Saturday, November 27, 2010

Counter Cat

You've heard of counter-espionage. Counterculture. Counter-clockwise. Counterpoint. Counterweight. Counterfeit. Counter-productive. Countermand. Then there's Milo, counter-cat. He's my new, adopted fourteen-month-old Siamese. He resides on counter tops. In the bathroom, when I'm drying my hair, he's right up with me, purring away. And during teeth-brushing, he has two paws in the sink and his head under the tap, drinking. When I'm in the bath, he lies up behind the tub. Sometimes he tightropes his way around the edge of it.

But it's on the kitchen counter he's most at home. If I'm there, he's there. Of course, his food bowl is in a remote corner by the toaster oven, a little used section. (Maggie, our Great Dane or the poodles would get it if it were on the floor.) His favourite place is among the bags of groceries I've put down when I come in from the garage. He weaves in and out of them or else sits yowling expectantly by the one with the meat. Chopping vegetables is a dual act with Milo in curious observation as I wield the knife. He helps my husband toss salad. He's jumped up by the stove and cautiously approached a sizzling pan. He's eagerly by the sink as we scrape and stack the plates after dinner. Doing the dishes fascinates him. Sometimes he thwaps at the water. And he's a frequent pest at this counter where I have my desk. There's a light that gives off warmth. Niger used to like to lie here, too.

All this is very unhygienic, I realize. I know where cats' paws go; what cats' paws do. I should have rules. No cats on the counter. It's disgusting. Hu Jin, the kitten, is too little to get himself up as yet, but I suspect, observing Milo, he'll be there as soon as he can make it.

I guess I like the companionship of having a counter-cat. He could simply be curving himself around my legs. His need to be "up there" speaks of his curiosity, his need for association...closeness, even. A cynic, a cat-critic would say he's only after food. And that's partly true. Cats are opportunists. But I also believe Milo is a natural "interactor", an exceedingly responsive, sociable cat; that if he could talk we'd be having a conversation about the state of things. As it is, he's a silent partner and I welcome him, germs and all.


I wondered how I'd feel the first time I saw a coyote since I saw one carry off my beloved cat Niger a few weeks ago. Apart from feeling distraught and sick-at-heart, I've felt a certain anger at the number of coyotes there are around and how they impinge on our lifestyle. I resent not being able to let my animals out when I'm surrounded by so much land.

Coyotes have no natural enemies. They simply kill and reproduce. The deer, on the other hand, are equally prolific but they're essentially harmless, except for chomping in the garden and carrying the threat of Lyme Disease. And yet every year, the deer are culled in significant numbers. Why aren't the coyotes culled as well? There are lots of them and they're becoming bolder and more aggressive.

I realize this is an ancient problem. As we encroach on wild creatures' habitats, they encroach on ours. And become a threat. It happens in Africa with lions who kill livestock and elephants who trample crops. It happens in India where Tigers actually attack humans. It happens with wolves and ranches out west. It happens on Vancouver Island where mountain lions drop out of trees on children in playgrounds. It happens with devouring grizzlies in National Parks.

In most cases, I sympathize with the animals. But for some reason, coyotes don't arouse my sympathy. They aren't magnificent or noble. They're not symbols of great strength and courage. They don't appear to have a complex society. They're simply predators, scraggy, wily survivors.

So I expected to want a gun when I saw a coyote after Niger's death. The other day, the dogs were frantic and I saw out the windows that one had appeared. He was tall and golden with dark shadings, like the wildflower meadow out of which he'd slunk. I was surprised at his heft and full coat. He was in fine shape. Except for his skulking carriage, he could have been any number of similar-looking dogs at the park.

And what did I feel? I felt a kind of fascinated horror and some revulsion. But something else wierd struck me. If he was the one who had eaten Niger, then Niger's flesh and blood and bone had contributed to his flesh and blood and bone. Niger was in effect, living on in the body of the coyote, nurturing it. That didn't exactly make me feel great but I imagined having to put Niger down as an old cat. (He had a numer of years left, but he was eleven.) When that happened, we would have taken his body and placed it in a grave on our property, where I would have put some small memorial: a beautiful stone, say. And the grave would have been a constant reminder of how wonderful he'd been; how much we missed him. We have animal graves at every house we've ever lived.

