The Utilitarian

It has been decided. Happiness for the greatest number of our family members lies in getting a family pet. Or stated differently, I have been outnumbered. I am not going to say that I do not like cats or dogs. Far from it. I do have a heart. A big beating one. I also believe there is merit to the notion that people who own pets live longer. The four pets I gave birth to certainly raise my blood pressure from time to time and unlike pets, they have been known on occasion to talk back. So I get it. But I also have a sordid history with family pets that I fear has tainted my eagerness to revisit this reality. My heart has been hurt. It really does not matter how many stories I tell my kids of my childhood experiences with animals. I have simply lost this battle.

My first memory of a cat came when my sister and I found kittens when we lived at Cleopatra. One had fallen in a crab hole during the day, outside our dining room window. Unfortunately for the kitten, it was daytime so the crab was not out scavenging. He was still in his hole and stumbled upon an unexpected surprise. Yelping for help, I saw the kitten from inside falling deeper into trouble. So I grabbed a kitchen spoon and ran to the rescue. I had to dig the opposite end of the crab hole to stop the crab from pinching the kitten who was now bleeding. It was quite traumatic. I remember the feeling of panic. From this experience I realized that I would not like to be a veterinarian, or a paramedic.

After a friend of my Mum’s imported some pedigree cats from London, we acquired two Persian cats. One was white and we named her Tallulah, after a young Jodie Foster in the 1976 movie Bugsy Malone. The other was a tabby that we predictably called, Tabitha, after the daughter in the hit TV show, Bewitched.  Gorgeous cats. When my Mum got pregnant with our first brother, Tallulah started bringing leaves into my parents bedroom and building a nest on our Mum’s side of the bed. It was intriguing and mildly disturbing at the same time. Then her behaviour changed. As we lived next door to the hotel, Magic Isle, some of the guests started feeding the cats. Gradually the cats began to spend more time at the hotel. When our brother was born, they simply stopped coming back.

Dogs did not fare any better. When we moved to our family home in Frere Pilgrim, I told my kids about Arnold, our beagle puppy. We had him for maybe a month. Adorable with his silky, long brown and black ears. But then he disappeared. Stolen for his cuteness we reckoned. Then more sadness. It is no wonder I identify with the character Sadness, from the 2015 Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out.

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I tell them about Myrtle, our Jack Russell Terrier. She was named after she ate our pet turtle as soon as we brought her home and before we had found the right name for her. “Myrtle the Turtle Eater”. She arrived after her predecessor died tragically in my arms not long after having him join our family. So tragic I forgot his name. He died after eating a tiny whistling frog in our home one afternoon. As he went into shock and started frothing at the mouth, my Dad got me to hold him on my lap in the front seat of our car while he drove frantically through a cart road as fast as he could to make it to the vet. Once again, the feeling of panic crept over me. I still have the image of the lifeless puppy on me by the time we pulled into the vet’s driveway.

Out of sympathy by the breeder, they promised us a replacement with the next litter. After all her siblings were carefully chosen, Myrtle joined us. Myrtle was a good dog. We let the turtle incident slide. Not her fault really. She thought she was big but as you can see from the photo, not so much. That’s the case with Jack Russells. Terriers they sure are. They like to run with the big boys, even though they can’t always handle the heat. Heat. Yes. That was the cause of her demise. She got out of her holding area while she was in heat and unfortunately, the big dogs in the neighbourhood had a field day with her. Poor Myrtle.

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Myrtle.

If only the tragedy ended there. When we moved back to Barbados after living in Jamaica, we got a cat that my younger sister, a toddler at the time, tried to ride like a pony. My Little Pony, My Little Pony… Poor thing. Sadly, a broken pelvis took care of all nine of his lives. Our sister had to live with the shame for many years afterwards as our aunt gave her cat gifts for years and years as a humorous reminder. The Cat Killer.

Even chickens became victims. Like the time my brother got a pet chick at a school fair. The same brother the cats had a built a nest for. He sure loved this little chick. A few days later, one morning, my older sister accidentally sat on it in our parents bed. He had put the chick in his t-shirt to keep it warm while he went to the bathroom. As we all piled into our parents bed to sing happy birthday as we normally did in tradition for whoever’s birthday it was, he stood at the foot of the bed and announced: “Where’s my chicken?” Everyone paused.  It’s lifeless body sagging in the t-shirt rendered our sister, The Chicken Killer. We still laugh about that morning even though there was nothing funny about his tragic demise.

