A lot of people think if you love dogs, you’re probably personifying them. It’s easy to see why when people carry them around in Snuggies or put them in T-shirts that say, “A Weirder, Smellier Version of my Master,” or “Because I’m the Poodle, That’s Why.” I love dogs too, and I confess that once, when I was in college, some friends and I spent a weekend at a farm shamelessly personifying a dog. There, during the course of a campfire and a few six-packs, someone gave a sleepy bullmastiff a hat and a cigarette. Bearing his new persona with insouciance, he lifted one eyelid and gave us such a look of contempt that we fell off the log laughing.
That’s why I always say, the number one job of most working dogs is comedian.
Throughout decades of canine acquaintance, I’ve probably personified my dogs than was warranted, but in all fairness, they’ve done the same to me. Call it “caninification.” For instance, they’ve always assumed that I wanted to throw a tennis ball. They’ve even accused me of coveting their rawhide chews. They creep around with the slippery severed skin bits sliding in their mouths and look at me with such cynicism that I know myself damned.
Cats are tangential to my life, but as I’ve walked my fifty years, some cat or other has always skittered underfoot. They lie on my manuscripts, pin me to the couch with a purr, and chase my good pearl earrings off the vanity and into the toilet. In fact, it’s hard for me to believe now, but for about a decade I lived in a house in which the humans were outnumbered by cats. Some days they acted like our home was their frat house. They danced on the counter tops, splashed in the toilets, and passed out right in the middle of the living room.
Those were days the dogs were away.
Mostly, though, dogs have always had my full attention. What gave me the biggest thrill was not how human my dogs seemed, but how canine they were. And sometimes, I have to admit, it troubled me that I liked the wolfishness about them best.
I remember one day in particular, shortly after we’d added the fourth cat. My two Border collies had been out for a ten-mile run with my husband. The cats had sensed the lapse in rule and started looting our toilet-paper supply, vandalizing my cane-back chairs, and performing unspeakably bacchanalian acts with the catnip mouse. When even I had forgotten what the Rule of Dog was like, the two Border collies thundered into the house, clattering on the hardwood floor. They slopped at their water bowl and trotted off in search of the new cat.
They found her sleeping in the middle of the guestroom bed. Somehow, without the benefit of SWAT-team hand signals, the two performed cooperative tactical maneuvers. Casey, the young tri-color female, stood in front of the suspect cat. Her head level with her spine, pointer-style, she kept her eyes fixed on every whisker twitch. Casey raised one front paw, then the other, again, and again. She could do this slow dance moment after moment, after hour. I had watched.
I seemed to be able to watch Casey watch the new cat for very long spells. I leaned against the door jamb, out of the way, wondering again if it was worth rigging the house with closed-circuit cameras.
On the bed, the cat was trapped. There was only one exit. Casey knew where to stand to block her—this talent, the “outrun,” was hardwired into my herding dogs. The outrun was all Casey lived for, and Casey lived hard. When the cat shifted her weight, Casey skittered back and forth. The cat wouldn’t budge. Eventually Casey got impatient. We all did. Just as I noticed I was antsy for action, Casey barked.
Meanwhile, the new cat, not being at all sheepish, reacted to the provocation by affecting a narrow blink of disinterest.
You’re probably wondering where the second dog had gone. Forgetting the second dog is exactly what my special-forces unit had planned. Silent in the doorway awaited Pip. Of the two, he looked more like a stealth hunter. He was smooth-coated, drop-eared, almost solid black and gleaming. He lived first to eat and then to please me, in that order. He waited in ambush pose, his shoulder bones protruding. He would’ve looked downright deadly if not for the worried glances he gave me. He felt guilty because, in my house, dogs weren’t allowed to torment cats.
My lower back began to ache. I shifted my weight, and the tension mounted among the four of us. Downstairs my grandmother’s cuckoo clock hooted, and somewhere in the rest of the house, the other cats held their breath, thanking their feline gods for the new cat.
Faster and faster, Casey lifted one front paw and then the other, her back legs still and her front end at a gallop that covered no ground. A rhythmic high-pitched huff rose in her throat; “Eh-eh-EH-eh-eh-EH-eh-eh!” Suddenly, she shot forth one paw. The whole mattress rocked.
The new cat flattened.
Pip raised his head. Then, with a glance at me, lowered it. River-dancing on the hardwood floor, Casey shoved the mattress again, and, as if out of the ceiling vent above my head, a low hum rolled through the room. I felt it more than heard it, a sub-audible growl. It was the cat.
Her terror stoked the dogs. Pip forgot me and sat up, strong and streamlined. Casey tap-danced for all she was worth, which was mighty plenty, and a malicious power filled the room: the urge to amuse oneself upon the new, the weak, the different. In a kind of reverse allusion, what I was witnessing in real life evoked every gratuitously violent movie I’d ever seen, every act of schoolyard bullying. The new cat had done nothing to bring this abuse upon herself, and yet, she had done everything to bring it on. I’d seen it dozens of times. All a cat had to do was sit down and look straight at these dogs, and they’d duck their heads, touch the brim of their caps, and pass her by with a “G’day to you, ma”am.” The victim/victimizer cycle was inevitable, Darwinian, part of the convection current of life on earth. We were on a Ferris wheel of fatal fun: as we rose, the cat must fall.
