in front of a small child to rescue him from a rattlesnake, or diving into a swimming pool to fish out a drowning two-year-old. In 5000 years felines have found long-term employment only as mousers—and this, as one cat historian points out, is “at their pleasure, not ours.


And it does not matter whether his master is rich or poor; a dog will share his lot without question. Indeed, dogs set the golden standard for loyalty. When Odysseus arrived home disguised as a beggar after an absence of 19 years, the only living thing to recognize him was his aged dog, Argos, who wagged his tail and then died.


One tradition holds that when Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded, her spaniel crept out from under her gown and, according to an eyewitness, “would not departe from the corpse.


Not only are dogs better than cats, but in many ways they are better than humans. “Beauty without vanity, Strength without insolence, Courage without ferocity, and all the Virtues of man without his Vices” was what Byron inscribed on the gravestone of his Newfoundland, Boatswain.


And, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote on the question of whether dogs have souls and go to heaven, “I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”


Even today when I think about my youth, I’m transported back to a spring afternoon not long after my 14th birthday when I was surprised to see our green station wagon barrel up the school driveway . My mother was behind the wheel, distraught; Penny was in the back seat. She had been struck by a car and killed. Now my mother was driving aimlessly, knowing she had to find my brother and me. That evening, at the gate to the back yard, it was I who told Ned that Penny—his dog—our dog—was dead.


Three decades later my parents still live in that house, and whenever I go home, whenever I begin to open that gate, I’m overwhelmed by an image of Penny trotting toward me. I can’t help but think she was on her way home when she died.


SOURCE:

READER’S DIGEST Magazine

October 1995. (Pgs. 128-132.)



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