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One Cat Leads to Another, And Another, And Another
I have always loved dogs. Dogs were a part of my childhood and as an adult it felt natural to have them in my life. Golden retrievers are now my favorite breed, although the dogs of my youth were mostly odd hybrids like “Pixie,” our poodle-dalmatian combo. I’ll let you try to imagine it. By the time I was 40, the thought of owning a cat had never crossed my mind, not once, not ever. You may be wondering how come I can now count over 30 cats and kittens that have lived in our home along with our golden retrievers and now a chocolate lab too?
I can pinpoint the apparition to a cold winter night in February 1991. That was the night Mau came home with us. Yes, Mau was a cat, probably a Tonkinese. The blame or credit, depending on your point of view, for this addition to our household rests with my husband and my brother. It was definitely NOT my idea. It was a coincidence. Our dinner plans that evening happened to coincide with the arrival of a lost cat that had mysteriously appeared from under my brother and sister-in-law’s bed last night. They already had 3 cats. They didn’t want it any other way. They were unable to find the owner. It would end up in a shelter. Oh my God! Not a shelter! But still I felt that I didn’t know what to do with the cat and was just opening my mouth to say no to the question my brother had tauntingly asked (“Do you want a cat?”) when I heard my husband Freddy say – “Wait a minute, let’s look at that cat”.
Fast forward 19 years. On the Tonkin side of the scoreboard we had Mau, MauTu, Orville, Red Dot, Sindibad and Tu Tu. Also Maude, Winston, Gwen, Merlin, Galahad, Percy, Berry, Tiny Tim, Brighe, Tarquin and 7 other Tonkin kittens whose names I can’t remember anymore! On the domestic mixed breed (“rescued”) side, the list includes Chivers, Tristan, Isolde, Anton, Oscar, Crystal, Pod and Chirp. And we currently have 2 young Burmese cats, Troilus and Cressida. This list does not include those we have grown for a short time.
No, we are not hoarders. We have bred and shown Tonkinese for many years, so we have had beautiful kittens born at various times, usually in our bed and raised in our home. Some stayed with us, others were sold to carefully screened, good homes. Through strategic planning, spatial planning and a lot of work, we managed to keep a very clean (mostly) home. We didn’t have all of these cats at the same time, but for a short time we had 10 to 15 at a time. Luckily we had big houses. Our current cat population is 7.
So how did we go from one lost cat discovered under my brother’s bed to Tonka piles and hordes of rescuers? I was blown away the night we brought Mau home. It was getting late, so I plopped Mau, who turned out to be only about 5 months old, into our bed while we set up a litter, food, and water bowl in the bedroom. By the time we turned around he was nestled under our covers with his head on my pillow. When we joined him in bed, he curled up next to me and started nursing the sleeve of my nightgown. Well! To say my heart melted would be an understatement. She was no ordinary cat (but then what did I know about CATS?).
We pondered Maui’s line. Freddy, who kept Burmese cats in England before we met, knew he wasn’t “quite Burmese” but suspected he was “something like that”. So he went to the library (no internet back then) and researched different breeds. Focusing on Tonkinese, he set out to find an expert to talk to about the breed. Ergo, our now longtime friend, Joan Bernstein, entered our lives along with several of her kittens and cats. Joan, one of the first breeders of Tonkinese, was a driving force behind obtaining CFA (Cat Fanciers’ Association) approval for Tonkinese and founded the Tonkinese Breed Association (TBA) in 1979.
As it turns out, it’s no big surprise that a dog lover like myself would be drawn in by a Tonkinese cat. I soon learned that Tonkinese are known as “dog lovers’ cats”. An excerpt from the profile of the Tonkin breed describes them aptly:
These cats firmly believe that humans were put on Earth to love them; these are cats who know they belong. They will take hold of your lap and shoulder and monitor your activities. They are warm and loving, highly intelligent, with an incredible memory and radar-like senses… They will become your “door greeter” and will happily entertain your guests. Enthusiastic owners have described them as part puppy (they follow their owner around the house), part monkey (their ‘acrobatics’ are the stuff of legend!) and can sound like an elephant running through your house when they choose to. In short: they quickly take over and control your house and your life! Their affectionate ways cannot be ignored and they will quickly endear themselves to family and visitors.
When Freddy decided Mau needed a kindred companion, we went to visit Joan and came home with one of her kittens, whom we named MauTu (ok, so not very original). Mau couldn’t be bred because we didn’t have his CFA registration, but Freddy, who enjoyed breeding Burmese cats, wanted to have MauTu bred. We did it with one of Joan’s males.
What followed was a non-stop cascade of gorgeous Tonkinese kittens running through our house, climbing on our bed and knocking over the furniture. Augie, our golden retriever, was thrilled from the moment he first met Mau. When we introduced him to our first litter of kittens, he claimed them and all that came after as his own. Maude, the wonderful “therapy” cat we adopted from Joan, had a special bond with Augie. He rolled her over with his nose and paws and covered her entire head with his mouth until she finally emerged soaking wet and looking like a punk rocker with spiked hair.
