Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Critters: Dramatis Personae

The Critters: Dramatis Personae

We talk an awful lot about our critters. We see them as part of the family and love them and their varied neuroses accordingly. But since most of y'all haven't met many, most, or any of them, I thought I'd give them all a proper introduction.

The City Kitties



We'll start with the three ladies who made the journey with us.  {I think you may notice a high incidence of references to our friend Kir.  We happily blame and thank her for her role in spicing our lives with cat hair.}

Carmen



One rainy february night, as I crossed pleasant avenue and approached our east harlem apartment, I heard an unmistakable kitten mew coming from somewhere by the front door. There were a lot of stray cats in the area, and I had actually had a little chat with myself before we moved in, explaining definitively that these were feral cats, they lived by the streets and would be ok if I didn't take them all home with me, which I couldn't do anyway since pets weren't allowed in the apartment, finances were tight, my schedule was crazy, and we had five people living in that apartment and I couldn't very well just inflict a bazillion possibly feral cats on them all. Well, that talk aside, this mew sounded like it was directed right at me, and seemed like it was calling for help. I followed the sound, and found a kitten taking shelter from the rain under our trash can lid, which had been left off the can and was leaning against the outside wall of our building. I spent quite a few minutes communing with her, she was intrigued by me, but very wary, and after a time I was able to tell that she was ok, and didn't want me to get too close, and my little cautionary pep talk came barging back into my head, so I bid her goodnight amid protests from both of us, and managed to get inside if not away from my guilt.

The next day, she was there again, as if waiting for me. This time she came trotting out to meet me, though she didn't get too close and darted away, but kept me in her sight and called for my attention. I can't remember if it was that day or later in the week, but one evening I sat down on the stoop instead of heading inside, and she gleefully trotted around me and meowed at me, getting an itty bitty bit closer with each pass. After a half an hour or so of sitting fairly still and letting her just check me out, talking to her when she mewed, she was so close that she ended up in my lap, and as if we were living a movie, she gave me a biiiiig nudge, right across the face, and began purring so loud James could hear it when I called him on the phone to tell him to come out and meet my kitty friend. She moved on, but was there every evening when I returned home for more than a week, each time she'd greet me, getting a bit more brave, until it was getting really hard to make it into the house, especially since she eventually began to trot right into the apartment building when James would come out or I would go in. Guilt-ridden and against my absolute desire, however, I kept my resolve.

Until one evening when our roommate, Kir, poked her head into our bedroom and said "hey guys, did you know that there's a kitten on our doorstep?" At this point, my heart leapt into my brain and I felt (and was probably acting) like a little kid who sees the possibility of mom ACTUALLY LETTING ME HAVE THE PUPPY and the world kinda stopped for the duration of the short conversation.

"Yes."

"Do you think we should-"

"YES."

"I mean, I can't really afford all the vet bills and food and stuff -"

"That's ok! I'll take care of it!!"

"ok, then, cool."

Or at least that's all I remember of it. I was on the phone with my mom at the time, and I hadn't even thought to ask her to hold on a moment, and when I came back to reality she was laughing at me, and saying that she supposed she should let me go prepare for the incoming cat.

The next day, James and I went to Petco, got the necessities and a few extra toys, and came home to find no cat on the doorstep for the first time in ages. (I think the fact that it was still daylight had something to do with it.) So, we ordered some chinese food, and went out to sit on the steps and wait for it, and the cat. Walking up and down the street we found where she'd been living, in the steps to a basement a few doors down. our food came just as she appeared, and this time we happily obliged her desire to come home with us...she was SOOOOOO happy to be inside that she would run from one thing to another nudging at full speed. Clonk. CLONCK. Clonk. [this of course, was after the bath we were forced to put her through, since she smelled like the garbage she'd called home--and food--for months.] That night she didn't just sleep in the apartment, or even just in our room, she crawled right under the sheets and curled up, purring as loud as she could, right between us. She was about 5 months old when we took her in, and had no idea how big she would end up being.

