Monday, May 5, 2014

Life with a Somali Cat

Part 1: In Which Squirrel Seduces a Redhead

Squirrel is our cat and we are his humans. We came to this particular arrangement through Robyn, our friend who lived down in DC, and she came into this arrangement, partly by chance, but mostly by being a sucker.

One night in autumn, as Robyn walked home to her downtown apartment, she noticed a cat approaching everyone who walked by on the street. On closer observations, he was eating bread. Robyn, being the bright bulb that she is, realized that this cat was clueless at living on K street. If that was not a clue, his eating bread was. Obviously, the cat once belong to someone and he was hungry. So Robyn spent a little time with the cat, decided that he was quite charming, then reluctantly left him and went home.

Then, being a sucker, Robyn decided to rescue the cat. She returned with a cat carrier and her usual overload of chutzpah. She scooped up the fluffy-tailed guy and took him home. In her words, the cat won the kitty Lotto. He was going to get a good home and not die on the streets.

Once home, Robyn put the rescued fellow in her bathroom and closed the door. She now had a new cat in her bathroom, and an old cat in the living room who was no fan of new cats in the bathroom. She dubbed the new guy "Squirrel" for his fluffy tail.

Part 2: In which Squirrel Comes to Live with Jenny and Doug

Robyn immediately began searching for a better living arrangement for Squirrel. Her search turned up two suckers: one being a couple and one being my wife.

Jenny came home from work one day and asked if we could have a cat. Her co-worker had a girlfriend who had found a cat. Could we have it? I was quite unsure of saying yes at the time. We talked it over for a few days, and I accepted the cat on these terms: the cat was HERS, and she was responsible for him.

By the time that we replied to Robyn, the Other Couple had already claimed him. However, they could not take him immediately. Meanwhile, Robyn’s new cat and old cat disagreed with each other to no small extent. To help restore sanity to Robyn's apartment, we agreed to host Squirrel for a few weeks until the Other Couple could get their situation sorted out. We drove down to downtown, put the little guy in the back seat, and drove home.

The poor fellow chirped the whole way home.

We let the little guy out in the living room and let him explore for a bit before repeatedly introducing him to the kitty-litter box. Some cats will hide, but not Squirrel. He instantly accepted to the new surrounding, poking his head into every nook and cranny that he could find. That first night, he ran around like a maniac on speed finally freed from his bathroom prison. He ran over the bed so often that we had to shut the door. Freed from the bathroom, he had room to run around. We did not yet know what that meant.

Shutting the door also caused Squirrel to go bug-nuts. He slammed himself against the door, reached under, and did everything that he could do to open the door. We were rather surprised that he did not give himself a concussion. It was a few years before Squirrel could accept a closed door without having a fit.

Squirrel did his best to endear himself to us. When Jenny worked at home, he would hop up onto her lap and put his paws on her shoulder. When she reached her arm around reflexively, the cat then settled into her arm and purred his way into her heart. After enough days of this, Jenny really wanted to keep our gray fluffster.

Several weeks later, the Other Couple announced that they were bowing out. They could not afford any vet bills. Squirrel was now ours. Yay?

Part 3: In Which Squirrel Plays With String

Squirrel himself had several distinct features. First, he was gray, but not entirely gray, with browns and whites mixed in there, but he was mostly gray. He had the fluffiest tail that any of us had ever seen. He had this medium-haired coat, softer than any cat that I had ever petted, but which also was a bit spiky, or ticked. His body was long, much longer than most cats. His neck and body both seemed extra long. Around his neck, he had a fluffy mane around his throat.

With Squirrel’s distinct look came a distinct personality, one so extreme that even Jenny, who had grown up with multiple cats, had no idea what to make of the fellow. He behaved like no cat that she had ever known. This was a cat that knew what he wanted and had no trouble expressing that want. We came to call him the “demando commando.”

Jenny often noted how un-catlike Squirrel was. “He doesn’t have much cattitude,” Jen would say. Imagine that said about a cat with a personality turned up to eleven.

To say that Squirrel was demanding misses the point. This is a cat that wanted play and wanted play now. If he was on Broadway, he would be sliding across the stage and singing, “Gotta Hunt!” like Gene Kelly singing, “Gotta Dance.”

My day went as thus: I woke up and played with the cat while eating breakfast, went to work, came home and played with the cat, visited the wife, played with the cat some more, tried to do things on the computer only to get a cat in my lap, and played with the cat more. Squirrel was was a string killing machine who always wanted to hunt more string and had no trouble getting between you and any keyboard.

