"My cat is my friend."
What do I mean when I say that? FIrst, let’s consider animals, friends, emotions, and expectations. Take for example the following two phrases:
“My cat just died,” as opposed to, “My friend just died.”
In society at large, or even among cat owners (or guardians, or parents, or whatever we call ourselves), those two things probably get different reactions. A lot of people acknowledge that losing a cat is a big deal. But losing a friend? Holy Toledo. I believe most people, if they had to choose, would say losing a friend is worse.
Let’s consider something less morbid. It’s a Friday. You encounter a co-worker on the way home from work and she asks, "What are you doing tonight?"
“I’m spending the evening at home with a friend.”
This remark doesn’t make it far enough into her brain to stop her inner voice that’s asking, When’s the next bus coming?
Now consider this reply:
“I’m spending the evening at home with my cat.”
Now you hear that crazy record-scratch VVVWEEEEEEEEGHP! noise, and the co-worker’s internal voice says WHAT? with the implication being You must be crazy or maybe really lonely or possibly kinda creepy on top of I wish that damn bus would get here!
My point is not to rip on society (or your female co-worker, or your public transit system), but to show that animals and friends are often considered remarkably different things. Lately, for me, though, they’re one and the same.
Thomas is the first cat — the first animal — who I’ve considered my friend. And, as a matter of fact, I do really look forward sometimes to spending the evening at home with my cat. My girlfriend, Daphne, was out of town recently, and when I got home from work the first night I looked at Thomas and said, “Hey buddy. Time for dinner and some baseball!”
Tangent: It’s not that I didn’t love all the other cats I’ve lived with or known. I did. It’s not that Thomas is far and away the best cat I’ve ever had. He’s a great cat, but I’ve known a lot of great cats. Yet the connection I have with him transcends all the others. Something is just, well, different. I "get" something that I didn’t before.
I used “friend” in relation to Thomas for the first time in "A Love Letter to My Cat," which I wrote in February.
"Thomas, you’ve taken hold of my heart," I wrote. "You, my friend, have put your fragile little life in my hands, and I hold that with honor and the promise to give you a happy life."
That was the first time I contemplated the idea. (It breaks my heart all over again every time I read that sentence.) It’s an idea I’m still working on, and I’m sure I have a ways to go.
To that end, a couple of weeks ago when I was interviewing Jackson Galaxy of My Cat from Hell and Cat Daddy, I asked him about it. (Read extended excerpts from that conversation here.) I told him that Thomas was the first cat who I’ve considered a friend.
"Part of this is us maturing as humans," Galaxy said. "It wasn’t until Benny [who he describes extensively in Cat Daddy] was in my life that I recognized a cat as a peer."
Galaxy and I talked about the metaphysical connections between people and animals, and also of the great mystery animals and all living things represent.
"As we grow older, we meet so many animals," he said, "and we start recognizing their mystery, we recognize their secrets."
We can study cats, know all about their behavior and how they work, but we can never know what it’s like for them, and we can never adequately describe what we have between us. It’s something you “get” or you don’t. And when a person “gets” it enough to call a cat a friend, that says something about how he’ll treat that animal.
"It says to me, if I didn’t know you, I’d know that you would never abandon ship on someone you consider a friend," Galaxy said.
People who abandon cats at shelters for half-assed reasons such as “I’m moving to a different town” or “My kid grew tired of him” have not reached this point. There are times when people really do have to give up cats — that’s life, it happens — but if that cat is a friend, the person would do everything possible to find that friend a good home. Otherwise he couldn’t live with himself.
The way we look upon animals also speaks to how we see our relationship to the world — as overlords with the right to protect or destroy whatever we want, or as participants in a greater universal choreography. I’m in the latter category. I see cats as mysterious creatures — but I love the mystery. I love knowing there are things I’ll never figure out, never fully understand. My relationships with cats, like my relationships with other friends, are ever-changing — and sometimes they’re challenging, but they’re also rewarding.
I expressed this in a reply to a comment on recent Cat Dandy column, "Why I Let My Cat Go Outside."
Cats, I wrote, have their own autonomy as fellow beings of this world. Yes, we are their guardians, and yes, we are responsible for them in a great number of ways. But we do owe them a certain amount of latitude so they can be who they are, to an extent that they feel satisfied as sentient creatures, rather than playthings of or auxiliaries to humans. We owe them some respect.
But it’s a complex matter. What’s the practical application of this respect? Where does the line of caregiver and guardian end, and the line of having respect for them as beings begin? Do those lines overlap? This is not a call to let cats do anything they wish all the time — we are, after all, guardians and caregivers.
I can’t know for sure whether I’m doing everything that’s right for Thomas and myself, although for now I believe that I am. I pay great attention to this question, and that’s the best anyone can do. Regardless, this is not a simplistic matter by any means. Cats and our interaction with them are a great mystery, a great unknown, and anyone who misses that, in my view, is missing a crucial part of what it is to know and love animals.
That’s what I mean when I say, “My cat is my friend.”
Catster readers, a lot of you are probably way ahead of me on this one. Do you consider your cat your friend? What does it mean to you? How do you see yourself in relation to your furry little pal?
Where am I to go, now that I’ve gone too far?:
About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is associate editor at Catster and Dogster.
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