Niger's life force, what made him who he was, remains with us only in our memories. But instead of rotting in the ground his physicality is living on in the physicality of a free creature. I hate that it happened, but there is some awe, some comfort in knowing gorgeous, gregarious Niger is part of an infinite continuance.

Monday, November 22, 2010

November Thunderstorm

Monday morning: not quite late November. A silver scrim blurs my view. The heavens have opened and rain is pelting down: a muffled roar on my roof, a solid splash along the eaves. Lightning slices the aluminum sky; aggressive rumbles follow. If the rule is right about the number of seconds between lighting and thunder equalling the number of miles away a storm is, it is directly overhead.

I usually think of a thunderstorm as a dramatic, precipitate summertime phenomenon. The sky blackens. Lightning and thunder battle for supremacy. Rain flattens gardens and lacquers the leaves and lawns. Fierce winds down branches. Sometimes a summer tempest seems sensuous and invites you to run out into its warm, beating wet, like that great scene in Lady Chatterley's Lover. A summer storm is like the best theatre: visually compelling and fraught with tension.

This November thunderstorm feels benevolent, somehow. Not that it's nurturing but it is generous. It has been dry for weeks. Everything is dessicated. And this is Thanksgiving week, after all. Snow would not have been unusual.

And yet, a rainstorm has been unleashed on the landscape. And it is a warm, if not gentle, then considerate one, with little wind. It is not even that dark. In fact there is a luminousness in the light that has coloured the neutral landscape. I see caramel, burnt orange, rust and touches of scarlet appearing in the ragged fields. In the distance, the woods have a dark, gauzy intensity, their branches softened, almost furry. Immediately in front of me, the unshed, drenched leaves of a towering Shaggy Bark Hickory look like copper. I feel encased in a comfortable phenomenon of nature. It is unexpected, unnatural and wondrous.

And now, suddenly, the sun has appeared, burnishing the ether, brightening the wetness below.
What had such import has passed or is no more. Am I changed by it? Affected, certainly. Moved enough to write this. Checking the weather page, I've seen temperatures may reach 66 F. Just before the storm, I'd taken the dogs out into an almost balmy, unsettling early morning. Now , moving into the festivities that signal the beginning of winter, we face a day of eerie welcoming warmth. A maverick thunderstorm opened it. I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Novel November and Fighting Dogs

Earlier, this November wasn't able to decide whether it was still October or even late September. Instead of being an overture to winter's grip, it was a sonata of solid sunshine with real heat. And it felt eerie to me, being without a jacket surrounded by a sepia-washed, barren landscape.

Apart from the green-gold leaves clinging to a few bushes and trees, everything was looking dead, feeling dead: the hardwoods exposed like soldiers, their bare branches weapons piercing the empty sky, the marshes and meadows all tangled and brown-crisp, the goldenrod crowned with dirty fluff. At the park, the racing dogs stirred up a storm of dust on the arid path. They went home gritty. If it had been cold and drizzly, as it usually is, we'd have been despondent. But it wasn't. It was gloriously, uncharacteristically warm.

So there was a feeling of being bestowed upon, as if the embracing, (rather than bracing) temperatures were a gift. (And there is the puritanical guilt that for pleasure we must pay.)

November is a month of complicit duality, like January. They both bookend the festivities of December when the weather loses its significance or else enhances the season by being postcard beautiful. November (normally) abruptly ends autumn and pushes us into winter. You can see your breath. The ground freezes. The first snow comes. January ruthlessly finalizes all the distracting celebration and takes us, surely, into four months of confronting cold.

But for some reason, this year November stalled for a bit. Maybe it was global warming. Interestingly, it felt tantamount to a heat wave in late April before there is any real hint of green. Then the landscape has the same bleakness, making the sun more powerful for the lack of any cover. Both aberrations offer unobstructed heat. In April, it feels like a blast. In November, it radiates like the hot waves from those lamps on outdoor terraces to prolong alfresco dining.

I hate winter. A decade in the Yukon ruined me for it. But I have always loved November, not as winter's precursor, but as a respite before it hits, an example of the kind of winter I'd love. The kind they have in England, in Paris, in North Carolina. Pewter dull, damp, the surroundings briefly bared. Maybe there's an early morning frost, a dusting of snow but it melts quickly. It's a reticent, bland, bleary time, devoid of spring's bright promise, summer's lushness, autumn's garishness, winter's ferocity. But it is pacific. It stands alone, dreary and austere, without promise. It is inconsequential, really.