Then who could forget Raj. Our black cat who was found by a family friend, starving on a golf course. He was so skinny and malnourished that he nearly didn’t make it. Slowly he thrived but then he thrived a bit too well. He would bring birds, rats, mice into the house. Like prizes to show us with great pride. As a teenager I remember being mildly grossed out. My Dad, however, was not amused in the least. One day, Raj brought in a dead small rabbit and carefully hid it in our living room, beside a bookcase of encyclopedias. No one noticed for a day or so until a deadly smell engulfed the house. My Dad found the prize and then Raj mysteriously disappeared. Dad said he ran away.

This is not to say that every family pet was quite so tragic. I happen to recall a ginger cat, Morris and a tuxedo cat, Sylvester. Both lasted a while but my memory draws a blank regarding their untimely endings so I am hopeful that they lived longer than our prior pets. My mind is clearly tainted with so much tragedy that it is hard to see the comedy sometimes. Unless you count the fact that both my sisters have committed serious pet crimes.

Back to present day. Seeing the signs on the wall over the holidays, I put my foot down. Nothing in a cage. Not fair to anyone. No dogs (for now). Cute, adorable, cuddly and all the whole unconditional love thing. But not interested in picking up poo off the streets of Toronto. When the sidewalks are not filled with snow, they are filled with enough stuff thank you very much. I also could not bear the image of another dead dog on my lap. No one believes me when I say I think I have PTSD.

I also am feeling bad for any of our friends or relatives who have allergies. It is really not easy to make everyone happy. Just know that I’m working on replacing our 20 year old vacuum so our home remains as hairless and dander free as possible. There was a time when even my husband threatened divorce if we got a cat. But then even he folded. I am the last one standing. Holding strong, but slowly falling.

When I tell my Dad on Skype of our interest in adopting a cat, he brings up the subject of Raj. But this time, he confesses that Raj never disappeared and goes on to explain the true story of how he ran away. And while I am sure it felt good to get that off his chest, I prefer the story from 30 years ago. You see, in the West Indies, for the most part, pets are like commodities. They are to serve a purpose. For safety and security. They are not people with fur. Not four legged friends. That’s how I was raised at least.

I start brainstorming and think to myself… what would Nana do? After all, Nana and Papa had cats at Tremont. For the rats. She called them all “Puss“. So if she could do it, I know there is hope. I decide I am going to be as rational about this as possible. Right, Rachel? We will not get a strange crazy cat from Kijii. Too many unknowns, including potential real killers.  Also not looking for steep expenses to fix a kitten and get all the required shots. I ask my youngest brother who has a cat what his thoughts are on a myriad of topics. He suggests that boy cats are more chill since his cat is a boy and in his experience, boys are not as high maintenance. I don’t disagree.

Then I remember our youngest went to the Toronto Humane Society on a class trip at the end of the school term. That is also part of what exacerbated this whole family request. Thanks THS. He had written this letter to a resident rabbit, Captain Pancake. Here was his first draft. The good copy was taken in hand to the rabbit:

Letter to Captain Pancake

Still holding strong I agree we will look for a boy, neutered cat who has had all his shots. Preferably not crazy. On our first visit we quickly realize that finding a cat to my standards is not that simple. There are many older cats. In the wintertime, not as many kittens get brought in. They freeze out in the cold so are not discovered and brought in as frequently as say, in the Spring. There we go again with the sadness.

The first potential cat has behavioural issues.  A 6 month old neutered male. The problem is that he was discovered abandoned in a parking lot and not taking well to human contact. Everyone at the shelter is concerned about his future to ever integrate into people society successfully. So we put in our paperwork and are advised to keep checking back. A cat will come soon enough.

A week goes by and the kids and my husband decide to go again for a “look”. What do you know, they find a girl kitten who was brought in that morning from a litter of eight, six boys and two girls. All the boys are adopted already. She 6 months old. A July kitty, like me and our two daughters.

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So naturally I concede. I know this is happening. A frenzy ensues on what we shall call her. I casually suggest a name that is also an emoji. I dunno, like Kiwi, Taco, Bubbles, KitKat, Rose, Luna, Fern. Efficient I think. I reckon that when I am texting about this puss, I have a shortcut other than just a cat face. A girl can wish. The happiness crew is not feeling it. I suggest Scully as our eldest is deep into The X Files and like the actor, she has green eyes. That daughter loves it, the other despises it. It gets vetoed.

So I put my foot down and tell everyone that since this cat is joining our family by utilitarian standards, I am taking charge of naming her. No one else. It’s the least they can give me since we all know this cat is literally going to end up in my lap. After everything I have been through with a long laundry list of pet history blues and how much everyone wants her, she owes me. She is destined to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of us. There is no doubt she will be cuddled enough. As for me? Let’s just say this puss has a ways to go in stealing my big beating heart. In the meantime, I will call her Tilly. The UTillytarian Cat. Now about that vacuum…

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