Confessions of a “Petophile”

(# Bless the beasts and the children… #)
I seem to have a mutual affinity for animals and children. Other people’s pets readily take to me, even those whose owners consider them to be basically unfriendly with most people. Babies and children like me, too, and I respect them. Children and animals are not easily fooled. They can read people pretty well. They seem to realize what a kind, non-threatening person I am, and they trust me. At least animals are not color-prejudiced. When I was teaching public school, all my students liked me. I give you my methods of how to relate to children in my blog entitled Parenting 101.

When I was a kid living in South Bend, my family kept only pets that required minimum care. We had several goldfish for a time (any of which we called “Fish”), a little turtle another time (which we called “Turtle”), and a parakeet (which we called “Bird”). It seems that we didn’t bother much with pet names in those days. We also took care of a couple of cats at different times, which we adopted when they kept coming around to our yard. One was an orange-striped female named Carmel (as in “car’mel corn”). We don’t know how she died. We found her underneath the house one day, dead.

I like snakes and had thought about getting myself a boa constrictor whenever I got my own apartment in NYC. I even went shopping for one at my local pet store, but I changed my mind. I didn’t want to pay that much for one (I think it was about $50, probably more, and I didn’t have much money in those days), and I didn’t want to have to deal with the mice that I had to feed it every few weeks. So I passed on that little venture. I would like a chimpanzee for a pet, if I had the facility. They seem to be playful and fun.

Dogs and I didn’t always have this respectful rapport with each other, however. As a kid, I was a bit afraid of strange dogs because they would chase me all the time. Well, I guess they couldn’t chase me if I were not running, but I wasn’t going to stand there and let them possibly bite me. I would be walking through an alley or somewhere and somebody’s old yard dog would growl and bark at me, and startled, I would start to run. And then they’d come after me (some were not chained up or anything). I always outran them, thankfully, and I’ve never been bitten, but the occasional ordeals certainly did not endear me to embrace canine familiarity. I didn’t overcome my cynophobia until I got to college in Bloomington and started meeting my friends’ pet pooches.

I love puppies, though. In fact, I like all baby animals. Aren’t they precious? My favorite dog breeds are probably Dalmatians (they are so pretty), golden retrievers and German shepherds, but I prefer small dogs to the larger ones. My family didn‘t have any dogs while I was growing up, although my stepfather kept one for a while after I had left home, and my sister, Debbie, has had a dog with each of her two marriages, but not anymore. Her two daughters, however, both have dogs. I would never have a dog myself. My Manhattan apartment is so tiny, a dog wouldn’t have enough room to romp and play. There is hardly enough room here for myself. I wouldn’t subject a poor dog to such an environment. Jeez, what am I saying? I live in a place that’s not fit for a dog to live in!

Then too, most dogs require too much care and attention, at least more than I am willing to give them. I suppose that some dogs are intelligent in some respects. You can teach them tricks and such, but I have never been able to understand why most dogs cannot be properly toilet-trained like cats are. All this putting down newspaper for puppies and taking them outdoors to do their “bidness” when they get older, would be such a bother to me. I mean, sometimes I stay in the house for days on end. Maybe I don’t want to go out. Why won’t dogs use the bathroom or a litter box like everybody else? I never had to teach any of my cats how to use the litter box. They seem to know instinctively, even the kittens. A dog can be trained to restrain from shitting and pissing in the house and to hold it until they go out for their walk, so why can’t they be taught to use the toilet in the bathroom?

I also do not like the sounds that dogs make. I can’t abide their incessant barking, at least those who do that, and they even make noise when they walk and breathe. Cats are quiet and clean. Dogs stink and carry fleas and ticks. Most dogs hate to be left alone for even a short period of time. Cats seem much better to be able to cope with temporary separation. Dogs are always up in your face wanting to play. I suppose I would appreciate their utter devotion and unbridled enthusiasm, but sometimes I just want to be left alone. Cats understand this, being that way themselves, you see. We do seem to have similar temperaments and the same sense of independence about us. So you see, rather than someone who likes dogs and cats equally as well, I am more of a cat person who will take a cat over a dog any day. I don’t mind other people’s dogs. I just wouldn’t have one myself to care for.

Ain’t that cute?

As long as I can remember, I have loved cats, the wild variety as well as the domestic kind. I would like to have a friendship with a big cat, like a tiger or lion or cheetah or leopard or jaguar. I met a guy once who owned an ocelot, which he paid a few hundred dollars for, and it lived with him in his small Greenwich Village apartment. I heard later that the poor animal died not too long after he got it, probably from being confined in such a small space. He was so beautiful! (So was the ocelot.)

