I AM NOT a cat person. Never have been, never will be.
Well, strike that last declaration, as of last month. That's when the mewlings of my 7-year-old finally produced the mewings of a 2-month-old calico kitten in the household.
After several name changes, the aforementioned feline is now dubbed Skittles by her would-be mistress, an amusing word play that encourages hopes that she may pass second-grade "language arts" after all.
While everyone has endured the infantile scratches of the animal as it learns how to climb and when to retract its claws, the curious kitten has quickly become an accepted member of the family. There has been a remarkably swift recognition by human and feline of the sensitivities and preferences of each other.
The greatest threat
The toddler remains the greatest threat to the young cat, with her fey and uninhibited attempts to squeeze the puzzled pet. Instead of scratching the tormentor, Skittles diplomatically finds a way to wriggle from her grasp, choosing flight to fight. The kitten has also learned that tidbits tossed from the highchair are often tasty morsels, another reason to avoid harming its unwitting benefactor.
The aging, mellow-tempered dog is no menace, and is indeed quite interested in the newcomer, which some nights cuddles up on the dog cushion to share warmth.
Despite doors being left open, the new arrival prefers to stay in the house rather than wander off, as so many mature cats do. The comforts of home are well-suited to its requirements, except for the feed bowl in the garage. And the litter box, for which the kitten uncannily (cattily?) signals us in prudent advance. This is an unalloyed joy for the matron of the home, whose experience in cleaning up abrupt accidents of children, dogs and guinea pigs is lamentably extensive.
Plans are to make this purring pet an outdoors cat. Firm directives and strategies have been drafted and articulated. Reasons for the decision have been fully explained: feline fur deposits, litter box access, demands on humans.
And, while we currently have no Bayeux Tapestry adorning the windows or walls, there remains the ever-present danger of cat claws shredding the upholstery, the furniture, the clothes.
For now, given its tender age and the need to wait another month for the crucial rabies shot, Skittles remains mostly a house kitten. Then there will be the onset of winter, reason enough to keep the animal indoors.
Then it will be spring, when the cat reaches sexual maturity and undergoes the responsible surgery. And, by then, the cat will have become tenaciously accustomed to the indoor manner, and manor.
So the odds are increasingly in favor of overthrowing original intentions and keeping the animal in the house. It's gradually happening, not by sloth or revised thinking, but by forces of nature and our reasonable responses.
That wouldn't have happened with a dog. Dogs move comfortably from indoor puppy basket to outside doghouse. Their initial ululations at the change quickly subside. Dogs love you in spite of their dislocation. They always want to be petted, to show their affection, and they can be trained to perform useful and entertaining tasks set by man.
Those are reasons that we have always been dog people. The main reason, however, is that these companion pet preferences seem to be hereditary, contained within our genetic reservoir and expressing themselves when the opportunity for choice arises. Dog people, cat people. It's not a matter of hating one or the other, but of ingrained preference.
Nevertheless, the capacity for individual change is also in those hidden genes that lie dormant for generations before being expressed. And so it was with our daughter, one of the cat people. And her feline affinity has awakened our appreciation of the animal's noble qualities.
Lions and wolves
Cats are fickle, 'tis true. They can nap comfortably on your lap, all warm puffball and soporific purring, then abruptly spring after some unseen prey or diversion with claws at full tilt. They don't always like to be petted or to satisfy human wishes. They are more lion than the average dog is wolf.
That wildness in even the most pampered of bedside tabbies is what makes them captivating creatures to observe. The unschooled kitten earnestly playing with the catnip mouse on the rug is reiterating the instinctive predator behavior of the feline family.
Pouncing and leaping are not mere games for this kitten; its curiosity about shadows and glass windows and such unknowns is not fatal, but educational. You can see the wisdom in its slit-eyed gaze, and feel the soothing in cradling the soft, purring pussycat.
Of course, lots of families may have both cat and dog, the merging of two distinct lines of human descent. But the conversion of dog lovers by a determined child was an unexpected event, all too easily entangling us in the cat's cradle.
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.
Pub Date: 11/22/98