I’m not one of those who will mythologize their pets, coo and crow over them as if they were children. Mostly, I’ve owned — is that the right word? — cats, but there’s been the odd dog and python in my life too. Currently, my daughter has a rabbit variously referred to as “Buddy”, “Count Bunnula”, and “Mister Bun”, depending on who is pointing at it. Mister Bun is black, and cute, and plays funny games with pencils. That’s nice, right? But you don’t give a damn, and I don’t blame you.
Sometimes, though… sometimes I’m not sure what to do. And because of that, I’m going to write about Toxo the cat. Not because I think you’ll be interested, but because I feel as though I need to do it, and because I’m sure he deserves it. He, and a bunch of other misunderstood cats out there. You don’t have to read this, and if you choose to do so, I can’t guarantee it will hold your interest. I don’t much care, truth be told. I’m writing it because I owe him that much.
Cat owners can get a bit goopy and precious about their animals. Dog owners too, of course. But the thing is that dog owners can usually get their dogs to be obedient, to show off all the co-operative and clever things the mutts will do. Smart, well-trained dogs are obviously clever beasts.
Ever tried to train a cat? It can be done. But you can really only train a cat to do things it wants to do already. So — how clever are cats, anyhow? How do you tell? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of space for brains up in those little skulls, and such brain as they have must be pretty well dedicated to the hunt because they’re so freakin’ good at that.
Mostly, cats come off looking like opportunistic assholes and their most endearing behaviours seem to be largely adventitious. And to be fair, that’s probably true about a lot of cats.
Not all cats, though. Definitely not.
A while back, there was a video that hit the web. The one in which the little tabby-cat slams full-speed into a much larger dog that’s chewing on a small child who happens to be part of the cat’s family. It’s amazing to watch. The dog — a lab/chow, apparently — sneaks around a car to come up behind this boy, maybe six years old, who’s just noodling around on a little tricycle-scooter thing. The dog executes a classic dog attack: seizes the kid’s left calf, drags him off the trike to the ground. It’s just about to really get into gnawing on the kid when there’s this streak of black that just explodes into a cat the instant it touches the dog. The cat bounces about a metre up in the air, and the dog takes off even before the cat lands. When the cat comes down, it spares a glance for the kid then takes off in hot pursuit of the dog because it can see that the kid’s mother is already on the way to help out.
Very cool cat.
I’m glad that video surfaced. I mean, it’s rough on the kid who did indeed get chewed up and needed stitches, but it shows undeniably that the cat has sized up the situation, realised that one of its own is in trouble, and has simply gone to town on the attacker without a second thought. You expect that kind of behaviour from a loyal dog. From a cat?
Well, I’ve known cats that might well do the same. At least two, maybe three or four of them. All of them just no-breed grey-and-black stripy critters of no great size or other distinction. But all of them were smart, and unbelievably loyal.
Toxo was one of those. He adopted us — forcibly — about six months before the birth of our second child. I think somebody — some complete fool, some glorious idiot who did my family a wonderful favour — dumped him hereabouts. He wasn’t feral at all. He was a little shy, since he didn’t know us, but he was determined that we were going to provide him with his new home, and he wasn’t backing off. He’d been lurking around the place and I’d been desultorily chucking old boots at him, and the score was about even at that point.
I thought we didn’t want a cat, you see. We have native birds all over the place, and Natalie is somewhat allergic to cats. But this cat just kept creeping up on us, lurking round the house, meowing pitifully, and Natalie just looked at it grumpily one afternoon and said: “All right. Fine. We’ll have a cat. But it’s not going to come in the house. And it’s not jumping up on anybody’s beds, and if it’s stroppy with the kids we’re getting rid of it.” Then she looked at the cat again, and said, “And we’re going to call it Toxo.”
“Toxo” was shorthand for Toxoplasma gondii, a common parasite of cats which can be a real problem to pregnant women and the unborn foetuses thereof. Black humour. I liked it. So we had a cat. I took him to the vet, had him checked out, vaccinated and neutered, and when I brought him back, I set him up with a bed and a bowl in a dry spot in one of the sheds.
And so it began. Maye two or three weeks later, Natalie decided we needed a puppy. We got a part-beagle, and since it had to have house access — well, the first rule Natalie laid down went straight out the window. Just try keeping a smart cat out of a house that a puppy can get into and out of.
It turned out all right, though. Did you know they’ve actually managed to breed a strain of non-allergenic cat? Not by genetic manipulation, no: just by simply breeding from a pool of cats with low-allergenic properties. Apparently there’s a wild strain which is pretty tolerable for the cat-sneezers. And I’ll give you exactly one guess just how Natalie reacted to Toxo’s presence in the house — not at all. Even when he sat on her lap and purred like a two-stroke bastard, she didn’t so much as snuffle.
