Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Problem With Panther

Another cat post. Boy, this lady must really dig her cats, huh?

Honestly, I don't think I'm a true cat person. I like cats. I enjoy cats. But my beating heart is 100% dog. While the rest of you are watching cat gifs, I'm watching dog gifs. I think perhaps it's because my OCD brain--which tries so hard to figure each and every one of you out, and analyze why you just said to me what you did, for better or worse--needs a dog, an animal who, though not simple by any means, is not complicated in a moody teenager way. I understand dog. I speak dog. For years I've read about dog behavior. On a most fundamental level, dogs truly want to belong to us. Dogs are no longer wolves. Their society is our society; we came together 40,000 years ago. And though it was a mutually beneficial relationship that eventually spawned the collie mix snoring on the pillow beside me as I write this, let us not ever believe that the dog is a foolish creature because she is not a cat.

The domestic doodle
The dog showed up in wolf-form at an ancient human encampment, or more likely on the edge of it, to scavenge the scraps. In so doing, they deterred other predators from approaching. Gradually, both canid and hominid recognized the potential benefits of this relationship, and as braver and tamer wolves got closer to humans, the two species forged quite possibly the oldest interspecies relationship built on trust and love. It's foolish to say that humans domesticated dogs; I think it's far more likely that dogs saw humans as a very workable project. They're a most opportunistic species--just look at the way Maya can't stop herself from snatching a hot dog off the counter, the way Nugget cleaned out a bag of butterscotch chips the other day. If a dog sees a benefit, she's not about to wait around, and no matter how much she wants to please, her dogginess tells her that she needs that wiener, just in case there won't be another meal coming. Eat while you can, and trust that your soft ears and wagging tail will earn you the forgiveness of your person.

The dog fits well into our lives because she chooses to, because humans and dogs grew up together over the last forty thousand or so years. And thus, I think humans are good at speaking dog. I understand dog. I know why a dog does what she does. They fundamentally make sense to me, and the dog wants to make sense to her human. (Because if she makes sense, the human is happy, and a happy human offers food and love. And food.)

Cat, on the other hand, doesn't give a shit. 

This is where cat loses me. Why, cat? Why don't you give a shit?

Cats are opportunistic too. It's just that ancient cats didn't see us as a necessary part of the equation. William S. Burroughs wrote that "the cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself." How true. And while dog genetics are distinguishable from wolf genetics, cat and wildcat genes don't offer the same level of distinction. They're blurrier, indicating that the cat is only kinda, sorta domesticated. Any cat owner will confirm this. I have a cat-loving friend who refers to herself as her cats' staff.

Cats don't need us, really. They've been content to drift in and out of human lives, to cross paths with us when coincidence so dictates, making appearances on pyramid walls and in oil paintings from eras bygone. The dog in those paintings sits at the side of the monarch, his head in a lap, leaning, as they do, on a human leg. The cat in those paintings is off to the side, and probably disappeared long before the artist even finished opening his paints.

I have cats. I had two, until recently: Putter (Put-her, as in putter tat) and Gimli (Son of Gloin). I like the cats. They're soft and meowy. Gimli is neurotic; Putter is more of a cuddle bug. She has moments of catly joy. But Putter also likes to pee on Ben's rug when she gets angry. She likes to play and play and play and then bite. She gets offended when I sneeze and stalks out of the room with her butt parts exposed in my direction. 

She's a cat. 

Now, enter Panther, who is a different sort of beast than my family is used to. The other two cats live strictly indoors, but Panther came to us as a homeless chap who had been living outdoors. He uses the bathroom outdoors. Like all indoor/outdoor cats, he must roam. He simply must. His urge to come inside is driven not by his desire to find love and physical contact with his humans (who have grown to love him) but to find his bowl filled upon demand. Let us not kid ourselves by thinking that Panther would have stayed with my family if we weren't providing piles of food. 

And I do mean piles: he's 18.5 pounds. 

I really do enjoy Putter and Gimli, but not on the same level that I love my dogs. Hence, the "dog person" label I've always worn. If the kids are the heart and soul of our family, the dogs are the lungs. We need them to help us take a moment to breathe. They're right there in our midst, rolling on the floor with and snuggled up to our precious children. And now, suddenly, so is Panther. Unlike Putter and Gimli, Panther has inserted himself directly into the middle of the family unit. He's here with the dogs. He doesn't see any reason why he shouldn't be involved in our activities, in our living room moments. And like the employee who makes himself invaluable to the company by refusing to leave the office, Panther has so become a member of the inner sanctum in fewer than two months.

