ESSAY - OCTOBER 1995
by Wally Graves
The poster led me to a trim little house on Sole Street.
I should mention that all the streets in King Salmon are named for seafood. I live on Cod. There are also Crab, Herring, Perch and Halibut. Certainly no sensible cat would abandon a place with such delicious streets. But a cat named Clod, belonging to the woman who put up the poster, had indeed disappeared.
The woman, an intense, petite blonde named Mary Ann, suspected the worst. She showed me a book from the County Library about people who steal cats and dogs and sell them for up to $500 to university and hospital laboratories where they undergo grisly experiments.
She wondered whether mysterious trucks cruising our streets, often late at night, might be "bunchers," these nefarious unlicensed dealers who gather whole bunches of innocent strays, and who answer want ads offering pets "Free to a Good Home."
There's big money in stray pets, I was told. An outfit named Delta in Southern California recently sued the Humane Society for $100,000, claiming unfair monopoly.
I told Mary Ann, laughingly, that she should direct any "bunchers" to our place on Cod Street where cats visit our garden several times every day and night, smudging our windshields, having babies in our garden shed, eating sparrows in our hedge, digging up seedbeds, and -- until recently -- pooping in our lettuce.
Mary Ann did not take my levity lightly.
Nor was she amused when I told her something that had been on my conscience for years: In June of 1992, I personally delivered 13 cats to their doom. No one had complained, because all 13 were feral, homeless cats that only one person in the world cared about.
A couple of times each week a cat lover's car would show up with some Friskies at the vacant house next door where the cats sought shelter, the cats ate the Friskies, and had wild parties at night, and then had babies, and the tomcats killed some of the babies, and the babies who survived had their own babies, and pretty soon there were kittens of all ages roaming our yard looking for excitement. Their eyes were gunky with disease, their bodies were pathetically groomed, they never purred, and you couldn't get within 10 feet of them.
Sometimes the kittens died in our yard. I buried the dead ones.
Luckily, King Salmon has the Humane Society next door.
The folks there suggested that the American way was to spay or neuter every cat I could get my hands on. Hadn't I seen the humorous poster put out by North Coast vets about cutting down on teenage pregnancies? Depicting a pregnant cat?
Or, I could borrow a cage with a collapsing door called a "have-a-heart trap" and see what happened.
What happened was, I caged 15 cats, one by one, sometimes two at a time. Of the 15, two were middle-class cats caught slumming.
I let the middle-class cats go, with a severe warning not to become lower-class. The 13 homeless cats I took on successive trips to the Humane Society for lethal injection.
They were among 454 cats put to death that month. Of the 514 cats brought in during that June of 1992, 55 were adopted out, two were missing in action, and three were redeemed.
Imagine! There were 514 unwanted cats turned in, in one month, to a tiny facility no bigger than your house -- not to speak of the 298 dogs that same month.
And the statistics haven't changed.
I became the temporary darling of the society. I was assured I was doing the kindly thing.
I went to Los Angeles that year of 1992 on business. I stayed with dear friends who are the souls of generosity. The wife is a biologist at UCLA. During the day she experiments with rats. When she comes home, she tends her cats.
In 1992 she had five cats: Bruiser, Domino, Ungl¸ck, Elspeth and Texas. All fine cats (except Texas, who resented my intrusion).
At dinner, after easing Domino -- or was it Bruiser? -- gently from my assigned chair, I made the mistake of telling my hosts about my kindly adventures at King Salmon.
They were not amused.
I had brought my hosts a small, framed print as a house gift. They set the print next to their cat-tattered Louis XIV sofa. Texas honored the picture with a well-aimed spray.
Now, three years later, my friend Charlie in Trinidad wants my professional advice about a neighbor's cat who insists on pooping in Charlie's carport right where he steps into his car. (Charlie called it "poop du jour.") Charlie confided he'd tried to pacify the cat with a little friendly hamburger laced with a bye-bye narcotic he'd bought at the hardware store, but the cat outwitted Charlie.
The cat relished the laced hamburger, and the next morning the cat pooped not only in the carport but beside the empty food plate. That's when Charlie called me about the have-a-heart trap. I explained that he could leave a $60 check with the Humane Society. It would be returned uncashed when he brought the trap back. The trap cost $5 a week rental, with no limit on cats. You simply put some leftover meat in the trap and, bingo, curiosity does the rest.
Charlie asked whether the society would accept unferal cats.
I told him state law made the society save unferal cats for three days should someone want to redeem them. The obvious feral ones, like a whole batch of homeless kittens, were injected immediately. There wasn't room for 500 cats and 300 dogs all at once.
