he animal world has charmed me since childhood. I remember leaving breadcrumbs on the windowsill for sparrows, goldfinch, and robins. My father later taught me that not all birds were on the same diet. A mix various seeds, a few tiny pieces of meat or fat and a variety of vegetables would have been more appetizing and healthy for my winged friends.
I also associate almost all phases of my life with dogs. Often to the desperation of my mother, during most of my teens I kept taking in stray dogs. They were mongrels of a thousand races, some already quite old, some very young, a few of them in varying stages of malnutrition, some scared because of unhappy encounters with other humans, some lively and joyous as if they had never had a care in the world. All of them soon learned to trust me with their life and spent the rest of their existence in companionable harmony with family members and friends.
I rarely adopted cats. Cats are more independent and I have the impression that while we adopt dogs, with cats it is the other way round. They adopt humans. When they decide to. You will remember Kipling’s story of the “Cat Who Walked by Himself (and all places were alike to him).’ Well, you get the idea.
When I met my wife Pina, 23 years ago, she had a tiny little Yorkshire terrier she had taken in a few months earlier, and this is already a story in and of itself.
It was so tiny she called him “Briciola” (breadcrumb). By a sort of twist of fate, a few months before meeting Pina, I had found that very dog in the countryside, while having a short holiday with some friends in their “masseria” (farmstead) in southern Salento. He had probably strayed from his owners and got lost, and was nothing but a small bundle of skin and bone. I inquired with the police whether anyone had filed a report on a missing dog and gave the officer the address of the place where I was staying, just in case. No one contacted me, so I kept the dog in my room and he slowly recovered. When I went back home, the dog remained at the farmstead, well-tended by my friends. However, I could not help thinking of that tiny creature that in the meantime had grown fond of me. The next weekend I drove back to the masseria, determined to take him home with me. The dog had already been adopted by a lady who lived in a nearby village.
A few months later, I was introduced to Pina, at the same friends’ masseria, and when I went to visit her for the first time, a tiny little Yorkshire terrier came playfully barking at me as soon as I entered her house. It was the same dog I had found in the countryside the previous summer. We were reunited by destiny.
Neither Pina nor I adopted cats at the time. She apparently did not like them, but things were bound to change. When we decided to start living together, a couple of years later, I moved to her place. Her house was bigger, had a larger garden for our dogs and a beautiful fireplace. A closet under the stairs leading to a sundeck was well-stocked with wood. A wrought-iron gate protected it on the garden side, but it was also accessible from the living room.
One cold December evening I went into that cubby-hole to collect some wood to rekindle a dying fire and I saw shadows scuttling in the dark.
When I went back into the living room, carefully closing the door behind my back, I asked Pina, “Have you noticed that we probably have some rodents in the wood cubby-hole?”
“MICE!?” she screamed.
“Rats,” I corrected her, “the size of a woodchuck.”
“How is that possible? I have never seen rats here before.”
“That surprises me even more, since we live practically in the open countryside. Our house is the last one on this side of the village. As I already suggested, we need a cat.”
A few days later, while I was taking our dogs out for the usual afternoon walk, I heard a feeble meow coming from the high grass of a nearby field. The dogs sprang forward and stopped a few meters away, forward leg bent like setters pointing a pheasant. There, looking up with azure eyes, drenched to the skin, lay a snow-white kitten, not older than four or five weeks. I brought the kitten home, much to Pina’s joy, who soon fell in love with it. I cleaned and dried it and discovered that it was a she. I started feeding her with milk, blended with water and half a teaspoon of baby food. I used a needleless syringe from which the kitten avidly sucked, an expedient I would use more than once over the years. It was time to choose a name. Now the naming of cats, as T.S. Eliot knew well, is a difficult matter, not one of your holiday games. We perused a 1967 Faber & Faber’s edition of “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” We were delighted by the poems and by Edward Gorey’s illustrations, but Pina sternly refused to use any of the names.
“Our neighbors would be rolling with laughter every time I go outside and call for Bombalurina of Jellylorum.”
We met halfway on a name from some Disney cartoon: Margot. We pampered her and she got on splendidly both with Briciola and with the other two dogs we had taken in: Laika, a pincher-like black and white female, and Spenk, an indefinite longhaired black male shepherd. In time, tomcats came to court Margot. She got pregnant and delivered six precious kittens, five of them dazzlingly white, with azure eyes. The sixth had legs, tail, and ears of a brownish color, which extended round the eyes, like a panda, and gradually faded into beige on the back and belly. The incredible thing was that Margot had taken refuge in the doghouse to cub. We found her in the morning, inside the kennel, surrounded by her litter, watched over and tenderly licked by Laika. When I tried to touch one of the kittens, Laika docked her head and gently took my hand into her mouth, preventing me from reaching it.
That was our first litter of kittens, and more came in time.
Last winter, on a cold moonless night, a stray lady-cat appeared in the garden, and started mournfully meowing on our doorstep. She was visibly undernourished and starving, with ruffled dark and orange-flecked hair. We provided her with food, water, and a shelter. Euridice we called her, as she seemed to have appeared from the netherworld. In the morning, we discovered she was lame, so we nicknamed her “Zoppina” (little lame). She was also pregnant and a couple of months later gave birth to six kittens, some of which have been adopted by friends. This luckily cut the total number of cats in the family to nine, at least for the time being. Besides Euridice and Iris (the last surviving of Margot’s kittens), we now have Piuma, Zorro, Nerina, Zorino, Osvaldo, Omero, and Penelope (all of them sensible everyday names). They all get along well with our two present dogs, Willy, a small mixture of Yorkshire terrier and pincher, and Charlie, a sort of white Labrador. Briciola, Laika, and Spenk have crossed the Rainbow Bridge long ago and so have a small host of our cats, Margot, Sheyla, Panda, Sissy. Now they all sleep peacefully in the glare of a wood, part of the same masseria where Pina and I met for the first time.
“Please, do not take in any more cats!” Pina commanded. “We are spending a fortune to feed this canine and feline zoo!” Still, every morning as she gets up and every evening before going to bed, she goes to greet them and talk to each one of her “piccolini” (little ones) in most endearing accents. And when she sees a white kitten with azure eyes offered for adoption on Facebook, she rushes to me, like a child longing for another toy, asking, “What do you think? Isn’t it cute?” To think that she was the one who did not like cats. Just imagine if she did!