No matter his motives, that's very dog-like, in a way.

But Panther isn't a dog. Though he's made it onto the living room couch, he still succumbs to his need to do cat things. The problem with Panther is that he's a killer. In the last week I've pried a (sort of) live Goldfinch from his mouth and discovered a quivering, chewed chipmunk under the television stand. I hate this part of cats. I've always fed wild birds and squirrels. The activity at the feeders gets me through the long winters. Now, I hesitate to fill them up, as it might be akin to a flashing arrow that reads: Buffet Line Begins Here. Our yard, a hidden acre in the middle of Wheeling sheltered by silver maples, poplar, pine, and oaks, provides sanctuary for a huge range of wildlife, most of which is edible. As I mentioned in an earlier post, statistics indicate that domestic housecats kill between 3.7 and 6 billion wild birds each year. Billions.  

Frantic chipmunk in the bathroom
I don't like those numbers. At times I think that Panther's presence in our lives has ruined the chance for a healthy wild bird population out there. At times, I wish he'd bypassed our house altogether. 

He didn't come home yesterday morning. Nightly, he vanishes into the yard when Shawn goes to bed, and I welcome him home in the morning with a bowl of meat. So when I blindly opened the door in the foggy dark and no warm form came barreling past my legs, announcing himself with a loud squawk, I was surprised. The sky lightened, and I drank my coffee and waited for him. As the kids ate breakfast I kept a vigil at the door (as much as I hate to admit that it was a vigil, I would be lying if I said otherwise). When the sun rose high, I walked the neighborhood, looking for a carcass on the streets around the house, but I found no trace of Panther. 

Since his arrival in our lives, I've warned the children that cats who go outdoors rarely live as long as indoor cats. They must run the nightly gauntlet of cars, coyotes, and other cats. Things happen. Some never come home, leaving their families always uncertain of their fate. But Panther is New Hampshire Cat: he chooses to Live Free or Die. And knowing this gave me a tiny but palpable slice of consolation as I waited for him to appear in the kitchen. At 2pm he finally limped in, crying. His breakaway collar was gone and x-rays revealed no visible fractures but did show a twisted ulna. He purred while they worked on him, while the techs shaved his paw and wrapped him in a splint. I saw a burly, furry-faced vet tech carrying him like a baby. (Cats purr when they are happy and content, but they also purr when they're injured. This article in Animal Wellness talks about the idea that the vibration of the purr may actually induce healing in the cat body. "Interestingly, research has shown that exposure to frequencies at that same 20 to 50 Hz [as a cat's purr] induces increased bone density, relieves pain and heals tendons and muscles."

Miserable cat still manages to find his appetite
There's nothing more pathetic than a cat in a cast. He hobbles around the house, desperate to get outdoors, back to his catly routine, but his pain levels keep him subdued. The evening after the injury, his breathing was sharp and ragged. He panted and drooled until his pain meds kicked in, and yet, every time I moved him, he purred as he endured the process. Thankfully, he's accepted the litterbox as a substitute for the neighbor's garden. 

The real problem with Panther is that I've developed feelings for him, stronger feelings than I expected. He gives me no indication that I am particularly high on his priority list. My number one job is to be at the back door no later than 6am with a can of Fancy Feast dished out and waiting. (The price for tardiness is steep: he trips me as I try to prepare his meal.) And yet, he appeals to me in a way that no other cat has before. He's huge, and he's butch, with his testosterone-fueled stud jowls. In every way he's disrupted our lives. But he's got a quality that my other cats lack, and I wonder if it's a product of his former life as an orphan. There's something about Panther that's genuine, a quality I don't see in a lot of cats. It's not that they're necessarily disingenuous because cats don't pretend to be anything they aren't. Panther, however, seems to possess a quiet gratitude for his recent adoption into our lives. Sometimes he looks at me, his eyes constantly runny and watering from what the vet thinks are allergies, and I see acknowledgment. And when I bend to kiss his forehead--something I have never done with Putter and Gimli because I've never been much of a cat-kisser--he bows his head down and parts his ears and offers up a robust purr. I think it's a thank you.

Blissful domestication
and uneasy tolerance
Panther and I both feel uncomfortable with labels. I'm not willing to commit to a cat-person label, and he's not sure he wants to wear the mantle of semi-domestication. As I type, his pupils are huge because he's watching falling leaves and mistaking them for fluttering songbirds. Though he's comfortable here on the couch, it's only a matter of time before he's back out there looking for his inner wildcat.

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