This November has had consequence.


It's definitely distressing when a dog you're fond of misbehaves. Yesterday, Claire instigated four fights. In one, she split Sam's ear in two places. Dog altercations terrify me, so when a dog I like erupts, I'm upended.

Claire is an endearing Bull Terrier. It's difficult to see how a Bull Terrier can be endearing, I know. They are a fighting breed after all and like Pit Bulls, can look menacing. They have powerful, squat, muscular bodies like mini-tanks, heads like missiles and small, beady eyes. They're not the least bit cuddly, the way even obnoxious Jack Russells can sometimes be.

But I've never met one that didn't seem to have a sense of humour. Reggie, the big white male at the park, does. And so does Claire. She just seems full of laughter, as if life overjoys her. She is boisterous, gregarious and affectionate and up until yesterday, (except for a couple of exceptional skirmishes), has been a fair, albeit rough player.

Claire is an attractive charcoal grey with a wide white collar and some white on her toes.

One of her favourite pals has been Sam. Sam is an affable, handsome mongrel, like a caramel-coloured Labrador with white paws. But he's finer that a Labrador. In fact, one woman was sure he was a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever because of the distinctive white star on his forehead.

Sam and Claire play hard. Sam's owner keeps him from getting too riled up. But the two dogs, often in collusion with Annabelle, the lovely blonde Shepherd/Collie/Whatever with the black mask wrestle vigorously. Sometimes our Great Dane Maggie joins in. Then the scrum has to be broken up, but not because of ferocity. There's never been any aggression between the dogs. Not for the days, weeks, months they've been playing together. It's more because the level of interaction escalates into harsh growls and fur and limb-grabbing. Remember when you were rough-housing as a kid, your mother used to yell, "Someone is going to get hurt!"

But yesterday, Claire and Sam fought for real, maybe over a tug-rope they'd been happily playing with minutes before. There's no mistaking dogs at each other's throats. The scary scuffle was broken up in short order, but Claire's potential viciousness, (and Sam's ability to defend himself), showed in Sam's split ear.

So did it show in two of the other fights I witnessed. I don't remember which dogs now, only the terrible wrangle of bodies and the savage snarling. The fourth fight I only heard as I was at the other end of the park, but apparently, it was with Niko, a German Shepherd Claire usually plays easily with.

Claire's owner was understandably distressed and apologetic. He's vigilant with Claire and keeps close watch on her. Before Claire, he had another Bull Terrier, a fierce dog who was "unbringable" to the park. That's why he deals with the fights so quickly. And he disciplines his offending dog with grim purpose.

"Maybe it's the medication," he offered. Claire has severe allergies; is losing a lot of hair. I don't know this, but I'm assuming she's on steroids. Sometimes steroids can cause aggression in humans. Witness "'Roid Rage". Perhaps that's what got into Claire. So her sudden change in personality, from being sweet to unpredictably violent, has a chemical cause and is only temporary. It would seem so, since she's always been a trustworthy dog. And I really hope so, because both Claire and her owner are enjoyable dog park co-horts and I would miss them if Claire couldn't shape up.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Kittens: Fascinating Creatures

What makes kittens so especially fascinating? My 3-month-old Siamese, Hu Jin is a wonder. Is it because he is so light? He walks across the wood floor like a spectre, almost floating, his tiny feet making not a sound. He's like the fluff from a milkweed pod, a dandelion clock, the feathers bursting from a split pillow. One puff and he'd disintegrate into a spray of fine, white fur.

When I pick him up, (which he resists, squirming), he feels minute, insubstantial in my hands, his little head fragile as an egg. And he is so delicate, so pliable, his limbs are like pipe cleaner, his brown paws flimsy and loose.

And then there is his irresistible softness. It's nothing like fleece or velvet. It has its own unique depth and texture, inviting strokes, lips on the downy head between the silken ears. It arouses some kind of tactile longing, gratified only with contact. Lying curled up in a chair, he stretches out and rolls over when petted, revealing a tummy whose fur is luxurious and baby-fine, not the stiffer fur of an adult.

Actually, he has all the wildness, all the self-assurance of an adult. Puppies are like toddlers. Unsteady, adorably awkward. They galumph and romp, paws too big for their roly-poly bodies. But kittens are already pure instinct: the alert way they stalk and pounce, the way they rub their bodies, their faces against things, they way they stretch themselves to clean, the way they leap, the way they use the kitty litter.