Although Mau was my first Tonkin love, there were other bright stars. With her expert balance, MauTu deftly rode on Freddy’s shoulders during their daily ritual dance of the Windsor Stomp (not for the faint of heart) until her last day. Maude, who has a long history of providing therapy for the sick and disabled, brightened my mother’s days whenever I took her with me to visit Mom and other patients at her rehab center. After surviving a near-fatal inner ear infection, Orville walked compulsively in circles for years, which would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Winston became attached to me, or maybe it was the other way around, when I was at Joan’s for a few days. Joan knew true soul mates when she saw us together and packed Winnie off to live with me. He was our platinum version of the magical Mr. Mistoffelees. Possessing a mesmerizing aura, he innocently retreated from “AlfThe Rottweiler”, lured the eared rabbit and cockatoo into playing with him, and when he entered their territory, parted the other prides like the Red Sea. To this day I regret that I never saw Winston’s wonderful service on the crates. As he oh-so-carefully dug, scratched and covered, serenading us loudly but melodiously (think shower singing), he always made us burst out laughing.
Our foray into the world of domestic cats (“moggies” to the British) began when I was able to take her to treat a small semi-feral calico cat whose eye was injured in a trap. Since she would not be easy to handle, the local animal control officer advised me to take her to the nearby “Common Sense for Animals” shelter to be treated by their vet. As a result of an eye injury that required surgery, the vet said she lost her depth of vision and could no longer survive outside. As a result, she suddenly found herself living inside, with us. Later we were amused to see that once she was stored in our house, she never wanted to go out. When she saw the door open to the outside, she “ran, ran!” further into the house. “Been there, done that, better here.
That first trip to Common Sense for Animals was pivotal. It’s an excellent no-kill retreat in Broadway, NJ, but it’s a killer for softies like me. When you walk in, the cats are right in their cages. There is no separate office or waiting room. Very strategic. If you have any heart at all, you can’t leave without taking at least one of these home with you. And our little injured farm cat (we named her Chivers after the marmalade) required follow-up visits. You can guess what happened. On the first trip with Chivers, two paramedics came home with me. Then Freddy took Chivers back to get her stitches out and came home with 2 more, including an amputee we named Tripod (Pod). Then the vet, who knew a soft touch when he saw one, called Freddy and asked him if he might consider taking in Anton, a neurotic cat who had returned for the third time. Even though it was a no-kill shelter, there were rules, and when the cat came back a third time, the vet was supposed to euthanize it. He was clearly going to do anything to keep Anton alive. Freddy went downstairs and brought Anton home with him. We make a nice couple; Does anyone doubt after reading this fairy tale that we were made for each other?
Our last foundling came to us in the fall of 2003. I heard that a stray kitten was wandering in the forest. I made sure NOT to look for it. We have already gained 6 rescues in just a few days (Chivers the half-blind farm cat, a very wild brother and sister pair we named Tristan and Isolde, Tripod the amputee, her roommate Crystal and Anton the neurotic). I’m not completely crazy. I knew we had limits. But as fate would have it, the kitten I had been avoiding appeared on our patio one cold late November afternoon. She was dangerously thin. She would never survive the winter. I would trap her, take her to the vet, have her spayed, and find her a home. I applied this logic to Freddy, who agreed that the last thing we needed was another cat. He’s not completely crazy either. I gave her food. She jumped into my arms; no trap necessary. I took her to the vet. She started chirping like crazy, definitely a chirp, not a meow. Her name was Chirp. He has been living with us for 7 years. He is a pleasure.
So 19 years later we have 7 cats. We had 5 moggies last year. A more reasonable number, especially since they were split between 2 houses – 3 at our house in NJ and 2 at our Cape Cod Bed & Breakfast. But I still missed our Tonks, while Freddy thought he’d like the Burmese language again. Tonks are a natural breed with Burmese and Siamese characteristics. So, I thought Burmese would be “close enough”.
Enter Troilus and Cressida, our traditional Burmese sibling pair. Troy and Sid look very similar to our Tonks, but there are subtle differences in behavior. Tonks likes to float in the sky; Burmese not so much. Both breeds love to have guests, but while Tonks are essentially counselors, greeters and entertainers, Burmese are determined managers to oversee the party. Of course, the differences can be traced to the injection of Siamese genes that make the Tonkinese… well, Tonkinese. Recently, when I was looking for a word to describe what sets them apart, Joan Bernstein cleverly coined the word. “Edge,” she said. And of course she did it. Generally, Burmese do not have Tonkinese honors. Nor do the Tonkinese usually have Burmese managerial skills.
And then there are the EYES. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Tonkinese “minks” is their unique aqua eye color, a shade not specified in the standard for any other cat breed. (Both Joan and I have aquamarine eyes. What does that mean?) Burmese, on the other hand, are characterized by large, golden eyes. Both are irresistible in their effect.
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