November 8, 2016

By Melissa Treuman

Life Lessons from a Cat

 If I had a tail, it would be between my legs right now.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog called “The Making of a Speciest.” In it, I revealed my lifelong aversion to cats.  At the time, I had been working in animal welfare for over a decade, and my opinion about cats had never wavered.

I was a dog person, and for me, there was no contest. Dogs are friendly and dependable; they live to please, and there is a reason they have earned the title of “man’s best friend.”  Cats, on the other hand, had always struck me as moody and unpredictable.  They can be aloof, and often seem to have little regard or need for the humans around them.  I never really understood cats, and I understood “cat people” even less.  Why would someone want a companion that seemed utterly indifferent to them?

Over the years, I’ve encountered many self-proclaimed cat people and admittedly, I’ve probably derived a little too much enjoyment from antagonizing them.  Part of me felt righteous in my affiliation with what I viewed as the superior species, and a part of me actually hoped that one of these feline fanatics would finally show me the error of my ways. Needless to say, this never happened.  Like every personal evolution, I simply had to arrive at that destination on my own.   

“The irony is, you ARE a cat!,” our organization’s resident cat expert would often tease me.  She had a point.

I can certainly be moody, and while I enjoy the company of others, it can take me a long time to warm up to someone.  One of my former coworkers still jokes about the fact that she had to ask me to lunch for six months before I finally accepted.

I’ve always accentuated my “dog-like” characteristics because I’d come to view them as the best parts of my personality; the traits I deemed the most likeable. It made perfect sense that I judged our companion animals with the very same criteria.

But all this changed in April of 2016 when I met the cat that would reverse a lifetime of stubborn thinking.  I had just come out of a relationship, and on top of that, I’d was dealing with a chronic illness that often left me feeling like a shell of myself.  Because I “looked fine” (the hallmark of most chronic, invisible illnesses), I felt the constant pressure to keep up appearances, which for me, meant “being on” as much as possible.  The problem was, being lively and playful when I was feeling anything but was exhausting, and it was wearing me down.

One day, without thinking, I walked into one of our cat resorts.  It overlooked the entrance to the building, and there was a bench where I could sit and decompress. To be honest, the presence of the cats barely registered; most of them were usually hiding anyway.  I just wanted a space away from people where I could enjoy some peace and quiet. I took out my phone and began to read the news.

No sooner had I begun scanning the day’s headlines when a petite black cat jumped into my lap and made herself at home.  Initially, I wasn’t super comfortable (in all my years of working at a shelter, I’d never so much as held a cat), but she seemed pretty harmless.  After a while, I began petting  her, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed her presence.  She wasn’t asking me to play with her, she didn’t need to be fed, she just wanted to keep me company.  When she began to purr, I stopped what I was doing and prepared to devote my full attention to her, but just as I did, she hopped off my lap and went about her business.

I came back the following day, and the day after that.  I began spending the majority of my lunch break in the cat resort.  Fluffy, as the staff had named her, turned out to be quite the little firecracker.  She had a ton of personality, but every interaction was on her terms.  At first, it drove me crazy.  When she ignored me, I tried to make her jealous by lavishing attention on the other cats and praising them within earshot (hey, this always worked with my dog); I tried to win her affection with treats; I left prematurely, hoping she’d regret her conduct and learn from her mistakes.  But nothing worked.  She may have enjoyed my company, but she didn’t need my validation.

And no matter how much time I spent with her, or how pleasant our encounters, I could never guarantee that the next day would be like the one preceding it. She showed up exactly as she was, not as I, or anyone else may have needed or wanted her to be.  And as uncomfortable as her behavior sometimes made me, I quickly sensed that this little, self-possessed creature could teach me a thing or two.

A little over a month after Fluffy plopped into my lap—and with an ongoing education from my colleagues to combat general cat cluelessness and residual misconceptions (“She has barely acknowledged me ALL day; do you think she might have a brain tumor?!”)—I made Fluffy (now Boo Boo Kitty) a part of my family. 

It’s been six months, and Boo Boo still does whatever she pleases, but I have come to admire her unwavering authenticity.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still days when I call her over, watch as she looks at me, comprehending exactly what I’m saying and then walks the other way that I think “what kind of sorry excuse for a pet is this?!”  But those thoughts are quickly replaced with an only slightly-begrudging respect for her inspiring ability to honor her own needs.

And all life lessons aside, I love her.  I love her incessant chirping; I love how she sits on top of my chest and attempts to groom my face so thoroughly I swear she was an esthetician in a former life; and I love her ability to meet me exactly where I am, on both the good days, and the bad.  And while it’s true that I never really wanted a pet that answered first and foremost to herself, it’s also true that sometimes, we just might find that we get precisely what we need.

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