Cocoa speaks back

On May 13 of this year, Reuters reported that a family in Nova Scotia had to flee their home and call the police from the lawn because their Siamese had gone berserk. Family members suspected something was wrong when "Cocoa" began to attack the babysitter earlier in the afternoon. When they came home to investigate, Cocoa tore into them as well.

An officer on the scene described Cocoa as a cat with an "attitude problem." I, however, wonder if Cocoa might be an outspoken representative of the silent majority of cats who are nursing grudges.

Here's why: Cats are caught in a land of mixed messages.

On one hand, in a recent Ann Landers' column, a letter-writer tetchily informs us that we shouldn't compare our cats to other peoples' children. If I'm interpreting this correctly, the idea is that kids have so much personality, cats can't possibly have any comparable wit or pizzaz beyond kicking some litter out of the box now and then.

Yet editors across America know that cat books tend to become best sellers, and this couldn't happen if cat owners thought of themselves as proprietors of dull-minded furballs. So cat owners find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: are they in the presence of wit, soul, and genius, or not?

Our own cats certainly seem like agents with pluck and destiny. Don is the tall, gray, kinetic ectomorph; Evie is orange and plump with short legs; Georgie is black and tan with a dyspeptic meow. Like people, each has their preferences and moods.

Don goes from nighttime cuddling to biting the couch in a daytime frenzy and begging to ride on our shoulders. Evie, ever sweet-tempered, prefers to be dandled with two feet still on the ground so she feels secure, whereas Georgie is rather whiney until held upside down. You have to experiment a lot with each cat to get a fine-grained sense of its tastes, but once you start looking for signs of soul, you'll find it.

The cats, furthermore, are knowledgeable and crafty. They understand what time we are meant to wake up, and start whacking things off the bureau if we dally. They know what it is to commit a crime – which explains why Don looks so furtive when we catch him eating Evie's low-fat kibbles. They know how to present a gift with pride, as Evie does when she lays a twist-tie at my feet with a proud trill. They even understand the laws of physics. How else would Don – aka "coconut head" – know to batter the bathroom door open with his cranium to pay me a morning visit?

More impressively, Evie has lately shown signs of what is either immense compassion or some kind of pagan religious belief. I usually sleep with foam earplugs to muffle the sounds from the upstairs apartment. In the morning the earplugs are often gone, but I'd assumed they were falling under the bed and my significant other was tossing them out during his weekly session with the vacuum cleaner.

Only when we pulled the scratching post out from the wall did we find a small graveyard of foam cylinders of several shapes and colors, tucked into an arrangement that can only be described as loving. If archaeologists are allowed to infer that Cro-Magnon people had heart, soul, and cosmology based on their gravesites, I think I should be allowed the same assumption when a cat gives an earplug a decent burial.

So here's the pity of the situation, which brings me back to Cocoa's outburst. There are too many cars in the neighborhood, so the cats stay inside. We don't have the money to, say, hire a special cat clown to entertain them when we're at the office (and you can just bet that Cocoa's first victim wasn't there to babysit him). But with their striking individual differences and their need for creative stimulation, the cats can't be content just weaving around the same rooms day after day, being dangled upside down or affectionately thumped once in a while.

More likely, though, they've achieved an inner peace that was beyond Cocoa's grasp. As they lie curled in a ball, maybe they are even humming to themselves some variation on that little tune from Peggy Lee that we sometimes play on the stereo: "Is that all there is? Is that all there is? 'Cause if that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep napping..."

Janet McIntosh teaches cultural anthropology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

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