I also met a serval years ago, who belonged to a male couple in Warwick, NY, where the Flirtations had a gig one night. A serval is an African wildcat, similar to a lynx, with long ears and a tawny, spotted coat. The difference here is, however, this cat is not as large as an ocelot, and these guys lived in a large, two-story rural house with plenty of romping room for the animal.

Although I was doing quite a bit of touring from 1975 to 2015, since I’ve been in New York, I have managed to house and care for a total of 15 cats! My very first NY cat and one of my favorites was a gray-with-black-stripes male shorthair, whom I named Puki. I didn’t know what the name meant at the time; I thought I had made it up. But it sounds Hawaiian, perhaps, doesn’t it? I later learned, from a Filipino friend of mine, that it is the Tagalog word for “pussy.” How about that? I acquired Puki from a friend at 2-months-old, and he was only 2-years-old when I lost him. I would take Puki out for walks to Central Park, and he would walk right alongside me, without a leash! Puki was a Pisces and seemed fascinated by water. He used to hang out in the bathroom while I would be taking my bath (my first apartment did not have a shower) and even when I was running my water. He slept lying across my pillow above my head every night. He was so cute and sweet and adored me, apparently.

For 10 months, as a favor to a friend, I took in a couple of females named Pinky and Sapphire. Sapphire was returned eventually, and Pinky got out one day and ran away, while in another person’s care. While I still had these three, however, [Miss] Kitty came into my life. She just wandered into my apartment building one day, from who knows where, and seduced me into keeping her. I’m not even sure how old she was at the time, but not yet full-grown. She was the best cat ever, and she outlasted all the rest. She was my sweetheart, my baby. She was basically black with brown markings. She was always in perfect health. I had to take her to the vet only twice—for her initial shots and when I had her spayed after her second litter.

I was on the go a lot in those days—I even changed apartments twice during that time—but Kitty stayed by me through thick and thin. During the spring of 1978, I had the good fortune to go on tour with Harry Belafonte as one of his backup singers. That year we did pan-Canada, Bermuda and Monte-Carlo. During the three months I was away, I had sublet my apartment to a man who agreed to look after my two cats during my absence. Fred turned out not to be very reliable, however. One day a mysterious fire occurred somewhere in the building, and Fred freaked out and fled the premises, leaving Puki and Kitty behind.

When I eventually came back to my abandoned apartment after the tour several weeks later, there was Kitty, sitting on my bed, waiting for me! I don’t know what kept her alive all that time. How and what did she eat? Puki had apparently run off somewhere (maybe to look for me or something to eat?), and he didn’t come back. But if Kitty left, too, at some point, she didn’t stay away, because there she was! She never told me how she managed without me all those months. Maybe some cats do have nine lives. Kitty had already survived two fires. That will always remain a mystery, I guess. (“Is a puzzlement!”)

The Animal Planet cable channel aired a series called “My Cat From Hell” that dealt with problematic felines. A “cat behaviorist” named Jackson Galaxy visited cat owners’ homes and tried to fix the disharmony between them and their regarded evil, unruly cats. Around Christmastime in 1978, as a favor to a friend of mine, I took in the anathema of all cats. I think this cat certainly would have qualified for the show. Her given name was Princess, but I renamed her Amneris (another spiteful bitch princess). She was a campus cat (my friend taught European History at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey), so I guess she preferred to be outdoors.

That cat hated my and everybody else’s guts. Although I constantly tried my best to bond with her, she never did warm up to me or the other cats, in three-and-a-half years! Even my being the patient person that I am, I don’t know why I put up with her for as long as I did. She stayed hidden under things all the time and would not socialize with any of us. She would hiss and growl at anyone who would come near her. She wouldn’t even come out of hiding to use the litter box in the bathroom and started doing her business right where she was. I told the bitch, ‘If you shit on my floor one more time, you are out of here!‘ Of course, she did anyway. Since I was obviously keeping her against her will, I decided to give her her freedom. ‘Have a good rest of your life, Miss Thing. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!’

In the spring of 1980 I decided that it was time for Kitty to experience childbirth, so I adopted a month-old beige-with-tan-stripes male and named him Radamés (aka Roddy). For them it was love at first heat. While neither of them were fixed at the time, I’ve often wondered why Puki had never knocked her up during the time they spent together. Maybe he was gay? Hmm. That would explain a lot.

