Cat people and cats:people

by Brian Clarey

How many cats is too many? For some, of course, just a single cat is too many to keep in a home, and I get that. Feeding a cat can be a hassle, and the price of cat food — the good cat food, the kind you get from the vet and not from the convenience store — is not insignificant. Allergies can be crippling. And no matter how many times the word “fresh” appears on your package of cat litter, there is still the undeniable, inarguable fact that there is an animal crapping and pissing inside your house.

And then there are those who place no ceiling on cat ownership, no limit to the amount of feline friends with which they’ll share their homes. There was a woman like that on Cherokee Street in New Orleans when I lived there years ago. Dozens of cats lived on her porch, lazing, scampering and fighting, and another tribe dwelled underneath it, venturing out after dark. There were always a bunch of them spying through the front windows, too. I could smell her house from the other side of the street, musty and wild, and at night, in the spring, when the prospect of romance overcame them, the noises these animals made could break glass.

She was crazy, of course. An animal hoarder. A cat lady. The resident of a home the smell of which could usurp that of the ass end of the Mississippi River, which ran just a few hundred yards away.

In my house, we decided that a reasonable number of cats should not exceed the amount of actual humans living here. The decision came about after our third cat, Marci, littered three kittens, giving us exactly one cat too many.

But, of course, the simple math belies the gravity of the situation.

Remember, these cats have been living with us for more than 12 weeks now. The event of their birth — or the discovery of it — is a touchstone moment that my daughter and I will share forever. And we’ve become attached to them, as would anyone who is not dead inside when confronted with fuzzy little pounce machines like these.

I myself have maintained some emotional distance, probably because it was I who came up with the cat-per-house formula and, ultimately, I who would have to enforce it.

Right from the beginning I saw problems with the five-cat rule. While the cats were still wobbling under my baby girl’s bed, their eyes not even fully open, names were assigned to them, favorites chosen, person ality traits attributed.

This one’s adventurous; see how he comes out from under the bed. She’s the sweetheart — see how she likes to cuddle? That one’s crazy, just like her mother. What these people don’t understand is that cats are different from people. They run purely on instinct, unfettered by the emotions, attachments and hang-ups that govern far too much of human life, in my opinion I’ve owned cats for most of my life, and as far as I can tell they have a few simple but powerful impulses to guide them.

They get hungry, of course, and they will show “affection” for the people charged with their feeding. It’s not real affection, the kind humans sometimes feel for one another — or their cats, for that matter — but the recognition of a meal ticket. Cats will “play,” but really, the scampering and frolicking is more vestigial activity, something these domesticated animals will do to replace hunting and physical mating rituals. They will sometimes “cry,” but this mournful sound they make is more a product of a limited vocabulary than actual sadness. They will sit with their humans and allow themselves to be petted, but this is mainly for warmth and physical — as opposed to emotional — comfort. And they’ll hiss and spit, usually to protect food or status.

We all tend to anthropomorphize our pets, but let’s get real: These things have brains the size of walnuts. It’s important to keep that in mind when dealing with them.

Still, when the time came to cut one loose I felt some pangs of regret.

It’s a hard thing to single out one member of a family and send it away for good, even if it’s just a cat.

It was decided that Ashley, the long-haired black-and-white with the little pink nose, would be the one to go — difficult because she was the favorite of my oldest son, the most playful, the first one to eat solid food. And the fact that she was going to a good home gave me little solace.

What if I was wrong about cats? What if they really do have emotions? If so, then by forcibly tearing a kitten away from her loved ones against the wishes of my family, I am among the worst people on earth.

But no, I’m not. Three days later and the cats — all of them — are fine. My cats act no differently than they did before Ashley left, and Ashley, according to a reliable source, loves her new home and family.

And I’m tinkering with the cats-per-household ratio, which I may be able to shave down after this.