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Recognition of the tulku

One of their foster cats had just had her litter.

"Do you want a kitten?" he asked.
"Yes and no," I replied.
"It's up to you," he said. But he didn't hesitate to show me pictures.

It's one thing to say you're not ready for a pet, that having pets is sketchy, that you at least need some time to recuperate from the last one. It's been five months, and I've cleansed my apartment -- the way I should have done four years ago. And this isn't just "getting a kitten," it's taking in a kitten that might not get adopted from the shelter, no matter how cute he is.

I have been developing an ethical discomfort with having a pet. People get pets for what they get from pets: attention and dependence. I am no exception, and I have a high standard for that kind of gratification of narcissism: I want my cat to be downright cuddly and affectionate. Ethically, it is simpler to have a dog. Dogs have become explicitly the creatures of humans, especially in the bizarre variety of their shapes and sizes. They do work for people, and their natural inclination is hierarchical. Dogs, like some prison inmates, are simply happier when they are under the firm direction of someone else.

I have a medium-term plan to raise a dog or two, and I think I would like border collies. I am, after all, a cat person, and a reserved dog that's neurotically focused on its own agenda seems like a good match. I want to do this in a place where I have room to give the dog work to do, and plenty of time of time to teach its jobs to it. I am a problem solver, inspired by horror stories of anxious border collies retrieving paperclips and scraps of paper and bringing them, one by one, to their owners, or penning the family's children into a corner of the back yard. I think, "What a satisfying expression of understanding, commitment, and balance to raise a border collie to be happy and well-behaved."

Except that I am a cat person and an urban dweller, besides. Cats are the only sensible choice for the time being, in spite of my ethical distress about imprisoning an animal whose behaviors are focused on the outside world. That said, I can't really know what cats think or want, so my discomfort ultimately has more to do with what it means to create dependence in another in exchange for affection.

I was "lucky" with my last two cats: one had a spinal-cord injury, the other a metabolic disorder. They required protection. Still, I don't have very much trouble justifying keeping a healthy cat inside. My mother says she feels sorry for tigers in the zoo, because they pace so compulsively in pens thousands of times smaller than their natural ranges. She feels no such sympathy for lions, she says, who seem to be thrilled to wake up occasionally and be fed. I suspect domestic cats are more like lions than tigers.

The vast majority of homeless cats are not wild, even if they are resourceful. They are the result of dumping tinged with the idea that it will be "educational" for the kids to see Sprinkles go through the experience of pregnancy and kitten birth. Sprinkles's fate is sealed by men who are reluctant to get their animals' scrotums emptied. While this social anxiety deserves some compassion, it's rough to see it projected onto animals.

For whatever reasons -- control, inattention, misguided notions about sanctity or education -- we as a society create this population of animals. We have a responsibility to house them as we can. Even PETA's public face acknowledges that pet ownership simply is. (And for all of its hostility toward restraint of animals, PETA explicitly advocates making all cats indoor cats.)

I just happened to have a carrier in the car when I visited Bill and Jen to examine the candidate kitten. This time I held out for what I was looking for when I ended up with The City of New Orleans: a friendly young male with regular tabby markings and no blotches of white. I held him, and he was clearly frightened at first, but he adapted quickly. Soon enough, he was snoozing in my arms, looking for all the world like he owned me.

The drive home was no fun for him, huddled in the corner of the carrier, silent but wakeful. I put the carrier on the bed while I set up the cat box and put out food, water, and a little processed milk. I showed him the food, water, and box and then held him for a while. A little trembly at first, within moments he was purring, eyes squeezed shut.

The morning of the first day was not as quiet. There was a great deal of mewling as he realized his siblings were all absent. During the day, there was also a great deal of hiding, including a determination to remain behind the oven in spite of extreme hunger. An attempt on my part to lure him out with fingers dipped in milk prompted a prescription for antibiotics. (I've never had a cat bite me so hard he broke through my fingernail before.) He was just crazed with hunger, as he demonstrated when I got an iota of sense in my head and stuck a ladle full of milk back there instead of my hand.

By night it was much quieter, at least inside the apartment. The fireworks didn't seem to phase the new arrival. Now he only crawls into little hide-y holes to explore and nap, and he's eating regularly and being in all ways a gratifying animal companion. He's even made scrambling into my lap a regular part of his circuit around the apartment.

Maybe I'll end up with another wumpus after all.

July 5, 2002