I have not written about cats recently; one reader just accused me of dissing my own cat, since he is featured in my online photo.

If it hasn’t been apparent in previous columns, my cat certainly helped me get through the isolations of 2020. He spoils me and I spoil him.

My late wife named him Djinn (pronounced “Gin”), but having been raised by adults, he is hardly devilish. He does not knock things off tables. (Old as he is, he can’t get up on most tables.) He does not hiss, claw, or bite friendly human beings. He simply hides from most children. If he sometimes urps on the carpet, it’s only because when you gotta urp, you gotta urp.

My only real disappointment with Djinn is that he early ignored all three scratching posts I laboriously created, including one with no less than two varieties of wound rope. Spraying them with catnip scent didn’t help. Only the carpet would do. I now have three areas of frayed carpet that I have learned to ignore. And there sit no less than three superb scratching posts that he chooses to ignore.

a person holding a cat: Bill Hagen © Provided photo Bill Hagen

As I look around, I become aware of how much cat culture has permeated the house. Everywhere I look, there is an image of a cat. It’s a bit eerie, and then you turn around and realize a real cat is staring at you. I gathered a few images, including some books, for a photo, which I hope gets printed.

Who knew? © Bill Hagen Who knew?

CATS ARE SCARY? I’ve never really thought so, though there is the black cat superstition and the cat-smothering-baby fear. But because they live their own lives—however many—cats have long been seen as mysterious, even worthy of worship in some cultures.

I had a Siamese long ago who would occasionally land on my stomach in the middle of the night when she jumped in bed. I think she meant it, just as she meant it when she completely unhooked the front window curtains. A memorable cat. We switched to rescue strays after that one.

I’ve written before about formidable cats who help solve crimes, by the likes of Lillian Jackson Braun, Rita Mae Brown, and Carolyn Hart. Small cats as homicidal to people? Didn’t think so till I ran across a book at the library book sale, and a magnet. See the photo.

Who knew there was a “Pet Noir” series?

GROOMING: One ritual my cat performs has to do with my right leg. I have both legs on the footstool and he jumps up. There is not room for him and both legs, so I oblige by shifting my left leg to the floor. He settles in, crouching next to my right leg.

He licks the top of my knee, then moves further down to my ankle. We call that grooming, but we are mistaken. Why doesn’t he finish the job, licking all around the knee before turning to my ankle? He does a cursory job on my ankle as well. A lick and no promise of more.

We should not call this grooming! My theory is that he does not intend to clean what he licks. Sure, he and other felines like our sweat-smell and will even sleep in our dirty laundry. But what they are after is a bit of salt on the surface of our skin. Their sandpaper tongues pick it up quite easily, along with some loose cells. Now that I recognize this, I can rest easy. He is guarding my right leg, his living salt lick.

Evidence of a cat cult © Bill Hagen Evidence of a cat cult

THE SILENCE OF CATS: If you think about it, mixed breed cats are generally silent, unless they are stressed or hurt. They do what they are going to do without talking about it. So they get a reputation for being sneaky.

Actually, they usually do what they are going to do in plain sight. And you have to get used to it. It’s called training.

Of the cats I have owned and known, only one would say something back if I talked to her. I exclude the Siamese; they are another breed—half-cat and half-alien being. Sure, my present cat will complain briefly if I’ve been gone a long time, but most of his talking is imaginary. He opens his mouth in my direction, but I have to imagine what he almost said. He gives me a small purrup (brief purr with sound) when he wants me to know he is beside me. But that’s it.

That’s not to say cats don’t listen or communicate through actions. The opening of a can, the rattle of dry food, your tone of voice all register though the cat be five rooms away. And who leads the way from the bedroom to the kitchen in the morning? There he sits, just looking at you. No need to glance or gesture toward the empty dishes.

One appreciates such discretion, although sometimes, when you turn around and the cat is starring at you, you might wonder if he is one of God’s spies.

LITERARY CATS: I actually did some research for this section. I started with a concordance and a bible dictionary, to see what role cats play in the Old and New Testaments. Apart from references to their larger relatives, lions, there are no entries for cats! That may be a good thing, given the generally negative depictions of dogs in the bible.

So I turned to a book that’s been sitting on my shelf, unread since I picked it up at a library book sale—Carl Van Vechten’s The Tiger in the House. Oh my! First published in 1920, it is a treasure of cat lore from many pens, including what looks to be a rather complete listing of literature featuring cats up to that date. The French seem to take the lead in memorializing their cats (“les chats”). In fact, Van Vechten rather assumes that any true lover of cats must know French; some of the best quotations are not translated.

I’ll end with two quotations from this wonderful book, one by Van Vechten and one by a Frenchman, thankfully translated.

“The cat, it is well to remember, remains the friend of man because it pleases him to do so and not because he must….the cat is in no sense a dependent and can revert to the wild state with less readjustment of values than any other domestic animal” (2).

And from a 19th Century French lover of the breed: “The cat lives alone, has no need of society, does not obey except when he likes, pretends to sleep that he may see the more clearly, and scratches everything he can scratch” (3).

Challenging, right? If that is the nature of their cats, it may help to explain why the French have so many political parties.

Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on The Shawnee News-Star: World Enough and Time: All on Cats

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