“Send my regards to Daisy Mae!” In the beginning, when our relationship was still fresh and young, my friends enthusiastically exclaimed greetings such as this one. But how could they not? Daisy Mae and I were “sleeping together”-seven days a week, if I got lucky. Daisy Mae is my cat, a fierce gray kitty rescued from stray-dom, who has remained delightfully feral. I am, admittedly, the proud parent, charmed by her every hiss, snarl and scowl.
Just yesterday, she shrugged my hand away with a swipe of her paw when I attempted to pet her velvety fur. I always forget: Daisy Mae hates it when I fondle her after her lick-primping regimen.
“What happened to you?” one friend or another inevitably asks. My hand, covered in a hatchmark pattern of puffy red scratches, is dotted in brown blood.
“Oh, it was just a little misunderstanding. Nothing, really,” I say, brushing off their shared looks of concern. By now, I’m well aware of my friends’ take on Daisy Mae. To put it mildly, they do not approve; they think I am in an abusive relationship.
In light of the most recent big-cat attacks, sensationally splashed across TV and the newspapers, my friends have become rather smug, reiterating that time-honored cliché: Domestic shorthairs are genetically derived from their ferocious forebears!
If housecats and tigers aren’t all that different from each other, I wondered what I might have in common with other cat owners. Did my post-catfight wistfulness resemble Antione Yates’ and Roy Horn’s clearly co-dependent cat connections? Mr. Yates, after his Siberian-Bengal tiger mix, Ming, ripped the flesh from his leg, told reporters: “My leg is not the problem, it’s my heart. I want Ming back. I love you, Ming.” According to my friends, Mr. Yates is “an enabler,” obviously delusional and distraught over his separation from Ming, who is now in Ohio, of all places, being “monitored” at Noah’s Lost Ark, an animal sanctuary.
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Mr. Horn remains in critical yet stable condition after the much-publicized attack by his 600-pound white Bengal tiger, Montecore.
Roy’s first words after the attack? “Don’t harm the cat.”
I can just hear my petless friends righteously ranting in my ear: You’re putting your abuser’s needs before your own! You’re enabling her to act out again!
I insist, to no avail, that Daisy can’t clamp her tiny mouth over my head. My friends diagnosis me as “in denial.”
It was an impossible situation. My friends would never accept my relationship with Daisy Mae. If they weren’t willing to change, perhaps she and I could try to.
By chance, I discovered a continuing-education catalog in my mailbox, featuring a workshop on “Professional Pet-Assisted Therapy (PAT).” I registered for P.A.T. immediately, enamored as I was with the Saul Steinberg illustration of four cats stiffly posed beside the course description. My eyes brushed over the words, “Participants may bring a stuffed toy animal. If you bring a pet, please bring a towel.” Other than that, I didn’t read the fine print; P.A.T., I assumed, was a form of group therapy for humans and felines (in particular) to help them cease their negative communication patterns.
On the day of class, Daisy Mae, as if on cue, threw an all-out temper tantrum. I’d never heard her utter such gurgly, guttural grumbles before as I attempted to lower her into the “Cat Cab.” I tried soothing her with the feline mantra (“We are not going to the vet”), but she wriggled from my arms and slid beneath our bed. Naturally, I was disappointed that Daisy Mae didn’t want to experience P.A.T. with me, but I compromised by bringing Bun-the 32-year-old, bedraggled beanbag bunny of my childhood-along instead.
The class was being offered in Soho on a Sunday afternoon. When I told my friends that I wouldn’t be joining them for brunch that day, they replied with a clinical coldness which I found surprisingly hurtful. In the background, I could hear them mumbling something about “staging an intervention.”
Entering the class, I was surprised by the skimpy selection of pets: only one dog, an indifferent Boston terrier named Tiger Lily, who lay curled on its owner’s lap, and a single cat, a black-and-white he/she that squatted obediently in its “cab.” The woman next to me had a wire-haired-terrier stuffed animal wedged between her legs, with a bandanna wrapped around its neck.
I’d been expecting an unruly mix of animals and humans, all in obvious need of therapy-not these prim pets who were also mute and, in my humble opinion, rather one-note.
A middle-aged man strolled in holding the leash of a French bulldog that boasted a fantastic satanic overbite. It drooled enthusiastically while lumbering in front of the mesmerized student body-20 of us who, on the surface at least, appeared quite normal.
“This is Tiffany,” said the man, forgetting to introduce himself.
The teacher, Claire, an attractive woman in her 40′s with close-cropped blond hair and pearl earrings, stood authoritatively behind a podium and began lecturing us, as if P.A.T. were a classics seminar.
P.A.T., I soon discovered, much to my disbelief, was a prep course for pets to become what Claire called “therapists.” Pet therapists, she told us, are particularly valuable for those in hospitals, prisons, psychiatric institutions and nursing homes. My good intentions had been misplaced. The idea of Daisy Mae becoming a therapist was completely absurd. How could she help others when she couldn’t even help herself? The only institutional role I could see my cat in was as a sadistic Nurse Ratched-claws extended. Clearly, my assumptions about this workshop and what it could offer-a chance for Daisy Mae and me to understand, forgive and accept each other-were completely off-base.
Claire then passed around a Temperament Test to help us determine whether or not our pet would be “capable of becoming a therapist.” I knew immediately that Daisy Mae would fail miserably. But I didn’t care, I realized: I loved Daisy Mae unconditionally! A good many humans couldn’t live up to the test’s perfecting standards-and so, I ask you, why should our cats?
After class, I left the students to mingle with one another (boasting of the uncanny intelligence of their various animals) to return home to Daisy Mae. When I opened the apartment door, she was splayed out on the floor, winking up at me suggestively. Under her paw was a dead moth with its wings plucked off.
Sure, maybe some day when I least expect it, Daisy will rear her ugly genetic tendencies and take me out, too-I imagine both Mr. Horn and Mr. Yates at one time or another entertained this thought. But no relationship is perfect. I looked down at Daisy Mae and apologized for trying to conform her. Like those other fierce cats, she cannot nag, complain or yell when frustrated. For this reason, it’s “natural” for them, in a more literal sense, to take our heads off. Daisy Mae’s bites and scratches are her words; her ornery cat ways run in her blood.
The pleasures of relationships are never free: Some wives iron their husbands’ shirts, some don’t. You could say that I’m an enabler, or that I’m in denial. But that’s the price I pay for companionship.