Kitty’s first confinement bore her two solid black male kittens, whom I named Kwame and Otomo (Swahili names). They were virtually identical except for Kwame’s white whiskers. Kwame (or was it Otomo?–I don’t remember which) became my shadow very early on, when he used to follow me around the apartment, everywhere I went. I had to check where I stepped because he was always underfoot. I suppose I was flattered to have this kitten’s unbridled love for me. In less than four months later Kitty again gave birth, this time to a litter of six! But I pulled a “Sophie’s Choice” number on her when I told her that she could keep only two, so she obediently let the other four die.

The two survivors, both male, became Roddy Junior, who looked just like his sire, and Itzhak, also solid black, but who was born with a deformed or “crippled” tail, hence the name. Get it? So then there were six (count ’em, six) fucking cats (all male except for Kitty) in my little one-room apartment! I had gotten rid of Amneris by this time. And did those critters work my nerves! I can understand what the parents of the Dilley Sextuplets must have gone through. All day long it was, ‘Stop that! Don’t! Get down from there! Hey, y’all! Quit!’ I thought, Wait a minute! Who’s paying the rent here? These damn cats have taken over this place!

A Clowder of Cats

One night, as I was lying in my loft bed reflecting on the day before falling off to sleep, I noticed that Kitty was not in the bed with me, as she always (or nearly always) slept with me. I didn’t remember seeing her all day, in fact. When did I see her last? I couldn’t recall. I called her, got up, turned on the lights and looked for her. She wasn’t in the apartment. Hmm, where could she be, and how did she get out? I penned a note explaining Kitty’s absence and asking for help in recovering her and posted it on the wall in the hallway in front of the stairs, so that the other tenants would see it (I am on the first floor), then went on back to bed.

Well, the very next morning, there was a knock on my door. It was my upstairs neighbor, Brenda. She said to me, “Why are you just now asking about your cat?” ‘Because I just missed her last night.’ “Just missed her?” she queried incredulously. “I have had this cat at my place for the last three weeks!” I stood there mouth agape, dumbfounded. ‘Get out of here, Brenda! How could that be? Three weeks?!’ “I’m not shitting you, Cliff. I found this cat wandering the halls three weeks ago and took her in. I didn’t know that she was yours.” I thought back to the night of our tenants’ meeting, when I was standing in my doorway talking to my neighbor down the hall. Kitty had a habit of running out into the hall whenever I opened my door, but she always, or usually, ran back in before I closed it. Apparently, this time I didn’t see her and had locked her out. I checked the calendar. That meeting was indeed exactly 21 days ago!

To this day, I don’t know how I could have gone three whole weeks without even missing my favorite pet! I guess it was because with all those other cats here, the food was getting eaten up, and I was scooping the litter daily. Kitty was very quiet even when she was here and kept a very low profile. But that’s still no excuse, not even to notice that she was gone all that time. Why didn’t I miss her in my bed all those nights? Don’t parents with multiple children do a head count every night before they go to bed? I must have been abducted by aliens those three weeks, and my memory was erased, or something. That has to be my greatest remorse as an otherwise responsible parent.

In November 1981 Roddy Sr. died of uremic poisoning caused by urethral blockage, enroute to the vet. His ailment was caused by too much dry food in his diet. The high ash content in those commercial dry cat foods is detrimental to a male cat’s urinary tract. I never knew this, however, since none of the Meow Mix TV commercials have ever imparted this important little fact to us pet-owner consumers. Economically, the dry food boxes go a lot farther than the individual meat-filled cans. I had no idea that my choice was jeopardizing anybody’s health. So in essence, I suppose that I unwittingly killed my cat.

A month later I had to leave for another lengthy tour and I couldn’t get anyone to take my kittens for me, so I gave them all to the ASPCA for adoption (or whatever they do to them there). That left only Miss Kitty, and she had me all to herself again, when I returned.

In the summer of ’82, while I was doing Show Boat in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, two sweet, little 3-month-old male kittens (they probably were brothers) were entrusted to me to look after during my 3-week stay there. I named them Gaylord and Hamilton after the lead character from the show. (Gaylord Ravenal plays the Parson Hamilton Brown in the play done on the showboat.) I decided not to keep them, so I left them on the premises when I returned to NYC. I don’t remember who was looking after Kitty while I was away that time.

I acquired another male kitten in the summer of ’86, but Kitty didn’t like him for some reason. I expect that she had become more possessive of me in her advanced age. So I gave Hermés (pronounced “air-MESS”) to my artist friend, Leonardo, as a housewarming gift, who, in turn, left him with his roommate when he moved to Florida the following year. I finally had to give up Kitty as well in 1990, when I got busy with the Flirtations and traveling most of the time, and entrusted her to my late boyfriend, Jim, who lived in East Orange, New Jersey. He subsequently gave her up, leaving her there with his former roommate, when Jim moved to another town. I don’t know where Kitty ended up. I suspect that she was at least 15-years-old when I saw her last!

