Friday, June 8, 2012

A Buddhist Story about People and Cats

My cat Cyril, who has never bitten me.

About a dozen years ago, give or take, I was feeding a cat behind our apartment building. He was a very cute, squat kitty, white/tabby patterned with sweet golden eyes. He was dirty and bedraggled--a feral cat, to be sure; he would not approach humans. I fed him for months, and occasionally sat out on the terrace while he ate. As a stray, he was far too hungry to wait for me to go inside to commence chowing down. He ignored me, and I took advantage of this situation, to get closer. And closer.

And eventually, one day, I touched him. He instantly purred, rubbed against me, meowed happily. I wondered if he had always been feral ... or maybe he had simply concluded I must be okay, as his faithful food-dispenser. I pet him every day after that. It was about two or three weeks after I first touched him, that he suddenly lunged and grabbed my arm with both paws, full-on, and... crunch. He bit me. Hard.

Ouch. It was DEEP. (I still have the scar from it, a singular spot on my thumb-joint.) There was blood, and the pain did not readily subside.

Two seconds after he did this, he was purring again, rubbing against me happily. What gives?--I thought. I realized that he probably had an ear infection (or an infestation of ear mites, as most strays have) and while petting him, I had gotten too close to his ears. I could see that he wasn't mad at me, because he didn't run off. My mistake, I thought, this is what I get for petting strays. I cleaned myself with peroxide and bandages, and went to work as usual.

Within two days, I had a fever, and my arm was red... the redness appearing to climb up my arm. I was working at the dreaded call-center then, and even typing had become painful. I called my mother, and she basically shrieked at me to go to the doctor, that being bitten by a feral animal was a serious matter. Denial, I guess. I knew this intellectually, but didn't seem to think it applied to ME. Because I am a cat person!

It was serious... I already had an infection that was in danger of becoming systemic. I needed a huge dose of Rocephin and was running a significant fever. I was embarrassed by the whole thing. As a cat person, I was embarrassed a CAT had attacked me, feral or not.

But even more than that, it then became a government matter. DHEC has rules about feral animal-attacks. (Who knew?) They have to fill out government paperwork and call the Health Dept and everything. Was this an unprovoked attack?--asked the nurse. I couldn't readily answer. Was it? "Well, I was petting the cat and I think I got too close to his ears," I said, "so that is MY fault." She shook her head at me and disagreed; that is still unprovoked, in fact, that is exactly the instantly-unpredictable, random bad behavior they are looking for.

I certainly didn't think it was unprovoked, but officially, it was. They would have to trap the cat and see if it was rabid.

And get this: to check the cat for rabies, they have to cut off its head.

So, even if the poor stray feline in question doesn't have rabies, the poor cat has still lost its head. :(

I was reminded of those tests for witchcraft in the Middle Ages, in which some poor accused girl would have a boulder tied to her waist and was then thrown into a lake. If she was guilty of witchcraft, of course, she would float. There really is no way to win that one.

And it was the same for the poor kitty. I was horrified and felt terribly guilty. If I had never fed the damn cat in the first place, none of this would have happened. (I also thought of Star Trek's prime directive, and remembered that I had always believed it was a fine idea. Thus, I regarded this as the penalty for my direct interference in Feral Cat Civilization.) Mr Daisy said he hoped this was the end of "Dances with Cats"--for awhile, at least.

The DHEC guy brought the cage-trap and set it on my terrace. When the stray kitty came to eat lunch, as he always did, he was caught in the trap. The guy returned the next day (the cat sat out there in the trap, yowling the whole time, making me feel like a sadist and killer) and took him away. My then-teenaged daughter alternately sobbed and glared at me. I made a mental note to leave the feral animals alone forever after, and I have kept my promise to myself, regardless of how winsome and wonderful they appear. (As they all do, to me.)

The verdict? The stray kitty didn't have rabies, as I knew he did not.


I recently wondered why I felt so deeply about the cat, and experienced such guilt over his death, when I do not feel this way about humans who bite me. Literally or figuratively. I usually believe they get what they deserve.

Not only did I totally overlook the damage the cat inflicted on me, I somehow believed I had caused it. I was the catalyst for his actions, after all. I immediately sought the reason for his behavior, and in doing so, quickly figured out his ears were sensitive. I took all responsibility on myself. I only went to the doctor and reported it when I realized I was sick. I was ready to forgive and forget, and give him more food besides.

Some of the people I worked with thought I was crazy: "An animal bites me, I'll kill it!" Or at least kick it or do something. The self-defined cat people were more sympathetic, but not uniformly so. Feral cats are dangerous, they said. Many said they would have no sympathy for a cat that harmed them; good riddance.


Today, I realized... some people are as over-sensitive in various spots and at various junctures, as my stray kitty was about his ears. Get too close, and CRUNCH, they will bite you, big time. I'm sure you know what I mean; it has happened to you, too. And yet, for some reason, I don't excuse the people who bite me, the way I excused the cat. I do not take total responsibility for being the catalyst; I certainly don't fret that they are suffering on my account. I do not instantly search for the possible reason for their sudden attack, and as a result, feel more compassion.

Why do you suppose that is?

Because we cast ourselves in the role of caretakers of the animals? Custodians of the earth, etc? But doesn't that role extend to other humans? Why doesn't it?

Do we assume humans "know better"? And why (chuckle) would we assume such a thing? On one hand, we know humans are completely capable of acting like animals, and yet, on the other, we are always shocked when they do.

I thought of this story while asking myself if I am capable of compassion on a deep level. I doubted it, and then, remembered the feral kitty. I look at the scar on my thumb and remember the surprise of his sudden attack. And yet, in seconds, I forgave him. I was crushed when DHEC took him away.

I have resolved to attempt to replicate this consciousness the next time humans disappoint me, and bite.

I will look for the ear mites; I will attempt to figure out if I got too close, and if this person jumped in pure animal reflex as a result. I will try to perceive in what ways I was the catalyst for the bite. I will forgive and try to remain forgiving.

It's a tall order for someone with such a bad temper as I often have. And yet, if I can suspend my temper for an animal, it seems that I should be able to suspend it for a human being.

Perhaps I can even nurture the opposite emotion, compassion.

Although of course, it really is hard to compare people to cats. But for me, its a good place to start.

Of all God's creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.

Mark Twain


Conseglieri said...

And some of us are toothless. *Holds out dentures for all to see*

JoJo said...

Wow what a story. :( You were lucky you didn't lose your arm...pity that the poor kitty was taken away to be euthanized. You'd think there'd be a more humane way of checking for rabies.

Anonymous said...

this is nice <3