Already Hu Jin's small body broadcasts the taut sleekness, the delineated, reserved confidence of a big cat. I see the veldt in him, the jungle. He paces with purpose; he attacks a piece of crumpled cellophane as if his life depended on it. He charges around pursuing imaginary prey with the intensity of a cheetah. His yowls are mini-roars announcing his presumed power. The only unformed thing about him is his fragile size. That and his expressive face are what make him cute. Otherwise, I see him as mature beyond his months.

I haven't had many kittens. Mostly I've had a lot of cats, strays or handovers. But every kitten in my life was a character, with an endearing set of behaviors that set him or her apart.

Pookie, a Siamese noisily growled at and attacked invisible critters in corners. She also played a mean game of fetch. Rammy, her male cohort, babysat, including cleaning and faux-nursing, Pookie's litter of five when he was still little himself. Roots, a Yukon kitten, came for long walks in the bush, following behind us like a dog, mewling all the way. Yo-Yi, another Siamese who also was a keen fetcher befriended Jake, our Bichon and did his best to keep him clean. Finally came Niger, the gregarious prince, lover to our first Great Dane Lily and anyone else available. If you were sitting, you got Niger on your chest, purring, butting your chin. If you were sleeping over, he'd want under your covers. Niger was curious and a bit clumsy and he broke a number of precious things during his explorations on tabletops and counters.

And now there's Hu Jin. He's assertive and resourceful, the most independent kitten I've ever had. And he's bold, absolutely unphased from the moment he arrived by Maggie, the Great Dane who wants to nibble him and Hutchie and Gracie, the two territorial Toy Poodles who growl at him. "Whatever!", he says, bumping against them. He's slept on our bed almost from the first night we had him, oblivious to the fact - or ignoring it - that the Poodles claim the space as their own.

Although I'm enjoying his "babyhood", the hyperactive, furry streak that he is, I'm looking forward to him as a cat, when he's grown into being sleepy and sedate and companionable and the world is there less for the taking and more for the giving.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Expensive animals

I've just spent almost a thousand dollars in the past couple of weeks at the veterinarians. Ouch!

I bet they're not feeling the recession, especially because, like dentists, they get paid on the spot.

First, Maggie, our Great Dane got chomped at the dog park. She had a quarter-sized hole in her right outer thigh and punctures on the inner. I thought of butterfly-ing the wound but realized tape wouldn't stick on fur. Plus, there was a little too much exposed bloody tissue for me to handle. So off we went to the vet. He said she was very lucky. The bite was only millimetres away from a lateral vein and that would have meant a lot of bleeding. Yikes. Four hundred dollars later Maggie was all stapled-up with a prescription for 3 weeks of antibiotics and one for pain killers. (I'm saving those for me...just kidding!)

I was shocked at the bill. I can't find it or I'd give an itemized accounting. But it seemed a lot for half-a-dozen staples and some pills. I realize I was paying for the vet's knowledge and expertise and believe me, I'm grateful to him. So why do I feel ripped off?

Today I took our two new felines, three-and-a-half-month old Hu Jin and fourteen-month old Milo in for check ups and shots. For both, there was a physical examination, a blood test for Feline HIV and Leukemia, shots for rabies and distemper, stool check and the routine de-worming first time clients always get.

Plus, Hu Jin had fleas. That meant flea control for both the cats as well as preventative for all three dogs. And the vet gave me this long alarming spiel about heartworm in cats: how they've just discovered it's more prevalent than they thought. Cats get it the same way as dogs, from mosquitoes and soil but unfortunately it's almost impossible to test them for it and once they get it, it's incurable. The main symptom is an asthma-like cough. The vet recommended heartworm prevention for the two cats, even though they are going to be strictly indoors. "Mosquitoes come indoors," he said. "We've seen heartworm in indoor cats."

What was I supposed to do? Fall for the palaver and put my cats at risk, or cave in to my mild concerns and get the medicine. I caved but only because the heartworm drug was combined with one that killed fleas and ear mites as well. I shouldn't have felt conned, but I did.

The bill for the two cats was $495.

Years ago, our cat Cinder developed Feline Urinary Syndrome. He was peeing and spraying everywhere. At the time, there wasn't the selection of prescription foods for the disease and the vet recommended surgery to open up Cinder's urinary tract, basically changing his "inner works" from male to female. Females have a different curvature to their urethra allowing the calcification to pass and rarely get FUS. The surgery would cost $500.