Win for the cat.
The dog, by the way, turned out to be un-house-breakable and too big and too energetic and too difficult for a house with a toddler and a baby. The dog became an outside dog. The cat, however, retained his privileges — probably because for the first time, we stopped having mouse and rat issues. It’s an old farm house this one. In autumn and early winter, the little rodents move inside for warmth. The previous year we’d had mice everywhere. Once Toxo moved in, we stopped seeing them at all, and a few traps in the cupboards took care of the really sneaky ones.
Win two for the cat.
As for dealing with children… I’ve never seen a cat so tolerant. Three toddlers he put up with, in sequence. All the grabbing, the tail-pulling, the ear-seizing, the hamfisted efforts to hoist him off the ground by his back legs — he just put up with it. When it got too much, he’d take off out of kid-reach, but not once, not ever, not in all the years and all the kids and all the visitors did he so much as break the skin on a human. (He raised a welt on the Mau-mau once. But even Natalie agreed that she’d absolutely earned that, what with trying to strangle the cat and all. She never did it again, either.)
He never brought birds in, either. Rats, yes. Mice, yes. Rabbits — dozens of the bastards. I’d like to know how a cat manages to bring a live, unharmed, fully adult rabbit in through a small cat-flap, actually. Toxo did that a score or more of times. He was merry hell on rabbits. But no birds.
And it wasn’t just that he was tolerant of the children. No. This is the part of the tale that becomes a little hard to believe, but I’d urge you to recall that video with the protective cat, and allow that just maybe I’m telling you what I saw.
One of the problems with smart kids is that they’re imaginative, and that makes them prone to the spooks and terrors of the night. I have three smart kids. The eldest developed a fear of the dark that set in before he could talk. I only figured it out because I installed a night-light out of desperation, and the screaming stopped. But by age nearly-three, he was able to deal with light switches by himself, and was prone to turning them on in the middle of the night. He was also sharing a room with his six-month-old brother. Couple that with the fact that Natalie was breast-feeding, and you get a recipe for a sleepless, angry woman. One night she came back to bed about 0300, cursing a blue streak. Apparently, the older brother — young Jake — had decided he was going to turn on the bedroom light, and that was all there was to it, and Natalie just plain gave up.
I figured this wasn’t good, so I went to the boys’ room and climbed into the bed next to Jake. I did my best to talk to him; find out why he thought he needed the light. But getting sense out of a near-three-year-old is difficult, especially at 0300. Thus, when Toxo the cat jumped on the end of Jake’s bed, I had a brainwave.
“Look,” I said. “Here’s Toxo. He’s come to look after you. If I leave him here on your bed to take care of you, will you agree to leave the light off?”
I got a nod out of Jake. Good enough for me. The cat settled down and began to purr. Jake rolled over. I got up and switched out the light.
Next morning, Jake told Natalie and I how Toxo had looked after him all night long. And so it went, night after night. We never again had the midnight lightswitch troubles, and Toxo slept faithfully on Jake’s bed, right up until the point when little Genghis began to be afraid of the dark… at which point Toxo changed beds. By that time, Jake was fine, and Genghis took as much comfort from the cat’s presence as his older brother had.
Not bad for a cat who was never going to jump up on anybody’s bed, eh?
It didn’t stop there, though. About the time the Mau-mau developed her fear of the dark, Toxo left Genghis and settled on her bed… which was in another room entirely. And of course, in all this time he had never tried to climb up on my bed, nor ever tried to climb into a baby’s crib. He just found whichever kid needed company in the dark, and settled there until they could handle it on their own.
There’s a well-documented story of a cat living in an old person’s home; a cat who could reliably predict (with much more accuracy than the medical staff) who amongst the patients was going to die next. You can look that story up for yourself. They still don’t know how the cat did it. The suspicion is that people approaching the end of their life undergo some kind of metabolic change that produces a scent the cat could detect. However it be, that cat comforted a lot of folk in their last hours.
Toxo never had to deal with that. But he seemed to have an uncanny knack for spotting people who were upset. Aside from comforting kids who were afraid of the dark, he also looked after the occasional visiting child who found the experience of sleeping in a strange house to be a bit frightening. Some of the Mau-mau’s young friends needed his help more than once. He never failed them.
Once we brought into the house a young lady whose car had skidded into our driveway. She wasn’t harmed at all, but she was shaky and a little emotional. Sure enough, Toxo materialised out of nowhere, clambered into her lap, and turned on the purring. Between the cat and a cup of tea, the lass got her composure back in no time.