To thank me for my advice, Charlie invited me to dinner. He was wearing an apron bearing the famous poem by the late cat cartoonist B Kliban:
Also at dinner were a visiting husband and wife named Frank and Eloise. Their cat, Snookums, was being baby-sat at their home in Los Gatos. I told Frank and Eloise of my friends in Los Angeles whose cats did self-indulgent things like spraying on my house gift.
Eloise said she loved cats because they're so deliciously selfish and sensual. Throughout history people have admired the cat's unabashed skill at instant gratification.
She said power people like Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler, hated cats. "A cat won't knuckle under like a dog," she smiled. "You won't get satisfaction that easy from a pussycat."
Eloise reported that the famous Florence Nightingale owned 60 cats. She named them after powerful men of her day like Benjamin Disraeli and Prince Otto Von Bismarck. She wouldn't travel without them.
Eloise told Charlie his neighbor's cat pooped in Charlie's carport to prove he was Top Cat. "The cat feels inferior because he's smaller than you. Never stare a cat down, Charlie. It makes him feel rotten."
Charlie said, "I can't stand to look at him." (Charlie's a carpenter who refuses to work under houses where there've been cats. The smell.) "He likes you," Eloise explained. "He befriends you precisely because you don't stare him down."
"He's got my number."
"You could put it that way," Eloise murmured.
She explained that every cat, including her Snookums, simply needs fair play: lots of meat (Snookums would die without meat), bottled water (the smell of chlorine turns Snookums off), a food dish cleaned without soap or detergent (which upsets Snookums' delicate taste buds), a sparkling litter box cleared after every do-do.
"The greatest pleasure in the world is to win Snookums' affection with a purr."
Charlie wondered whether Snookums was neutered.
"Good Heavens, no!" Eloise's husband Frank interjected. Snookums had been vasectomized, but never castrated. "A vasectomy's not cheap, but worth every dollar of it," Frank declared. "Snookums still goes out catting with the best of them." Unaware of his sterility.
"And females should have their tubes tied," Eloise added. "Never spay them. A spayed female gets fat and lazy."
Charlie suggested a bumper sticker: "You breed 'em, you feed 'em."
"Here, here," Eloise and Frank agreed.
I suggested to Eloise that maybe Snookums had become Eloise's id, doing things that Eloise didn't dare. "The id. That wild instinct which Freud claimed our Ego forces us to suppress. The Pleasure Principle."
I said, "Cats are very up front about looking out for No. 1, marking their territory, and making sure their gastronomic and aphrodisiacal needs are met."
(I really meant flat out hunger and sex, but my Ego prevented my id from saying it up front.)
Frank and Eloise countered that Snookums was much more than their surrogate id. Wasn't it the famous French philosopher Michel de Montaigne who had observed, way back in the sixteenth century, "When I play with my cat, who knows whether she diverts herself with me, or I with her. I have my time to refuse, she also has hers." A cat makes you feel wanted. Frank and Eloise phoned Los Gatos daily so Snookums could hear their voice.
But how many cats does one need to fulfill one's need to feel needed? There was that woman in Fortuna last year with 54. When the Humane Society got on her case, her bathtub was full of feces, and she had hardly enough space on her own bed to crawl in.
And Amelia Carson, the last surviving local member of Eureka's famous Carson Mansion clan, left her million dollar estate to her cats. Over the years she'd buried 70 in her orchard. Another 17 wrapped in baby blankets were nestled in tin boxes in Amelia's attic.
And there's that fellow Ye Yo in Old Town with his many cats who confronts his naysayers with his self-styled "Eviction Resistance Headquarters."
And there's another cat lady friend who spends midnights luring feral cats into her own have-a-heart trap. Once sequestered in her tiny apartment, she has no room for guests, no chance for travel. Her savings go to feed her cats.
Eloise understood. She said that stray cats should be considered rather like the homeless: not a problem so much as a dilemma. "You can solve a problem. You can only manage a dilemma."
I said I'd discovered that if you're friendly to the neighbor's cats, and don't hiss them away, and leave the top off your compost box so they can rummage in it, and let them hunt birds in your hedge, then they assume your yard is their territory, and they quit pooping in the lettuce.
They poop next door, instead.
I knew that for a fact. I'd seen the man kitty-corner across the street running fishline around the top of his fence in a futile effort to keep the cats out of his yard that used to poop in ours.
It's like trickle-down economics.
If it's not in your yard, it's not your problem.
Charlie's still undecided whether to head for the Humane Society and get that have-a-heart trap. Or just have a heart. He says his Id tells him to go for it, but his Ego cares how his neighbor will feel when he misses the cat.
I told Charlie that if he were a cat his id would win.
It always does.
Now, here in King Salmon, another cat lover has started showing up every morning in his car at the end of Cod Street.
He collects leavings from the Elks Club and feeds the cats.
He hangs around long enough to feel needed. Then he splits.
Wally Graves taught for many years in California State Universities and has resided in Humboldt County since 1979.
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