An astute jumper, Carmen's comfort zone is on our backs. I don't really know why, but it has been that way since we first brought her home. A tip for surviving in our domestic wilderness: If you ever happen to be holding Carmen and she attempts to scale your shoulder, don't jerk back because this forces her to use claws in order to hang on. Just bend forward, creating a surface for her, as James is demonstrating in the above photo. Trust us. She's taken vets to the floor. No joke.

But really, she's a very sweet, incredibly loving cat. She used to collect water bottles, stashing them away in little nests in the backs of closets and under beds. She also used to have a thing against anything vaguely banana-shaped being on a flat surface, and would take matters into her own paws if any such offense should occur-such as, oh, say, a carrot, left on the kitchen counter. Trust that such a thing will be relocated, or at LEAST thrust to the floor. (Remember that time we found a claw-hole ridden carrot in your shoe, James?) These days, she isn't quite so offended, but the odd behaviour has been somewhat explained...after the string she used to drag around with her everywhere finally shrank too far to be repaired, she began licking things...odd things-the wall, my hair...we took her to the vet, and , our little Carmeny kitty, our quarter-wild, mini-savannah cat, has OCD. Who knew? She loves people, but is very shy. She'll come when you whistle, is terrified of plastic bags, (which I think is a holdover from living on the streets of NYC,) but she will still give big, clunky nudges to anyone she deems worthy, and will stand on your chest and purr at you if you let her. Good Kitty!


Puy




Puy is a remarkably spunky cat. Small, but fierce, and very sweet.

After having Carmen in our lives for several months, it became clear that she was getting extremely lonely during the day when we weren't home. We started to think that she needed a kitty friend, who wouldn't abandon her for long hours during the day. I don't believe in buying cats from pet stores, and I know myself well enough to know that I should never set foot into a humane society (at least until I have all the money and space in the world so I can take them ALL home...) and we also didn't feel right about inflicting an additional cat on our roommates, (especially since we weren't supposed to have pets in the apartment anyhow,) so we decided that, if a serendipitous kitty should appear, we would take it in, but we wouldn't go out of our way to find one. This being back when I actually used AIM, the fact that I was admittedly taken with the phrase "serendipitous kitty," lead me to put up an away message about it. (these were the days before twitter, after all.) Later that day, I popped in to the Across The Universe production office to see Joyce and the rest of the accounting crew who had given me my first post-college day job. Those of you who knew me then will know that this was facilitated by Kir, who, as luck would have it, was there that day. She leaned back from her desk as I walked in and confronted me with "are you guys seriously getting another cat?" "oh shit" said my brain, as it wracked itself to remember how I'd phrased my serendipitous kitty message, and for a moment I was convinced that I'd written something like, "WE'RE GOING TO FILL THIS HOUSE WITH CONTRABAND CATS, AND YOU CAN'T STOP US! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!" Thankfully, though, I hadn't, and after she let me stammer through the entire story, she smirked a little and said "really, 'cause I have a friend who took in a stray, and it's pregnant and they need to find homes for the kittens." And thus our serendipitous kitty appeared.
Several weeks later, James and his dad ventured to Philly to pick up the kitten, and once the girl who was housing them discovered that he has just as much of a soft spot for critters as anyone that I would end up marrying would have to, came home with two kittens and the mother cat. (James just read that and declared "they were playing together!!") The adventure of getting them back to NY, and that first week with four cats is another post, suffice it to say that after some turmoil, everyone made it safely to their new homes, Puy with us, and her mom Daphne and her sister Luna with James's mom and younger brother in connecticut.