Toxo took to following the kids around the property. It’s a big property: near fifty acres. When the kids took off on expeditions, the cat would trail after them. He didn’t want to be petted or fussed over. He just kept pace with them, patiently shadowing them wherever they went. If they split up, he usually followed the smaller ones. Was he looking after them? I have no idea. Seriously — what goes through a cat’s head? All I know is that where the kids went, the cat followed. He would climb ladders after them. Disappear into the undergrowth with them. Lie under the trampoline while they bounced on top of it. He would trail them through summer grass so long you could only see the end of his tail waving above the yellow, tufted seed-bodies. He followed them out of the house, and he brought them home again in one piece, every time.
He was especially careful of the littler ones. More than once, I saw him prevent small children from climbing stairs and ladders. He did it by the simple expedient of climbing up in front of them and getting in their faces. It takes a truly determined toddler to push past an affectionate cat. But you know — that opportunistic, adventitious thing, eh? It never occurred to me he was deliberately keeping the little ones from getting into a dangerous situation. I just thought he was demanding attention.
I should have known better, shouldn’t I? What sane cat demands a toddler’s attention? It took a visitor — my very good friend Tehani — to point out that the cat was very clearly, very obviously and deliberately moving to prevent her littlest one from climbing the steep steps up the play-house. And sure enough, as soon as an adult intervened and removed young Daniel from danger, the cat sauntered off. He wasn’t actually after the toddler’s attention at all. He just didn’t want the kid climbing those steep, dangerous steps. I’d seen him do the same thing with all three of mine at one time or another, and I’d never once realised what was going on.
I just didn’t think cats were that smart. And now? Now I feel stupid.
Twelve years. That’s how long he was with us. He was at least two years old when he adopted us; fully grown, but with the soft, glossy coat of a young cat. He could have been as much as four or five years. I wouldn’t know. You can’t check a cat for growth rings.
Gradually he started to lose condition. It took a while before anybody noticed much. Like most cats, Toxo was prone to the occasional barf attack. We fed him good quality dry food and fresh water, and he supplemented his diet with rats and mice and rabbits, and if occasionally we had to clean up a patch of semi-digested kitty biscuits, well — that’s how it went. But a while back, we saw his coat lose its glossiness, and his colour lightened. He walked slowly, and he didn’t jump up so much as pull himself up — which was painful if it was your lap he was after.
The vets said it was arthritis, and we did what we could. I also noticed he wasn’t keeping his food down much any more. The vets suggested poached chicken and fish, which worked for a while. But he stopped eating even those.
By that time, we’d noticed the lump on his jaw. It was in a bad spot, back near the jaw hinge on the lower right side. We didn’t notice it until it was big enough to begin pushing his eye out of place. The vets identified it as an ossifying tumour — benign, in the sense that it wouldn’t spread, it caused local bone growth, and could be expected to continue until it more or less killed him. He was too old for anaesthetic and an operation, and even if he could have withstood it, he’d have lost a vital piece of his lower jaw, near the joint.
But he wasn’t in pain, no. So I switched to mince: minced chicken, minced turkey, minced beef, and he got right into it. Maybe because it was softer, or maybe because it had a stronger smell than the kitty biscuits. Whatever the reason, he ate well. His coat softened, and his colour normalised. He gained weight, and even started to jump up again.
Unfortunately, the tumour grew more quickly too. It pushed his eye up until it bulged like a parody of Quasimodo, giving the cat an evil leer that went well with his tattered, possum-torn ears. (Yeah. He kept possums away too.) It must have hurt him, because he took to eating on the left side only, avoiding any pressure on the side with the lump. But he would still come up to me and demand to have his ears rubbed, and he’d push his lumpy face against my hand and I’d scratch him gently. Was he trying to show me that lump? Towards the end, he very definitely made a point of pushing that side of his face into my hand, rubbing it back and forth. I thought perhaps it was soothing. Now I don’t know. Now I think of it, maybe he wanted me to notice the thing.
One night, he shook his head. Now he always used to drool a bit, especially when he was happy. But with the tumour, he’d become quite a lot more dribbly, and when he shook his head there would be a chorus of “Ick!” as people got sprayed with cat-spit. This night was different, though. This time, the stuff that flew from his jaws was thick and red.
I checked, gently and carefully. The tumour had grown to the point where the skin inside Toxo’s mouth had split, and he was bleeding. It wasn’t a big split, but it was clear it wouldn’t heal easily. And over the next few days, it became obvious the problem wasn’t going away. Toxo got blood on his whiskers, and when he tried to clean himself, he left blood in his fur.
