Monday, August 29, 2011

Two and a Half Cats



We have a rather unique pet situation in our home. Our friends and neighbors (you know who you are) have a winter home in Florida, and for about 5 years now we’ve been taking care of their indoor/outdoor cat (Midnight, formerly Ophelia – another time) in their absence. In the beginning it was only for a couple of weeks at a time, so we basically catered to the cat. Each morning one of us (whoever couldn’t get out of the house fast enough to avoid being volunteered by default) would cross the street to our neighbors’ house and let Midnight out in the morning before school and work, then call her back in at night, often to the sound of her dry food container being shaken. That was fine for the short term, especially because Midnight was usually cooperative and willing to head back to the old homestead even if it meant being alone at night. I believe she probably relished the solitude – she had plenty of food and water and the queen size bed was finally hers alone. She didn’t even use the litter box, preferring instead to do her thing outside once she was released the next morning. I’m amazed she held out considering there were some weekend mornings where we all “forgot” about her until nearly noon.
A couple of years into this arrangement our neighbors began staying in Florida for several months and we needed an alternative plan to cat-sitting (insert t-shirt slogan: My neighbors went to Florida for the winter and all I got was cat duty). Remembering to run across the street to let her out when we were often already leaving the house late for school and work, and trudging over to let her back in to her house each night (in Maine, winter is any time after September, possibly before) just got to be too much. Attempting to make her an indoor cat would have required cement walls and metal curtains. We decided to introduce Midnight to her winter abode – Chez House #8.


Who’s Doing All The Adjusting Here?

I was sure we were probably crazy thinking Midnight might willingly enter our home, what with two resident cats – one clearly not accepting of any type of visitor and the other a descendant of Tigger who pounces on anything that moves (or doesn’t) – and a giant dog who is a big mush but still an intimidating presence (did I mention our golden retriever’s head is bigger than Midnight’s whole body?). Once she figured out where dinner was being served, though, it wasn’t such a hard sell.
In the beginning, we brought Midnight’s food over to our house and tried to feed her in a separate room from our two cats. Not surprisingly, our creatures decided Midnight’s dinner was just as good, if not better, than their own.  Our oldest cat is on a prescription cat food from the vet for kidney issues, so switching to Midnight’s brand wasn’t an option.
Cats are little Houdinis at conquering all obstacles when they find themselves on the other side of the barrier. After several failed attempts at feeding them separately (I had to wonder if one of them took a door opening class from Friskies or something), we opted to let Midnight eat our cats’ food. We definitely lucked out because she has had very few “digestive issues” by dining at her temporary digs and returning home to her less expensive, more colorful food.  At least she hasn’t left much evidence of it in our house. What she leaves at #5 stays at #5.

Kitty calisthenics

For the first couple of winters of this winter home arrangement it would take as much as a week before Midnight would appear at our door on her own when we called her, preferring instead to sit saucily on her own front porch, even in the middle of a snowstorm, until we trudged over to drag her across the street. Many times she would play “catch me if you can – and you can’t” and leap off the porch as soon as one of us had climbed those nine (felt like 20 in January) narrow steps to the neighbors’ front door. Eventually we would snatch the little fur ball up and carry her into our house where she would skirt the walls like a SWAT team member and ninja crawl her way down the basement steps. Somewhere still undiscovered by us (no amount of bribery would suffice in unveiling her secret), she found a sufficient hiding place, and from there she would cautiously slip out and scoff down a ration of food during the night, slink back to her niche and remain there until morning. Well, her version of morning. We’ll get into that in a little bit.
As time went on, Midnight adjusted to this arrangement as if she had made a reservation with us for the winter months. This past winter she appeared at our door on the same day the neighbors left for warmer weather, immediately tolerating the shaggy shadow of our dog Cubby and the playful pounce of Sophie the acrobat cat (who is not the brightest bulb on the tree of life) as well as the disdain of the eldest cat Reeses, self-appointed ruler of the roost.

Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.

