If my 15-pound gray tabby, Bubba Lee Kinsey, had been a man instead of a cat, he would either be in prison for aggravated assault or a superhero. Or perhaps a mad scientist, having demonstrated his uncanny ability to morph from mild-mannered snuggle buddy into brass-knuckled punch of undiluted rage within seconds and without warning.
When I first met him as a skinny kitten, his head was as comically large as a bobblehead, and I fell for him immediately. He was a stray, my friends said, and because they were unable to take him in, they encouraged me to adopt him. I was a scrappy 19-year-old who could barely cook mac and cheese, so I was hesitant to take responsibility for another living thing. But when that tiny kitten curled up purring on my chest, I knew I couldn’t say no.
So I took him home, and using all of my zit-faced certainty and wisdom, right away I did something I should not have done. When I took him to the vet to be neutered, I had his front paws declawed. Believing this was the only option for living peacefully with a cat, I never even considered allowing my little predator to keep his retractable daggers.
But if I’d known the facts, I might have reconsidered. Not only is declawing the equivalent of chopping off your own fingers after the first knuckle, it can also cause pain and arthritis, as well as behavioral concerns including litter box problems and biting. It is also illegal in many countries. And considering the chaos that consumed my early years with Bubba, none of this information is surprising in the least.
Bubba’s first foray into "trouble cat" territory was pretty much inevitable. At the time, I shared an apartment with my two best friends, who inexplicably both had waterbeds. Cats do not mix well with giant vinyl bags filled with stale water, especially when pouncing on the bubbles seems like an awesome game, and their sleep-deprived, overworked humans forget to close the bedroom doors.
Despite his lack of front claws, excitable Bubba popped both of their beds within a month. The second time, no one discovered it for several hours, and gallons of water leaked through the floor into the downstairs neighbor’s bedroom. Needless to say, it’s not easy to replace a waterbed and a regular bed on a part-time cashier’s salary.
From there, the situation only got worse. Bubba would seemingly go from lazy sunbather one minute to finely tuned killing machine the next, indiscriminately stalking me, my roommates, and my boyfriend, who openly admitted to disliking my beloved cat. Bubba also terrified my friends. On one occasion, game night turned violent when Bubba wouldn’t let one of my guests so much as place his foot on the floor without lunging at his leg, fangs drawn and ready. And then there was the time he bit my brother in the face hard enough to leave a jagged, bloody wound, an affront my brother still has not forgiven.
Meanwhile, I walked around constantly with scratches on my arms and bruises and puncture wounds on my calves; when Bubba attacked, he didn’t bite so much as stab me with his teeth. But each incident of bodily harm was later followed by snuggles, purrs, and headbutts, so I always forgave him. It wasn’t until he bit me twice in the same afternoon, forcing me to eventually get antibiotics due to infection, that I finally began to feel he was more than I could handle. When I took him to the vet for a checkup, I tearfully confessed that I was thinking about giving him away.
But instead of catering to my desire to throw in the towel, the vet gave me the best cat advice I’d heard yet. "Maybe you should try to learn to read him," she said.
So I started paying more attention to Bubba’s body language, and we worked out a morbid dance routine where I would pull my leg away seconds before he lunged. He would get frustrated -ÔÇô sometimes he would even sigh ÔÇô- but then he usually gave up. I also kept spray bottles beside the couch and my bed, so when he charged at me in either of those locations, I was prepared to greet him with a squirt of water to the face. I also allowed him to climb on top of my dresser and the fridge; the ability to survey the room like a king seemed to make him feel more in control of his environment.
But perhaps most importantly, I started playing with him more. He spent most of the day alone while my friends and I were in class, giving that marquee in his little cat brain plenty of time to flash, "KILL. KILL. KILL." So instead of allowing him to treat me as his prey, every day I let him hunt, capture, and kill a catnip-filled mouse dangling from the end of a string.
The result: Ten years later, Bubba and I live peacefully together, along with Phoenix, the sweet, talkative calico I adopted three years ago. Bubba has seen me through my worst times, and he’s been as good a friend to me as any human. And every headbutt-filled day, I’m grateful that I gave my difficult cat a chance.
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