Along with many of my lonely fellow Americans sequestered indoors, I recently — somewhat impulsively — decided that I wanted a cat.
This sudden desire was strange. As a child, I loved my parade of fish, frogs, gerbils, and guinea pigs, but I never had a “real” pet as an adult, a fact for which many people pity me with almost pathological fervor (just try saying that you don’t really like dogs in a Colorado mountain town). Life as a renter is simpler without furry baggage, and not having to find someone to look after my pet every time I wanted to go on a plane or to a national park meant plenty of freedom.
I enjoyed my animal-free existence.
But there I was, scouring Humane Society websites and watching cats disappear almost in real-time as people scrambled to adopt the few animals available. I read their profiles like someone desperately searching match.com, and much like with online dating, the good ones went fast.
The cats still left were like the lonely members of the Island of Misfit Toys: Krueger was a maniac, Owen bit and scratched, and Jasper was cute but mangy with a permanent goopy eye that required twice-a-day maintenance.
The search seemed hopeless… until we met Luke. When we first met him, he cowered in his kitty cave and stared at us with wide, wary eyes. The humane society employee told us that he was sweet but shy, a “precious, fragile boy.”
“He likes being called ‘Lukie,’” she said.
My husband and I exchanged glances. “We’ll take him.”
We immediately decided to jettison the name Luke (and definitely the demeaning “Lukie”) in favor of a name that would inspire more confidence in the little guy, and decided to name him after the vagabond folk legend Woody Guthrie.
When we first brought Guthrie home, I spent hours lying on the floor working to earn his trust while he hid under the bed. I turned the bedroom into something of a “cat spa,” complete with aromatherapy and mellow music. In those early days, I made Guthrie a toy. I read to him. I lay still on my belly with one arm extended under the bed while on Zoom calls so I could pet him a little bit if he let me.
I giggled when he flipped on his back and kicked his legs in the air, and my heart about gave out when he nuzzled my hand with his head for the first time. It was the greatest victory of my day if he ate the treat I put down for him. He had me: hook, line, and sinker.
Each evening, my husband and I put on a movie in hopes that Guthrie would make an appearance, an event we termed “Guthrie o’clock.” As the days went by he appeared more and more often, seeking head scratches. A month later, after what amounts to about six months of trust-building time, he hangs out with me all day, chirping for attention or lazing around in the sun.
I’ve learned a lot from Guthrie over the last month, life lessons that anyone can apply to these challenging and lonely times.
First, enjoy the simple things. He isn’t worried about social distancing or contact tracing or antibody testing. All he cares about is getting his belly scratched.
Next, you don’t need to look far to find adventure. Like many people, I want to go somewhere. Anywhere. I am sick of being at home (who isn’t?) and even though I live in a beautiful place with abundant opportunities to get outside I feel like I am on a medium-length leash at best.
Not Guthrie! Guthrie will probably never even go outside, but he doesn’t care. Our small house is filled with wonders. The computer screen! It has small pictures of people and sometimes of other cats! His own reflection is endlessly perplexing and peering out the front windows is nothing short of awesome. And the bathroom? It’s the best! Jumping up on top of the desk? Well, that never gets old. Two water bowls? He’s like a lion on the freaking Serengeti. Oh, and the knobs on the drawers? What a magical smooth and round feeling!
We could all stand to take a closer look at the wonders that surround us.
Finally, Guthrie also knows that the world can feel very scary. When he is afraid, he goes under the bed. He doesn’t apologize for it, he just stays there until he feels better. Ever since COVID-19 began rocking our society to its very core, I have often felt like the need to hide my anxiety, carrying on and remaining relentlessly positive.
I have a job, I have a home, my family is healthy. What do I have to complain about? But what if I took a cue from Guthrie and gave myself permission to create a safe place for my anxiety, fear, and sadness until the world earns my trust again?
So here I am, doing things my former anti-pet self never would have imagined. I joined a cat behavior group on Facebook. I am constantly devising new ways to keep Guthrie entertained and I went through three bags of treats before finally finding one that he liked.
I love buying him toys. I coo at him, calling him “Boo-Boo” and “Bubba” and “Buddy” in a high-pitched voice. In one particularly embarrassing moment, I looked up plans for building a cat patio (a “catio,” if you will) so Guthrie could enjoy the outside world without getting hit by a car or decimating the songbird population. This pandemic is terrible, but I’ll always be grateful that it turned me into a cat person, or at least a Guthrie person.
Who would have guessed?
Shaina Maytum is a freelance writer, educator, and at-home adventurer who lives in Carbondale.