Puy is the most 'street' of the city cats, ironic considering she is the only one of the three who never had to live there. She's feisty, and you don't want to mess with her territory. James once interfered (a valiant effort to protect Lily when she was first introduced) and has some pretty cool scars to show for it. She loves to burrow...if you can't find her, check the dresser drawers and boxes.  She especially loves her box...a simple cardboard box that once housed a porcelain crock pot James's mom gave to us a couple years ago.  She loves to stick her front paws into shopping bags, and then wait for you to walk by so she can attack your feet through the bag. She likes to relocate napkins and tissues, and is a big fan of twist ties and the little plastic pull tabs that go around the top of milk cartons. When she was little she had a speckling of lighter fur around her nose that made it look like she'd been gorging herself on powdered doughnuts, which was made all the more fitting once we learned that her mischievous nature did, in fact, include a propensity for stealing doughnuts. She's a very loving cat, and will run to see what the problem is if anyone cries, will come if you snap your fingers or call her, will converse with you if you repeat her name over and over, and is there in a flash to provide backup in any potentially unsavory encounter. 




Lily




Lily holds a special place in my heart as heralding Cadence's arrival...and she's a pretty wonderful cat even without that additional charm.

Around the time that James and I got married, Kir and Patrick took in a new cat, a crazy though lovable chap named Chairman Miao. (not featured otherwise in my story, but I think deserving of a mention is the next cat to join their family, a spirited fellow by the name Fidel Catstro.) We were no longer roommates as each couple had struck out on our own, but we ended up living just a couple of blocks from each other. Since we used the same vet, and since I was temporarily unemployed at the time, I agreed to pick Chairman up after his neutering, since they both had to work. The office manager recognized me when I came in, and after we took care of the usual paperwork, she told me to hold on and went to get the Doctor. At first confused about me picking up Chairman, her face lit up once I cleared it up and she declared "Oh! Carmen and Puy! I have your third cat!" Ha. cute. and mean. "no, seriously, this is your third cat. she's perfect for you guys. you have to take her."

Dr. Coronato would not let me leave with chairman until I had met this cat. And she was sneaky about it, too! She brought me into a back room and took this beautiful, sweet little white kitten out of her cage and handed her to me. She pointed out a bald spot on her tail, and said not to be alarmed, it was just a scar due to an injury she had as a little kitten living on the street. Dr. Coronato told me that she had found her, and after fixing her up, had let her go to another home, but that home didn't know how to introduce new cats, and had an established 17 year old cat who would constantly beat her. After 6 weeks of torture, the owner finally decided she couldn't do it anymore, and returned her to Dr. Coronato, so she wanted to make sure that this time it would be a better fit and a permanent home. After she had told me this...she LEFT THE ROOM. A while later, she sent in her assistant, an intimidating though very sweet man who looks like he could take you down without a thought and doesn't speak much english. "You take her home now, ok" he said.

I knew that I'd be in trouble if James were to come home to 4 cats that evening, but even so I barely made it out of there and it broke my heart to have to leave her in that cage. I knew that we really shouldn't add another cat to our 1 bedroom apartment, but I also couldn't get her out of my head. I told James about her, fully expecting him to tell me I was nuts to even consider it, but, much to the dismay of my weak and weakening resolve, he was moved by the story and instead of shoving me off, joined me on the fence. I told my mom about it all, and figured that if anyone was going to be able to convince me that it was a bad idea, she would. instead, she just said;

"so, three cats, huh? well, you know you're in trouble when they outnumber you."

"but you and dad had three cats when it was just the two of you!"

"yeah, exactly, and then we had you! that's what happens!"

One day, about three weeks or so later, I was sitting there at my desk, trying to sort through a mess left by the previous clerk who evidently didn't know how to alphabetize, when I thought of that poor little sweet cat who had purred so loud and nudged so hard. I called James and told him that I couldn't stand the thought of her living in that cage, and so, if she was still there, I wanted to take her. He whole heartedly agreed.

It was a matter of months before I sent my mom a birthday card, letting her know that she had been correct. That is what happens. Pet owners, beware.

