When our dog died last summer, my family and I spent a few months in self-imposed pet exile. We didn’t have a heart for any other animals. Once the acute sadness passed, and we were finally open to thinking about bringing another animal into the house, we spent time ping-ponging back and forth. Should we get another dog? How about a cat? I hadn’t had a cat since I was ten years old, instead opting for a parade of dogs who were interested in cats only insofar as they could be eaten.
Through my nephew’s cat Petey, a few friends, and a cat on my daily bicycle route named Phillip, I became acquainted with orange tabbies. They are, it turns out, awesome. I’m not sure what made me open up Petfinder a couple of weeks ago – it was probably some photos from my nephew showing Petey in a cardboard box castle he made – but when I did, I found an adult orange tabby named Beowulf in a shelter about an hour away. We decided to visit him and see if it was a match. I’m allergic to some cats, but not all, so I needed to get up close and personal with whatever feline I planned to take home to make sure he wouldn’t make my eyes and nose run for the rest of his life.
When I opened the door to Beowulf’s small shelter cubby, he immediately rose to greet me. Estimated at 8 years of age and only recently neutered, he has huge tomcat jowls, and a grouchy face that doesn’t match his affectionate personality. The shelter employee who walked us back to the cat room told us he was a staff favorite.
I reached out to him, and after only a couple of ear scratches, he placed one paw gently on my chest. That was probably when I decided he would come home with us. Plus, I was not sneezing.
I’d turned in my application two days before, but the shelter had not notified me whether it was approved. So I was not expecting to take Beowulf home that day, and hadn’t brought the cat carrier my nephew had recommended. And it turns out that cats don’t simply ride in cars, heads thrust out a cracked window, tongues aloft in the wind, and some of them indeed get very freaked out about it. So when the shelter employee came in to tell me we were approved, they also told me I could take him home, and they would just place him in a cardboard transport box.
When they did, it was the very first time I ever heard him meow. It wasn’t a happy meow.
Still, we carried him out to the car.
A few weeks before, when it was still warmish, my husband had brought groceries home and as was the custom, my son unloaded them and brought them into the house – but not all of them. Unfortunately, he missed a package of chicken. Since we don’t drive the cars much in the pandemic, we also missed the chicken. For about a week, anyway, until we went to go get groceries again. Then we were definitely no longer missing the chicken.
This unfortunate event swept my husband into an obsession with removing the smell of decomposition – or as he referred to it, “decomp” — from our small sedan. We tried charcoal bags, baking soda, and open containers of vinegar. Some combination of those three things and driving at high speeds with the windows open had rendered it at least drivable again, but it was a family saga for weeks.
As the cat continued to meow once in the car, I wondered if maybe he could smell the decomp and was as grossed out as we had been, or whether the problem was being confined in a small dark space in a moving vehicle. Being new cat people, we weren’t sure whether he’d be even worse off outside the transport box, and I was reluctant to release him while I was driving on the highway. Sean had opted to sit in the back seat with the box so he could console him through his continuous stress-meowing. I had just gotten onto the highway when the smell began penetrating the car.
“Mom, I think he shat in the box.”
We were 65 minutes from home.
Please God, I thought. Let it be a cat fart. Do cats actually fart? I asked myself. Is this a possibility? Praying for a fart is a proven technique with dogs, who will often foul the air enough to make you suspect the worst has occurred, but then it fades away as you sigh in a mix of disgust and relief. Dog people know this. There’s even a warning for it; when you’re sitting and watching television, and that old familiar smell comes your way, the polite thing to do is exclaim “Dog fart!” so whoever is further downwind can evacuate in time to avoid it, or just steel themselves for the experience.
But this wasn’t a cat fart, because it did not fade away, and, to my horror, worsened.
“Oh my God, this is so bad,” said my son, who is as unfamiliar with cat shit as I am, in shock and surprise. “So this was our first mistake, Mom,” he continued, his voice rising a little as he narrated our failure. “We should’ve waited till we got the mesh cat carrier Adam recommended.”
I weighed my options. Leave our new cat in his fouled box, or take the cat out of the box, risking the possibility that the new cat will go on a fecal-smearing rampage in my car while I was navigating highway traffic during rush hour. Either way, I was concerned our act of betrayal in placing him in a transport box may have soured the relationship for him.
My son made the decision for me. “Mom, he’s not meowing anymore; I have to make sure he’s okay,” he said, and before I knew it the box was dismantled and the cat liberated. Fortunately, our new cat’s apparent good nature held, and he just wanted to hang out on Sean’s lap, who was vacillating between anguishing over the smell and praising his new pet.
“You’re such a good boy,” he said, petting him gently. “Mom, I’m dying; I need some sort of commendation for this.”
We continued on like this, me driving at higher-than-usual speeds, Sean alternately talking soothingly to the cat and gagging. When we finally reached home – after what seemed like the passage of whole days – we executed a plan we crafted in the last five minutes of the drive: I pulled the car up to the open garage, ran around to Sean’s door to open it. He exited the car, holding the cat fast, and ran up the garage steps to the house. While he did that I carried the unfortunate transport box to the trash can.
Frankly, I expected hysterical cat behavior once I entered the house, but I found him in the living room, calmly being petted by my husband, as if nothing had happened.
“Hey babe, good news,” I said. “The car doesn’t smell like decomp anymore.”
My husband looked at me quizzically as the cat jumped into the fireplace, which thankfully was not housing a fire, and smeared soot all over his fur.
It turns out the internet is right: Cats are assholes.
But we’re doing better now. Really.