I couldn’t bear the idea of driving him to the vet. He hated the car, and he wasn’t fond of the vet’s surgery. The concept of putting him into a carry-cage, upsetting and frightening him just so I could drive him down and have him killed — I couldn’t handle it.
The local vets were good. They agreed to come up and take care of Toxo. All we had to do was make sure he was in the house at the right time…
We came back after school, and Toxo was asleep in the shoe rack. He’d taken to sleeping in weird places lately. The shoe-rack was only the latest in a string of odd spots. We flipped the cat-flap shut, and called the vets. I settled him on my lap, and he purred. He decided he needed some mince, so we fed him.
We thought things were going well.
Five minutes before the vets arrived, Toxo tried to leave. The catflap wouldn’t open, so he took up a post by the laundry door, and wouldn’t come back. For the first time in our twelve years, he didn’t want to sit on my lap when I offered it to him. He’d never done that before. I settled him on my lap anyway, but he wasn’t happy.
The vets turned up. Before they even entered the house, Toxo was upset. He ran to the catflap and clawed at it. The vets came in and settled quietly. I tried to gather Toxo up and bring him back — and for the first time in twelve years, he hissed a warning at me.
I can’t tell you how much that threw me. I couldn’t make sense of it. For twelve years, Toxo had behaved with perfect equanimity, and as much as he cared for the children, he was very clear that I was the person he preferred. I couldn’t sit down anywhere without him finding me and trying to climb on my lap. I had to ban him from my study so I could write.
And yet out of the blue, he was warning me unmistakeably, telling me to back off.
I admit it: I couldn’t handle it. The vets suggested a towel to restrain him, but I couldn’t get my head around the idea. I wrapped a towel around his middle, but left his feet free and carried him — growling — into the room with the vets. He didn’t shred the skin from my arms. He could have. I guess he couldn’t bring himself to go that far. But he was a very angry, very upset cat.
The vets swaddled him and held him down. He struggled. I’d never seen that before. When I took him to the vets’ office in the past, he rode unhappily in a carry-cage. And in a building full of animals and strange smells, he would let the vet bring him out of the cage and sit him on the examination table. He never struggled. He never yowled. He never tried to run. He just looked a bit miserable. In fact, sometimes he even got over that. I remember once the vet was trying to listen to his heart, there on the steel-topped table… but he was purring so loudly she had to take the stethoscope from her ears. She grumped at him, and turned on the water in the sink and carried him over to see it. (“That usually makes them stop purring,” she said.) He didn’t struggle or fuss, and when she put him back on the table, he sat calmly for his examination.
In twelve years, I’d never, ever seen Toxo show a disagreeable side even to people poking him with needles in the vet’s office. But this time? Well, I’m glad the vets were experienced.
They were also kind, and efficient, and sympathetic. Toxo got his injection. A couple of heartbeats later, he was gone. They looked him over, and examined that tumour, and very kindly said that we’d made the right choice — that his condition would have gone downhill, that he would have been in increasing pain.
Well, I guess I knew that. But it didn’t help much. There were some tears. Quite a few, really.
The kids and I buried Toxo next to the firepit outside. He always liked to sit with us when we roasted marshmallows and grilled sausages. There’s a slab of sandstone over him, and I’ll engrave it so nobody disturbs him by accident. He’s wrapped up in an old shirt of mine because I couldn’t bear to just drop him into a hole, but it’s a cotton shirt and it won’t keep away the little creatures that now must care for all that remains of my cat.
Time will pass. He’ll return to the soil. We’ll have more fires, more barbecues and marshmallows and his stone will be there as a reminder.
That’s it. That’s the small story of an abandoned stray cat who helped Natalie and I raise our kids. If you read this far, thanks for keeping us company — but I didn’t really write it for you. I wrote it to help me remember, and I wrote it because I think he deserves it, and most of all, I wrote it because maybe somebody else will see, and perhaps cats like Toxo won’t be abandoned so lightly. (I’m glad he was abandoned, though. Many thanks to whomever it was that didn’t deserve such a remarkable animal!)
I don’t believe in psychic abilities, or spirits, or anything I can’t find under the natural laws of this world. I have no idea why the cat knew to struggle and hiss and yowl even before the vets came in. I have no idea why he would lose his cool for the first and only time there at the end, without any provocation that the kids or I could see. But I do know I underestimated him on other occasions; didn’t give him nearly enough credit for his intelligence. And I suppose if this story has a moral at all, it would be this: some cats are definitely smarter than you think. Treat them like the people they are, and they’ll reward you far more richly than you deserve.
Vale, Toxo. I hope I’ll see you next time the wheel spins.