But, we love them both, immensely. Lily is, indeed, an incredibly sweet cat. She likes to perch on things...she's the best climber cat I've ever seen, often defying logic to do so. She'll perch on your hip if you're lying on your side. She'll perch on top of an open door, on the edge of the topmost shelf in the closet, on top of the cabinets over the fridge...whatever the highest point in a room is, that's where she'll hang out. When you can't find Lily, look up. perhaps it has something to do with the fact that her original name was Sky. (Her false-start home renamed her Lily, we decided to stick with what she recognized) She likes playing with her catnip lizard, and though she is an extremely clever cat, often problem solving to get where she wants to be, she stubbornly refuses to use the catdoor. go figure.  [UPDATE: She'll now use it, but it takes her a good bit of preparation and a burst of courage to get it over with.]

She's also the most maternal of our cats-she was the first one to establish boundaries with Cadence, but also the one who sleeps on her bed every naptime, and purrs along with us as we sing her to sleep every night.




The Country Cats


And now we'll check in with the ladies who received us all on this end!

Cinnamon



Bradford college was a small liberal arts school in MA that, at one time, provided my family with a home and jobs for both of my parents. Alas, as many small colleges have in the last decade or so, it was run out by larger universities...it went bankrupt and closed its doors permanently in 2000, after 197 years of operation. Though by that time we had moved off campus, and mom had a successful career as a visiting nurse, its closing still marked the end of an era and meant huge changes for us. We left our lives in New England behind, and settled in Kentucky. It was a really rough time for all of us, and mom decided that what we needed was a kitten. I think kelly may have brought up that she wanted one or something, but it was mom who said, yes, this is a good thing for all of us, and she sat us all down for a family discussion about it. Except it went more like: Kelly and I went to the humane society. We're picking our new kitten up on tuesday.
Poor Cinnamon didn't have the best introduction to our home...Kelly was only 8, and didn't understand why we had planned to quarantine the kitten at first, so she put her down in the middle of the kitchen as soon as they got in. Things were ok until she poked her cute little head into the hallway, where she was spotted by Puppalina, who responded as any self respecting dog would, upon sighting a strange feline invading their home: give wild, noisy chase! Unfortunately for Cinnamon, her desperate flight lead her directly, as if by magnets, into one of the favorite hiding spots of Ragamuffin, our established, 17 -pound cat, who was not at all enthused by this noisy dog-and-kitten awakening, and was not afraid to express this displeasure. Oh, and I forgot to mention, the poor thing had just been spayed, and had a cold, to boot.
Thankfully, no one was physically harmed by the debacle, and eventually Cinnamon and Ragamuffin became good friends. She was tiny, which earned her the nickname Cinni-mini. She also loooved to pounce, and her cold made her sneeze constantly for the first couple weeks, a little tigger-tiger-sneezy-cat. She has a little pair of pink barbie panties that she carries around, pounces, chases, kills...it's very funny. She likes to chat with you, chirping out her replies with gentle mews. She's Cinni-not-so-mini these days, being a bit overweight, and spends most of her time sleeping, but she does venture out in nice weather to go explore and bask in th sun. When she wants to get a door open, she'll scratch-knock at it with a beat I learned in my Afro-Haitian dance class as that of a prisoner wanting escape. She is a master food finder...we have to keep all cat and dog food in plastic containers...but she chews through those after a time, too. (I remember one time when we thought we'd lost her. She'd just gotten locked in the pantry and didn't bother to complain. We found her, happy as a clam, inside the giant food bag.



Jewels


"Kate, there's a kitten on the doorstep" was the first I heard of Jewels. I was on my way home for christmas break sophomore year of college and had called to confirm my landing time for pick up. My parents, though, weren't home, and Kelly was a bit preoccupied by the fact that a teeny tiny 5 month old kitten had taken up residence on the porch. I found out later she'd appeared a few times before, each time getting chased off by the dog, but had evidently decided this was the place to be, and moved in. That's kinda how it's been with this little ninja-cat. weighing in at about 5 lbs, she's full grown now, but don't be fooled by her slight figure. She's been known to bring us rabbits twice her size, as well as the occasional hummingbird. Yes, hummingbirds, as in the ones that move so fast you can't even see their wings. You don't want to cross this one, she's a fighter and beats up the big dog when she's upset. We have a no-cats-outside-after-dark rule ('cause they'd be coyote bait) which she despises, and as the days get shorter it becomes a bit more dangerous to refuse her exit. She is a toe biter.

