For a week in October 2011, I house-sat — and, more importantly, cat-sat — for my brother Jonco and my sister-in-law Heather while they were in Hawaii. I was honored that they asked me, since it meant they trusted me to keep their cats alive and not burn down the house, the former taking a slight priority over the latter. But I also couldn’t help but feel a little terrified, because we’re talking about five (5!) cats, all of them rescues with their own special neuroses. (As opposed to nonrescue cats, who are never ever neurotic.)
Scariest of all, what if they decided they didn’t like me? I wasn’t sure I could handle that.
I’d spent the last few Thanksgivings at their house, so I’d sort of gotten to know a couple of the cats over the years — by the end of the any given visit, I could usually remember the names of the two orange tabbies — but now I was actually going to be responsible for all of them. Meep! Jonco and Heather wrote me a detailed reference document, what I thought of as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jonco and Heather’s Cats, but I still knew I was going to be doing a lot of learning as I went along. Plus I had a vision of the cats deciding that since their parents were away, they were going to gang up on their sitter. "Aw, c’mon! Mom and Dad let us eat whatever we want!"
I arrived late in the afternoon on the first day. The only two cats to make their presence known to me were Dingo and Tule, also known as The Orange Kitty (Welcome) Committee.
Dingo is a ginormous orange tabby whose name is an abbreviation of Dingonek, a mythical saber-toothed African monster. I knew from my past visits that Dingo is the alpha of the house, as well as the one who is mostly likely to end up on my lap if I am on the couch for more than five minutes. In the negative column, he also tends to be a bully to cats and humans alike, and anything involving food for any species has to be planned around making sure Dingo doesn’t eat it first. Dingo is the center of gravity of the house metaphorically, and darn near physically.
Tule is short for H.P. Lovecraft’s terrifying Cthulhu, though I tend to associate the name more with my hometown’s far more terrifying fog. Unlike her namesake(s), though, Tule is terribly sweet and friendly, on a constant mission to keep quadrupeds and bipeds alike well-groomed.
I spent that first night by myself in a completely cat-free bed, the first time in recent memory in which I had neither my cat Perdita nor my girlfriend Marta sleeping next to me. It was disconcerting as heck, not to mention a little insulting, considering that I was in a house with five cats. I didn’t see them in a group until the next morning, during the carefully choreographed ballet that is Morning Feeding Time.
The 14-year-old Goji made her first appearance that morning. Her name is short for Gojira (you don’t even have to ask, do you?), and according to the Guide, she’s the matriarch of the house, the real power behind Dingo’s throne. As is the case with so many cats in their dotage, Goji suffered from a host of health problems, including arthritis, a habitually runny nose, frequent sneezing, and a bad back-right leg that resulted in her needing help to get up onto her favorite morning-snooze spot, the kitchen table. Oh, and no tail.
Pogo also emerged. Her name comes from the Ogopogo Lake Monster, Canada’s lesser-known variant on the Loch Ness Monster. Like Goji, she also sneezes a lot and has a habitually runny nose, which is as good a form of hero worship as any. Pogo even lacks a tail, which just goes to show her level of commitment.
Bubba, the not-orange tabby, didn’t show his face at all that first morning, instead eschewing the wet-food ritual to eat his dry food in peace while I wasn’t looking. Bubba’s name is short for Bubba Ho-tep, eponymous monster from the book and movie. He’s the classical fraidy-cat, spooking easily at unfamiliar sights and sounds, including but certainly not limited to me.
The Morning Feeding is a 14-step process in the Guide, involving carefully dividing the boys from the girls, with an emphasis on locking Dingo in the laundry room to ensure that the rest of the cats would actually get to eat, as well as making sure Goji gets her meds, and a careful placement of each cat in a certain place in a certain order. If I missed a step, I was sure the house was going to explode and shower the neighborhood with Fancy Feast.
By the third day’s Morning Feeding — and after another night with no cats in bed with me — Bubba finally decided that the delicious wet food was worth dealing with me; Pogo came around sometimes as well. Otherwise, I seldom saw them all together during the day. Tule and Dingo tended to keep nearby on general principle, though Dingo would occasionally get one of his bullying moods and try to wrestle Tule into submission. It was one of the few times I had to be a disciplinarian, snapping my fingers and saying "Dingo, no!" I feel guilty when I have to raise my voice at Perdita, let alone someone else’s cats, but keeping Dingo from being a bully was one of my jobs.
I spent most of any given day working on my laptop at the dining room table. (One of the advantages of working from home is that it can be done from other peoples’ homes, too.) This also meant that I was able to let the Outdoor Caucus (Goji, Bubba, and Pogo) come and go as they pleased from the backyard, and I was able to keep track of them using the In/Out board. It was also a handy record to keep track of which cat was which in general, though after a few days I was finally remembering names.
And maybe they picked up on that, because by the final night, I was no longer alone in bed. Not only was I joined by Dingo and Tule — who seemed like the obvious ones all along — I was also visited by Bubba, who wouldn’t even let me feed him on the first morning. They liked me! I was accepted!
When I left, the five cats were happy and healthy — and the house was still standing. Mission accomplished! I hope I get to do it again someday.