My private menagerie began one Spring day in 1991 when my then-secretary spotted a sadly-underfed cat foraging through my garbage
pails. Tracy immediately emptied my cupboard of canned tuna, fed the kitty, then ran out to buy a supply of proper cat food. From that
day forward, I fed the little charcoal-colored stray, whom we initially named Jack.
(How did we arrive at that moniker? Well, we were trying to think of what to call the cat when my phone rang, and Tracy said,
"Let's name him after whoever that is who's calling." The person calling was a fine writer-comedian named Jack Burns, so that was that...for a
while. We later realized we had the gender wrong, so we amended it to Jackie.)
For over twelve years, Jackie showed up once, sometimes twice a day to be fed. For about half that time, she defended her claimed
turf against all encroachments, chasing off every bird, every squirrel, every animal who ventured inside the fence. There were moments there, I
thought she was going to come after me. But she eventually became too secure, or perhaps too old, to be so territorial. As you've seen in
the My Backyard section, it's like a really cheap petting zoo out there now. Jackie began
allowing in possums, raccoons, rodents of all sizes...even other cats.
I never knew where Jackie lived, though I sometimes spotted her crossing a very dangerous boulevard to get here. I imagined her
making the rounds, calling on other homes where they knew her by other names, checking out what they were serving. If she didn't like the menu,
she'd head over here for "comfort food" — usually either Alpo canned meals or Friskies dry. For a time, I tried having her share my home,
but Jackie hated being an indoor cat, and the litter box I bought for her exuded an odor that Hans Blix would quickly identify as a Weapon of Mass
Destruction. So I finally gave up and returned her to the outside world where she clearly belonged.
But I took care of her. One night about eight years ago, a friend who tried petting Jackie found a huge swelling on the cat's
abdomen. We boxed Jackie up — which she liked about as much as you would have enjoyed being stuffed in an old file box — and drove
her over to one of those 24-hour pet hospitals on Sepulveda Boulevard, just south of Santa Monica. There are three or four there, which are
said to charge a small-to-medium fortune for emergency animal care. This turned out to be true. They drained an abscess and deduced that
Jackie had been spayed/neutered by a gross amateur who had done more harm than good. "If we do the rest of the repair here," they told me,
"it'll cost about the price of a new car." Instead, they recommended a fine, compassionate vet who could redo the incision for a more
reasonable fee. By a happy coincidence, the recommended vet turned out to be located on the same block on which I live. He was also nice
enough — since this was not technically "my" cat I was bringing him — to charge me half-price, which still ran $300. (The worst
part was that I had to keep Jackie inside for a few days of healing. She liked it even less, and the aroma was even worse.)
Until recently, Jackie was a happy pussycat and a regular part of my life. Every evening, and sometimes in the afternoon, she'd
turn up on the back porch. She'd eat. She'd patrol the yard. She'd eat some more. She'd drink from the pool. Sometimes,
she'd demand to come in, whereupon she'd walk around the kitchen for two minutes, rub her scent glands against all the cabinets, then insist on going
out. Every once in a while when I let her in, she'd make a bee-line for the living room where I have exact replicas of Paul Winchell's
ventriloquist dummies seated on a couch. I'd go in there and find her washing herself while sitting on Knucklehead's lap. She never much
liked being held by people...but Knucklehead was okay.
By now, you probably see where this is heading. The last two weeks or so, there was no sign of Jackie at the back door.
She'd occasionally missed a day or two in the past, but never a whole week. Since she was at least twelve years old, I had to accept that it
was over; that I probably wouldn't see her again. Yesterday afternoon, my maid noticed a foul smell emanating from my basement, and I guess I
knew what it was, but I had a brief moment of denial. I called my plumber, told him I thought I had a busted sewer line or something, and he
came right over...and told me I did not have a busted sewer line. What I had was a dead cat under my house.
I checked around outside. Every possible entrance under the structure seems sealed to me, so I don't know how Jackie managed to
crawl in there to die. Somehow though, she managed it.
It always strikes me as ludicrous when people try to project human thought processes onto animals; to presume they think like we
do. But at the moment, it seems oddly logical that Jackie's dying instincts led her to the place where they always took good care of her.
Maybe that's true, or maybe I'm just grasping for a comforting notion at a time of loss.
You know, at a moment like this, you tell yourself that it's just a cat, and that she had a longer, better life than most of them
do. You tell yourself that it's silly to get emotional about it. And I'm sure that, in a day or so, I'll be over whatever sadness I'm
feeling at the moment.
In the meantime, there was an ugly job to do. I'd told the plumber I could handle the removal, so he departed — but then I
discovered I wasn't up to the task. It wasn't that it was a dead cat. It was that it was that dead cat. I finally paged my
gardener and had him come over and put Jackie in a large trash bag out in the front courtyard. Later today, the "Dead Pet Removal" squad of the
Sanitation Department will come by and haul her off.
That may sound insensitive but I look at it this way: The average life of an outdoor cat is only three years. Jackie lived four
times as long just since Tracy found her. If I could last four times the average life span of an indoor human, they can stick me in a Hefty bag
and haul me off the same way.