We’re all creatures of habit, dogs and cats perhaps more so than humans. Routine and structure make them feel safe and secure. Even wild cats appreciate a little tradition now and then. Thus, we follow the drill for our current menagerie: the previously exalted Oprah, the little whiny Bebe, the feral Monty, and The Duke, a character of a cat unlike any I’ve ever encountered, and the one I wanted to meet the most.
We’ve dubbed him The Duke because of the way he walks, a swagger originated by the late John Wayne — slightly sideways, head cocked to the side, a little off-centre, forward-propelled with deliberate steps, as if the ground could give way beneath him, his long, monkey-like tail curled off to the side. These peculiarities, while amusing, are unfortunately the result of a brain injury. When he was a kitten, some heartless bastard tossed him and the rest of his litter away in a bag, like trash. When they were discovered, only The Duke was alive, barely breathing, bleeding profusely from his neck. It’s believed his siblings either died of exposure or were devoured by coati mundis (raccoon-like varmints), which would explain the savage tears on his throat. When Barbara, the home’s owner, brought him to a vet, she was told he’d never make it, that it was best to put him out of his misery. She refused, and after much medical intervention — and a remarkable will to live on his part — he survived. Other than being left stone-cold deaf, he’s healthy physically; he’s just a little odd.
He doesn’t understand wind direction, and will often go to great lengths to climb behind a fan to cool off. He tries to sharpen his claws on smooth wall tile. He’s perennially hungry because he can’t recall eating 10 minutes ago. He stares intently at nothing above your head. Sometimes he tries to follow the rotation of the ceiling fan, loses his balance and keels over. He’s simply not sharp enough to fend for himself, so he’s forbidden to carouse at night with Bebe and Monty, a rule that he constantly tries to circumvent. More than once, he’s made a break for it before we can batten the hatches for the night. This has necessitated us tracking him in the dark, flashlight beams searching for him through the jungle, futilely calling out to him. In his silent world, he hears neither us nor the predators that would mount a sneak attack. Now we’re on to him, and he’s in lockdown before sundown, much to his chagrin.
But back to the routine, which goes something like this: Upon awakening at 8 a.m., we spring into action as if a starting shot was fired. The beasts are famished, and breakfast will not be delayed a moment longer. First, we lay out three bowls for the felines. Second, rip open two foil packets of Whiskas soft food and divide among the bowls (taking care to ensure The Duke gets the lion’s share, in hopes he’ll be full enough to remember a few minutes later that he has indeed been fed). Third, place bowls in separate spots on the floor, particularly Monty’s. As a wild child, he is not used to family dinners around the table. In fact, he prefers to dine under the table, away from the pack.
Sounds easy, but it requires the agility and speed of circus performers balancing plates on poles. The Duke and Bebe insist on hurrying things along by bumping and snaking around your hands and arms as you work, thus slowing the process considerably. Sometimes, if I get up early, I’ll tip-toe around a minefield of snoozing critters into the kitchen, carefully, quietly gather the foil packets and bowls and take them into the bathroom. There I’ll complete the procedure with the precision of a chemist mixing highly combustible materials, careful not to clink the spoon on the bowl, thereby setting off the food alarm. Then I’ll sneak back into the kitchen and delicately place the bowls in their assigned spots and back away as the fetid odor of the glop wafts its way to the sleeping nostrils and the charge to eat begins.
Sometimes, Monty is not around, so I call to him, my voice carrying out over the jungle and rooftops of nearby homes. If he comes, I gently, so as not to spook him, place the bowl three feet (and no closer) in front of him under the table. He thanks me by hissing. If he doesn’t come, I put his bowl in a corner on the counter to await his nibs when he feels peckish enough to grace us with his presence. Sometimes I suspect he’s got another gig going on at someone else’s place; he just seems plumper than Bebe and The Duke . . .
Once the bowls are on the floor and the feeding frenzy is in full swing, I fill the coffee pot and start the brew. Meanwhile, Oprah is lying on the floor, head between her front paws, looking from me to the cats and back again from under the tangle of curls over her eyes. She knows she must wait her turn, and she does so patiently. But first, we must attend to her own morning constitutional. While the cats are munching and the coffee is dripping, Oprah and I head outside to the cobbled road. There she picks a spot on the grass, squats and relieves herself. Then she’s ready to chase apples. At least I think they’re apples. They’re hard, round fruits that look like little green apples and probably taste just as bitter, but Oprah doesn’t care. They drop from a neighbour’s tree onto the street, and there’s always a fresh supply each morning thanks to nightly storms that shake them loose from their high branches. Barbara and Bill have instructed us to throw five of these fruit balls for her. Not four, not six. Five. Oprah will then chase after them. She will not, however, return them to you, so don’t attempt to extract them from her jaws. She will stockpile them in a place of her choosing, sometimes in front of the door, sometimes under the drooping bougainvillea, sometimes on the grass. It’s whatever she feels like that day.
