Jude, the minuscule Manx kitten I brought home from my job at a nonprofit animal hospital, was the kind of heart-liquefying cat TV networks build Very Special Episodes around. He was barely the size of a softball, and he looked like one when he first came to our house: He had a line of thick stitches where his left front leg had been, thanks to a crushing injury he’d received as a stray and the amputation he’d needed as a result. The bad news was that, at six weeks of age, he was already a tripod; the good news was that he hadn’t known much about being any other way.
Watching a little creature figure out how to navigate the world with a setback is moving, of course: Who could keep a stiff upper lip after seeing a limping kitten learn to run? Life with a three-legged cat is inspirational, but it’s also hilarious, tricky, surprising, and ever so slightly pee-scented, sometimes all at once. Here’s a bit of what I learned from the one who lived with me.
Jude was so tiny when he had his operation that the veterinary surgeon’s smallest cone was still way too big for him. His doctor cut the laminated paper down to size, which made it ruffle, and tied it around his neck with a bow, which made him miserable. He looked for all the world like a sullen kindergartener dressed like a daisy for a school play (which, as you would imagine, was absolutely adorable). When it became clear that he wasn’t interested in picking at his sutures, we released him from his floral prison — but I’ll never forget how a paper ruff bothered him far more than major surgery did. You can lose your leg without losing your cool.
Manx cats are sometimes called “cabbits” — that is, cat-rabbits — because of their powerful back legs. They walk like other breeds, but they hop like bunnies with their rear legs together when they need to get somewhere in a hurry. Between his bunny-hop in back and his single limb in front, Jude’s style of locomotion was rather singular (and it sounded like shoes in a dryer). It was also fast: He earned the nickname Hunter S. Tumpson by chasing down every last mouse that made the unfortunate decision to skitter into our dusty, old New York City tenement apartment.
Think it’s easier to bathe a tripod than it is to bathe a four-legged cat? Think again. Baths were rare for Jude, but each one had the high drama of a WWE wrestling match: He managed to cling to the rim of our tub with the strength of a beast 10 times his size. (That’s what I tell myself, anyway: It’s pretty embarrassing that two human adults had such a hard time getting one nine-pound cat into the water.)
Jude and I ended each day with a ritual: I’d turn out my reading light, turn the left side of my face to my pillow, and bend my arm at a right angle. Unencumbered by a left foreleg, he’d curl up in my arm’s crook with his chin stretched out across the back of my right hand. I had the privilege of falling asleep each night with my nose against his spine and the purr in his throat vibrating through my fingers. I have never felt so trusted.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the story of her “blind wonder cat,” Gwen Cooper makes an observation about why stories of animals and their heroism are so compelling, and it’s stuck with me for years. We love them, she writes, “because they’re the closest thing we have to material evidence of an objective moral order — or, to put it another way, they’re the closest thing we have to proof of the existence of God. They seem to prove that the things that matter to and move us the most — things like love, courage, loyalty, altruism — aren’t just ideas made up from nothing. To see them demonstrated in other animals proves they’re real things, that they exist in the world independently of what humans invent and tell each other in the form of myth or fable.”
Shortly after our little Manx tripod joined the family, I did some research on his family of origin. The Manx is a working breed from the Isle of Man, a speck of land off the coast of the United Kingdom in the Irish Sea. The Manx is known for being friendly, sturdy, and intelligent, though Jude had demonstrated all of that already. What I hadn’t known — what gives me the feeling Gwen describes, that perhaps there’s an inherent order to the universe independent of what we sentimental humans impose upon it — is the Isle’s national symbol, the Three Legs of Mann, and its ancient Latin motto, Quocunque Jeceris Stabit. It translates to “Whichever way you throw it, it will stand.”
I can’t say that Jude was a glimpse of cosmological architecture, but I can say that our tripod was a miracle to me.
Do you have a tripod cat? Tell us your story in the comments!
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About the author: Lauren Oster is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She and her husband share an apartment on the Lower East Side with Steve and Matty, two Siamese-ish cats. She doesn’t leave home without a book or two, a handful of plastic animals, Icelandic licorice mints, and her camera. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.