Sunday, April 8, 2012

The power of pets

Almost every morning, my Ragdoll cat wakes me up.

She usually sleeps on the bed with us, providing some warmth to our feet in the winter, but also around 5:30 or so, she demands that I get out of bed and fill her food dish. She wakes me up by climbing on my chest, putting her nose a quarter inch from my nose, and begins to purr.

I like cat purrs. The white-noise hum they generate can be very comforting. But at 5:30 in the morning, and just inches from my ears, it might as well be the 5:32 barreling down the Southern Railway line. Inevitably, I concede to her demand.

She's a big cat, weighing in at about 13 pounds. She's also very affectionate, an attribute of her breed, and tends to get underfoot as she follows us around the house.

Dolittle lies down on the floor to lap at her water dish. Sheesh.
She's also, um, lazy. Her name is Dolittle because, in part, she does little. I swear to you, she sleeps 18 hours a day. I have seen her so laid back that when she goes to her water dish, she sometimes laps the water while lying down. All of this appears to give her a cat IQ of about 10.

We have another cat, a Norwegian Forest Cat named Mosey. In contrast to Dolittle, Mosey is very quick-witted. In their younger days, Mosey would hide Dolittle's favorite toy under a throw rug, then hide herself behind the sofa. When Dolittle came along to fetch the toy, Mosey would spring from her hiding place to execute her ambush. I'm not sure Dolittle ever figured this out because the drama continued almost nightly for weeks.

Maybe they were just toying with us: dumb cat, smart cat, and we fell for it.

Mosey rolls over on her back to show you her belly — if you ask her to.
Mosey also responds to human demand. When I ask her to show me her snow-white belly, Mosey promptly lies down on the floor and rolls over on her back, eyes squinting, waiting for her belly rub. I've never seen a cat this responsive before.

She, too, will purr the moment you begin to pet her. I guess this means they both feel secure in their environment.

I bring all of this up because for as long as my wife and I have had pets — nearly 28 years of our 31 married years together — it constantly amazes me that another species occupies our house with us. We can't speak each other's language, but yet we somehow communicate. We play together, we sleep together, we get mad at each other, and we love each other.

I've been told it's foolish to project human emotional response into a pet. How can a pet love you? Can a parakeet love you? A gerbel? A goldfish? Who embraces turtles? Who hugs a snake?

And yet, I'm certain there's something there.

My favorite picture of the girls. Here Dolittle baptizes Mosey into the faith.
I tell this story now and then because it simply amazes me. My father was dying of cancer, but he made one last trip from Wisconsin to visit me and my wife here in North Carolina. I guess it was his farewell tour. We had a different set of cats back then. One of them, a gray longhaired calico named Pewter, was wary of strangers, and dad wasn't particularly enamored of cats. They mostly avoided each other.

But one day I came home from work and found dad in the La-Z-Boy with Pewter in his lap, purring away. Dad was smiling. He died a few months later. So what was it that Pewter knew? What is it that pets bring to our lives that we can't get from other humans? How can pets be so instinctively independent from us, and yet so dependent upon us for their very survival and their own enjoyment of life?

I don't have the answers to these questions. I ask them only rhetorically.

I just hope that Dolittle remembers to wake me up tomorrow.

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