It was simple. We didn't have the money. We'd just returned from the Yukon and my husband was working at a job that payed him less than a third of what he'd been earning up North. We had a mortgage and four mouths to feed.

The vet said, "Is he an animal or is he a member of the family?"

He was a member of the family, of course, but that didn't magically produce the funds. Somehow we scrounged half...I don't remember how...and the vet allowed us to pay the balance with postdated cheques. Twenty bucks a month for a year. The operation was a complete success.

I can't remember what we paid for the urologist to diagnose our Irish Wolfhound, Fionnulla's kidney cancer, but it was a lot.

I once paid $1000. for our Bichon, Jake, to have an MRI. He'd been having seizures and behaving strangely. The neurologist said he was 95% certain it was a brain tumour but only an MRI would say for sure. It said for sure.

Our last Great Dane, Lily, developed advanced Cardiomyopathy, (serious heart disease) when she was about six. She was treated by cardiologists at two veterinary university hospitals, one in Guelph, Canada and the other in Champagne, Illinois. Many hundreds of dollars gave her an extra two years. She had to take a passle of pills plus everytime she went to the clinic, she was given an ECG.

And then there was Niger's dental bill. He had serious gum disease and had to have several teeth extracted: a couple of molars and his two upper canines. Veterinary dentistry costs about the same as human dentistry...more than you can imagine.

I know most vets are caring, compassionate, responsible, able animal doctors but sometimes I feel they're also salesman preying on our deep attachment to our animals, overtreating, recommending unnecessary procedures and charging exorbitantly. We're so fearful of losing our beloved pets that we go the distance and pay the price. It's an unbalanced exchange.

I love all the vets at the clinic where I take my animals. They're conscientious and friendly and provide excellent care, but they're expensive, far more than the small town vet I used to go to up in Canada. Her prices are reasonable and you leave her office not feeling as if you've been "taken".

It's my choice, I realize. I have five pets for whose health I'm reponsible and I have to accept that there are no bargains there.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rufus, Hound of the High North

I first saw Irish Wolfhounds at a society wedding on a beautiful estate. There were several of them weaving graciously on the lush grass amongst the guests. Do you know the breed? They are the tallest of dogs, males sometimes 38" at the shoulder, and they have the great chests and long legs of all sight hounds with angular, elongated heads and small ears. Their hair is short and shaggy, either grey or blonde. The breed almost died out after it killed all the wolves in Ireland and was only revived in the mid 19th century.

The "wedding" Wolfhounds weren't particularly responsive the way, say a Golden Retriever would be. But they weren't unfriendly, either. They simply stood patiently while you patted them, as if your hand on their fur was something nobly to be endured and when you stopped, they simply walked on.

I fell in love.

Fast forward six months to the Yukon, a dark, bitter December with temperatures plummeting to minus 55 F. I had just joined my husband there the previous July with a nineteenth month old daughter. That September, I had another daughter. Those first winter weeks were cruel, shocking. I was holed up in our house with an infant and a toddler, knowing no-one, questioning our decision to be there.

Then, in one of the two newspapers, (I don't remember if it was The Whitehorse Star or The Yukon News) I saw a picture of a couple with their two Irish Wolfhounds and twelve newborn puppies. Now that was news. Irish Wolfhounds in the Yukon!

The couple, newly-arrived from France, (all sorts of people go to the Yukon), lived well outside of town in a ramshackle cabin with only a wood stove. The temperatures hadn't risen and the interior was not warm when we visited. The Noirot were well-padded. I kept my coat on, feeling the chill.

The mother with her new puppies lay on one side of the stove. On the other, the father was stretched out. He got up to greet us, an enormous, shaggy grey beast called Abraham. The mother, a blonde, was Esther. The puppies were about a month old, still wobbly, still small enough to hold in your hands, giving no sense of their upcoming size. When I knelt down, some climbed on me. They were like little grounhogs. I kept picking them up, one by one, examining their faces, trying to detect some personality. I was smitten but it was too soon to choose.

At eight weeks, we picked a sturdy, dark grey male called Chaim. (All the puppies had Biblical, Hebrew names.) We renamed him Rufus. I don't remember particularly why we chose him.
He ended up being a big scruffy beast of a dog, 36" at the shoulder, loving but incorrigeably recalcitrant.

