Ignoring the rules for stray cats

Posted Feb. 25, 2010, at 7:53 p.m.

It’s a slightly awkward moment: My neighbor has stepped outside for her paper and has caught me petting her cat. Tiger winds around my feet, shedding on my shoelaces, while I attempt to look like I haven’t been trying for a month now to lure just this kind of unfettered affection out of the ordinarily skittish feline. “She’s a very sweet cat,” I say.

“Yes, she can be,” my neighbor says, looking puzzled at this transformation in her usually shy pet. “She likes you. Do you have a cat?”

“Yes. I mean, no,” I said quickly. She looks at me strangely. I can’t blame her. The question doesn’t exactly fall into the “gray” category.

I do not, in fact, own a cat. You might say that I borrow them now and again.

I know most of the cats in my neighborhood, usually by the names that I have given them. There’s Tiger, and Tiger’s new friend, a lean gray stray who has been darting in and out of the alleyway to play for a week or so. The mean-faced kitty lives next door, its stern, unfriendly eyes always staring out of the glass front door, watching me when I come and go. An orange cat I call Pumpkin lives around the corner, and there’s another black stray.

In my neighborhood of tightly packed row houses and rooftop decks, the cats own the evenings and early mornings. After fresh snow I can really appreciate just how heavily traveled my windowsills, balcony and rooftops really are — paw prints run everywhere. I never let them inside, but I do go out to visit them, and sometimes — sometimes — I feed them.

But only when they look really hungry. Or very cute. And meow at me.

I am reminded of the “Strict, Unbending Rules for Dealing with Stray Cats.” Rule No. 1: Stray cats will not be fed. Rule No. 2: Stray cats will not be named, and they will not be fed anything except dry cat food. Rule No. 3: Mittens will not be fed anything except dry cat food moistened with a little milk, and sometimes leftover fish scraps, if, you know, they happen to be around.

So no, I don’t have a cat. Strictly speaking.

I’m not in position to have a pet of my own, cat, dog or even goldfish. I haven’t a clue where I’ll be six months from now. Pets are something the transient often yearn for — you can’t rent them for a year like a kitchen. They take a lot of time, commitment, and far more stability than I have to offer. Which often makes them all the more missed.

The first South Pole crews brought dogs, but since 1993, no animals of any kind have been permitted onto the continent — not since researchers realized that dogs were spreading canine distemper to the seals. Toward the end of most seasons nowadays, Antarctic workers — all transients — start wishing for a station pet.

“If we had a station dog, it would become the fattest dog ever, and die of overpetting. We would love it to death.”

“If we got a station pig, it could eat our food waste, and save energy on shipping cargo off-continent,” someone else proposes.

One Antarctic scientist once told me a story about an alleged contraband cat that had been smuggled into a neighboring country’s base for a winter. “They did all this testing of dust in the buildings to check for asbestos, make sure the structure was still safe. They did another round of testing after the winter season, you know, vacuuming the whole station and then analyzing the debris. And they found all this cat fur. It looked like someone had kept a cat down there over the winter. Yeah, somebody could’ve sedated it and carried it down inside their parka. And made sure no one told anyone in management. They totally could have pulled it off.”

The story easily could be legend, one of the many tall tales of Antarctica — I can attest to finding cat fur all over my things months after actually being around cats — but it says something about the strong longing that people have for pets.

The draw that many people feel toward pets, if mysterious, is certainly common. Sixty-three percent of U.S. households have pets. Pets used to be kept for functional purposes — dogs for hunting, cats for catching mice — but today, in Western societies, their function is primarily a social one. Research into human-animal bonding dates back to the late 1700s when an English group theorized that contact with animals could help the mentally ill. Whatever it is, it seems to work.

As to getting weird looks from the neighbors when I greet their cats like old friends, well, at least I’m not alone on this one. One day, maybe, I’ll get a cat of my own. A small, orange one with white paws. And name it Mittens.

Not that I’ve thought about it or anything.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday.

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