Henrietta My One-Eyed Cat
So the other night, I watched the movie Seabiscuit, which, in case you don't know, is the true story of this champion race horse.
And I couldn't help thinking, as I watched, how much Seabiscuit, a problem horse whose owners at times despaired of him, reminded me of my cat, Henrietta, a problem cat whose owners sometimes despair of her.
Don't get me wrong. I love Henrietta with all the fiber of my being. If there were a fire in my building, Henrietta would be the first thing I'd grab.
My husband and I disagree about many things—the therapeutic benefits of the show Charmed, for instance. But fortunately we both agree on Henrietta: She is the best thing in our lives—a little angel who fell down from heaven to be with us.
The only problem is that we're the only people on the planet who've met Henrietta who feel that way about her.
Henrietta didn't have a very good start in life. I got her from a woman, Gigi, who'd found her, along with the rest of her litter, abandoned in an alley in Brooklyn. The reason I went for an alley cat, instead of a cat from the ASPCA or Bide-a-Wee or whatever, is that my husband insisted he wanted a calico cat. And calico cats, for some reason, were in short supply in the Tri-State area at that time.
So I put out an alert to all of my friends: If you hear of a calico kitten, let me know.
Sure enough, a friend knew of a neighbor who had found a litter of kittens (Gigi), one of which was a calico.
OK, first thing: Henrietta is not a calico. She is a tortoiseshell. Here is what the vet said in an unenthusiastic voice when I first brought Henrietta in: “Oh. A tortoiseshell.”
Why? Because tortoiseshell cats, though revered in some cultures (ancient Celtics believed tortoiseshell cats brought good luck; Japanese fishermen used them as ship cats to ward off ghosts) can be, in actuality, “difficult.”
I didn't know all of this the day I heard about Henrietta. All I knew was that
all of the kittens from the litter Gigi found were really sick, with infections in their eyes. Henrietta was the least badly affected of her brothers and sisters…she still had one good eye left.
And yet when I got to Gigi's, Henrietta was the only kitten she hadn't managed to give away. People had chosen completely BLIND cats over Henrietta.
Perhaps they knew what my vet knew.
Recently, my friend Beth (the owner of Fat Henry, on whom Mia's cat Fat Louie is based) revealed to me that when she and I walked into Gigi's house (I took Beth with me because my husband was stuck at work) Beth took one look at Henrietta and thought, “That cat is going to be dead by the end of the week. If she's not dead now.”
Henrietta didn't move or even utter a sound the whole subway ride home. When my husband came home and finally saw her, he had to poke her to make sure she wasn't dead. She did look kind of dead.
I didn't know what to do about my new dead kitten. I thought maybe she was hungry. There'd been three huge dogs at Gigi's house, so maybe Henrietta had never gotten a proper meal.
So I opened a container of Sheba and put it on a plate and set it front of her. The slab of Sheba was almost as big as Henrietta was.
At first she showed no interest. She just lay there, kind of dead.
Then she must have gotten a sniff of salmon pate. Since she sat up.
And then ate the whole thing in about two minutes. I've still never seen anything that small put away something that big.
And then, to our very great surprise, this tiny, almost comatose kitten stretched, turned around, saw my new sheer curtains, and immediately began to climb them.
“Why can't you ever bring home a normal pet?” my husband wanted to know.
Henrietta quickly proved to be a problem cat. Maybe it's genetic. Maybe it's her one eye. Maybe it's the tortoiseshell thing. But from the beginning, Henrietta was just…weird.
She likes to collect things. Her primary loves are paper clips and bottle caps—anything sparkly. She used to keep these things in a little pile beneath bed. Not that we were allowed near it. If we so much as looked like we might be about to go under the bed for a suitcase or whatever, Henrietta would puff out to ten times her normal size, hiss, and stalk around the bedclothes, growling menacingly, to try to keep us away.
This was charming when she was little. But as she grew larger, if anyone happened to come to my apartment and see her do her “Bed Dance”, they'd often ask, “Um…what's wrong with your cat?”
The last straw was when my wedding ring disappeared. I tore the apartment apart looking for it, then realized there was only one place it could have gone.
But when I moved the bed to get it back, I was confronted by the strangest sight I have ever seen. If you can imagine a Ninja in cat form, that is what I saw in front of me. Henrietta, who had previously only made threatening noises and puffed her fur out a lot during the “Bed Dance,” was now walking menacingly towards me ON HER HIND LEGS, her front claws raised to gouge my eyes out.
I thought she'd get over it. I really did. I mean, she's a CAT. How long would she remember the day I ransacked her treasure chest?
For THREE MONTHS after that, every time she saw me, Henrietta turned into Ninja cat again, puffing out, growling, and walking on her hind legs. One day while cornered in the kitchen, I called my vet, and asked them what you're supposed to do when your cat is really a Ninja in disguise and is TRYING TO KILL YOU.
“This is the tortoiseshell?” my vet asked, with a sigh. “Yeah. They do that.”
The vet suggested an animal therapist be sent to study Henrietta and suggest treatment. For $170/hr. I didn't have $170/hr to give to an animal therapist. I was living in a studio apartment, for crying out loud!
So I launched my own line of therapy:
I didn't touch Henrietta's stuff anymore. I bought her a nice, comfy bed for my closet, since that seems to be her preferred sleep spot (on top of my suede boots). I spent hours experimenting with treats with which I tried to lure her into petting distance to prove I wasn't all bad. And I kept plenty of containers of catnip all around the apartment to hurl at her in emergencies.
It's seemed to work—at least in so far as she isn't trying to kill me anymore. In fact, she finally seems to have forgotten all about my betrayal, and will now allow me to touch—and even carry–her. She usually purrs when I do so. She likes to curl up under the duvet when I'm writing, sleeping on my feet.
She loves my husband, too, and will, when he points at her, roll over and squirm in delight.
Yes. Like a dog.
That is not Henrietta's only doglike trait. When Henrietta hears activity in the hallway outside our apartment, she runs to the door, growling. If anyone—no matter how long she's known them, or how many times they've fed her–who is not myself or my husband enters our apartment, she goes Ninja cat on them.
This was a particular problem when a landlord wanted to show the studio apartment we were moving out of. Henrietta would not allow the realtor or the prospective tenants move freely through the apartment. I would be out shopping and get a frantic phone call on my cell from the realtor—“Your cat has us all trapped in the kitchen and won't let us out”—and I would have to run home, grab Ninja Henrietta off her hind legs, stuff in her pet carrier, and take her back to Bloomingdales with me (Henrietta seems to like Bloomingdales).
The truth is,
as much as I love her just the way she is, Henrietta really is a Problem Cat, much like Seabiscuit was a problem horse.
Henrietta, however, will not be winning any races.
I've discussed her condition with many vets. Would getting another cat help? What about a dog? The consensus, sadly, is that tortoiseshells often get worse, not better, when another animal is introduced into the household.
The best I can do is enjoy Henrietta the way she is, relishing in the fact that I own such an unusual pet.
Still, when we start going down to Key West, Henrietta will be facing her first plane ride—in the cabin with me, of course…I would never put her under the plane—and I can't help thinking about what might happen if she should escape from her carrier during the flight. What if she start swandering down the aisle on her hind legs, waving her front claws Ninja style? Can you imagine the horrified looks I'll receive from the other passengers?
And what if there's an air marshal on board? He might conceivably shoot her. I mean, really, in her own way, Henrietta is a dangerous weapon….
I just hope they'll let her through security.