Fortunately, Midnight is a well behaved little fluff of a cat, not destructive or aggressive, and beautifully decked out in long black fur.  She is, however, a feline. Read “entitled”. She will not tolerate being held unless she can climb onto your chest, neck, head and any other area she deems acceptable. A lap does not cut it. Attempting to dry her with a towel after she returns from her escapades on a rainy day is laughable – she can wiggle like a worm from your grip. And then there’s the slight debate about what constitutes an acceptable waking hour.
Midnight entered our home with the expectation that her schedule is “The Schedule”. Hmmm… no. Our version of dawn and a cat’s version of dawn are – as we discovered –often in very different time zones. One of us needed to adjust to the fact that there is no 4:30 a.m. in our house on weekdays, which was when our neighbor Steve wakes up to leave for his usual work-out when he’s home, releasing this 5 pound mountain lion to the great outdoors while it’s still dark (thanks for that, Steve).
I’ve always thought Midnight has the cutest little pathetic cry, similar to the first sound an infant makes upon waking, a soft warning that things can get messy if someone doesn’t respond soon. When it started an hour before anyone needed to be up during the week, Midnight’s adorable little cry was akin to nails on a chalkboard. It sounded like someone had shoved a siren into her tiny mouth, emanating across the room until one of us broke and lunged after her as she tore down the hall to the kitchen door. When she continued her little kitty tirade at “don’t-even-think-about-it-o’clock” on Saturday mornings the game was over. Initially we both tried to pretend we were still sleeping, but inevitably one of us would grumble (loud enough to wake the other and try to force their hand – self-preservation, my friend).
Eventually we learned – and I stress the we part - to not heed the (cat) call until we were good and ready, which was anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours from when she started her screeching. Sometime in the last few years she has learned to wait – semi-quietly. Once in a while she will leap onto our bed in an attempt to jostle us from our sleep by hiking (with a sharp stick, I do believe) across a stomach or back and usually disturbing Reeses who sleeps between our pillows and doesn’t respond well to surprises. My husband once sneezed in the middle of the night and we thought he might need stitches once he removed her claws from this head. This is a no-win situation, because as much as I’d love to lose a few pounds, having an arm lopped off in a cat fight is not the preferred method. This is a round that Midnight usually wins, unless I can convince her (by a gentle nudge with my foot) that it’s not 'officially' morning yet.

I Feel Purr-dy

By early spring, Midnight’s lustrous fur develops a texture similar to something that came in contact with an egg beater and glue. Globs of her beautiful hair have to be combed, cut and occasionally shaved off. If you have ever received an email forward explaining the steps to giving a cat a pill, you really should look it up. I can attest to the fact that combing knots out of a cat has very similar results. When you see my husband don 2 pairs of jeans, wrap gauze around his torso and arms, cover up with a long sleeve sweatshirt and get out the welding gloves and a bike helmet, you know Midnight must be in trapped in a bedroom somewhere just waiting for a chance to take him and the comb on. By the time he is weakly yet triumphantly holding up clumps of black fur, his face is red, he’s often sweating profusely and the top layer of jeans has too many holes in it even to work in the garage. Great – her left side is done – only her right side, back and stomach to go!

Is there a method to this madness?

While some may call us insane for being so willing to take care of someone else’s pet, let me just explain. Money talks. Our neighbors compensate us for Midnight’s care. It has worked out well for all parties involved as a business deal rather than just a favor. Not that we would abuse the little hairball if we weren’t getting paid – we are animal lovers from the get-go. And generosity goes both ways. While this agreement has thankfully helped supplement our oil bills in the winter, our neighbors, who are first and foremost our friends, know they can count on us to check their mail and forward it if necessary, water the plants and generally keep an eye on the house. We even got to watch and report on the progress of the addition they contracted for this past winter and I kept them apprised of what was being done - and what wasn’t. There’s nothing like a nosy neighbor (remember Mrs. Kravitz on Bewitched? She had better housecoats than me but our goals are similar) to ask questions about what’s going on with the builder, lawn guy, and mail carrier (who isn’t supposed to be delivering mail from December to May but occasionally slips one by) at house #5.
We did have to make sure Midnight didn’t decide to re-visit her summer digs and creep into the garage when it was left open. For the most part this didn’t happen. One day, however, the contractor’s wife mentioned that an animal had “left a deposit” in one of the bedrooms. What other creature would come into the house when strangers were there, leave that kind of message, and simply exit? I imagine in true warrior fashion, Midnight infiltrated her target, completed her mission and withdrew before anyone could notice. Point made: Lock Me Out And There Will Be Consequences.

(Not really) Minding Midnight

There are no words of wisdom in this monologue. I’m sure many others have done it better, offered superior care and grooming for a friend (I lost her brush for 2 years), made sure the pet involved had the best of everything during their temporary stay (Midnight gets the best of what we have, which I wouldn’t necessarily call the best), ensured that she was tucked safely inside on cold and stormy nights (said cat has on occasion pulled an all-nighter, but since we have neighbors who are in bed shortly after dusk, we try not to be hanging out the door bellowing her name or shaking pasta boxes after 10. Maybe 11).

Adding Midnight to the menagerie and hairball collection is easy. Animals are entertaining even when they don’t plan to be, and Midnight is no exception. For as long as she will winter at Chez #8 we’ll leave the light on for her. And she will continue to ignore it and honor us with her presence in her own good time.

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