Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy - XXVI


Cats patrol suburbia at night. They are hunting for the sport of it. Theyare not hungry, at least not hungry in their digestive tract. These well-fed pets are hungry for the game wired into their nature. They stalk for opportunities to practice their adroitness. They stake their honour on challenging the home turf of other cats. They become restless and want activity, much like suburban teenagers.

Some suburbanites try to dissipate their cat's urge to exercise hunting skills by keeping them indoors and occupying them with toys. The last thing suburbanites care to see is the cat bringing into the house from outside their own choice of toy, an injured, terrified, small creature.

It isn't just cats who are capable of a secret sadistic life. Our cat was born and almost perished in another suburbia, on another side of Philadelphia. There a young girl of twelve had a cat that produced a litter. The young girl's father, a drunkard, lost his temper one night and began killing the kittens by throwing them into a river with their mother. The young girl managed to only rescue two, one in each hand being all she could carry as she went running through the streets crying for help. A neighbour came to her aid, taking the kittens and promising to find them homes. One of those homes was ours.

I have never been fond of cats, with exceptions. The one I share my house with, his name is Jazzbender. Cats are stunning to watch. They move with the elegance of their much larger cousins, the tiger. I adore their stately gait, the royal indifference of the cat sejant, judicator of all their environment. But I also see them as emotional parasites. These sphinxes are not the social creatures that dogs are. The rewards we gain from caring for a cat is a single degree difference from the rewards we gain from caring for a stuffed teddy bear.

Jazzbender is a smallish cat, beige in colour, with subtle stripes. He used to pay us tribute by occasionally bringing to our doorstep the dead baby rabbit or fledging. The larger adults are too challenging for him. I guess we've proved unappreciative, because he now deposits his kills in a special area beneath the bushes as tasty morsels for our more appreciative Newfoundland dog, Boris.

We acquired Jazzbender the cat as a pet for our dog. When we brought Jazz home and introduced him to Boris, Boris was instructed to not eat him. And there's the point, even when alone, Boris refrains from eating the cat. Dogs are generally more moral than cats. They can be taught what is wrong and will not do wrong even when left alone. And if they do do wrong, they confess their sin with an obvious expression of guilt. Unlike Boris the dog, Jazzbender the cat will do wrong if he thinks he won't get caught. Unlike Boris, Jazz has no sense of guilt.

With both my spouse and I working to support this suburban life, Boris the dog spent many hours alone. Jazzbender was meant to be a diversion for him while we were away. Dogs can go through a terrible adolescence when left alone. They will misbehave. They do this to get attention, even if it will bring them bad attention. This is not unlike human children.

Once, during our absence and before he had a pet cat, Boris reached a bookshelf five feet from the floor and pulled off to chew some of my collection of fine press books. He was probably attracted to the glue used in the binding. He managed to do at least $500 worth of damage. I threatened to skin him and use his hide for binding if he did it again. As an extra precaution, I lined my shelves with cheap cookbooks turned sideways. But Boris did not attempt it again.

Unlike Jazzbender, Boris lacks grace. When we used to go for walks, Boris lumbered like a bear, galloped like a bison, and plowed through the underbrush like a woolly mammoth. Even now you can hear Boris plodding through the house when he changes from his imagined den beneath the piano to the bed we've made for him in the corner of our bedroom.

When I was young and growing up in suburbia, the friendlier dogs were often free to run loose through the neighbourhood. Folks knew how to interact with them in those days, perhaps out of necessity. But this has changed with the times. The attitude of suburbanites has shifted from the feel of the country where pets are loose, to that of a city where dogs aren't allowed off their leash. In suburbia, dogs are never given the chance for independence or exercise. We are made to clean up after them, where once we would no sooner think to clean up after our pets than to follow deer through the woods with the same purpose.

It seems that people are no longer acquainted with the responsibility a dog requires. Unlike cats, dogs demand socialization, or else they become nasty and unpredictable. It also seems people are less interested in dogs for companionship and are more interested in the protection they can provide. These days the breeds selected are less friendly, and too often they are trained to be vicious.

Boris is old, now, and stricken with arthritis. He has become grumpy and not as companionable. The curmudgeon wants only to be left alone to sleep when he's not eating. I miss our walks and conversations. I just don't believe cats have the sense of sacrifice and social engagement that make dogs more appealing to me. There is a phenomenal amount of communication across species lines with dogs. It is possible to share goals and to coordinate movement as a team.

I had never seen Boris angry or threatening, until one night a neighbour, uncharacteristically drunk and governed by private demons, made threats to Boris with a ridiculously small penknife, nowhere near in length to Boris's canines. The mansuetude of the Newfoundland breed gave way to Cerberean viciousness. I tried to stand between the threat and my pet, backing my chained dog to the safety of the house. And with equal determination,  Boris was suddenly in front of me, applying the same strategy of protecting me and urging me back to the house. It all concluded peacefully with the arrival of the police.

At the very worse, the pets represent an inability of some people to find the companionship they need from humans. Cats are less complicated to deal with than people, and dogs will love you unconditionally. But I think for some of us it is more than that. There is an astonishing miracle to be able to have a relationship with another species. Our lives are enhanced by recognizing that we share a heritage of emotion and desire with these other mammals. At the very best, our experience is broadened to appreciate that the planet is not the exclusive domain of humans. We need to learn to share it better.

This week I have been struck with the flu and it is Jazzbender the cat who curls up beside me to share my sickbed. Jazz does this whether I'm sick or not. And he isn't doing it for the pleasure it gives me, but solely for the pleasure he derives from it. It works out perfectly. When I'm sick, I'm not good company and I am grateful for the cat.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the twenty-sixth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.