On intimate otherness

One morning in January, I woke up and thought: ‘Today, I absolutely must get a kitten.’ I don’t know what I’d been dreaming. It was one of those thoughts that comes out of the blue, with no idle trail of kitten-musings to warn me that felinophilia would strike me on that particular day.

I rose with purpose and vim and made phone calls. The local vet clinic, which rehomes cats, had one kitten available, and my son and I wandered down to see if she was the kind of kitten we needed. A very small, beautifully marked tabby stretched out her paws, curled into our arms and purred. From that moment, Mely was ours.

I’ve always had animals. As a country child, I had as many pets as I wanted. The only rule: that I had to look after any animal I possessed. That is how, at one point, I ended up with fifty guinea pigs.

We always had at least one large dog (my mother liked Great Danes), a couple of spaniels and several cats. And then there were the chickens, ducks, cows, rabbits, horses, a very destructive billy goat, and a ferret called Dylan who was a stray and was rescued by my father one night when he was trying to kill the chickens. There was also a series of baby magpies that had fallen from nests and we saved from being roadkill. They hung around for about a year before they flew away to be grown-up magpies, and were among the most charming pets I’ve ever had.

A suburban existence doesn’t quite offer that scope, but for all the inconveniences of keeping animals – hair, shit, vomit, death – home doesn’t feel like home without an animal presence. Since I moved to the city it’s been cats and dogs, rescue pets of various descriptions. Blackie, a small collie cross, turned up in my back shed one stormy night, filthy and trembling. She had clearly been dumped. After two days of telling the children that the last thing we needed was a dog, I found myself buying a collar and dog bowl, and that was it.

I first got a cat after a serious plague of mice, which still makes me shudder in retrospect. I had tried everything – poison, baits, traps – all of which were traumatising, cruel and ineffective. Mice fear cats: they pick up the smell through the vomeronasal organ in their noses and leave promptly. Even the laziest cat is the best mouse deterrent there is.

But, of course, there is more to it than simple practicality. There is something about writers and cats.

Perhaps it’s a mutual scepticism that both species find endearing. Perhaps it’s the stubborn individualism of cats, their refusal to consider themselves anything but superior creatures, which appeals to the basic egocentrism of all writers. Perhaps it’s how cats combine solitariness with an appealing yet self-centred sociability. No doubt this is why there are countless fictional cats, from the devilish Behemoth in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita to Dr. Seuss’ eponymous Cat in the Hat. I can attest to the pleasure of writing about them: Mely is named after a cat in one of my own novels, due out next year.

As I’m writing this, my ancient cat Lulu is asleep on the armchair that I bought supposedly for comfortable book reading, but that subsequently turned out to belong to Lulu. At some point she will wake and demand to be fed, which usually means she will walk all over my keyboard. After dinner, my primary purpose is to be cat furniture. If I’m not sitting down, making a comfortable lap, she follows me around until I do.

Mely, being young and vigorous, is outside in the long grass pretending to be a tiger. The kitten has brought a new and urgent interest to Lulu’s life: she was left bereft and mourning after the death of her cousin Sinbad last year. She has stopped crying heartbreakingly every night and instead pursues the inscrutable territorial rivalries that give meaning and purpose to every cat’s existence.

I spend a lot of my day observing the relationship between these animals, and also relating to them myself. It answers something profound in me. Maybe it’s an echo of a connection to the natural world that can’t otherwise be felt in a city. It seems important to remember that human beings are not the only species on this planet.

Not everyone is an animal person, and not every animal person is a cat person. For those of us who are, cats bring a dimension of intimate otherness into our daily lives. It’s more than anthropomorphic sentimentality that makes people cherish their pets. I don’t believe that cats are like people: they remind me, rather, that we are animals ourselves, warm-blooded mammals with the same innocence, the same need for shelter, food, skin-touch and emotional relationships. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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