My husband tried to train him, (There were no obedience classes in the Yukon in 1971), but Rufus was defiant, headstrong and strong. He refused to sit. When my husband pulled up on the choke collar and pressed down on the dog's rump, the dog raised himself on his hind legs, eyeball to eyeball with my husband, who is 6' 5".

There was never a hope to get him to heel. People didn't put their dogs on leads in the Yukon, in any case. Though there was a dog catcher, except for the dog teams chained in the bush, dogs ran free. We built a spacious run in the trees just back of our house with a cozy doghouse filled with straw for nights. And when we went to bed we heard Rufus' howls, "wooo-oooh-oooh-ooh" echoing through the wild. He wanted to be with us but he couldn't sleep indoors because after awhile, he got too hot and paced and panted and stratched to go back outside. Unfortunately, during one particularly harsh spell, Rufus' testicles froze. We felt awful but at least it neutered him. Since there was no vet, it wouldn't have happened otherwise.

He ended up being my husband's dog. Though I was very attached to him, I was preoccupied with my babies and simply finding a way to survive North of the 60th parallel.

Among the Huskies and Malamutes and German Shepherds that were the most common dogs up there, Rufus was a bit of a standout. And for some reason those breeds had it in for him. He was not the least aggressive but if one of them picked a fight, which they often did, he retaliated with all the force of his size. Those were terrifying battles: big powerful dogs at each other's throats, raging, snarling. I don't know how we broke them up, but we did and no-one ever got injured. The Northern dogs were protected by thick coats. Rufus was just lucky. Once, after one of the worst fights with a German Shepherd, he lay low for several days, obviously sore. But there was never a wound.

In fact, his worst wound happened when my husband chopped off the end of his tail when he shut the door of the Datsun station wagon on it. The tail bled profusely: it was a paintbrush dripping with blood and whenever Rufus wagged his tail, we had great smears and spatters of blood everywhere. People were ordered never to say his name because it made him go thwap-thwap, re-opening the cut. We wrapped it in gauze and torn diapers and taped it tightly but it oozed for weeks.

Rufus was not a good ski dog. The cross-country skiing in the Yukon was spectacular; the snow dry and firm. We skied right out our back door in sunlight skittering through dense woods, up into endless rolling hills, out onto vast lakes rimmed with majestic mountains. We skied wherever we wanted, however far we wanted to go. All we faced was more.

Everyone took their dogs. Some dogs were trained to run alongside so as not to ruin the tracks, but Rufus took the lead right on the tracks. "Move, Rufus! Move!" shouted the person gaining on him, especially on a downhill. There were tumbles when he didn't. Occasionally he'd stop dead and poop right there and the skiers would have to quickly side track to avoid "gooing-up" their skis.

Rufus was not stately or magnificent. But he was a much beloved animal: affectionate, sociable, gentle, trustworthy. Actually, he was an unkempt, appealing delinquent who was nothing but trouble. It was our fault for not training him, for not finding a way to control him. We were not good "dog-citizens". The neighbours hated him for walking over their gardens, their newly-seeded lawns. He lived the life of a free spirit, assured of his next meal, roaming at will in a barely-tamed environment. His worst fault, in fact, his fatal flaw, was car chasing. Unwittingly, we'd encouraged that, as well. We used to run him along the empty back roads beside our car. He loved it.

He chased skidoos, too. When they roared past the back of our house, he'd tear after them, terrifying the drivers with whom he was head to head. He must have seemed like some fierce spectre rising out of the clouds of snow.

But cars passing our house were the most challenging. Even moreso were the big pick-up trucks with dogs in the back. Too often we heard shouts, the screech of brakes. We started keeping him in his run most of the day. Usually my husband would let him out for a couple of hours when he got home from work.

One April evening, he had just done that when we received a phone call from our next-door neighbour. He thought he had just seen Rufus hit by a truck but he'd run behind the house. We looked out and saw his stilled body lying in the snow. He had a small round hole between his eyes and we thought perhaps he'd been shot by an angry driver, the kind with a gun rack in his back window. We called the police. They probed the wound and found it to be shallow.

Our neighbour, who was a doctor, said it was likely Rufus had had an instant cerebral hemorrhage.

