Dogs have owners, cats have staff

When I wrote the blog post-before-last I included ‘plus two cats’ in the title but didn’t get around to telling their story. Here it is.

On the Key West compound on Ann Street where we lived until last Tuesday there were two resident cats. One of them is “my” Minnie Moocher – a smart and quirky tabby who was dumped on the property about 12 years ago. When she first appeared I was about to leave town, and I tried to find her a permanent home because she was quite young – maybe a year old – and I thought she’d be better off with a regular owner. I didn’t succeed, and I worried about leaving her to fend for herself, but I needn’t have done; Minnie is the most resourceful of cats. When I returned, months later, Minnie had appointed the only fulltime compound resident as her new human carer. She asked only for regular meals, daily conversations, and a little playtime. In return she did “meet and greet” duty to all new compound guests, kept the feral chickens and stray cats off the property, and was generally both entertaining and decorative.

Minnie is still the most interesting cat I’ve ever known. She is as smart as a tack. She’s curious, as are all cats, but not intrusive: she likes her own space and she allows that to humans, too. She’s witty: her favourite game is to give tiny, gentle bites to your ankles or hands and then to gallop away: you can almost hear her giggling as she runs off. She’s very affectionate, and she enjoys human company, but she doesn’t want to be owned – she’s a genuine free spirit. She knows all the best places to shelter when it rains, and cultivates a certain mystery about her life and habits.

And then, a few years ago, Patches joined the compound: a cat with an entirely different personality. Patches had been an exclusively indoor cat in one of the houses, but when her owner died she was rescued by Minnie’s human carer. She was a true scaredy-cat for the longest time, frightened of everything and everyone, and only gradually became more trusting in company. But then her new human carer also died.

When I returned at the end of January, both cats were still living on the compound. Patches is deaf, and has perfected the heart-breaking ‘silent meow’. Now she set her whole heart and mind on finding a new owner. She hated being an outdoor cat, and longed for the transient kindness of strangers to turn into a permanent arrangement. Every time new guests arrived in one of the rental houses Patches established herself on their doorstep, begged for food as though she hadn’t eaten for weeks (although she was already fed twice a day) and did her best imitation of full-on endearingness. It often worked, of course, but only for a short time. The cat-loving guests would inevitably depart, and Patches would fall into what I can only describe as a deep depression. In normal circumstances Patches would follow a bowl of food across the compound so enthusiastically she almost walked straight into trees – but after each disappointment she ate hardly anything for days. Cats sleep a lot: Patches slept all the time.

It seemed to me that Minnie disapproved of Patches’ needy behaviour. There was a lot of hissing and paw-swiping when they met, and meal times became complicated by tricky-to-manage issues of precedence. And then – thank you, benevolent universe! – Patches found a new owner! She finally rode off in a cat basket to relax in the joys of indoor living, petting, and general domesticated bliss.

So now it’s just Minnie again. She’s lived as The Compound Cat for so long, we all think she’ll be happiest if she stays there. I drive across town twice a day to feed her and chat to her, and she seems perfectly relaxed and content. I know that when I return to London next weekend other people will make sure she’s fed morning and evening, check her water bowl, and stop for a chat.

And yet … and yet. Minnie’s old now – not as old as Patches, I think, but she must be at least 14. She looks much younger; she’s frisky and funny and a joy to observe, but she’s old. She’s never been ill, and right now she’s the picture of health, but I worry about all that too. What if …?

Oh, I know that Minnie simply regards me as staff. She remembers me from one visit to the next and greets me with enthusiasm, but it’s probably because I’m more patient (and more reliably timely with meals) than other staff candidates. She tolerates my faults. But I love and admire her, ascribe human characteristics such as courage to her, and will miss her dreadfully when I leave. I’ll think about her a lot; I’ll regularly email the people who are feeding her to ask after her welfare.

And I’ll hope she’s still there when I return.

8 Responses to “Dogs have owners, cats have staff”

  1. Mary Tapissier Says:

    That tabby sounds like a fine Florida lady who will go on a while yet
    Lovely story! Patches is a ringer for our favourite Moppett of blessed memory – except for missing a smudgy nose !
    Thank you for this!

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks, Mary! I don’t think I ever met your Moppett but she must have been very pretty if she looked like Patches.

  3. Alison Hunter Stewart Says:

    What a wonderful story, Belinda. I adore cats (and dogs, and horses, and pigs, and cows, and goats, etc. etc. etc. on to infinity) and you have captured these two personalities perfectly. I admit that I would have been likely to have bundled Patches into a cat carrier and brought her back to Guelph with me, had I met her! I know that now that we have a house, my descent into Dr. Doolittle madness is creeping ever closer … xo

    Did you ever read my “Tale of Four Kitties?”

  4. admin Says:

    Thanks so much Alison. I know exactly what you mean about Patches – I have been known to wonder if I could take Minnie back to London, an experience that she would absolutely hate …

  5. Ian Hunter Says:

    Not that the writer’s credibility was ever in question, but I can corroborate Belinda’s account having recently made the acquaintance of the delightful Minnie. One night about 10pm I walked back to the pool to sit and look at the stars. Minnie sidled over, rubbing against my leg and seeming very affectionate; eventually I reached down, picked her up, and sat her on my lap. She looked affectionately up at me, grinned, bit my arm, jumped off, and seemed almost to titter as she ran out of sight. It was not a hard bite (did not break the skin) but it served to communicate two unmistakable lessons: (1) I was the interloper; she the resident. (2) she was no one’s lap cat. We have been back from Key west for two weeks and I miss Minnie.

  6. admin Says:

    I’d forgotten that encounter you had with Minnie’s dark side! She blamed me for the thunderstorm in the night, or so it seemed when I turned up a little late with her breakfast. She clearly has trouble keeping good staff in order…

  7. Lucille Says:

    We saw TC’s dark side on our return from Japan. He nipped P. quite hard and made a lunge for his face when he jumped up onto the table. We have no idea what provoked this behaviour but it has been hard to feel quite as trusting. It was almost like a punishment for being away so long.

  8. admin Says:

    Cats are so complicated, aren’t they? The cat training rules suggest ignoring the bad behaviour and rewarding the good – a bit like children – but that’s hard to do when they behave like TC.

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