Squirrel liked hunting string so much that he found every shoe lace tying back every curtain in the house and hunted it off the curtains.

Squirrel and I developed some specific games. Once I knew Squirrel’s structural language, I could tell what he wanted. If he went behind something, that signaled that he wanted to play the “leap from the blind”  hunting game. If he looked at the floor, he wanted to play with the laser pointed.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s in here that Squirrel became my cat, or I should say, I became his human. I became his #1 person in the whole, wide world. One reason was all that playing with him, and the other reason is that I was the warmest person on the house. When it came to sleeping, I was the best location in the house.

Squirrel’s way of saying please was to rub against your legs. His way of saying extra-pretty please was to stand on his hind legs and rub his head into you.

Of course, not all of this was play. There was some coziness, too. The cat liked to join us for dinner and sit on a chair, keeping us company. At bedtime, he usually slept on my side of the bed, often stretching out his very long body and using me as the ultimate warm water bottle.
Climbing was another thing that Squirrel did. He kept figuring out how to climb higher and higher among the shelves. He was soon getting to places that even we were sure that he couldn’t go. At one point, he ran at and up some bookcases, allowing him to make eight feet off the ground.

At this point, I was certain that Squirrel had been thrown out of the house and not let back in. He had so much energy that the owners couldn’t handle him any more. I felt sorry for the little guy. His previous owners had responded poorly to him, so Squirrel had developed some bad habits. Those habits took lots of years and trust to work out of him, but some remain.

There was one thing that I always knew was true: Squirrel was an outdoor cat.

Part 4, In Which Doug Opens the Door to Outdoors

Jenny wanted Squirrel to be an indoor cat. By the time that spring had arrived, I firmly disagreed. This cat had been found on the street. He knew what outside was. He had too much energy. I could see that Squirrel wanted outside, so I let him out because that’s what I decided to do.

When Jenny came home, I fessed up.

From then on, we let the cat out, and from then on, we had a new cat. What won Jenny over was the change in Squirrel’s disposition. He went from high-maintenance cat to easygoing cat. As I said, this cat had to hunt, and not being able to hunt was the worst thing for this free-roaming charmer.

Our first lesson in hunting came the hard way. I had left the door open in the springtime so that Squirrel could go in and out. One night, we hear the tiniest screams of utter terror that you never want to hear. The cat had cornered a mouse in my office, just behind the bookcase. Yes, mice scream and can feel the terror. In hindsight, Squirrel must have brought the live mouse in the play with, then lost his toy.

The next day, I had to get rid of that mouse, so I pulled books until it came out, and then Squirrel chased it under the bed. As I pulled out boxes, that cat wound around the bed, ready for his opportunity. I eventually found the mouse in a box, then removed the whole box to outside. Squirrel was right there, eager and oh-so enthusiastic. When that mouse escaped, he chased after it.

Squirrel wasn’t a good hunter right away. If he saw something, he chased. This is how I learned that squirrels scream as well. The cat was at the bottom of a fir while a squirrel took refuge in the branches, screaming out in fury at the cat. That was one pissed-off squirrel. After that, I don’t think that Squirrel took down a squirrel for a few years. When he finally did, I was a proud cat-daddy. Squirrel tends to not eat what he catches, but fortunately he does eat both squirrels and baby bunnies, so that much makes me somewhat happy. We occasionally found a decapitated bunny head in the yard.

I’ve seen Squirrel chase birds. As a bird is flying off, Squirrel can keep up with it. When he’s sprinting, he is death. He’s got this two-paw grab that should bring a bird down.

His grayish coat helps Squirrel hide in the dark. The camouflage of his coat is so good that I can watch him walk away from the house, and three feet late, he has already slipped into the darkness and I’ve completely lost track of him.

Climbing is another thing that Squirrel does. He runs at a tree, then runs up it. He can get ten feet of the ground that way. I’ve seen him as high as forty feet off the ground.

If Squirrel catches a bird, he’ll keep that bird as a prize and won’t kill it. In fact, he’ll poke it with his paw until it tries to get away, then he’ll run it down and catch it again. He has no idea of death and torture. As far as he is concerned, this is his toy to play with. It’s hard for us as pet owners to stand by and watch the abuse, so I go inside. I would rather deal with a dead bird.

