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kitty and kiri

More than "just a cat".
By Kiri Blakely

How one cat changed my "just a cat" thinking.

I grew up in the countryside on a large plot of land, with my great-grandparents living next door. My great-grandparents had cats – did they have cats! At one point, I counted: There were 40. My great-grandparents had a big, red barn where a horse was once kept, but by the time I came along, it was mostly for cars and cats.

Spay and neuter wasn’t exactly a priority for my great-grandparents. I don’t even think they knew what that was. They were country people who’d lived through the Depression. You didn’t “waste” hundreds or even thousands of dollars on animals. It’s just the way it was. But the cats were well fed and always had a place to sleep. Not a bad life, really.

Most of the cats lived outside year round. But there were always a few indoor-outdoor cats. The ones who managed to elevate themselves to that status were either the weak ones—whom my great-grandmother would take pity on—or the ones who wanted it badly enough. Those cats, the wily ones, would simply zip inside when someone opened the door.

And now here comes the tough-to-admit part. If a cat became old or sick to the point of suffering, it would be taken far back into the woods and shot. I never saw this, thank god, or even heard it. Someone would tell me about it later, when I’d inquire where a certain cat went. When I got older, I would get angry about it, but when I was a kid, it just made sense. If a cat was suffering, something had to be done.

So I didn’t exactly grow up thinking of cats as creatures to be coddled with expensive pillows, toys, and food fit for humans.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I was living in New York, in a big loft with my boyfriend and some roommates. “You have to get a cat,” our landlord suddenly told us. That was because the loft had a mouse problem. At the time, I didn’t want a cat. I barely had two pennies to rub together and was worried about the expense of food and litter. Still, the landlord insisted. And then my friend happened to mention that her landlord was about to take his cat to the woods and “set her free.” Knowing this would mean certain death for the cat, I said to bring her to the loft.

That’s how Kitty entered my life. She was an eight-month-old brown tabby with a long nose, and she almost immediately went into heat. When the vet wanted hundreds of dollars for tests and vaccines even before the spay operation, I was aghast. Damn cat, I grumbled to myself.

We bought Kitty the cheapest food imaginable—something with red, blue and green pellets. In fact, her name became “Kitty,” because that’s what we kept calling her after failing to come up with a name. What was the point of naming her anyway? She was a mouser who would probably stay in the loft after we moved.

But I didn’t know whom I was dealing with—yet. Kitty amused us by giving the mice a painless death, and then prancing around the apartment with the kill in her mouth like an athlete circling the field with a trophy. She’d also bang repeatedly on my bedroom door at night, so soon she was sleeping in the bed.

Then I began noticing some of Kitty’s more interesting characteristics. When my boyfriend and I held an impromptu karaoke session, Kitty found the singing so fascinating, or so alarming, or so something, that she began caterwauling along with us. She even got so excited, she tried to crawl right up my leg. Her favorite song? It was “Eight Days a Week,” by The Beatles. Whenever I’d sing it, she’d come running and meowing.

One night my boyfriend and I got into a fight. Kitty followed us from room to room, her eyes wide, trying to keep pace with our argument. When we finally made up, we crawled into bed, and hugged each other. Kitty got right up on the bed, sat on our chests, and nudged in between us, as if she too had to be part of the make-up.

All of this was enough to let me know that Kitty had extraordinary perception. That, in fact, she seemed to have emotions and thought processes deeper than I ever imagined a cat, or any animal, could have. But then came the real lesson: The moment when I knew that Kitty had ceased to be “just a cat,” and was about to become my best friend.

This was the day I got sick. My main symptom was an extreme loss of energy. It was as if the very life force had been drained out of me. All I could do was lie on my bed. If anyone tried to touch me or even came near me, I would feel nauseous. At the time, I didn’t have health insurance, so it didn’t occur to me to see a doctor, but I doubt I could have made it to a doctor anyway.

So there I was—deflated on the bed, the very rise and fall of my own breaths enough to make me want to vomit. And then Kitty was inching up the side of the bed, very gently. It wasn’t her usual spirited jump. It was as if she knew I couldn’t tolerate movement. She lay down next to me, ever so gently. And, softly, cautiously, she lifted one paw and then lowered it until her hand rested on my hand. She stayed that way with me for the entire day.

I simply couldn’t believe that Kitty could intuit exactly what I needed at that moment. But she did.
Of course, when my boyfriend and I moved out of the loft, Kitty came with us. And my bond with her only deepened over the years—all sixteen of them. I evolved so completely from the “just a cat” way of thinking that for years I cooked her meals of fresh chicken, rice, and vegetables. But as more high-quality pet foods entered the market, I switched to brands I trusted.

Throughout her life, Kitty slept every single night in the crook of my left arm. She never deviated from that routine except for the last few days of her life, when she perched above my head on the pillow. It was that small but telling shift in her routine—combined with the other devastating symptoms of her advanced cancer—that let me know that it was time. I called a highly recommended house call vet. Kitty went to sleep on our bed, in my arms.

The ultimate gift Kitty gave to me is my appreciation and understanding of the deep emotional intelligence that animals have and can offer to us. They not only know when we are angry, depressed, or lonely, but they know how to help us through it. Because of Kitty, I have never thought of a cat as “just a cat” again.

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