The dogs wanted to smell her fright. They wanted to chase her while she ran for her life. They wanted to feel her body pinned beneath theirs, her neck cave between their jaws. The new cat spat and lashed at Casey. I heard a tiny sound, a toothpick snap—her nails pricking Casey’s muzzle. Casey leapt back, delighted, tail high, panting wide. Three beads of blood appeared on her nose.
While everyone’s attention was on Casey, Pip had quietly risen to his feet, rump low, mouth closed. As planned, cat had forgotten him—either that, or she couldn’t afford to take her eyes off Casey. Barely breathing, Pip’s nostrils flared and relaxed. The cat would spring, Casey would roar into place to block her exit, and the cat would freeze, crouched, ears back, eyes wide, and in that same split-second, while the cat was screaming at Casey, Pip would fall on her, dark and heavy. In that intolerable moment, although no one but Casey was moving, the attack played out over and over in each of our minds. Unless I stopped it, it would happen.
Casey lurched, the bed rocked, the cat spat, and that hum started again and rose to a wail. The dogs beat their tails back and forth. Pip broke into a pant. Then he remembered that I disapproved of cat-chasing and glanced apologetically at me. Casey didn’t need to see Pip to sense his distraction, and her impatience soared. She dove, not on the cat, but near her, with enough force to drive the bedding into a heap. Finally it was all just too mean and annoying. I dragged the two bullies out of the room and shut the door.
What troubled my husband about such scenes was me. I was too ashamed to admit to him that sometimes, when the tension let up, I gave Casey a little prod toward the cat. And the whole time, I was feeling really bad for the cat. I was. And I was thinking about what frightening creatures my dogs were. The reminded me of the bulls in la corrida de toros in Spain, how huge but lithe bulls were, how fast and forceful, how they slammed into the side of a horse and lifted it right off the ground. The deft horns worked back and forth, and you saw the horns were tools and the bulls knew what to do with them the way a shark knows to spin to tear meat. I would forget that the terrible bulls were herbivores. They were evil embodied, spell-binding, all the more gorgeous for the gore. Cheer for the banderillas, hurrah for the picador, applaud the matador with dagger and cape who brought the monster to its knees. Exult as it blows its last breath into the dust. Sever the ear and wave it. Cut the great muscle and eat.
If I didn’t stop my dogs, would they kill the cat? Would it thrill me? I knew they wouldn’t. I’d seen the cats bounce past the dogs’ sleeping noses, teasing, “Chase me, chase me.” If the dogs rolled back into a snore, the cat made another, closer pass, tippy-toeing sideways and bopping them on the nose. I also knew that I wouldn’t enjoy it if they hurt her. They were playing a game, like Frisbee, like “Tag,” “Capture the Flag,” or a variation thereof, which on my childhood street we kids called, “Bloody Murder.” It was pretend murder. Years later, I served six months on the Grand Jury hearing evidence to determine whether murder cases had enough evidence to proceed with first-degree charges. Being steeped in the real thing taught me that I am, without question, only amused by imaginary murder. The scene between my dogs and cats had played out hundreds of times when I wasn’t around to intervene. Never had one of our cats been hurt. The only blood spilled from the pinpricks in Casey’s snout. I knew it, the dogs knew it, the other cats knew it, and it made all the difference.
Still, the new cat didn’t know it. Her fear made it more fun for the dogs, but it also constituted harassment.
What of justice here? How many times had this very cat, living stray and lolling in her honeysuckle shrub, amused herself upon some innocent chipmunk? Her claws were terrible; the force of her boredom was inexorable. Unlike my dogs, she killed and maimed. Now here she was, shrieking beneath a delirious dog, still no justice served.
Plenty of people think good animal husbandry involves allowing the animals to exercise as many of their natural urges as possible. So it was good I let my dogs chase the cats, good that my cats felt safe enough to get themselves chased when they wanted, and bad that my cats weren’t allowed outside to help rid the planet of those godforsaken songbirds. The truth was that I didn’t sanction all so-called “natural” urges according to an idea of fairness stretched so far between victim and victimizer that it went limp.
My responsibility was to protect the cat and find some other way to occupy the dogs. But just as the dogs had an urge to entertain themselves by pretending to hunt, I had an urge to observe them and ponder them. And, scowling down the hall, my husband watched me watch Casey watch the cat and walked off carrying his own reflections, leaving me to watch him walk off and reflect on the differences between us, our conflicts and the judgments we passed upon each other. For all my spinning around Casey and the cat, I arrived someplace else.
Oh, I had thrilling fights with my dogs myself! I’d get down on my hands and knees and pull fur, pinch, and thump until we three were one whirl of black fur, white fang, and pink flesh. My dogs had bad-ass coyote mugs, ice-tong fangs that stabbed, garden-lopper molars that clacked. Down on all fours, I’d start wondering what the hell was the matter with me. What kind of simian was I, with my flat, grain-grinding teeth and meandering intestines, more like a cow’s than a canine’s? I was no baboon, and yet I leapt, grabbed a throat, and pulled as if taking down a wildebeest. My dogs’ voices rose in fear, as if they’d quite forgotten they were the real killers, not I. Again, they caninified me. They assumed that I too had fangs. When we’d all scared the bejesus out of ourselves, I said, “Hey, gimme a kiss,” and the spell broke. Panting and apologetic, they sought my mouth like puppies.
Enough. We lay on the floor together, panting. Welts bloomed on my arms in a dozen pink smile lines. The dogs were alive, they were gorgeous, and I adored them. It didn’t matter why.