Saturday, January 12, 2013

Owned by cats

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, pets, cats, humor

They are so appealing when they are little. We had a cat for 18 years, but she'd been dead 10 years when our son insisted we get another. He brought home a 2-month-old calico he'd named Dora (for the TV character). Here she is at age 3 months.

Contrary to my childhood, when we typically had 3-15 cats (depending on recent litters born), my wife has insisted on no more than one cat at a time. One cat can be more than enough!

Humorist Bob Torte chronicles how his household cat population grew from two to six in Kitty Cornered: How Frannie and Five Other Incorrigible Cats Seized Control of our House and Made it Their Home. I suspect in his mind, the word "their" is in the boldest font imaginable. In another book (Enslaved by Ducks), we find that the cats are the least of it: fifty or so birds are to be found inside Torte Manor and outside in the yard, barn or coop. So how do you keep a passel of cats from eating your avian stock?

Just luck, in most cases. Bob and wife Linda adopted cats that are either intimidated by parrots, ducks and chickens, or is too lazy to give pursuit. When the star of the book, Frannie, a tiny stray, gradually and ever-so-reluctantly consents to being fed, and even petted (particularly during feeding), she ignores the birds of yard and house as beneath contempt. She's been living off rodents and songbirds, and only little flitty birds are worth the chase and the consuming.

But the book is not just about Frannie. Agnes, Moobie, Tina, Lucy and Mabel round out the group. Their personalities are more than simply different: They could be from different galaxies. One is a cuddler, one meows very loudly the entire time he's not being petted, and one bites every petting hand and often gives a scratch for good measure. Frannie is the most outdoorsy, and Lucy will go outside, but lean against the house while looking around (or sleeping), as though reluctant to part ways with it.

For a chapter or so some of the cats have to get treated for dietary problems and need special food. When it is just one, it is possible to feed the special food to all. But when two cats need different special food, and the whole houseful is accustomed to stealing food from everyone else's bowls, the mere humans on the scene are run ragged.

Midway through the book Frannie is run over or otherwise crushed, and gets a fractured pelvis and leg. She and Bob bond more deeply during her recovery, which is surprisingly fast and complete. We learn that a pelvis doesn't really heal; cats are light and their muscles form a "false joint", getting along without the real one.

I can't pass up the humor. This isn't just a chronicle. The author uses a combination of self-deprecation and studied exaggeration. It took me a little while to get used to it. An example, from the time the lower yard flooded and mice began moving inside: "Ponds filled the low spots in our woods, and I could hear the slam of tiny suitcases as grumbling mice abandoned their holes and headed for our basement." Another, while he is trying to set up an answer phone: "As I squinted at a folded slip of tissue paper that masqueraded as the user's manual…" Cute, and it makes the book more enjoyable. I wasn't ready for it to end. A good author leaves you wanting more.

Kittens don't stay kittens. Here is Dora just a month ago, being fed a treat by my wife. Dora is atop a climbing stand. She's now an 11-pounder, and insists on clawing the carpet. It's getting pretty ragged.

Dora is less affectionate than our former cat, a 5-pound silver tabby that liked laps. Dora has sat on my wife's lap half a dozen times in 2½ years, and never on mine. She usually tolerates petting well as long as she is standing on something. She doesn't like being picked up, but will now lie still in my arms for at least ten seconds before going berserk.

If anything, different cats are more different than different people. They keep you guessing.

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