Saturday, November 15, 2008

Books of a Feather: Feline Friends

Well, I said I had today's topic worked out and this is it. I didn't want to do it yesterday, because I'd just done the "Books of a Feather", and it's not an interesting feature if I do it constantly, every day.

I have been a cat lover literally since I was old enough to understand what a cat was. My first cat friend lived across the street from me and used to climb on the garage roof to look at me in my crib. Neither of my parents had ever had cats growing up, or had been much interested in having them as adults, but I wanted one so badly they decided to try it out. I definitely converted them, and they still have two cats that they got after my sister and I moved out. My sister has three cats, and she even fosters cats. I have two cats (whom you can visit on their Catster pages).

So, I've always been attracted to books about cats. I have three great ones for today: Cat Stories, by James Herriott; The Cat Who'll Live Forever by Peter Gethers; and My Cat Spit McGee, by Willie Morris.

James Herriott wrote a wonderful series of books about his experiences as a veterinarian in rural England. He started in medicine around the 1930s or 1940s, and retired fifty years after. It was an exciting time in medicine, and probably one of the most moving of his stories was about his first experience of the miracle of the antibiotic drugs, which were still experimental when he decided to try them as a last-ditch effort to save a flock of cattle. Herriott worked primarily with large animals, but was sometimes charged with the care of domestic cats and dogs. Cat Stories culled the best of the cat-related tales from his books and placed them in one volume.

The other two books are more biographical. In fact, I purchased My Cat Spit McGee from the biography section. It tells the tale of Morris's conversion from a lifelong cat-hater to a devoted cat person, after he marries the Cat Woman. Spit McGee was the sole survivor of his litter, born to a young cat mother who couldn't take care of her kittens properly and hid them under the foundation of the house. Spit McGee enjoyed the freedom of an outdoor life in Alabama, although he had some dangerous adventures, including a run-in with a possum and a motorcycle. Spit has a variety of feline companions that cycle through the story, cat ownership being more fluid in Morris's neck of the woods than I'm used to, I guess.

The saddest of all is The Cat Who'll Live Forever. This is the conclusion of a trilogy of books about Norton, the globe-trotting Scottish Fold. As you may have guessed from the foreboding title, Norton does not, in fact, live forever. This is the story of Norton's long illness and Gethers's dedicated effort to care for him, and ultimately, to let him go. This is not as happy a book as the other two I'm highlighting today, but it's beautiful in its own way. Gethers's dedication to Norton's comfort and happiness is inspirational, and it will help any pet owner who has been through the sad process of saying goodbye. I used to post frequently on the Craigslist pet forum and often quoted the advice from Gethers' vet: that when it's time to put your pet to sleep, you'll know.

If you think about it objectively, pet ownership is a strange thing. It's weird to take an animal into your home, when one of the original purposes of homes was to keep animals out. If it's a cat, you've most likely got a box full of excrement and what's basically expensive sand, somewhere right inside. Yet you come to care for them, and love them, and they seemingly love you back, and devote themselves to you more than any person ever would (if you go outside to take out the garbage, is your spouse waiting at the door when you come back in? if you leave your living room and go into the computer room, would your spouse wake up from a dead sleep to follow you in there and go back to sleep by you?). They also seemingly have personalities as distinct as humans (more distinct than some of them). And yet, you know right from the beginning that the pet is not going to survive you and that heartbreak is implicit in the deal. Each of these three books answers, in their own way, the question of why people do it, and what they get back.

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