When I think back to some of the happiest moments of my life, I think of the midnight walks I would take on our beach in Auckland, New Zealand. Our house, surrounded by sea and subtropical rain forest, was only fifteen minutes from downtown, but it could have been hundreds of miles. There was no road down to our community of ten houses, and therefore no cars: you had to walk through a forest to get there. When we found this patch of land, my first thought was: This is an ideal place for cats. We lived with five cats and our dog, Benjy (about whom I wrote The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving), and the greatest thrill for the cats was to wait until there was nobody out, when I would take Benjy for his last walk along the beach. It was especially wonderful on full-moon nights, the waves gently lapping the shores and bioluminescent fish creatures lighting up the sea. The five cats—Yossie, Minna, Miki, Moko, and Megala—thought it was enormous fun to race ahead, hide behind a sand dune, and then jump out and ambush Benjy, who always played along by pretending to be totally surprised and freaked out: he would race along the beach into the warm ocean, the five cats chasing behind him. They loved it. He loved it. I loved it. We would walk to a stand of pohutukawa trees, giant flame-red
trees hundreds of years old that thrived near seawater, and the cats would race up the branches, high into the trees, far above the water, and then start meowing piteously, as if they could not possibly get down. I would come to investigate, pretending to begin climbing the trees, and then they would race down the trunk and leap onto the sand. They were ecstatic. Then all seven of us would stand quietly by the shore, gazing out at the small offshore island, and I knew that the peace that I felt was felt by the six animals as well. Such a sense of all being right with the world, even when, as right now, all is not all well with the world. At those moments of intense happiness for me I could see what people meant by the cliché of animals living in the moment, not preoccupied with what had come, or what would come, but just enjoying that moment of glorious peace.
But at the same time I knew there was another reason that gave me intense happiness: the knowledge that the cats, the dog, and I were all enjoying something together and in a similar way. It was interspecies understanding: we all were enjoying the moment more because we were enjoying it together. I realized then something about cats that I knew made them different from their sometime bad reputation for being aloof and standoffish. I felt this so strongly that I knew I had to write about the complicated and deep emotional lives of cats, and eventually I did. I called the book, a little bit cornily (most of my titles were corny!): The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats. You had to enter their world instead of forcing them into ours. This was something I first learned when I read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book The Hidden Life of Dogs. Every animal has a hidden life, and to discover it you must be willing to live life on their terms instead of the other way around.
Reading Britt Collins’s wonderful account of Michael King and Tabor, the injured stray he rescued on the streets of Port
land, made me realize that this is exactly what happened: both cat and human decided to live the life of the other. This makes for a peculiar bond, one that perhaps cannot be had in any other way. As Michael learns the ways of the cat, he feels a sense of purpose caring for someone else and opens his heart in ways he hadn’t before. Moreover, the intimacy and intensity of their life on the road is something else that allows you to know an animal in a way that simply sharing your house with them does not. (Perhaps unfairly, I feel that confining a cat to an indoor life is depriving them of the ability to truly be a cat, even though I recognize that statistics show they will live much longer inside than outside.) Michael and Tabor rarely spent time apart and slept together every night for almost a year while traveling across the American West. Bliss for cat and for man. And by the way, I recommend anybody who lives with a cat in their house to share their bed with them. Sleeping with cats is surely one of life’s great joys. It can be tricky: I slept for years with my cat Megala (not to mention Leila, my wife, who was such a good sport that she allowed herself to lose her allergy to cats by extreme exposure), and on cold nights he would slip under the covers, stretch out his little body next to mine, and purr loudly until he fell asleep (I have claimed this discovery for myself: cats only purr when there is a living being near them, not on their own, but my discovery may be false, as many of my readers have written to me explaining they have seen examples of cats purring when nobody was present). The great writer Doris Lessing, surely more knowledgeable about cats than I, told me so, and then nonetheless graciously reviewed my book for the Guardian, omitting to mention that and other possible errors, because she so admired my passion for cats. But I digress: the reason it was tricky was that every once in a while I would do something to annoy Megala (no idea what it was—perhaps I moved in the
wrong way), and Megala would punish me with a swift bite of my leg. It hurt. My feelings were hurt, too, and I would banish him from our bed. He would leave in a huff. But an hour later he would return, and how could I not relent, knowing the pleasure that awaited me. This happened at least two or three times every night, and Leila marveled that I did not decide against allowing him to sleep with us altogether. But who could resist the soft fur (Megala was a Bengal and looked and behaved like a small leopard), the stretched-out body, the purr of pure pleasure?