"Oh dear Rufus," I said, leaning into his still warm fur. He was even more massive in death, his normally pliant body ungiving to my touch. "You were a bad, bad dog but you didn't deserve this."

There was no way to bury him. The ground was still covered in snow. With a friend, my husband wrapped his deathly heavy body in a tarpaulin and drove it to the town dump. Fires burned there all year round.

It was a terrible, insulting end for such a carefree, colourful dog.

Monday, November 1, 2010

cats invade heart and home

Yesterday the back door was wide open and my husband unthinkingly raised the garage door and put the three dogs in the car to go to the dog park. When we returned an hour and a half later, Milo had vanished. I searched every room, under beds and sofas and chairs, behind dressers and bookcases, inside shelves, on top of high things. I called and called. He was nowhere.

Milo is our new 14-month-old Siamese cat, acquired by a friend whose son was allergic. We had had him only two days and though obviously an affectionate feline, he was skittish in his new environment and extremely wary of our Great Dane Maggie. She was overbearing, overexuberant when she first met him, remembering, I suppose, her intimate relationship with Niger and the Siamese didn't like it. He hissed and spat and swatted though that was harmless, as he's been declawed.

We went to bed that night, sick-at-heart, certain that Milo had bolted through the open doors and was now cowed somewhere in the woods or marsh. He's always been an inside cat and I was sure the wilderness would terrorize him. Not to mention the preying coyotes. My only consolating thought was that he was hunkered down under the decks surrounding our house and would appear when he was hungry.

As I was going to sleep I remembered another runaway cat. We were living in the Yukon and my daughters were 7, 5, 3 and 1. A friend had given us "Cinder", a large black feline because she was leaving the territory. When he arrived I said to the kids, "Don't anyone open the front or back door or the cat will escape." Cinder had been with us perhaps an hour and was hanging out by the back door poised to flee when #3 kid decided to test my admonishment and opened the back door "just a crack". Of course, Cinder, seeing his chance, pushed open the door and ran off.

I was so upset I took a valium and went to bed to avoid violence. Kill my kid? Easily. How could she have defied me and put the cat's welfare at risk?. Even drugged I worried all night long about that cat. We lived on the edge of never-ending bush, a long way from the home Cinder had come from, though in the same neighbourhood. I didn't know if he'd try to get back or simply disappear into the wild. I was terribly distressed to have let my friend down. She had loved the cat and counted on us to take care of him.

I spent an anxious three days without him. Then on the fourth day, at bright Yukon summer dawn I heard a small yowl at the back door and looked out and saw the black cat. Brilliant beast! " Cinder! Cinder!" I shouted and everyone went down to greet him. He walked in as if he'd always lived there. After a mere hour in our house, he had known to return to it.

He moved to Toronto with us a year later and lived to be 15. He was always a prowler.

I kept telling myself Milo was as smart as Cinder and would either stick by our house or return to it if he attempted find his former one, (which was in another town.) I didn't know what to tell my friend if he didn't show up. I knew she'd be very upset and that made me feel worse.

Milo was wearing a new collar with three bells so I always knew where he was. I hadn't heard him in the vicinity of the open back door. Was it possible he hadn't gotten out? If so, where was he? I went over and over this all night long, listening for bells but never hearing them. I could see him in a coyote's jaws as surely as I'd seen Niger two weeks before.

Then in the early morning dark, as my husband took Maggie out, I thought I heard him say, "Hi Milo." Really? I hadn't heard the bells. Then I heard them. I lept out of bed and looked down the stairs and there was Milo, the consummate hider, rubbing up against a doorway. When I greeted him, he came right up to me, the long lost friend.

We hadn't seen him for at least 17 hours.

I still don't know where he was hiding. Wherever it was, he goes there occasionally but he's beginning to stay out more and more. This morning he's tearing around with the kitten, Hu Jin as if they're siblings.

From now on I'm going to be extremely vigilant about the doors.

Already Milo and the little kitten, Hu Jin are members of the family. They haven't replaced Niger, (for whom I still mourn and cringe at the way he went), but they've insinuated themselves into our dailiness in short order. That brings the pleasure of their company and their antics, of course, but it also brings the deep and obsessive attachment I always feel towards my animals and the vulnerability that is the corollary of that. My animals are fragile, impermanent and the pain I feel when one of them goes is overwhelming. I overlove them and elevate them to the status of offspring. I know I'm not alone in this.