hen my neighbors went away for the week, they asked me to take care of their two house cats. I love animals, but I’m probably not the best person to care for domesticated pets.
A box of kitties doesn’t send me “oohing” and I cringe when girlfriends tell me the inner life of their cats. I don’t stop to pet a dog. Still, I needed my houseplants watered later in the summer, so it seemed wise to agree to the trade.
A word on animals: The ones I like are wild. They fly in the open, forage through woods, live in streams and rivers. They are animals that hunt and prowl; they are predator and prey. They are taut threads in the web of life in the way domesticated animals are not. Hiking, I love coming upon a flock of turkey or wild boar. They’re hard to spot. They blend into the landscape, their camouflage means to ensure an uncertain survival.
I got my cat instructions by email.
“Kitties need to be fed twice a day (ugh, sorry!), once in the morning and once at night. They each get 1 1/2 cans of food in their bowls. That’s six cans a day. Their water and litter needs to be changed each morning. The food is underneath our kitchen sink. The bags for the cat litter are also under the kitchen sink on the back of the door. The scooper is behind the toilet in our bathroom in a plastic shopping bag.”
On the first day, I opened the door and one of the cats rushed past me eager to sniff the outside world, its nose catching the scent of a distant feline or rodent. It was curious and its muscles began to engage. I nudged it back inside.
I felt chilled in the apartment, the air conditioner on full blast, protecting the cats from the elements of the hot summer. The shades were drawn and a small table light was on in the side bedroom, an odd discovery since cats have excellent night vision.
There, I found the second cat lounging. She’d turned over a laundry basket and clothes were strewn on the floor. With no squirrels to chase, dirty laundry has to do. She looked bored and didn’t move to greet me.
In the kitchen, two fish-shaped dishes in blue and green lay on a matching mat. I pulled out three tiny cans of pro-biotic food, which, the label said, promotes dental health. The pull-top lid, once pried off, revealed tiny bite-sized morsels.
No tracking and pouncing necessary, no incisors or claws needed, at least not for this meal. No birds or mice were turned into nutrition. I scooped out the contents and lay it out for them. They sniffed at it uninterested and walked away.
In the bathroom, the litter box was filled with lavender scented crystals in a plastic tub, a hygienic replacement for natural earth and sand. I scooped up the hardened droppings with the slotted shovel and put them into a plastic bag, one more item for the landfill.
In the wild, beetles and insects would have descended, feeding and laying eggs to capture the nutrients, the earth becoming loamy and rich from the clinging bacteria, eventually fertilizing plants in the cycle represented by food that is eaten and passed, pieces in a symbiotic web.
As I moved to leave, the cats paced back and forth down the hall, their eyes glowing in the shadows. They reminded me of a cougar I one saw in a zoo. Looking into their eyes, I sensed intact instincts but no way to exercise them. They’re once powerful feline physique, built by evolution to run and take down small mammals, had begun to sag. A blue enrichment ball sat idle in the corner of the cage. I felt my heart break and turned away.
When I closed my neighbors’ door and left, I realized that I’d just left a zoo for two. It made me long for the precarious wilds of the natural world.