Portrait of me and Miss Kitty. Artist: Leonardo Scirica

Now that I was not traveling much anymore in 1995 and was staying close to home, I decided that I would like to have another cat to keep me company. So when I saw the notice on a bar’s bulletin board that a man in my neighborhood had a whole slew, or rather clowder, of cats that he was trying to get rid of, I agreed to take one of them off his hands. When I went to this guy’s apartment, there were 21 (!) cats of varying sizes and ages on the premises, so you can understand his urgency. And I thought that I was the crazy cat person!

There was an attractive, 5-month-old male there who took an instant liking to me, and I almost took him, but I learned from my past experiences that male cats are more of a problem than females. There is that diet precaution in regard to dry food and their urinary tract, and they tend to spray when they reach a certain age. They have this thing about marking their territory, you see. Puki had done it, to my dismay. But it wasn’t so much that, as I have since learned how to deal with them. The thing is that I wanted a little kitten so that I could watch it grow. Besides, I just love kittens!

So I settled upon a frisky, 10-week-old female who was black with white feet, underbelly and whiskers. I named her Kutjing, which is Indonesian for “cat,” but she also earned several nicknames. I started calling her “[W]Hornella,” because of both her seemingly insatiable horniness and whorishness. From the time that she was 11 months old until I had her spayed 13 months later, she had gone into regular heat periods practically every other week. She would be in estrus for several days at a time and then a week later, she’d be ready to go again! Before I had Kitty spayed, she didn’t go into heat nearly that often.

I found ways to relieve Kutjing’s sexual frustration temporarily, by probing her vagina with Q-Tips and other makeshift kitty dildoes, but it didn’t last her very long. She seemed never to get enough. All day long all I heard was “Fuck me, Papi!” (in “Caterwaulese,” of course). Another nickname was “Acrobata,” because of her athletic prowess. She loved to jump and climb on everything, including me!

I got into a discussion one time with some other pet owners about whether dogs and cats recognize their given names. I offered that if they do, then my cat must have thought that her name was “Git-down!” She certainly heard that more often than her other names. Her subsequent spaying, however, did render the “Whornella” epithet obsolete, and I replaced it with “Thumper” (like Bambi’s little bunny friend). She developed this new habit of loudly banging her feet and/or tail against the floor, the door, the bathtub or the refrigerator on frequent occasions.

Kutjing was rather willful and tended to do as she pleased, to hell with me! And she had an infuriating habit of knocking things onto the floor, anything that was not fastened down. Besides my souvenir glass vase, she broke a mirror, a clock and my blender, among other things, and made a shambles of my vinyl LP record collection by using the edges as her personal scratching post. She wouldn’t go near the one made specifically for that purpose, and for which I paid $15! She was actually very sweet and affectionate, just so damned hard-headed!

I look at it this way. I considered this cat, and all the others in my care, to be my adopted children, and if you have a problem child, you don’t just turn them in for a better model when they don’t do what’s expected of them. That’s not fair to the child or to the next people who get them. Being my responsibility, I just had to deal with it. In the case of Amneris, however, she displayed no redeeming qualities and seemed to be a hopeless cause. I did my best with her, to no avail, so she had to go.

On March 24, 2002, Palm Sunday, I went to church as usual, and when I returned home in the early afternoon, I found Kutjing dead. I don’t know the cause of death. I do know that only the day before, she had stopped eating and was lying around more than usual, not her normal, energetic self. On the surface she didn’t seem to be in any kind of pain, but I knew something was wrong, I just didn’t know what. It all happened so suddenly, and being a weekend, I didn’t even have a chance to take her to a vet. I just put the poor little thing in a shopping bag and set her outside with the trash.

So then I was alone again for the next 14 years. By 2005 I had started traveling and cruising a lot with the New York Vagabonds, and it was not convenient at that time to keep a pet, as I don’t have a regular sitter and I don’t like to impose upon anyone. Now that the Vagabonds were on an indefinite, extended hiatus, I was in the position to care for another cat, although I was not actively looking for one. But when my musician neighbor, Clarissa (she is a cellist), asked me to look after Midnight, a solid black (except for a white patch on her underbelly) female cat, for a few days while she was out-of-town, I agreed. Clarissa called on me a few more times, but the last time I took Midnight for her, she neglected to take her back. So after two years, I considered Midnight my cat.

