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Herding cats

February 02, 2018

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Right after Queso died, a kitten started showing up outside of our house, sleeping in the bushes beside the front step. Our existing stray seemed none too pleased, until, one day, he was too pleased. At that point, we took her to the vet to be spayed, knowing she would need to live in our house for the week it would take for her to recover.


It is probably obvious that she never left the house. I named her Jenny Schecter, after an L Word character you either love or hate, and some people, like myself, can find room to feel both ways at once. She is a poor, young, fledgling writer who finds her way to LA after getting a degree in fiction. She camps out in a garage-shed-thing behind her boyfriend’s house, wearing too much eyeliner, being oblivious to the needs of others, and reading esoteric works of not-quite-fiction, most of which I own. Which is to say that I related to Jenny Schecter, even if she did make a spectacular mess of everything.


Jenny the cat is still a kitten, so she’s spunky and playful and sometimes very annoying. Our oldest cat, MooMoo, primarily ignores her, but sometimes we will catch them sprinting around the house together in circles, playing. Our favorite cat (shhhh), Hiccup, has grown to love Jenny, too, sharing tight windowsills with her to watch birds, or even, in full trust, to sleep. But Niko, the third-wheel cat, who is now a fourth-wheel cat, is very unhappy.


He was close to Queso and is likely grieving the loss of his silent, gentle best friend, but in truth he’s always been a jerk. He has been known to bite both MooMoo and Hiccup for no reason, even mid-grooming session. Sometimes we hear the struggle, but sometimes there is just a confetti of cat hair across the floor where the attack took place, and we just know. The other cats are docile. It is just Niko who can’t play nicely.


He has become particularly violent since Jenny Schecter entered the household. He hunts her, crawling on his belly across the floor with a terrifying look in his eye, his teeth bared. He looks more like a big cat of Africa than any domesticated cat I’ve ever known, and I find him to be so striking, but to see the hunter-prey dynamic played out between our pets is tragic.


When Niko is awake, Jenny is typically sequestered to a few spots in the house with excellent visibility, always vigilant for fear of an attack. All three other cats will be basking in the sunshine in our bedroom and poor Jenny is stuck on the shelf beneath the kitchen island, where there are multiple points of egress from the room, and she can see each of them from where she sits.


We bought calming pheromone diffusers that plug into the wall, and they seemed to be working for a short time, so we purchased more of them, to have them scattered across the house. Niko seems to have become immune to them, though, and there are terrible skirmishes wherein Jenny screams like a dying thing, and Niko yowls like the predator he is. Jenny comes away with a spine wet with spit, small scabs along her back, breathing hard and wild-eyed in self-protection. Niko gets swooped up by the back of his neck and tossed into isolation until, when we let him out, he appears not to remember what happened.


But Jenny remembers, and her inability to be calm, to relax, to join the herd, breaks my heart. Sometimes she is so afraid she wets herself, and sometimes, she is so spooked she won’t let us near her, either. The sounds she makes are terrifying. Hiccup has begun to get involved, too, running to Jenny’s rescue, so now we have three cats sounding like out-of-tune violins hurtling around the house trying to hurt one another.


We are exhausted and unclear of how to proceed. Positive reinforcement is good for all of us: it makes me less angry with Niko to pet and talk to him, to witness his affection in the good moments. However, it makes me all the more angry when he snaps, that we did so much coddling for seemingly no result.


The vet says we could separate the cats for good, but our house isn’t really large enough, and our lives aren’t really organized in a way in which that could happen without one animal feeling at least slightly neglected. We can try antidepressants for Niko, but it is hard to get a peaceful cat to take the bitter substance, much less a violent one. When we try to intervene pre- or mid-attack, Niko does not hesitate to bite and scratch us, too.


The last option is rehoming one of the animals, and while it would seem we’d be finding somewhere for Jenny, because she is the newest to the house, it’s just not an option.


She is the only animal in the house whose presence is a result of my love, my wish. The other three cats were all, in their own ways, brought into Nikki’s life by the Ex-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but Jenny is a creature I trained to come to me, to let me pet her elastic spine, to let me cup my hand around her bizarre, electric question mark of a tail. She is my cat and she is going nowhere.


No one is going anywhere. Day by day, they will have to learn to coexist, just like humans. Though the news lately has demonstrated we’re no good at it either, it’s just the way the pack works: beings sophisticated enough to have personalities are bound to find fault with others. Hopefully, both indoor and outdoor conflicts will involve minimal bloodshed. 


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