The Seven Pound Lion

by David Helvarg

Living alongside the (supposedly) domesticated cat

Living with cats is living with wildlife. It's an established fact that they are the only one of our mammalian pets and meat animals that were never domesticated but rather chose us out of mutual self-interest. Recent Mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests that cats began interacting with us not 2,000 years ago in Egypt as previously believed but around 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia as the first agricultural settlements were established in the Fertile Crescent. They came into our settlements, ate the mice and rats in our granaries and fattened off our refuse. Along with a regular source of food, we provided them protection from larger predators including the (now endangered) big cats. They, in turn, provided us effective pest control and won the hearts of our children. These first carnivorous kitties were small wildcats or Kaffir Cats originated in the forests and deserts of Africa. They're similar in appearance to a tabby, with either a steel gray or a grayish-tan coat and darker tabby stripes. They stand around a foot tall at the shoulder, with a length of up to two-and-a-half feet (their tails alone are almost a foot long), and weigh around 15 pounds. Ten thousand years later you'd be hard pressed to distinguish them from a big barn cat though the fact that "domestic cats" don't interbreed with wild cats suggest our pets have become their own species. Early on, human adults recognized that we had not necessarily won the hearts and minds of cats and began to treat these aloof seeming predators less as property like domesticated cattle and more as working partners and equals, or in the case of the Egyptian cast system, Gods to be feared and worshiped. Later certain Christians believed them to be demons and burned or drowned them along with suspected witches. I never thought I'd become a cat person myself until I was for almost two decades.

The Poose passed away on July 9, 2005, just short of her twentieth birthday. She was a gray and black tabby with beguiling yellow-green eyes, a white muzzle below her nose leather and lots of attitude. Even at the end when she was little more than fur and bone the vet noted what a sweet cat she was. Most people felt the same way (a number of birds, mice and rodents disagreed).

I first met the Poose at the home of a photo gallery director in Berkeley. We were planning an exhibition of the work of two of my photographer war buddies who had been killed in Central America when a funny, feisty gallery volunteer came by to pick up a kitten. Like the Poose, Nancy was the runt of her litter and quite lovely. Later she claimed I kept blinking my "big brown war reporter eyes" at her, but she only had eyes for the Poose, a little fur ball that mewled in her hand as she stroked it with two fingers.

Initially the Poose and I were stand-offish but by the time Nancy and I moved in together we were cool. While Poose (AKA Scutlana, Edwina, Ed) was a one-woman cat I provided her with a regular lap by the TV that she could curl up on without interruption. She also was willing to share her prizes with both Nancy and I. These included bloodied and battered birds, chipmunks, mice and once a decapitated snake in the kitchen (with the Poose seated proudly between the head and body). She wasn't too proud to perform acrobatic tricks for turkey flesh however. She also was more than willing to get into scraps with the neighborhood toughs, resulting in a nicked ear that short-circuited her cat-modeling career.

Fast forward a decade. The three of us now live together in Sausalito where we look down on Richardson Bay from our hillside duplex, through Redwood trees, across blackberry brambles, and across the neighbor's homemade chicken coop.

I think it's time to raise a family. Nancy doesn't agree or feel ready to make that commitment. We fight after I threaten to leave. Later I'm kneeling in my office wrestling with the Poose, and start to cry, thinking, "I'm crying over leaving a cat."

I move to DC. We've separated but not cleanly. We travel to Alaska and talk all the time. When I go to Antarctica I tell Nancy, "If I can't be with you I'll be with the penguins."

"The Poose is cuter," she counters.

I'm working on an ocean book when Nancy calls to tell me they found a lump on her breast. I'm with her through the months of chemotherapy. It's horrendous but seems to work. She makes a small French beret from her lost hair and photographs it on the cat. "Small amusements at the asylum," she tells me. Soon we're hiking together again, only she can't seem to catch a break. The cancer is back eight months later. There's more chemo, radiation and a mastectomy. A few months later it's back again and quickly spreads to her lungs and her heart. Nancy is 43 and dying. We're able to get her home to hospice care and walks by the water. We set up a hospital bed in my old office with its sliding glass view of the bay. The cat sleeps on the bed every night. We share nursing duty.

I ask Nancy if she's written a will.

"Why?  Are you bucking for the Poose?"

"Of course I'd take care of the Poose if anything happened."

"I thought maybe she'd go with me."

"What? A Viking funeral on Richardson Bay?"

"I thought she'd just lie down and go to sleep with me."

One of the last things Nancy does on her last night is pet and caress me and the Poose. She sleeps through the next day till her Doctor arrives in the late afternoon. Twenty minutes later she's dead. You could almost call it a good ending, only 40 years too soon.

I fly the Poose back to DC in a carrying case under my airline seat, doped up on a kitty downer, although I feel like I'm the one who could use a tranquilizer. She quickly makes the adjustment to Washington apartment living, once again becoming a model roommate (if you're into a roommie who likes to wake you up for breakfast at 6:00 a.m.). I comb her every day. She'll purr and stretch and claw the rug, and drop her head on my free hand, lifting it slightly so I can get the comb under her chin, at which point I can feel my blood pressure lower.

While a wild predator in her prime, the Poose spent her golden years chasing after champagne corks in the living room, drinking out of the toilet and sleeping about 20 hours a day. Even with a failing kidney and hyperthyroid condition she managed to bounce back from the precipice more than once. She was, as I said, a cat with attitude. After I left for a business trip she decided to stop eating and faded out quickly. A neighbor got her to the vet and I was able to be with her at the end. She's now with Nancy.

But I will always remember the Poose as more than just my late love's living legacy. She was remarkably good company. She was in fact the finest small, furry wild mammal I've ever known or hope to.

Photo courtesy David Helvarg.



David Helvarg is an author and President of the Blue Frontier Campaign. His latest book is a memoir titled: Saved By the Sea: A Love Story with Fish. (St. Martin's, 2010).

Buy David Helvarg's books through Amazon at the LOST Store.

Articles in this Issue

Introduction, by the Editors
The Bobcat, by George Getschow
Aileron, by Margaret Combs
Odd Birds, by Mark Kurlansky
Hollow Earth, by Chelsea Bauch
Snowbound, by Jonathan Shipley
Staking Claims, by Chantal Corcoran
The Seven Pound Lion, by David Helvarg
Yosemite's Twin, by Sam Kean
Diagnosis Alaska, by Charles Wohlforth