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Detail from illustration by Josee Bisaillon (Josee Bisaillon for The Globe and Mail/Josee Bisaillon for The Globe and Mail)
Detail from illustration by Josee Bisaillon (Josee Bisaillon for The Globe and Mail/Josee Bisaillon for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments Essay

I never thought I'd call a cat sweetheart Add to ...

For most of my life I looked down with amusement and a certain amount of disdain on those who treated their pets like people. Calling a cat "sweetheart" was beyond absurd. Buying fancy dog collars and chew toys, and using hard-earned money for vet bills was, to my way of thinking, simply stupid. Those who stooped to pick up poop showed a lack of grey matter.

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Growing up on a dairy farm in Eastern Ontario, we were taught that animals must serve a purpose. We always had a dog, usually male. His job was to herd cattle and act as all-round farm guard. He was not permitted inside the house except in extreme weather, and then only as far as the kitchen. Even the most sports-minded pup would not be allowed entrance to the front room to watch Hockey Night in Canada.

There were a good number of wild barn cats, who subsisted on table scraps, cows' milk and whatever they could hunt and kill. Their job was vermin control. Once, I managed to tame one and even got him carte blanche indoors. Timothy Thomas was a large tabby with attitude. No fancy litter box for Mr. Thomas. If he felt the call of nature he knew enough to hightail it outside or suffer the consequences. Litter was the euphemism we used for cow manure.

Timothy seemed to sense a lack of hospitality and often voiced his concerns with loud howls, hisses and a show of claws. Not the ideal pet.

The barn cats had a tendency to multiply at an alarming rate. The birthing usually took place in the hayloft. My father, not an unkind man, would hunt down the litter, place them in a burlap bran sack and take them to the river. Kittens slept with the fishes.

Although I was not privy to this abomination, I had an older brother who somehow felt it his duty to impart this sort of information to me. No one but he could understand my reluctance to enter the sack race at the annual Sunday school picnic.

My family had purebred Holstein Friesians. When a calf was born, the preferred sex was female. A purebred heifer could be a productive member of the herd. A bull calf was doomed from day one. Unless he proved to be stud material, he was off to the abattoir.

When a cow was about to "freshen," I was not allowed in the barn. I couldn't understand why. I pictured the bovine beauties washing their armpits and applying a bit of makeup.

I recall with the clarity reserved for childhood memories the moment I figured out where roast beef came from. A roast was served for Sunday supper. It was my favourite meal, until my brother, having probably run out of things to torment me with that week, decided to let me in on our protein source.

"Mmmm, roast-beef-moo," he began.

I paused, a forkful of the succulent meat clutched in my chubby fist.

"Moo," he continued. "Thank you Mr. Cow. Been good to know you and now I'm gonna eat you."

Could it be? I remembered seeing a truck in the barnyard and cattle being herded onto it. My sister had told me they were going on vacation. I thought they were off to summer camp or perhaps a jaunt to Parliament Hill.

Tears and mucous mingled with the gravy.

I liked to visit the barn on Christmas Eve. I'd heard the legend of animals being granted the power of speech on that night. I paid particular attention to that line in Away in a Manger, "the cattle were lowing." I thought it meant they were saying "hello." Sadly, the only sounds I heard were the usual snorts and farts. Obviously our animals had not been touched by the Holy Spirit.

Time went by. I grew up, married, moved to the city. For years I ran a flower shop.

Dried flowers, mosses and certain packing materials make this type of business an ideal haven for little grey creatures. When I discovered an infestation of mice I tried all kinds of products to eliminate them, to no avail.

Remembering our method of rodent control on the farm, I decided to get a cat. A cat would be a sound business investment. There were lots of cat lovers in the neighbourhood.

So off to the shelter, where I chose a female tabby. I called her Blossom.

Blossom soon made it known that while she would entertain in the window and tolerate people coming in, she was not a mouser. If she even got a whiff of Eau de Mickey she would leap to the top of the cooler and begin furiously cleaning herself. She appeared to be paraphrasing Rodgers and Hammerstein: "Gonna wash that mouse right outta my hair."

Blossom also made it clear she was a one-person cat and I was the Human Elect. Ours was a love/hate relationship.

This year I retired. What to do with Blossom? The only life she had known was the flower shop. After numerous discussions with my husband, we reluctantly decided to bring her home.

"Listen," I said to her. "You cat - me human. Don't cross the line."

Still, she has a way of ingratiating herself. She entertains us endlessly with her antics. The other night I saw my husband tugging her ear and telling her what a pretty kitty she is.

The day I put a hat on her, took pictures and then e-mailed them to friends, I knew I had come full circle.

I saw the cutest rhinestone collar the other day at Bark and Fitz. I know that it would look adorable on her. "What do you think, sweetheart?" I asked her. She demurred.



Linda Edwards lives in Mississauga.

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