Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The love triangle

Do we own cats, or do they own us?

Express Staff Writer

Photo by David N. Seelig

Wellington meets me when I come home from work each day. He stands on the stove, pokes his head out the door and then jumps to the table to see what I've brought home. He's not supposed to be on the table, but usually I don't feel like yelling at him.

Wellington has his own routines. He follows me around until he thinks he's received the appropriate amount of attention. If I ignore him, he pokes at me with his paw, claws and all.

I let him keep his claws. If cats are going to spend any time at all outdoors, they need them for protection.

He's actually not even my cat. He really belongs—if cats can belong to anyone—to my son Zach. But Zach's mother is allergic to cats, so Wellington lives with me.

When I moved to Sun Valley five years ago, Wellington and his little brother Klondike came with me.

Wellington has long fur, colored white, black and gray and mostly arranged in stripes. Klondike was part Siamese, had short hair and was pure white with faint red markings on his ears, feet and tail.

Nice looking felines, but in reality just farm cats.

They nonetheless adjusted well to living in a condominium.

I lived on a first floor and would often leave the patio door open so they could come and go as they pleased. Wellington liked to meet and greet people passing by, while Klondike headed for the woods.

Wellington likes people. Klondike avoided them and only trusted me.

I acquired Klondike and Wellington nine years ago. When my mother died, I had to find homes for her 20-some cats. Zach and I were familiar with the animals, since we'd helped mother take care of them. I decided he and I would each take one. He chose Wellington and I chose Klondike.

I suppose I bonded with Klondike and Wellington early in their lives.

When Wellington was a kitten, he was the smallest from a litter of five. He started falling behind in weight, became lethargic and wouldn't play with his siblings. I gave him extra feedings of special kitten formula several times a day until he started gaining weight.

He would sit on my lap while I fed him with an eyedropper watching the other kittens play. Eventually, he was able to join them.

Klondike had the same mother as Wellington but was from a later litter. When he was only 2 days old and hadn't yet opened his eyes, he got a bad cut on the inside of one of his rear legs. I don't know how it happened, but I cleaned the wound several times and put Neosporin ointment on it until it healed.

Klondike and Wellington had your typical big-brother-little-brother relationship. Wellington liked to be the boss and Klondike pretended otherwise. But normally, they were the best of friends.

They'd worked out a system of watching out for each other. Klondike was rather lazy about what he left in the cat box, so Wellington would cover it up for him. Wellington, on the other hand, didn't know how to pull open doors so Klondike would do it.

And the day Klondike was getting the crap beat out of him, Wellington protected his little brother and chased off the attacker, a stray tom cat I nicknamed "Prowler."

It happened early one evening. Wellington and I were inside and Klondike was outside playing. We heard a commotion, followed by Klondike's screeching, and Wellington bolted for the open door. Prowler was larger than Wellington, but I suppose the ferocity of Wellington's attack drove him off.

Klondike and Wellington had a few other encounters with Prowler. I found it best when Prowler was around to keep "my boys" inside.

Prowler eventually went away for good, only to be replaced by an even larger and wilder looking tom. He had only one eye and I nicknamed him "Captain Jack."

He caught Wellington by surprise one evening and scratched him up good. The lesson here, I told Wellington, is never mess with a one-eyed cat.

When Klondike and Wellington became more accustomed to living in Sun Valley, I let them stay out longer. I had to keep a closer watch on Wellington, though, because if not he'd wander over and visit the construction workers or follow someone home. I had to retrieve him more than once from someone who took him in thinking he was lost.

I allowed Klondike, on the other hand, to stay outside all day sometimes. He had more street smarts than Wellington and knew how to watch out for himself. When I'd come home from work, he'd be waiting for me in the parking lot.

Wellington didn't like it when Klondike stayed out all day. Once he was back inside, Wellington would cuff him around a little bit and Klondike would prance around playfully trying to stay out of his reach. Later, I'd find them sleeping together on one of my chairs.

Klondike was a voracious predator. I know that, because he caught mice almost every day he was outside and brought them home to show me. Wellington caught mice too now and then. But he didn't eat them. Instead, he gave them to Klondike.

When Klondike died, his death came rather quickly. One night he was walking stiffly and the next day he could hardly walk at all. Perhaps I should have taken him to a veterinarian, but by the time I realized he was dying, I knew it was too late. He passed away with me stroking his head and Wellington sitting nearby watching. Later, the only thing I could find was what felt like a hard lump in his stomach. I suspect it was a tumor.

I buried him in a grove of trees where he liked to play. I had been reading a lot of Greek history at the time and a friend had recently given me a gold dollar coin. After wrapping Klondike in one of my old shirts, I placed the coin in Klondike's mouth—payment for the ferryman for the journey across the River Styx.

Wellington knew what had happened. He didn't wait expectantly for Klondike's return. Instead, he just lay around and wouldn't eat for a few days. And then he was over it. It took me a little longer.

That was three years ago. Without Klondike, Wellington pesters me more than ever.

He usually sleeps at the foot of my bed, follows me downstairs when I get up and sits beside me while I drink my coffee.

He expects a pat on the head before I go to work.

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