Recently my friend, Martha Schaefer, said the last farewell to her beautiful Arab mare, Duetz, and her daughters’ first pony, Nelson, as told to us in a post on her blog, Therapeutic Misadventures. Only days later, my neighbor had to put one of his two Bichon Frise brothers to sleep. Now he only walks one little white dog past my kitchen window every day.
The Impact Pets Have on Us
These sad events got me thinking about pets and their impact on our lives. I love animals of all kinds but have owned only cats over the years—mostly because they’re self-reliant, low maintenance and relatively cheap to care for. Compared to dogs, however, cats are the loners of the pet world. Although I love them, I recognize that most cats don’t give back as much as dogs do in the way of affection, support and unconditional love.
Then there was Spooky.
Spooky was different for a lot of reasons. We adopted her from a shelter because Houdini, the cat that lived with our family, was not just a loner but a misanthrope. His idea of being friendly was to be in the same room with us—but in the far corner with his back turned. Houdini never jumped up on the furniture, much less in our laps. And he was afraid of everything: plastic bags, strangers, loud noises, sudden movements, you name it. He never purred. Houdini acted as if he had been dropped onto an alien planet among a native species that tolerated his presence but might decide to eat him at any time.
We wanted a cat that would be friendly, a cat we could actually pat and that would curl up in a warm lap to keep us company. So we went to the shelter and toured the available adoptees until we came to a cage with a litter of mostly white kittens. They were piled up in the back corner like Tribbles but, as we approached, one kitten disengaged itself from the pile and came over. She was almost solid white with a smudge of gray on her tail and another on the top of her head. This kitten was outgoing and friendly and seemed to ask us to take her home. So we did.
Little did we know that we were getting a lot more than just another cat: We had acquired a Therapy Cat and the first project she undertook for treatment was Houdini.
Coming into a house with a large, male alpha cat is not easy for a small female kitten but Spooky tackled it with equanimity, persistence, and more than a little shrewdness. By her example, she showed him that cats can actually interact with their humans and that, when they did, they were rewarded with affection. She jumped on the couch, sat in laps, rubbed our ankles, got patted and talked to, enjoyed hugs. Houdini noticed. Spooky purred. Houdini paid attention.
He turned around to face the family when we watched TV. Gradually, he moved closer to us, if only by inches each day. One night, our son whispered, “Don’t move. I think Houdini is going to jump on the couch.” The Big Guy did and he never went back to his lonely corner. It was a big step and the first of many changes that Houdini made because of Spooky’s example. I have known people who weren’t so observant, much less able to change this much or this quickly. Eventually, Houdini went so far in overcoming his fears that he learned part of a cat’s job is to provide comfort and solace. If someone was sick or unhappy or stressed out, he would lie down on his human’s chest and let loose a huge, rumbling purr that said, “But it can’t be all bad because I love you.”
Sometimes Spooky manipulated the Big Guy shamelessly, however. Houdini liked to eat his dinner alone. So she would come up and sniff the base of his tail. He hated this, hated it. So he would stalk off in a huff of affronted dignity—and she would eat his dinner.
Working on the Family
But Houdini wasn’t her only project. Spooky also became our fearless companion cat. She was my gardening buddy, happy to sit nearby and watch me plant, water, weed, deadhead and mulch, all the while marveling at the industriousness of humans for no particular purpose that she could see. She would follow me around the yard like a puppy as I fetched and carried, hauled and dropped, staying close by to keep a curious eye on what I was doing.
Spooky was also my Chief Feline Officer. I spent one Sunday afternoon in my office at home, running final testing on a new website for Q1 Labs that was rolling out the next day. My contractor, Jon Rider, was on the phone and Spooky lay on the rug nearby to keep me company. The rollout went fine and I’m sure my purring CFO’s contribution made a big difference.
And anyone with a cold or a bad day could count on Spooky to pick up on the vibes and come over to share her unconditional love with us. When I was out of work in the tech depression after the dotcom bubble burst, she left a contribution on the front step every morning so we would have fresh meat for breakfast—mole, shrew, vole, or chipmunk—all neatly laid out and ready for consumption.
Houdini left us first. He went out one night when none of us knew that coyotes had infiltrated the neighborhood and never came back. We missed the new, friendly Houdini a lot but Spooky took to being the Queen of the Castle with great ease. She ruled it for many years, through the occasional comings and goings of our daughter’s cat, Scully, and our son’s big tom. Sweet Clyde. She aged with grace into the Grand Dame of the household although she never lost her sense of fun and mischief.
One May I came home from a week at the Interop trade show in Las Vegas and didn’t see her. I asked my husband where she was and he said she had gone out a couple of days earlier but hadn’t come back since then. I searched the neighborhood for a week, calling for Spooky but she never came back to us. Months passed before I stopped looking out the deck slider and the sidelight by the front door, hoping to see her little white face. I even kept an eye out for a scrap of white fur in the woods, something that would tell me what had happened to her, but I never found a trace. I don’t even have many good pictures of Spooky because in most of them she looks like an ectoplasmic blob with two pointed ears.
We Are Just Staff
Our current feline, Mystique, became ours when our son took Sweet Clyde and moved out of the house into a city, which she would have hated. She’s an okay cat, the kind of animal about which someone said, “Dogs have owners, cats have staff.” We are her staff and we do our jobs well. She eats gourmet food and spring water, gets her pill twice a day and goes out during the day but stays in at night. Mystique will sit on our laps when she wants to get warm and hangs around with us when she’s hungry or wants us to open the door so she can go out. It’s pretty much all about her. No therapy there.
We’ve had a number of cats over the years but Spooky was our only Therapy Cat and she was special in a lot of ways. As Martha pointed out, fall is the time of goodbyes and Halloween is a good day to think of Spooky even though I never got to say goodbye to her. I still miss her.