Even though her street-tough attitude is genuine and deserved, she's still a really great companion. She will run up to you purring and nudging your legs if you spend time outside, and will let you cradle her like a baby and carry her around. She has a terrifying habit of running up to the car as you pull into the driveway, and she'll stay in your way until you open up the door and let her in. Then she'll ride with you as you park the car in the garage, and expects you to carry her into the house. She'll give you kitty kisses, and oftentimes, gifts of small game. Somtimes it really seems like she thinks she's a dog...she'll come when she's called, knows to sit on command for treats, and her best buddy is Pepper, with whom she often curls up for a good sleep.



The Dogs



I was born into a house full of cats, and my daughter was born into a house full of cats, but you can't mistake us for those confusing folks who choose one furry species over another!!

Puppalina




Pup-pup was the first dog my family ever got. When I was 7, my parents were told they would never be able to have another child, and so to appease my desire for a younger sibling, they got me a puppy. Of course, on Puppalina's first birthday, (July 3rd,) my sister Kelly was born.

 She's a purebred Yorkshire Terrier, we got her from a breeder that worked with my mom. She brought Pup and her brother (who would be known as Toby) in to work one day, which just happened to be a day when my mom took me in to work, as well...you know how it goes, girl sees puppy, gets to play with puppy, breeder says "that puppy is for sale"...I was allergic to dogs at the time, and the fact that yorkies are hypoallergenic pretty much cinched the deal. She's the only pet that isn't a rescue, and we never would have purchased a critter or purposefully gone for a purebred, but i am so glad things worked out as they did, 'cause she's been a wonderful little pup-pup and I wouldn't trade her for nuthin'. Originally named "Margie", a name that never truly went away, I renamed her Puppalina 'cause I had been listening to a lot of Mozart around that time...specifically the magic flute. 

She's been with us for 16 years now, and is still my wonderful little puppy. Back in the day, she was perky but never yappy: she lived to chase squirrels off the bird feeder on the deck off our old house. She loved to play chase with her raw hide chew-shoes, which she'd pick apart laces first. She liked shoelaces, she'd chase and bite mine, and would also play hide-and seek for cheese. She's never been much of a lapdog, she preferred to perch on your shoulder as you sat on the couch, climbing the arm rests and scaling the back of it to reach you. She loved frolicking in the snow, but hated having sweaters or anything on her, and would often just stop moving at all if you put anything on her. The only family member besides me to have serious food allergies, she had a diet of kangaroo, venison and tapioca for years, but as she aged, she seemed to get more picky and less willing to compromise on what she wanted to eat...the whole, live-my-life-the-way-I-want-and-die-young sort of attitude, which doesn't seem to have served her too poorly, considering her current age. She's mostly blind and completely deaf at this point, but she still enjoys life as long as it comes with a spot of cheese now and again. and now. and again. now? yum. kthxmore please. now chicken?
Good dog.


Pepper



I was not around for the aquisition of Pepper. All I know was that it took quite a bit of cunning and an uncanny patience on the part of my kid sister. She convinced my parents to let her volunteer at the humane society, and somehow, despite the "you can do this but you will not be bringing any animals home-period" clause...well, here's Pepper. (I listened to my mom's resolve weaken over a period of weeks as Kelly convinced her to volunteer too, then focused her attention on this one, poor mutt puppy...then when she though the time was right, kelly brought out the big guns with the "I never got to experience a puppy, or training one, like Kate did. Puppalina was already a dog by the time I was old enough." line.) But no one is complaining. Pepper is seriously the quintessential dog...a mix of german shepherd, beagle, and chow (for sure) and most likely some black lab and maybe even a few others, her days are made or broken by your presence. She lives to play fetch with her Kong, (a strange bouncy rubber cone ball thing), and at your command she will go out and bring you the paper. A seriously happy dog, as long as you give her the attention...she gets jealous and then has to sit on the nearest chest and get pets and give kisses to its owner. She likes to ride in the car, but it's best not to let her without someone else in there too...she will grab your hands off the wheel to demand pets while you're on the road. She keeps track of everyone's wardrobe, and knows whether to be sad that you're going away to work or ecstatic that you're going to stay home and play kong based on your choice of pants. She's not entirely aware of her size, probably because she's twice the size of the next largest pet, which leads to my parents not having enough room in their bed. She is also the most bizarre watchdog you'll ever encounter...she sounds downright vicious, and is honestly terrifying...until she comes around the corner with her teddy bear. I kid you not...She barks and growls like a trained rottweiler, but only if she has a stuffed animal in her mouth as she does it. And when she attacks? she wraps her paws around your knees to take you down, but only if she knows you, and once she's got you down, she bathes you like a puppy.
She's certainly a sweetheart!