In the springtime, Squirrel learned that we have the windows opened, so he started to climb on top of the shed and giving his little chirpy “meow” at us until we woke up. Did I say that this cat was smart? This cat is far too smart. It took him just one day to figure out that we opened the window and that we could hear. He got down from that shed by sliding down the side a little ways, then leaping over the fence in front of him.

Where the cat doesn’t do so well is in paying attention. Fortunately, he’s a street cat, so he usually does pretty good at staying away from cars, but that doesn’t keep him from grooming himself in the middle of the street. I was positive that he would get run over, but somehow that hasn’t happened yet.

Part 5, Time Goes By

In time, the entire neighborhood got to know Squirrel. He had no hesitation poking his head everywhere. The local bus stop kits loved to come and pet him as he sat on the stoop. The neighbors would say, “Oh, you’re his owner!” Yes, our cat had met everyone in his neighborhood, holding fealty over each. As far as he was concerned, every adult human would feed him, although the smaller ones were scary because they liked chasing him.

The vacuum was never a welcome part of the week. We joked that the vacuum was the “evil sucking thing of doom that evilly sucks all cats to their doom.”

The cat had a good window seat, and he loved being there. He definitely needed to see outside. He loved his high spots. He also loved laying down in the middle of the living room during a party. Surprisingly, he never got stepped on.

We eventually learned that Squirrel needed a better diet and better cat food, but finding food that he liked proved rather challenging. He had a tendency to lick the broth and eat none of the filling meat. We eventually got him to eat that, but still, he proved to be an astonishingly picky eater.

Squirrel loves butter. Sometimes we feel like the cat’s drug dealer. He comes along wanting butter, complete with his special “butter” meow, and like a good dealer, I tell him, “First hit’s free, man.”

Squirrel’s routine changed with the season. During the winter, he slept at my feet, and then he woke me up near morning to feed him then let him out. He’d come back in when I left for work. During the summer, he preferred staying out all night and sleeping in during the day. When I got home from work, he would almost always be there to greet me. He even knew my car apart from all the other cars, so he’d walk out to greet me.

When he got frustrated in getting his need mets, Squirrel resorts to attacking feet. That was as annoying and painful as you think it is.

Squirrel is now nine years old and still very strong. For the most part, he’s gotten along well with my daughter, both after birth and later, but he never trusted her. The cat couldn’t figure out what to make of her until she began walking, and then I saw his brain click. “She’s just a human kitten!” he realized. After that, he treated her like a person rather than the scary floor crawler that she had been.

Sometimes me and the baby would go for a walk and the cat would walk along with us. He escorted us because we really don’t belong out there and he needs to keep up safe. In fact, he often kept watch for me when I was in the yard. He liked hanging about, but as I kept pulling out noisy things, he learned that hanging out with me wasn’t always fun.

The cat sometimes often can’t figure out what we humans can really do. He’ll look outside at the snow and give me a look. “Okay, you stupid humans. You really broke outside. Fix it. Make it stop snowing/raining/whatever.” We had hands, and that made us pretty amazing by his standard.

Part 6, In Which I Try to Figure Out Squirrel’s Breed

So, what exactly was Squirrel’s breed? I tried to answer this for years. The only cats that I could find for many years were maine coons, forest cats, and siberians. Although he shared many traits with these breeds, there were too many differences to ignore. In the end, I accepted that he was a siberian and left it at that.

Recently, I ran into Somali cats and I had to change my mind. Squirrel matched Somalis far better than any breed so far, even matching on those unusual features that made him so distinct. Somalis have those fluffy tails that Squirrel wraps across his feet, those long necks, medium ticked coats, and their very distinct personalities. I can’t tell you that he’s a pure breed, because I just don't know, but based on looks, he sure seems like it.

Following that, I began looking for first-hand accounts of owning a Somali and found very little. I thought most of the cat descriptions were stale and uninformative, written in that pet-doublespeak where you can’t say anything bad about the breed or anything terribly solid either. “This is a challenging cat with an exuberant sense of play,” meaning, “It’ll scratch your eyes out.”

I also found forums where people asked, “Should I get a somali?” and some discussions around the subject which added something to anyone’s knowledge.

I went looking for a magazine to publish this story in, but pet magazines want stories in the 500-1000 word range for us Americans with short attention spans, and you can’t really do somalis justice is so few words. I tried cutting the story down, but the cuts just didn’t work.

So here you go. This is what it was/is actually like to live with a Somali, although your ownership experience may vary.