Can you love a cat and not be changed? I would think not. I adore dogs, too, and have written much about them (including Dogs Never Lie About Love—another corny but true title), but there is this important difference: dogs don’t need to let you enter their world. We already live with dogs in the same world. Not so with cats. I maintain that cats were never truly domesticated. They just deigned, for reasons of their own, to move in with us. But when they allow you to enter their world, you are suddenly in a different realm. The reason we think of cats as mysterious is that in fact they are mysterious, and once they permit you a glance into their mysterious world, you are forever changed. You might not be able to say how, you might not even realize it has happened, but it has. Michael felt the full force of this, in giving up the person (yes, a cat is a person, for sure—a being with a full personality, and the subject of a life, as the great animal-rights writer Tom Regan reminded us so well in his many seminal books) he had perhaps loved most deeply and unconditionally, and found a fuller purpose to his life as well. Like the Ancient Mariner, Michael learned to care about the helpless, the vulnerable, those less fortunate than ourselves, while he was down-and-out, and to help them just as this little lost cat he named Tabor helped him. By entering Tabor’s world, he was able to see what before he could not take in.
What I especially loved about Strays, or rather, about the real-life adventures of Michael and Tabor on the road, was seeing how cats and humans alike crave adventure and how they come alive when faced with dangers most of us never have to face. As the pair hitchhiked for thousands of miles, there were times when I wondered how they could be so trusting of anyone who offered them a ride, even hitching a lift with a guy covered in tattoos and guns in a red state after spending a week stranded in the stifling summer heat. More surprising were the unexpected acts of kindness that awaited them seemingly at every turn, helping them to survive raging snowstorms, fanatical evangelists, hungry bears and coyotes, and stampeding cattle.
Perhaps this self-possessed, lovable cat with a drifter’s spirit was exactly what Michael needed as much as she needed his care and protection. But before their road trip ends, Michael is transformed. How else could he have done the right thing and returned her to her first home? To read how Ron Buss, the cat’s original guardian, grew and remained for nearly a year desperate at her disappearance and how her littermate Creto waited for her on the porch every night made the true story all that much more compelling. Speaking of compelling, the story itself is written in such a way and in detail so lush that you feel you are there as it all takes place. Everything is vividly observed: the grass, the trees, the smell of the sea, the quality of the light, the shifting moods and emotions of Michael and Tabor of roughing it and being on the road. And yet Britt Collins, the author, is delightfully self-effacing. No small achievement. Returning Tabor back to her original home in Portland was perhaps the hardest thing Michael had ever done, but letting go of what you love was the deepest lesson he had learned from Tabor and now he put it in practice. While Michael’s struggles and sorrows are not magically fixed by adopting a stray, I am sure that Tabor turned out
to be his salvation, literally: he was on a path of destruction—drinking himself to death until she brought calm and purpose to his day-to-day existence.
I am deeply impressed with how hard Britt has worked to capture this warm, witty, absorbing story in all its color and complexity, giving an insightful glimpse of the vulnerability and hardships of life on the streets for both man and feline. How much passion and love of truth she has brought to this task, for its own sake. Or should I say, for the sake of Tabor and other cats. For every page makes it clear that Britt understands and loves cats in the best possible way: she allows them to be cats. Almost everybody who lives with a cat loves cats. How can we not feel strangely blessed that these wild creatures are willing to live with us, however briefly (alas, too briefly)? But only now, it would seem, are we more inclined to allow them to be what nature designed them to be.
It would seem the world is just beginning to show a deep love of cats: how else to explain the sudden explosion of interest in all things cat? Books like this one, movies, TV shows, Internet memes, cat-obsessed social media, feline superstars (Grumpy Cat, Bob, and all), and the endless videos of cats and kittens of every size, color, and circumstance doing crazy things. My wife, Leila, insists that if I could, I would happily spend all day simply watching them. (There are worse ways to spend a life.) This is no fad, I am sure; it is the world catching up with the reality of cats: They accept us. They love us. Lucky us. For those of us who love them, the reward is immense, for with no other animal is it easier and more enchanting to cross the species barrier than with cats.
JEFFREY MOUSSAIEFF MASSON
DECEMBER 28, 2016