The Rest


There are a few other critters that share our southern home, and though they aren't particularly fuzzy, they play a big role in our lives.

Camel Cricketts


Also known as Cave Crickets by some, this was one thing my 16 year old self wasn't prepared for when we first arrived in our new home. No one around here has true basements, since, as my dad puts it, "if ya dug for it, ya might end up with more basement than ya bargained for." Our house (and, in fact, this entire region) sits on top of the Mammoth Cave system...the longest known cave system in the world.  Occasionally, sink holes will spontaneously form where sections of earth fall into the cave below.  There are a few small ones on our property, and a fairly sizable one on our neighbor's land, and there are occasional reports of the road falling away and swallowing up pickup trucks...but those a few and far between.  Anyway, I digress:  a side-effect of living in such an area is that you'll often find fauna best suited to caves in your average suburban home.   These crickets are huge, look like spiders, and can jump ridiculously high.  They're also completely blind, which often results in the rather comical chaos when you intrude upon them, they're just as likely to jump at you as they are to jump away.  When we first moved here, I went down into the garage (our house is built into a gentle incline, so the garage is somewhat subterranean) and froze as what seemed to be a swarm of giant spiders began jumping at my face, and into the walls, and everywhere.  Since that first meeting, though, I have grown to really appreciate the little suckers, they're actually pretty quirky and cute.  Which is a good thing, 'cause they'll show up everywhere...especially sinks and bathtubs.  This photo is of a little guy that had just escaped from a cat. Mostly-at least one leg and I think an antennae didn't make it.  Sorry cricket!


The Fish


Dad originally built this pond as a turtle enclosure for our  turtle, Speedy, who was a rescue from Kelly's first grade classroom-the teacher had inherited 'him' from another teacher, who thought speedy was a male, terrestrial, vegetarian american box turtle.  When kelly won the privilege of taking speedy home for a vacation, we noticed 'he' wasn't doing well and took him to the vet, who told us that speedy was in fact a female southeast asian box turtle, who, unlike their american counterparts, are semi-aquatic and carnivorous.  (or at least omnivorous, she did really like bananas and grapes.)  We set her up with a new tank and a new diet, and Kelly's teacher was so grateful that he asked us to give her a permanent home at the end of the year.  Anyway, Speedy thrived with us for several years, before making a grand escape last year.  She returned a few times, but eventually left for good.   

But, we still have this pond, and there are still fish in it.  There were originally some feeder fish, and a couple Betas, but since Speedy's departure, Dad has started stocking Tilapia.  Although, there is one particular fish which has hung on from the start, is growing rapidly, and went from being solid black in June to being solid gold this fall.  We'll see if it can survive yet another winter.  We're all rootin' for it!


um...too many.


There are a plethora of various critters I could continue to chatter on about forever, but now that I'm in it, I realize I'll have to leave it at this for now, or I'd be chattering on forever about the birds of many kinds, cicadas, coyotes, foxes, possums, monochromatic squirrels [rumor has it that a genetics experiment at WKU in the seventies separated out the white and black from the common grey squirrel, and a number of their test subjects escaped, which is why bowling green is populated with all-white and all-black squirrels.]...you get my point.