Cat People

June, 2010. South Africa vibrates with football fever.‘Feel it, it is here’ goes the slogan. South African flags adorn cars across the city, flying from antennae and covering wing mirrors. If you are stuck in traffic you can play a game – spot the unpatriotic driver with a naked vehicle. There’s no excuse, as most of the hawkers who linger at traffic lights sell World Cup paraphernalia. The national soundscape is dominated by the B-flat drone of the vuvuzela and K’naan’s ‘Wavin’ Flag’. Luis Suárez’s handball against Ghana, the last African team left in the competition, causes communal outrage and generates thousands of newly minted, temporary Netherlands fans for the next round’s match against Uruguay.

And I am sitting in my lounge, wrapped in a dressing gown, hair dishevelled, and crying as I watch How to Train Your Dragon.

This is the closest I have come to understanding what it must be like to look after a newborn baby (to which an actual parent might reply, not close at all). My world is now taken up with the wellbeing of a small creature that needs my help. Unlike a baby, this creature sometimes glares at me, narrows his gaze in affection, purrs, or growls in discomfort: my cat, Blackie, who has had the misfortune of losing a limb. The drunken melancholy of sleep deprivation is a powerful thing. Emotional senses heightened and seeing the world through a cat-shaped filter, I watch this children’s movie and question how thousands of children have not been scathed by it. I wonder at the callousness of the Vikings, with their macho violence and fascination with dragon-hunting competitions. Don’t they see that the dragons are just as scared as they are? As we all are? And on a more technical note, I ponder whether the animators modelled Toothless, the wounded dragon, on a cat.

There are situations that we cat-owners think we are used to. We know that a scratch on the forehead will quickly form an abscess if it isn’t treated. We can interpret tail movements and flattened ears. It is harder, though, to know what to do when your cat is dragging his lifeless leg behind him. Blackie got in a fight with a neighbourhood tabby and was limping on his front leg. The vet who treated the wound in Blackie’s front leg had injected the muscle of his back leg with cortisone to speed up the recovery. It was unnecessary, merely meant to be helpful. But the routine injection must have hit a nerve and it left his leg lame.

For a month my family and I watched him in hope, fuelled by the vet’s guess that the nerves could repair themselves. His foot was bandaged to prevent damage from dragging. The bandage got muddied and was replaced. Hope turned to resignation as we saw how Blackie tried to hop onto a chair and was hindered by this alien deadweight. His head would whip around, eyes all-pupils, as he tried to figure out what was holding him back. After a month and a half, we realised that nothing was going to change. The only option was to have Blackie’s leg amputated.

How absurd, that a little injection would lead to the removal of a limb. But there we were, facing a very difficult decision. We also feared that the experience would undo all the progress that Blackie had made from being near-feral when he first starting hanging out in our garden – not that it would make him wilder, but that it would diminish him psychologically. I scoured the internet for more information; the internet knows a lot about cats, it turns out. I took comfort in the scores of blogs in which people shared what it is like to care for a feline amputee. (Surely by now there is an academic paper floating around, with a title like ‘The internet is a cat person: Cat(egorie)s of communities and the rise of digital culture’.) The internet also confirms what I already knew: my family has distinctly unoriginal, retro feline naming practices: ‘In the 1950s and ’60s dogs and cats were given ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ names…Cats had names like “Blackie” and “Spotty”, names that illustrated their physical appearance.’ So says sociologist Adrian Franklin, apparently.

When my mom and I fetched Blackie after his operation, he came hopping into the waiting room, slowly but confidently, wearing a cone around his neck to prevent him from pulling at the stitches lining his hip. The receptionist cooed at his bravery and the vet told us how good he had been. Letting him walk out to us without help was a compassionately calculated move on their part. We embraced the symbolism. He was going to be okay. Blackie slept a lot for the first couple of days and we gave him painkillers periodically, especially when a slight shiver told us that he was in pain.

When we first got him, Blackie had clearly never lived with people. Perhaps saying that my family ‘got him’ implies too much volition on our part, or too little on his. We noticed a skittish cat who would eat the pellets of food left out for our other cats and we began feeding him. His fur was matted and he was skinny. Household items were objects of distrust: he’d crouch down and slowly stalk a shoe lying on the floor so that he could tentatively tap it with his paw. In the beginning, it was too much to expect him to sit on our laps or allow us to hold him over our shoulders, but he did learn some domesticated behaviour from our other cats. How else to explain his early tendency of arching his back about an inch away from our legs, not touching them, as if he’d seen this done before and thought he’d give it a shot?

While the differences between cat and dog lovers are highly exaggerated – why should we have to choose, anyway? – there is something to be said for the sympathetic resonance between cats and the people who love them. The narrator in Takashi Hiraide’s quietly arresting 2014 bestseller, The Guest Cat, reflects on his unexpected friendship with a cat:‘When I think about it now, rather than my not being a cat lover, it may simply have been that I felt a disconnect with people who were cat lovers’. Yet it is through the guest cat, Chibi, that the narrator and his wife start to reconnect with each other. The many little acts involved in caring for and observing Chibi bring them the small joys that had been dulled by everyday monotony. Chibi, however, is her own cat, and the story allows her to keep a little mystery. It’s the mystery of anything we hold dear: the idea that we can never grasp the whole knowledge of those we love.

Blackie has his secrets, too. We don’t know what caused the kink at the end of his tail. If you pick him up near a body of water, he stiffens, his claws extend and he fights to get away. The sound of running water, though, makes him miaow with a curious, upward inflection, as if he wants an explanation crestor price. There is a little flap of lost skin on his right ear that we presumed he earned during a fight, until we found out that ‘eartipping’ is a standard practice when feral cat colonies have been spayed or neutered.

In another way, he had no secrets during that month of recovery, the month of the World Cup. The experience was gruelling in the way that caring for someone you love – even if that someone is a cat – is gruelling. It ceases to be good or bad. You think in terms of necessity and hold onto the rewards or the difficulties of the moment: my mother and I, sitting on a blanket outside, Blackie spread out between us and the maroon mound of his stump bared to the winter sunshine; the gradual change from shaven pink skin to downy fur that is soft to stroke in one direction and a little prickly in the other. Blackie made no secret of his desire to tug at his stitches. His first cone was too small and he found a way to lodge it into his hip and push his head towards the stitches. A bigger cone proved no more effective, and short of fitting a contraption more akin to a snowplough than a recovery device, the only way to prevent Blackie from injuring himself was to monitor him all day long. If a cat’s ‘default setting’ is to think that they are the centre of the universe (David Foster Wallace’s observation is just as applicable to felines as it is to humans), then Blackie gathered very little evidence to contradict this belief. I took the late-night shift, staying with him until about two or three am, when my mom would take over and see him through until the morning. Repeat this process for about 30 days, and that is how you end up shattered by How to Train Your Dragon.

When I began my graduate studies in the UK a couple of months later, a lot of people asked me about the World Cup. What was it like? Did I go to any matches? Wasn’t it just amazing? To which I’d give a condensed reply: yes it was, but I actually didn’t experience a lot of it, I was more involved with looking after my cat. I could have also told them that he is absolutely fine now, more than fine, and that he seemed to take all that attention as an affirmation of his place in the world. I could have said that he uses his tail to balance when he’s sitting, and that he sometimes tries to scratch his ear with his phantom leg, but if you scratch it for him the stump stops wiggling and he starts purring. But you shouldn’t try the patience of strangers too much when you first meet them, so I’d leave it at that.