An answer to Garfield

Ever since my three-year-old sister yelled because my mother wouldn't give the family cat a spoon to eat its dinner with, I've been wary of the embarrassing affection cats inspire in otherwise rational beings. Until five months ago a cat, in my eyes, had no more individuality than a fur-covered piece of furniture - a useless piece of furniture at that.

I was a victim of anti-cat propaganda (including cartoons, ''funny books,'' and T-shirts that portray felines as tough, sly animals). Even T. S. Eliot in his whole bookful of cat poems (''Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats'') doesn't once hint at their essential grace and charm.

And so I passed many cat-deprived years without realizing what I was missing. Then friends and family began saying, ''How sad you must be, going home to an empty house at the end of a day. How desperately you need a creature on your lap generating affection.''

But I wasn't. I didn't.

But yes, I would think about it. And so I went to the public library and lugged home all the cat owners' manuals I could find. The message they gave me was unanimous: Adopt a cat as soon as possible from an animal shelter. The kittens there would be clean and healthy, and finding a home was literally a matter of life and death for them. Besides, shelters are in business not for money but for the love of lost and abandoned animals.

So I visited the nearest shelter (the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Mass.), where I was encouraged to pick up any kittens I fancied and interview them. It took two trips before all my resistance was broken down by a small bundle of gray fluff, the size and weight of a baby bird. She could pose for one of those greeting cards that feature kitties in a basket of pansies suggesting that you have a happy birthday.

She was an object I could safely commit myself to. I knew I could go on cherishing her even when she grew out of her kitten cuteness.

The shelter doesn't let just anyone take over an animal. The form it handed me made its commitment to animal welfare crystal clear: ''Your name? Your profession? How long have you owned your house? Give the names of two references. Would you please make a tax-free contribution to the shelter?''

''You take as much care as if I were adopting a baby,'' I said.

''That's how we think of it,'' the adoption counselor replied.

But the people were equally concerned with making me happy. Would I please call up if I had any problems? (I do and get sympathetic advice.)

The shelter would get in touch with me and see how the animal was faring, and if I wasn't taking proper care of her, it would remove her. I had to promise to get her neutered, a process that does not harm the cat or change its essential nature. More important, many unwanted kittens have to be destroyed every year, and neutering has become a social obligation.

I have learned that to hold a loving cat on one's lap is to feel a surge of affection and calmness.

My new acquisition got her name, ''Poppy,'' from a favorite song of my mother. (When it came time to make an appointment to have her neutered, the vet was puzzled by the name: ''You call your cat puppy?'')

It was amazing how quickly she learned her name. Not that she will come when I call (unless it suits her), but it does make her stop and think. In fact the experts are right - cats are hard to train. The only discipline I find effective is a tiny tap on the nose that hurts only her dignity - though a cat's dignity should never be trifled with. It is a very tender thing.

Toys - except for a ping-pong ball - have proved to be a waste of money, and catnip is out (I don't want a ''high'' cat). Far more rewarding are thread spools, crackling paper, the inside of toilet rolls, paper bags to hide in, my earrings (but not those that are small enough to swallow), and pieces of string.

But Poppy and I agree that her most successful toy (if you dare call him that) has been the second kitten I brought home from the animal shelter - a black, white, and gray kitten with a touch of Siamese. After an uncertain day or two, the pair decided they love each other (and me) enormously.

But affection isn't all they have to offer. Their entertainment value is prodigious.

Of course I can't pretend keeping cats doesn't have drawbacks. But how can scratched furniture, a broken dish or two, the inability to go off a weekend on an impulse, ever outweigh the bonuses? When I get home in the evening and hear them thundering downstairs to greet me, begging to be picked up and cuddled, I can even overlook their insistence on lying on my neck on hot summer evenings.

Discussing the best kind of friendship, a wise friend of mine once pontificated: ''Dogs look up at you, cats look down on you, and pigs look you right in the eye. We need pigs among our friends.'' Either she didn't know her cats or I can count two fur-covered pigs among my friends.

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