Monday, May 26, 2008

A Tale of Four Kitties

This is a cat. I know it doesn't look like one. It looks like an alien. An angry, constipated alien. But it is a cat - a purebred Siamese. And it has been bred to look like this ... yes ... ON PURPOSE.

In ever more cartoonish ways, Siamese cats are being bred for arbitrary features such as big ears, wedge-shaped heads and tiny bones in order to win competitions that judge them on said arbitrary features. A person could drop between $200 and $3000 on a Siamese/angry alien kitten, depending on their pedigree. If you liked Siamese cats 20 years ago and wanted to get one now, you would have to search for a breeder of "traditional" Siamese cats to find an pet that looks remotely feline.

It's not just Siamese cats, either. Persian cats have been relentlessly bred for their adorable, squashed faces. There is no health benefit to the squashed-face breeding decision; on the contrary, because of their truncated ocular and nasal passages, the are particularly prone to infected eyes and sinuses. People who own Persians have to bathe them because their fur is too long for the cat to maintain themselves, and there are several suggested methods for dealing with eye goop. I'm serious. And my favourite breed of dog, the golden retriever, now has a projected 10 year life expectancy as opposed to the Goldens of 20 years ago, who had a 12-14 year life expectancy - all because of breeding for specific physical features.

It seems to me that breeding to this extent is a little weird. I mean don't we want our pets to live long, healthy lives?

I have never chosen a pedigree pet; as a matter of fact, I have never chosen a pet at all. My journey from lone-apartment dweller to mildly insane cat owner has been a strange one, as I can honestly say that I have never picked the cats that I ended up owning. And the cats that I have owned have been absolute mutts - the "Kid Rocks" of the animal world, if you will.

In 1999 I was living in a fantastic bachelor apartment on Isabella St. and loving it. I am definitely an animal lover, having worked on farms and ranches for much of my pre-Toronto life, and occasionally I would remark to a friend that I would like to get a pet one day. Every time, the friend would turn to me in horror and say "You couldn't keep a dog in this tiny apartment!
That would be cruelty!" (Note: I always thought that it was interesting that my friends thought that my apartment was too small for, say, a Lhasa Apso, but not for, say, ME. I think that says a little something about my friends, don't you?)

Part of my job was to arrange community service opportunities for my students, which included volunteer time at a local animal shelter. As a result of my ties to the shelter, I would get all of their emails regarding pet adoptions. I noticed that all of the cats on the list changed each month except for one sad, scrawny 11 year old black cat. Finally, after about six months of this, a passionate plea came into my inbox. Cleo, the cat, had been scratching all of the fur off of her face, and the shelter wasn't sure if it was due to some kind of allergy or simply because of the stress of having been in the shelter for over a year. Would anyone consider being a foster parent so that she could be away from the shelter until a permanent home was found? Before I knew what I had done I fired off an email saying that I would foster the cat. Allergies and small apartment be damned!

When Cleo arrived, she looked terrible. If you have read The Outsider, think of Salamano's dog and you'll have an idea of what Cleo's face looked like - scabby and awful. She immediately dashed under the bed and stayed there for the better part of a day. I basically did my own thing, thinking that she would come around eventually. I figured it was best to let her come to me in her own time.

And she did. After a few weeks her face was healing, she was gaining weight, and I couldn't sit down without her leaping into my lap. At night she would snuggle under the covers with me and when I woke up in the morning she would be sound asleep, sprawled next to me on her back, her head on the corner of my pillow. She was incredibly playful, and would chase toys for hours. And she didn't give me a moment of allergies.

It was part of my job as a foster-cat-parent to arrange meetings with people who wanted to adopt Cleo. The calls were few and far between, as a 11 year old black cat is a pretty hard sell; even without the age issue some people take that black cat superstition really seriously. But after about six months I noticed an interesting phenomenon; people would call and try to set up an appointment and I would put them off, or call and cancel. Finally, I decided it was time to get over my fear of cat commitment and just adopt the damn cat myself. I did, and she lived to be 16 years old, and made me happy every single day of her life.

