Warming Up to Cats

Confessions of a very late-life cat lover

The first pet I bonded with in life was a cat. Rhubarb was a fluffy white Persian, a soft cottony cloud who only occasionally clawed me as I dragged her around the house. Or so the family story goes; I was still in diapers and have no direct memories of any cat, aside from tattered black and white photographs in an old family album.

Years later, I learned there had actually been two Rhubarbs. The first version ran out on the highway and was hit by a car; my parents, not yet willing to introduce me to the mysteries of death, went out and found another white Persian, and I never noticed the switch. Cats really do have multiple lives, though I don’t know what became of Rhubarb 2.

Looking back, the white lie makes sense; my mother had the Southern ability not only to continually edit our family history but occasionally to write inconvenient characters completely out of the script. Never mind Rhubarb; to this day I wonder why Cousin Kenny, an occasional visitor and playmate when I was about 10, one day ceased entirely to exist. “You’ve never had a Cousin Kenny,” mother said, putting a firm end to any discussion.

Perhaps that explains my early distrust of cats, a feeling deeply rooted in Western culture. Mysterious and independent — and lending their name to possibly the worst Broadway musical of all time — cats have for centuries been the target of fear, scorn and abuse. This may be why for years they’ve come in second place — behind dogs, of course — as the most popular pet in the United States.

For the most part while I was growing up we were a family with dogs: a cuddly black cocker spaniel named Floppy. A tan cocker spaniel named Champ. A fiery little terrier named Spunky who was fond of nipping people he didn’t like.

Cats remained on the fringes of my life in those years. I took care of a dorm cat during my sophomore year in college, but failed to bond deeply with an animal whose only interest in me was to swat my face at dawn every morning, demanding food.

I easily took to dogs, though, and soon after I graduated from college I found myself the owner of an exceedingly bright German shepherd named Leda — I once counted dozens of English words she clearly understood. After a trip to the Canadian Arctic, where I fell in love with sled dogs, I returned home to L.A. and bought a purebred malamute, who acquired the name Elk. He was a joy to backpack with, as he could happily carry almost everything we needed for a weekend outing.

Then, all at about the same time, Elk and Leda reached the end of their natural lives, I married a woman who is not at all fond of dogs, and we moved to the country.

Enter, once again into my life, cats. After our rural farmhouse proved to be infested with mice, we decided that a cat — of the outdoor variety — would be the best solution. The job was taken by Wally, a mature charcoal gray cat who came from a friend moving into a pet-free apartment. Wally not only quickly reduced the mouse population but instantly befriended our infant son, and soon was invited to become an indoor/outdoor cat, a change he entirely approved.

He was the first of a series of indoor/outdoor mousers over several decades that included Rosie, Juniper and Prudence, all of whom did their jobs well but functioned more as cordial employees than family members.

Then came Bernstein. Named after journalist Carl Bernstein, he is a rescued feral barn cat who showed up in our lives soon after Prudence ended her mousing career. Camilla Mortensen, editor of this paper, mentioned one day she had one feral kitten too many in the small trailer where she lives with two large dogs, and didn’t I need a cat?

Seven years ago this fall Bernstein took over our household. A handsome gray tabby and an excellent mouser, he’s the smartest and most engaging cat I’ve ever been around. Though not quite as literate as my late German shepherd, he clearly understands enough words to navigate life among humans with finesse.

He is also devoted to me in a way that is practically doglike. Cats are not known for their loyalty, but Bernstein curls up in my office each evening after dinner, waiting for me to come in to sit and read or edit photos. He often asks, by jumping into the chair and meowing, to be spun in circles in an old office chair that’s largely his; other evenings he’ll tap on a box of toys he wants to play with and look to me to pull one out. At 10 pm he reminds me, if I seem to have forgotten, that it’s bedtime, and at 6 am each day I am awakened by a purring cat curled up on my right shoulder.

I still love dogs, but I’m definitely a cat person now as well. One of Bernstein’s many charms is that he is very low maintenance, requiring little more than a dollop of cat food in his dish twice a day and a spin in the chair in the evening.

Meanwhile, I enjoy the best of both worlds: As I’m writing this in my office at EW, a sweet-natured rescued pit bull named Biggie is curled up asleep next to my feet. He and a Rhodesian ridgeback named Aksel are full-time office dogs here, giving me plenty of canine play and affection — without all the time, energy and money that owning two big dogs requires.

And, after work, I get to go home to a loving cat.

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