My first toss lands just a few feet away. Oprah looks at the apple, then at me, as if to say, “That the best ya got?” She doesn’t lower herself to fetch it. The next one bounces off a dip in the road and hits her in the face. She scowls at me. Clearly I’m no famous baseball player. The third goes farther — too far. It rolls down a drainage embankment toward the street below. I holler at her not to chase it but she does. She must think, “If this is the only one that has any roll to it, I’m going after it.” I, meanwhile, am breaking into a sweat thinking, in her zeal, she’ll collide with a car. No such thing happens (mostly because a car passes by every few hours out here). She dutifully returns with the apple in her mouth and surveys the scene for a place to stack it. Today it is under the bougainvillea. She drops it, then looks at me with a face that says, “Again, and this time don’t f#*k it up.” I toss four more (to tally the required five), and most are pretty decent. Finally, the five apples neatly piled, she turns and heads for the door. Her work is done here; time for breakfast.
Inside, the satiated felines have sauntered away from their half-eaten breakfast, pointing their back legs out behind them like ballerinas, toes splayed in a long stretch, licking their lips. At various points in the day, they’ll demand the leftovers, so they must be preserved. I learned this the hard way. On the first morning feeding, as the cats have retreated to their corners for post-breakfast grooming, I busily readied Oprah’s meal. When I turned to place her mixture of dry and canned in her dish, I notice her tongue snaking along her mouth. She must be salivating, I think. When I present her dish, she sniffs at it and walks away. What? How can she not be hungry? When I turn back toward the sink, I notice that the cats’ dishes are mysteriously licked clean. “Oprah!” I chastise. She slinks away, eyes downcast. I feel the felines’ wrath later in the day.
After the morning meal ritual, we can have our coffee in peace and check our e-mails — but only for a few minutes. Then the maid comes. This one is here six days a week and, although it’s a large house, we wonder what can possibly keep her busy for four hours a day, six days a week. We’d like to ask her, but our languages clash and mash so that we each hear gibberish.
Unfamiliar with her routine, we pick up our mugs and laptop more than once to dodge her mop and rag. By the second day we’ve learned to pour the coffee into our thermos mugs, grab Oprah’s leash and head to the beach to get out of her way.
Before that, however, there’s more routine to be followed. After Oprah has finished her breakfast, she flops on the floor in front of the front gate, waiting. When the maid, whom I’ll call Marta, arrives, Oprah leaps up, ready for the game. Marta enters the door, hands Oprah a rag, and heads to the kitchen, Oprah in tow. There, Oprah trades the rag for a treat. Bill and Barbara have told us, when we come home after leaving Oprah behind, she will expect us to give her the keys after opening the outside gate, so she can carry them over to the inside door for us. She feels pretty important for taking on these particular tasks so we treat them just as seriously.
The early part of the day is taken up with the three of us walking on the beach or through the jungle. Oprah is a giddy child on the beach. Once she hits the sand, she’s unleashed and takes off like a cannon. She races along the near-empty beach, sniffing seaweed, coconuts and, occasionally, dead fish, which, regrettably, she enjoys rubbing her face on. Then she plunges into the tide, riding the waves like a surfer. Once thoroughly drenched, she rolls around in the sand and we return home with an 80-pound piece of sand paper. Fortunately, she loves to be bathed, and stands obediently as we hose her down.
As the sun rises along with the temperatures and humidity, we all spend the rest of the day inside, under a few select fans, saving the A/C for when we absolutely can’t stand it anymore (electricity is expensive here). This is usually around suppertime when the sun points its beam directly through our windows. Fantastic for sunsets, unbearable with no breezes.
Occasionally, Oprah will announce the need for a bathroom break. She doesn’t do this by barking or whining by the door. That would be too undignified. Instead, she’ll rise from her nap on the floor, walk over to me, sit down, place her paw gently on my arm, and fix her eyes on mine as if to say (and this is where I, inexplicably, imagine a crisp, upper-crust British accent): “Begging your pardon, madam. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I do believe I need to pee. I wonder if I might impose upon you to briefly escort me to the outer courtyard where I may tend to the business at hand. I assure you, it won’t take but a moment, and I’d be ever so grateful.”
At bedtime, the menagerie assembles for the night (The Duke begrudgingly). Oprah settles down next to us in her own bed (unless there’s a fierce storm, which there more often than not is, in which case she’ll be wedged between us, shivering with every thunder clap: most undignified); The Duke will either find a spot on the bed or curl up behind the fan, which is now off; Bebe and Monty, with the energy of kids hopped-up on sugar, will continue to play long into the night until they drop, mid-chase, out like the lights.
The next day, we wake up and do it all over again. This is one routine that, even if it did slip into a rut, I’d happily continue.