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In the family we've always had at least one cat, and never more than three at once, since I was small. Now I'd find it hard to imagine life without one.
At present we have two tabby-and-white twin sisters. They were the last offspring of a cat belonging to friends and, after a lifetime of feline pregnancies, signed off with these two kittens on 16 April 1987. We had been promised them virtually from birth, as a replacement for our tortoiseshell and white of 18 who had died the previous summer.
We first saw them when they were a week old. Two small bundles of fluff, they made hardly a sound except for the odd muffled squeak, and were small enough to fit on my outstretched hand. We collected them when they were nearly two months old.
Within a few weeks we saw how different they were in character. Moth, named after two moth wing-shaped blotches on one side, is larger, more heavily-built, looks at us through half-closed eyes, and rapidly showed her love of being cuddled nearly all the time. Vicky, named after the Empress Frederick (Queen Victoria's eldest), has very similar markings, except for three symmetrical spots instead of 'moth wings', still looks like a little wide-eyed kitten, and for ages hated being picked up. She would decide when she wanted to be made a fuss of, thank you very much. Even now she demonstrates and gives great affection when she feels like it, but is still stubbornly independent and 'you-won't-catch-me' when the mood takes her. At the first sight of an unfamiliar face at the door, she will run and hide, while Moth will cautiously observe strangers from a safe distance - like the top of the kitchen cupboard.
When we brought them home, the sole animal occupant was Orlando, a red tabby tom aged nearly 7. (His instant reaction on seeing these two for the first time was to turn tail and hide in one of the bedrooms, the wimp). He had had an unsettled life for his first two years or so, until we got him from a cattery where he had been placed by a services family who had been posted overseas. His first few days with us were spent hardly venturing out of our airing cupboard - except when he heard the rattle of a Munchies box. Once he realised we weren't going to send him back to the cats' home from whence he came, he duly became a little less timid, and utterly devoted to us for the rest of his (nearly) 16 years.
It was a sad day when we took him to the vet after he had been off his food and getting progressively weaker over 48 hours. Nevertheless we took comfort in knowing that we had enjoyed 13 years of his companionship, and that he had had a full life. That was not the case with his predecessor Hercules, a small velvety-black tom. He 'adopted' us as a partly-grown kitten on our return from a summer holiday, dumped (we think) by persons unknown who didn't want to be bothered with him any more. Although we already had Sally, our tortoiseshell and white mentioned above, this little black fellow, named by us after an escaped pet bear in Scotland who had escaped from his family and was in the national news, bowled us over completely.
We had him for a little over two years when he went missing one night and was found the next day in a neighbour's field - his back legs caught in a snare, barely conscious and tragically beyond the stage of surgery. (A few weeks later, we read of a similar episode in the paper, where a cat recovered after treatment but the persons responsible for the snare were successfully prosecuted for cruelty; had we known, we would have taken the matter to court). Hence my father going out next day and returning with Orlando.
That is the down side. The up side, of course, is the love and affection cats give you. The fact that they generally know exactly which part of the newspaper you're reading, and promptly sit in the middle of it in order to gain attention, is neither here or there. Nor is the little matter of bringing in dead trophies to show off, or perhaps bring you what they regard as a present. We always made it plain we didn't approve of them catching birds, and they evidently took the hint.
Catching mice, however, has always been followed by praise. Moth once caught a weasel, which fought fiercely and bled copiously on the floor in our back porch before she proudly dispatched it. She has also been known to leave the occasional rat (thankfully deceased) on my bedroom floor. Not the best thing to wake up to on a cold wet Monday in November...
Hercules didn't always get this hunting lark sussed. He brought mice indoors without killing them, proudly showed them to us, then watched them scuttle away and looked at us sadly as if to say, 'I've done my share - can't you finish it off for me?'
They all have their little quirks. Orlando used to bend his head down and butt us affectionately with his forehead. Moth, who usually spends the night with me, sometimes sleeps on my shoulder, and washes my nose - yes, at 5 a.m. Don't grumble. It's called love.
We have always had our cats neutered, if they weren't already fixed by the time they came to us. Another important consideration - we've never lived in a house where the front or back door has opened directly on to a road. I'd find it difficult to live with the heartbreak of too many car casualties that way, and feel deeply for cat lovers who have suffered thus.
As for dogs - on occasion we have 'boarded' the odd one for a friend just for nights. We used to know a very placid, well-behaved golden retriever who belonged to friends and came to stay with us whenever they were away, and Moth and Vicky always made it plain that it was their house. Though about five times their size, he kept a respectful distance. I've seen the occasional strange dog lose his way and come into our garden by mistake - only to have his nose soundly bopped by one of our cats, and turn tail very fast indeed.
Cats can be expensive, especially when there are vets' bills or anti-flea treatments to pay for. They are greedy, self-centred, sometimes demanding, and sometimes moody. But I wouldn't be without one, at least, for a moment.