26 February 2012


In June of 2006, two benign and nourishing spirits entered my life.  In previous weeks I'd made several visits to the very animal-friendly facility at the Missoula Humane Society, with the intent of adopting a cat or two.  During the course of my life, I've had one horse, three parakeets, seven dogs and nine cats.  Only cats have been my companions since 1982.  They are personable, intelligent, clean, and wonderful company.  In my adult life, I've nearly always adopted from a pet shelter, in addition to a few strays.  Knowing that so many unwanted or abandoned animals are eventually euthanised makes this an easy choice.

So there I was, slowly browsing the glassed-in rooms full of cats looking for a home.  Walking down a hall, something caught my eye ~ a calico kitten sitting in proud profile, brilliantly backlit by the sun.  I was instantly charmed.  The room contained two calico females and two white males with black markings, all siblings, all part Siamese.  I fell in love with all of them, but knew that my small apartment would only accommodate two.  Did I want two calicoes, two whites, or one of each?  I came back the next day to discover my choice had been made for me.  Someone had adopted one brother and one sister.  The remaining sister was the one who'd first riveted my attention with her color blend of black, white, smoke, cinnamon and caramel ~ and the remaining brother had a striking black stripe tapering up from his eye to the top of his head, like Indian war paint, and a black tail like the white cat in the Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring.  I felt the time was right, and signed the adoption papers on the spot.

Finding the right name for each cat was important.  I've always waited to get to know a pet before naming it, so that the name fits its personality or a physical trait.  For the white and black male I chose Chiaro (see image above, click to enlarge), short for chiaroscuro, the term used in art to describe the interplay of light and shadow.  The calico female became Mao (see image below), the Chinese word for cat.  (Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong's name translates literally as "cat bear", but I did not have him in mind when I named Mao.)

Life at home changed irrevocably.  I now had two curious, playful, energetic roommates who were into everything.  As they grew, they learned to accept (mostly) my ground rules ~ no cats on kitchen counters or cabinets where food might be prepared or served, no cats atop the flat screen TV (although once in their carousing they inadvertently knocked it to the floor, destroying the screen utterly ~ the replacement TV is firmly anchored to its shelf), and no cats on my very nice oval wood coffee table.  Other than that, all surfaces were theirs to traverse or lounge upon.  

Oddly, when I first brought them home, they were the same size.  But Chiaro went through a growth spurt, and now outweighs his sister by two lb. (12 lb. and 10 lb. respectively).  Watching them wrestle is fun.  Neither pays much attention to their size difference.  Chiaro has greater reach and strength, but rarely gets carried away.  And Mao is utterly fearless ~ she'll lurk and then launch herself at him.  The defensive shifts back and forth.  Having never been separated since birth, they dote on each other.  I'm certain if one were to vanish, the other would be devastated.

Partly for that reason, and partly to avoid the perils of traffic, predators, vermin, or simply becoming lost, my cats are strictly indoor cats.  I wish I lived in a much larger space, preferably a house with an upstairs and/or a basement, so they could really stretch out and race around.  I've had outdoor cats in the past, and loved that they could explore their surroundings as cats should.  But safety trumps instinct in a human environment.  

We've developed our own shared language over time.  They understand twenty or thirty words with specific meanings ("get down", "no", "come here", "good boy/girl", etc.), and I've long understood the vocal inflections and body language of their tribe.  We get along splendidly.  They sleep atop the bed covers at night, often curled against my legs, or on them.  In winter, big brave Chiaro often slides artfully beneath the covers to stretch out alongside me, sharing body warmth.  Mao has tried, but appears to feel claustrophobic, so she returns to fresh air.

An important part of our day is grooming.  Each morning after I shower and before I shave, the cats take turns jumping up onto the bathroom sink counter.  There I methodically brush each one, following a routine from head to chest-and-front-legs, back and sides, tail and back legs, and finally tummy.  They love both the tactile and emotional affection, as do I.  Whenever we visit someone (they travel with me if I'm to be gone overnight), people comment on how shiny and clean their coats are.  As in human relationships, daily attention to detail counts.

So why am I rattling on about my lovely and beloved cats like an insufferable parent, or someone with senile dementia?  Because today is their 6th birthday!  Chiaro and Mao came into this world on February 26, 2006.  We haven't quite decided how to celebrate, but I have a feeling I'll be sharing my bison burger with them later in the day.  Right now, they are curled up together in typical yin-yang position (see image below), napping.  And all's right with the world.

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