Author discovers what it's like to be among the `cat-owned'

Cleveland Amory, once a confirmed ``dog person,'' has learned the habits and intricacies of that other favorite pet species during 10 years of companionship with a white feline named Polar Bear. Mr. Amory now firmly numbers himself among the ``cat-owned.''

That phrase, as much as anything else in his new book, ``The Cat Who Came for Christmas'' (Little Brown, $15.95), says a lot about the author's perspective. The somewhat blustery Amory, longtime critic, curmudgeon, and animal-welfare activist, has been captivated by his cat. So his writing on the subject is anything but objective - nor does it pretend to be.

The book opens with a description of how Polar Bear happened to find his future ``owner.'' The cat was a down-and-out New York City alley dweller when he happened to be spotted by one of Amory's animal rescue colleagues, a woman of iron will and discipline whom the author refers to as ``sergeant.''

Together they crept up on the bedraggled creature and snatched him from his trash-filled surroundings. ``It's good for the soul to rescue an animal yourself,'' said the author, recalling the event during a recent visit to Boston. More indirectly, through his efforts as founder and head of the Fund for Animals, he has helped save countless creatures from injury or death.

Since no other homes were immediately available, Amory had little choice but to take ``this mangy little thing'' back to his Manhattan apartment for the holidays, awaiting a suitable owner. When that individual eventually came around, the rescuer has grown so attached to the rescuee that he couldn't give him up.

Amory's narrative of his life post-Polar Bear will entertain even some hard-core dog lovers. He's astounded, as any first-time cat companion is, at the fierce, calculated independence of the animal. Food, of course, is one arena where this surfaces. The author's efforts to get his increasingly fat cat to reduce were futile. Polar Bear wouldn't touch diet cat food. And when the inevitable return to regular fare came, Amory could only puff, ``It should be remembered that it was I, not Polar Bear, who made the decision.''

Amory wasn't content simply to become one of the contented ``cat-owned.'' He read everything he could get his hands on about cats, and lots of that research pops up in his book. You get quick histories of the elusive beast, both from a social and biological perspective. And there are passages on great figures in history who've been befriended by cats, from the pharaohs to Churchill.

The book is also heavily peppered with Amory's philosophy of animal rights - sometimes brought in through reference to medical researchers' preference for cats as quick-witted, highly sensitive laboratory subjects. Those passages are anything but light reading. He shares some of his Fund for Animals exploits, too, a few of the most memorable of which took place during that first year of Polar Bear's residence in the Amory household - the ramming of a rogue whaling vessel, dousing baby seals with red paint to foil the hunters who covet their white pelts.

In conversation, Amory traces his activist bent on animals issues to his early days as a young reporter on an Arizona daily. Once asked to cover a bullfight over the border in Mexico, he became so incensed at the spectacle of a matador prancing around with the dead bull's ear that he picked up the soggy cushion he was sitting on and hurled it at the proud bullfighter. ``He went down like a stone,'' Amory recalls gleefully.

You see some of that feistiness in ``The Cat Who Came for Christmas,'' mixed in with all the endearing stuff about Polar Bear. It's a mix that gives the reader insights into the thinking of a man for whom animals are not just pets, but in some real sense equals, valued companions on one's voyage through life.

``Having an animal around helps us in many ways,'' says Amory. ``It's an outlet that takes you out of yourself.''

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