I love my cat, Buster. I really do. But I also really wish that his idea of a Good Time didn’t so often involve lying in wait for my unwitting ankles, in order to attack them with claws and teeth.
Buster, I’m afraid, sees me as some sort of bizarre, giant, tail-less, hair-less cat. And the problem with this is that Buster knows that his Proper Place in the World is atop the Cat Mountain. It’s not like I didn’t know this when I got him. I was in the process of losing my First Cat to advanced age and kidney problems, and he had to stay in Massachusetts with my husband while I went home to Wisconsin – these being the days of yore, when we had a commuting marriage. There I was, in Madison, realizing that after 18 years of Domestic Feline Bliss, I no longer knew how to live without a cat. I did not know what to do when the carpet was just as clear of cat toys, trash, and hairballs when I returned home as when I left. I certainly did not know how to sleep in a bed that no other living creature was trying their best to hog. And I really did not know what to do with a quiet, sleepy home, without surprise rattles and thunks! and consequent yowls followed by the thunder of little padded feet with claws. What to do when I came home, with no animal to pet, no critter to greet me at the door? I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened, if ever. I come from a long line of Animal People.
After three or four days the silence of my home drove me to action. I knew that the local feed store hosted a satellite adoption center for the Dane County Humane Society, one that hosted, primarily, cats. And I thought that if I went by there and explained my tale of woe, perhaps they might let me go in and play with the kitties that were up for adoption. And that way I would get my Cat Fix and be able to sleep again. And so, I did tell the volunteer staff member about the enforced absence from my failing feline, and how much I missed him, and how much I would like to play with some cats. And so, I might as well have slapped a Here Comes A Sucker! sticker right across my forehead. And I would have deserved it, too, because the volunteer’s immediate response was “Absolutely! I completely sympathize! But first, why don’t you fill out the preliminary adoption papers, that way we have them on file for when you want to take one of these guys home.”
“Oh,” I said, “I do not want to adopt a cat now. I just want to play with them.”
“That’s fine,” she said, “We keep the paperwork on file for several months, so any time you can come back and we’ll have it for you here.”
“Oh,” I said, falling for this absolutely, “OK.” And I did. And she let me into the adoption center, which is configured rather like the shabby living room of the Crazy Cat Lady, only cleaner and rather more fresh smelling. The idea is that the cats all get out to play and show off, and the prospective parent can sit on the beat-up sofa and watch them, and that Matches may thus be Made. I sat happily. So did the volunteer, who began to pump me about my First Cat. Tybalt was an odd critter who showed up under some very peculiar circumstances, and who may also have been abandoned as a small kitten. All of this came out while I watched the cats play and petted the more affectionate ones.
“Oh,” she said to me, “I can tell you have a soft spot for a Hard Luck Case. You should meet ‘Duke’.”
“Duke,” I was told, had been picked up by Animal Control some four months earlier as a one-year-old kitten, and had apparently spent the winter outside fending for himself (yes, in Madison, Wisconsin) before he was hit by a car. The collision broke his jaws, and the year outside gave him infections in his eyes that had rendered him blind for a while until they healed. The rest of it was addressed with reconstructive surgery, and lots of it. He’d been in foster care those four months and had just that week been released into the adoption center, which was reserved for the more “adoptable” animals.
“Duke” was not out playing with the other cats. He had a special kennel all to himself on the side wall on a shelf. I asked why.
“Ah,” she said, “He has what we’d call a Very High Play Need.”
I asked what exactly that meant. She offered to show me. She opened the cage and I saw a fuzzy grey and white spotted cat rise, stretch, and flow out onto the floor. I picked him up to test his temperament. Animals that aren’t partial to physical demonstrations of affection won’t be happy in my home. He hung out, relaxed, in my arms, while I handled his paws as well. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what the problem was.
“Oh,” the volunteer said, “put him down. You’ll see.”
I did, and I did. “Duke” had taken advantage of his time in my arms to make a complete visual surveillance of the premises. And when he obtained his freedom, he started conquering the territory. He moved towards the closest cat, stalked it, pounced it, sat on it, and took its toy. As soon as he’d liberated the toy, he rose and moved on to Victim Number Two and did the same thing. And he continued his surgical strike of the room, not ceasing in his aggressive acts of Toy Theft and bullying until he’d subjugated every single other cat. Then he ascended to the top of the cat tree, taking the best toy with him, and started to have a calm bath. All of this, mind you, in perfect silence. Well, perfect silence with the exception of the outraged meows, squeaks, and whimpers of his prey.
I watched this in silence, myself, thinking of the incredible privations and danger that this cat had surmounted in his year and a half of life. The sheer spirit of him took my breath away. I was struck silent in Awe.
“I’ll take him.” I found myself saying. How could I not? How could anyone resist this creature? Not only was he incredibly strong, but he was as cute as they come, too. The only thing was that the name had to go. I know myself, and in no time flat I would have turned “Duke” – a fitting moniker – into “Dukie” – not so nice. I finished the paperwork that the volunteer had thoughtfully started, and arranged to return on the following day to retrieve my new animal. It came to me on the drive home: I would call him…Buster. As fitting a name as “Duke” if not even more so.
And so it has been. Seven years has Buster been resident in my house, and I love every hair on his furry body. He can be unbelievably cuddly and sweet – unbelievable given that 1) he’s a cat and 2) he grew up on the streets. The surgeons at the shelter did an amazing job with his face – only his vet can tell that he sustained terrible damage. He’s gone from being silent and hiding under the bed (when I brought him home) to sleeping like a 14 lb bowling ball on my knees all the night through. He’s gone from being twitchy at night to being a lap rug that gets along with absolutely everyone including my friend’s guide dog, Louise. He loves to travel. He comes when he is called. He follows me around the house. If I stay up too late at night, he lets me know it’s time to go to bed. He looks after me when I’m sick. And he’s still as cute as the day is long.
And this is why I put up with the other 30% of his time: because he considers me to be a huge hairless tailless cat, I am Fair Game to be pounced, attacked, sat upon, vanquished, and have my toy stolen. Because there can be no question, that High Play Need is still alive and well. So I go about my days, always with three or four partly healed scratches on my hands and ankles. And I don’t stand too close to any piece of furniture that is raised off the ground. And I do not put my hand near the bottom folds of the draperies. But the time inevitably comes when Buster signals me that the only acceptable response is to Stand And Fight. If I don’t answer his need for a fight, he ups the ante. Eventually, I will find myself being stalked by a flat-eared, crazy-eyed predator that is viciously sharp at every possible end…and the only way to settle this is to deliver a good battle, Cat Style. And so I stalk, and I pounce, and I leap. It seems that Buster considers my ability to stand and use both hands in an attack, and my greater size and mass, to be a Fair Exchange for my lack of protective fur and offensive weapons.
Generally – but only generally – I win. And really, in the bigger scheme of things, we have both won, more than we could ever have hoped for.