After Cleo died, I didn't want to rush into getting another cat, but the apartment seemed horribly empty. A few months later, I decided to go to the humane society and get not one, but two cats. I often have very long days at school and I like to travel during my vacations, so I thought if I got a "bonded pair" of cats they could keep each other company while I was away from my new, larger apartment. I had a pair all picked out - they were as cute as little buttons on the Toronto Humane Society website - little year-old white cats snuggled up together in the same basket. When I got to the Humane Society however, the white bonded pair was gone.

"Do you have any other bonded pairs?" I asked an exhausted animal care worker.

"Just one," she said, and pointed me towards a cage.

I went over to it and peered in. There was one enormous black, long-haired cat sleeping inside. He looked like a felled mammoth, minus the tusks.

"There's only one cat in here." I objected.

The animal care worker came over, opened the cage and pushed the behemoth to one side. Almost underneath him, her fur all squashed, was an emaciated, four pound tabby who was so thin that she looked rather like the Siamese pictured above.

"Is she sick?" I gasped.

"No, I think she's just sad. He hasn't eaten much either, although you wouldn't know it. They're just stressed out."

"And this is your only bonded pair?

"Yep." she clarified.

"And that stuff all over their fur is ... "


"Huh. Gross. Okay. I'll take them."

I took them home and cleaned them off and named them - Charlotte for the tabby, Fezzik for the behemoth (Note: I have my brother to thank for the excellent name suggestion taken from one of my favourite books. Still can't place it? Click here.) And as the months and years went by I was incredibly grateful that the bonded pair I was initially hoping to adopt was gone, because the mutts I got were the most hilarious, mismatched, loving and awesome pair of cats that I could have hoped for. To watch them sleep or play together always made me smile.

Fezzik and Charlotte

When Fezzik died last year of liver failure, I was heartbroken and so was Charlotte. She meowed at the door for two days and then curled up and went to sleep for two months. No more playing. I knew I wanted to find a friend for her, but I didn't think that I could take the walking up and down the Humane Society aisles, trying to choose the "right" cat. After all, I had never chosen a cat before, and the stakes were so much higher now; what if Charlotte didn't like her new friend?

Luckily, I didn't have to choose. My best friend found a kitten in a field, the only survivor in a litter of five whose brothers and sisters had either been carried away by foxes or frozen to death. Viki phoned me immediately.

"I found a kitten. I'll take it to the Humane Society if you don't want it, but ... do you want it?"

"Is it a boy or a girl?"

"I can't tell. It was nearly frozen when I found it, so it's all curled up and I don't want to disturb it."

"What colour is it?"

"Well, it's pretty dirty ... but I think it might be black. Or gray. Or orange ... it's REALLY dirty."

"It's probably got worms, doesn't it?"

"Oh yeah, I think so. And some pretty wicked ear mites too."

"Huh. Gross. Okay, I'll take it."

The cat turned out to be female, light gray and incredibly active and mischievous and the perfect companion for Charlotte, who now acts like a kitten herself again. Emily and Charlotte play together, sleep together and destroy all of my personal belongings ... together.

So there you have it. In the last ten years I have owned four cats, and I have personally selected none of them. They have all come to me, and they have been scabby, filthy, scrawny, tubby and sick (which would be great names if Disney ever decided to do a movie about disease-ridden dwarfs.) And you know what? They have been the best pets I could ask for. So you can keep your expensive, pedigreed, snooty, alien pets. All the more mutts for me.


  1. Is that how I came to be your friend? "Ummm gross, I'll take it". LOL. Oh Al, I have loved all your monsters that you take in and if you ever want one more....Peanut. She has gotten better and she actually let me pet her this week - first time in 9 years.

    I must admit that my two cats are mutts but my mutt is a purebred and I wouldn't change that for one second. So I say thank you on behalf of all the ugly ducklings in the shelter that you so willingly take in. I personally can't go to a shelter or pet store as I have an uncontrollable urge to take them all home and by laws be by laws I can't have any more pets in this single family dwelling.

  2. Thanks for sharing this with us. I've quiet enjoyed the experience of reading your blog so far. Maybe some cliff notes at the bottom would be a useful addition to summarize the lessons...regardless i will be checking back here so keep up the delightful work,your readers appreciate it...

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  3. I don't know how I missed this post, but I love it. A whole lot. Thanks for the link.