I pull up in the circular drive, blanketed with a couple inches of snow, and park in front of the modest-looking ranch. I get out and ring the bell; as I’m standing there I notice a miniature house set up on a table on the porch. A piece of carpeting covers its doorway, and a staircase leads up the side to a rooftop patio. “Nice house,” I tell Dee when she comes to the door.
“Oh this is Cooper’s house,” she says, stepping out to show me. She lifts the flap and the round face of a brown tabby cat peers out at us. “He’s got radiant heat,” she says, pulling up the edge of the rug to show me that the floor of the attractive little house is heated. “He’s a ‘don’t fence me in’ kinda guy – he just won’t come inside,” she explains. Hence his name: Cooper, as in Gary. When she first noticed him hanging around he was trying to subsist on bird seed.
As I step inside I’m immediately greeted by a Rottweiler who bumps me with her big, square head and then leans into me like I’m a long-lost friend. As I pet her she sits, and I can see that her back legs fold up in an awkward way – arthritis, I’m thinking. “She’s on borrowed time,” Dee says. “They usually live between eight and ten years, and she just turned ten.” Later Dee tells me she got the dog – Tikka, I think she calls her – when the people who purchased her as a pup decided they could not keep a full-grown Rottweiler in their apartment.
Meanwhile a handsome gray cat has come out to investigate – Dee says he’s a Russian Blue, but I don’t quite catch his name. Dee is our cat sitter, and after putting my elderly cat to sleep this week, I’m here with supplies I know she can use: cans of prescription food, a heating pad, a couple of bottles of Cosequin capsules. I set the carton on the kitchen counter and look around. The house has an open, spacious feel, very clean and uncluttered; I tell Dee how much I like it.
“C’mon, I’ll show you around,” she says, explaining that the room off the living room used to be an attached garage but is now her bedroom. When she flicks on the light, not one, not two, but four cats look up at us from where they lie sprawled on a lovely black and gold coverlet. Such a wave of tranquility floats up from them that I’m instantly charmed. I start to pet a big brown tabby – well, truth be told, he’s not big, he’s fat – and Dee points out the ruffled bit of tissue where his left ear once was. He lost it to frostbite before she rescued him. He begins to purr under my touch as a fifth cat – a long-legged black and white tuxedo – jumps up and charges over, trying to get in front of the tabby and steal my attention. “That’s Bart,” Dee says; or maybe it’s Boris – I’m finding it hard to hold onto all of their names. She explains that he’s the troublemaker, the one who’s always stirring things up. Mostly he has adjusted well, but it took a while. He was left alone in an apartment for three weeks with nothing but the water in the toilet when his owner went to prison.
The other cats tolerate Bart’s interference, stretching lazily as I pet them in turn: a gray tabby, then a long-haired black and white beauty, then a latte-colored Himalayan whose big, soulful eyes surprise me – I thought I wasn’t much affected by flat-faced cats like Persians. She too begins to purr as I stroke her velvety head.
We leave the sleepy cats on the bed and go visit Dante, a newcomer Dee recently picked up from a home that erupted in violence as his owners split up. In his own room behind floor to ceiling child gates, Dante is calm, and seems happy that we’re sitting with him – he rubs against me as I stroke his short, black fur. “It’s so hard to adopt out black cats,” Dee comments. I think, uncharitably and not for the first time today, how stupid people can be. Dee tells me more stories, of adoptees past and present: a cat that was found in a bear-claw trap set alongside the Paint Creek Trail; a cat she placed with an elderly woman who now has dementia. There was a bit of an emergency when the woman went to the hospital for a spell; but Dee has an eye on the situation now, and is staying in touch with the woman’s caregivers.
Back in the living room, a Maine Coon cat named Kiki the Diva (or Kiki D.) has appeared. Bart the troublemaker tries to get a rise out of her, jumping up to bat her where she sits on the couch, but Tikka the Rottweiler steps in immediately to break it up, giving Kiki some space. “She’s very shy,” Dee says of Kiki, “and they’ll pick on her if she lets them.” Kiki gets Prozac to help her stay calm and confident. Just then another black cat darts in from wherever he’s been hiding, and disappears again. “He’s skittish,” I say, and Dee explains that the cat, whose name is Devin, has a bad eye. Someone Dee knows was out walking her dogs in the rain when she saw something small and black lying by the side of the road – she thought it was a sock. It was Devin.
“It’s like the island of misfit toys,” I tell Dee, thinking of the place Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer visits in the old animated special. I quickly add, “not that I think any of these cats is a misfit…” Dee nods – she knows what I’m trying to say. She tells me that Devin’s eye is improving – actually starting to regenerate.
When Tikka comes back in from a trip outside I can’t help but wrap her up in my arms and give her a rubdown. The Russian Blue, whose name I still can’t recall, walks regally across the room. I pet a Persian cat lying on the bench near the door – Dee says she’s an oldster whose owner, on a fixed income and living with her daughter, couldn’t afford to keep her. “Plus her daughter’s allergic,” Dee says; and I start to wonder about the stories people tell her, whether or not they make some of this shit up. I’m sure they can see just as I do that Dee is a soft touch, and her compassion is limited only by space, and her own finances.
On my way out I get another peek at Cooper, snug inside his condo. Then I’m driving away, still holding the image of the fat, Buddha-like tabby lying on the bed with his raggedy stub of an ear, purring like mad. I’m bouncing in my seat to the music on the radio when something Dee said last week on the phone comes back to me. “People ask me why I take care of animals,” she said. “Why not people? And I tell them by taking care of animals, I take care of people, too.”
So true, I think, singing along to the rock ‘n roll pumping through the speakers. So true.