As a cat person (you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t), you alert to the sound of a crying cat or kitten as much as—or, if you’re me, more than—to the sound of a crying human baby. I didn’t choose to be childless, and I didn’t try or decide to have a full alarm response to the sound of feline distress. I can’t help it.
Neither could the sixteenth president. So strong was his visceral response to that sound that he heard it right through the din and human anguish of the Civil War.
It is reported that Lincoln was distracted by the sound of crying kittens at the Ulysses S. Grant headquarters in Virginia during the siege of Petersburg in March of 1864. Admiral David Porter wrote he was touched by the sight of the president “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”
Porter remembered Lincoln petting the cats and quietly telling them, “Kitties, thank God you are cats, and can’t understand this terrible strife that is going on.”
Before he left the officers’ tent, the president addressed a colonel and said, ” I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.”
You know he loved them. “Lincoln was the first president to bring cats to the White House, where he spoiled them shamelessly.
This photo looks fake. But the anecdote rings true.
If you ever have a chance to raise an orphaned kitten from this age (I’m not assuming this kitten is orphaned—I hope not), don’t pass it up. Feel free to ask me why—and to ask me how.
Last Wednesday or so, Rainy caught one of his overcurved claws on the knit bedspread that covers the loveseat. When I tried to go gently to his aid, he panicked and pulled until he pulled free, then ran under the bed. (Siamese cats’ genius is not cerebral, it’s emotional, with all the drawbacks thereof. They go with their gut for better or for worse. One of the most brilliant cats I ever had—their intelligence varies wildly—would hold preternaturally still when I clipped her claws. She understood. If anything hurts or alarms Rainy, he reacts as if the world has betrayed him and turned suddenly hostile and punishing.)
Stupid me: when he came out, I caught him and tried to clip his claws to prevent that happening again. I got through the first paw okay, but when I got to the second paw—the one that had been caught—he freaked and struggled. Of course—it still hurt! DUH. Idiotically, I kept trying.
Maxim of widowhood: you don’t really know you’re alone until you try to fold a sheet . . . or treat a cat. Three hands are required, one to hold the scruff, mama cat–style—which, like Spock’s Vulcan knockout grip, seems to pleasurably paralyze and calm the patient, maybe via the vagus nerve—
—and the other two hands to open the mouth and pop in the pill, or express the claw and clip it, or whatever. But I was alone, so I tried to pin Rainy in my lap, or on the floor between my knees, talking to him softly and calmly as I tried again and again to get some purchase on the second paw.
He would have none of it. He struggled powerfully, clawing my arm arm and gouging my thighs with emphatic rabbit kicks. He snagged a nerve in my forearm and even as I howled to the ceiling in pain and frustration, I had to admire the survival instinct of this shy, slender, sensitive creature, pulling such unsuspected physical strength and determination out of the hat. I felt the satisfaction of knowing no one would ever get the drop on HIM. He can take care of himself! Good for you, Rainy!
(When he was a 3- or 4-month-old kitten, he once hid in a rumpled blanket on my futon, unknown to me, and I sat on him. I still cringe in horror at the memory, but as a matter of fact, he was out of there before even a fraction of my weight had descended. I had to grovel for half a day to turn myself back from monster to ally, but he was physically unscathed. Their survival reflexes deserve jaw-dropping awe.)
So I gave up on clipping that paw and mopped up my own blood. Strangely, this time Rainy forgave me quickly and came back for cuddling, maybe because (except for that one yowl of pain) I had kept calm the whole time. I think cats are mostly freaked out by others’ freakouts—by the smell of fear or rage. The reason they will accept a young kitten within days is that when they hiss and growl, the kitten, unlike a grownup cat, does not react in kind but just scampers goofily out of reach, like, “Wow! Cool game!” This comically deflates the resident cat’s dudgeon and makes it wonder what all the fuss was about. Likewise, if you have to do something unpleasant to a cat (who knows and trusts you), if you don’t get frightened or agitated when the cat does, the cat may take its cue from you and stay calm . . . or at least calm down faster afterwards.
To pull off this trick, though, you have to have a special trait, one probably shared with veteran lion and tiger tamers: you have to be unafraid of getting scratched or bitten (by your own cats, that is; I would never risk being attacked by a strange or feral cat). I am blessed with a high pain threshold, a tough and trusted immune system, and lots of history getting scratched and even bitten, usually in the process of medicating or grooming a cat or washing off someone’s shitty kitten (at which point the otherwise loving parent cat will rush over and sink its fangs into your calf muscle). Bites, as puncture wounds, are rarer and worse, and everyone will warn you about the inevitability of infection. For the record, it never happened to me or Jacques. What does happen is an acute inflammation—red, swollen, painful—for the first 24 hours or so. Cat saliva, which is variously said to have antiseptic and dangerously septic properties, and which is said to be the actual allergen, deposited by grooming on the fur and dander, definitely has proinflammatory properties, rather like catfish or stingray slime (some sadder-but-wiser fishermen and beachcombers will know what I’m talking about). I suspect people panic at this throbbing, aching inflammation, assume it’s infection, and get on antibiotics right away. I can’t promise you that the inflammation will subside on its own in a day or two, but it always did for Jacques and me—”always” meaning the handful times one of us was seriously bitten.
Here’s the strange thing: not only do I stay calm when a cat freaks out on me, my immune system does too. The gouges Rainy inflicted on me last Wednesday never even got red, sore, or inflamed, much less infected. I didn’t put anything on them but water. They just healed, faster than a kid’s skinned knee. It’s Monday and the last traces are fading. So it must be with old lion tamers (short of an injury as drastic as the one suffered by Roy Horn).
I have to think that I’m immune to my cats. Here’s an interesting question: Does my lack of fear cue my immune system not to go into overdrive? Or am I unafraid because on some level I know my immune system recognizes them as “self”? Living so intimately together, we probably share a broad spectrum of our microbiomes. Underneath the fur, we are one flesh.