Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy - XXVI
Cats patrol suburbia at night. They are hunting for
the sport of it. Theyare not hungry, at least not
hungry in their digestive tract. These well-fed pets
are hungry for the game wired into their nature. They
stalk for opportunities to practice their adroitness.
They stake their honour on challenging the home turf
of other cats. They become restless and want
activity, much like suburban teenagers.
Some suburbanites try to dissipate their cat's urge
to exercise hunting skills by keeping them indoors
and occupying them with toys. The last thing
suburbanites care to see is the cat bringing into the
house from outside their own choice of toy, an
injured, terrified, small creature.
It isn't just cats who are capable of a secret
sadistic life. Our cat was born and almost perished
in another suburbia, on another side of Philadelphia.
There a young girl of twelve had a cat that produced
a litter. The young girl's father, a drunkard, lost
his temper one night and began killing the kittens by
throwing them into a river with their mother. The
young girl managed to only rescue two, one in each
hand being all she could carry as she went running
through the streets crying for help. A neighbour came
to her aid, taking the kittens and promising to find
them homes. One of those homes was ours.
I have never been fond of cats, with exceptions. The
one I share my house with, his name is Jazzbender.
Cats are stunning to watch. They move with the
elegance of their much larger cousins, the tiger. I
adore their stately gait, the royal indifference of
the cat sejant, judicator of all their environment.
But I also see them as emotional parasites. These
sphinxes are not the social creatures that dogs are.
The rewards we gain from caring for a cat is a single
degree difference from the rewards we gain from
caring for a stuffed teddy bear.
Jazzbender is a smallish cat, beige in colour, with
subtle stripes. He used to pay us tribute by
occasionally bringing to our doorstep the dead baby
rabbit or fledging. The larger adults are too
challenging for him. I guess we've proved
unappreciative, because he now deposits his kills in
a special area beneath the bushes as tasty morsels
for our more appreciative Newfoundland dog, Boris.
We acquired Jazzbender the cat as a pet for our dog.
When we brought Jazz home and introduced him to
Boris, Boris was instructed to not eat him. And
there's the point, even when alone, Boris refrains
from eating the cat. Dogs are generally more moral
than cats. They can be taught what is wrong and will
not do wrong even when left alone. And if they do do
wrong, they confess their sin with an obvious
expression of guilt. Unlike Boris the dog, Jazzbender
the cat will do wrong if he thinks he won't get
caught. Unlike Boris, Jazz has no sense of guilt.
With both my spouse and I working to support this
suburban life, Boris the dog spent many hours alone.
Jazzbender was meant to be a diversion for him while
we were away. Dogs can go through a terrible
adolescence when left alone. They will misbehave.
They do this to get attention, even if it will bring
them bad attention. This is not unlike human
Once, during our absence and before he had a pet cat,
Boris reached a bookshelf five feet from the floor
and pulled off to chew some of my collection of fine
press books. He was probably attracted to the glue
used in the binding. He managed to do at least $500
worth of damage. I threatened to skin him and use his
hide for binding if he did it again. As an extra
precaution, I lined my shelves with cheap cookbooks
turned sideways. But Boris did not attempt it again.
Unlike Jazzbender, Boris lacks grace. When we used to
go for walks, Boris lumbered like a bear, galloped
like a bison, and plowed through the underbrush like
a woolly mammoth. Even now you can hear Boris
plodding through the house when he changes from his
imagined den beneath the piano to the bed we've made
for him in the corner of our bedroom.
When I was young and growing up in suburbia, the
friendlier dogs were often free to run loose through
the neighbourhood. Folks knew how to interact with
them in those days, perhaps out of necessity. But
this has changed with the times. The attitude of
suburbanites has shifted from the feel of the country
where pets are loose, to that of a city where dogs
aren't allowed off their leash. In suburbia, dogs are
never given the chance for independence or exercise.
We are made to clean up after them, where once we
would no sooner think to clean up after our pets than
to follow deer through the woods with the same
It seems that people are no longer acquainted with
the responsibility a dog requires. Unlike cats, dogs
demand socialization, or else they become nasty and
unpredictable. It also seems people are less
interested in dogs for companionship and are more
interested in the protection they can provide. These
days the breeds selected are less friendly, and too
often they are trained to be vicious.
Boris is old, now, and stricken with arthritis. He
has become grumpy and not as companionable. The
curmudgeon wants only to be left alone to sleep when
he's not eating. I miss our walks and conversations.
I just don't believe cats have the sense of sacrifice
and social engagement that make dogs more appealing
to me. There is a phenomenal amount of communication
across species lines with dogs. It is possible to
share goals and to coordinate movement as a team.
I had never seen Boris angry or threatening, until
one night a neighbour, uncharacteristically drunk and
governed by private demons, made threats to Boris
with a ridiculously small penknife, nowhere near in
length to Boris's canines. The mansuetude of the
Newfoundland breed gave way to Cerberean viciousness.
I tried to stand between the threat and my pet,
backing my chained dog to the safety of the house.
And with equal determination, Boris was
suddenly in front of me, applying the same strategy
of protecting me and urging me back to the house. It
all concluded peacefully with the arrival of the
At the very worse, the pets represent an inability of
some people to find the companionship they need from
humans. Cats are less complicated to deal with than
people, and dogs will love you unconditionally. But I
think for some of us it is more than that. There is
an astonishing miracle to be able to have a
relationship with another species. Our lives are
enhanced by recognizing that we share a heritage of
emotion and desire with these other mammals. At the
very best, our experience is broadened to appreciate
that the planet is not the exclusive domain of
humans. We need to learn to share it better.
This week I have been struck with the flu and it is
Jazzbender the cat who curls up beside me to share my
sickbed. Jazz does this whether I'm sick or not. And
he isn't doing it for the pleasure it gives me, but
solely for the pleasure he derives from it. It works
out perfectly. When I'm sick, I'm not good company
and I am grateful for the cat.