It turned out that Midnight liked me more than she did her original owner. Clarissa is more high-strung and tended to yell at the cat all the time, which I don’t think she liked. I am the more laid-back, even-tempered type. I never raised my voice to her, not that she ever gave me any reason to, and I managed to gain her trust. She loved sitting in my lap and being petted and caressed. She even nuzzled me and licked my head. She never did any of that with Clarissa. This cat was quite well-behaved. She was old and just slept most of the time. During our time together we formed a close and loving bond. She was affectionate and had a very cute and expressive face.

Midnight went to the “heavyside layer,” relieving me of her company on January 28, 2019. For more than a week prior, I noticed that something was wrong. She stopped eating and became so weak. She couldn’t even climb up on her favorite chair. She died peacefully in my arms. There you have an account of my children, or rather, foster children, or the closest I’ll probably ever get to having any.

I once had a friend who was about to move in with his new lover, who lived with a cat. Tristan had never owned a cat and didn’t know anything about them. So he asked me one day, “How do I relate to a cat? What are they like?” I told him to regard a cat just like he would any other person. They are all individuals with their own personality and temperament. No two are exactly alike, just like humans. Just get to know the cat and treat him accordingly, I told him.

I don’t take too agreeably to the practice of the buying and selling of animals. The same objection goes for professional propagators—people whose job it is to breed dogs and other animals for the sole purpose of selling the offspring for lots of money. Animals belong to nature, and I don’t think it’s right for someone to capitalize on them by putting a price tag on them. It’s not right to sell children or other people for profit, so why should innocent animals be similarly exploited? But that’s me.

I heard a news report that at any one time there are 8 million dogs, alone, who don’t have homes. So I don’t understand why, when the animal shelters in this country are desperate to have people take the dogs and cats they have off their hands, prospective pet owners will go to a pet shop and pay for one instead.

I have never paid for any of the pets that I have cared for. Why would somebody pay sometimes hundreds of dollars for a certain breed of dog, when they probably could have gotten the exact same kind for free at their local ASPCA facility or animal shelter? Then they keep on breeding more and more instead of adopting the ones already here. And what about those people who pay thousands of dollars for tropical fish! For what? All they do is swim around and look pretty. And then there’s the life uncertainty of living creatures. Do you want to pay a lot of money for an animal who may die within a couple of months, or less, of purchase? Just like that guy with the ocelot; that was a waste of good money. If you get a pet that you didn’t pay for and something happens to it, at least you haven’t lost any money.

I acquired all of my cats by direct adoption. But the time I tried to obtain one from a shelter, I was put through so many changes, I ended up not going through with it. It was as if I were trying to adopt a human child. What is my prior experience as a cat owner? What kind of parent will I be? Will I be at home most of the time to take care of the cat, and if I do have to go away, do I have a reliable, responsible person to watch her in my stead? Yes to all of that, not that it’s any of their business. After filling out all those questionnaires and such, they told me that they would let me know what they decide. They never did get back to me. How dare they question my parenting credentials. Unlike them, at least I won’t be confining the cat in a cage! The fucking hypocrites! On second thought, maybe that’s why some people choose to go the pet shop route. If you are paying for a pet, they don’t ask you any questions. They just take the money and run. But here I am trying to do those other people a favor by taking an unwanted cat off their hands, and they give me a hard time about it!

It’s been said that New York City has everything, and that includes specialty pet shops. One, Connoisseur Critters, reputed for having very talented animals on hand for sale, is located near Lincoln Center, and a friend of mine, after visiting the store, had this report to relate. He went in only to browse. He feels the same way I do about paying a lot of money for pets. He likes birds, however, especially parrots, so he asked the store clerk to show him some of their more special merchandise. “That’s a pretty bird there. How much is it?” “$5,000.” “What?! Why so much?” “Well, that parrot can sing all the arias from every Mozart opera.” “It can? How about that colorful one right there? How much is that?” “That one goes for $10,000, and he can sing the entire Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle.'” “Get out of here! So what’s the story on that handsome fellow there next to him?” “I’m asking $20,000 for that one. He can sing all the arias and choruses from every Verdi opera!” “Wow! Too much! That’s incredible!” My friend was just about to leave the bird department when, in one of the cages, he spied an old, sad, disheveled, broken-down, decrepit, molting, pitiful-looking specimen of a parrot and said to the clerk, “That tired-looking number there must be cheap, at least. He looks like he’s on his last legs.” “Oh, but on the contrary, Sir. He’s worth more than all the rest. Try $40,000.” “You’ve got to be kidding! Forty-thousand for that thing?! What can he do in his condition?” “Well, I am not entirely sure, but all the other birds here call him ‘Maestro.'” (:Rimshot:)


–Ogden Nash

The mystical divinity of unashamed felinity…life to the everlasting cat, feline, fearless, faithful and true.”–T.S. Eliot

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