Shelly lifted herself from her fetal posture. It’s after dawn and her hunger pains began to settle in. Her wide yellow eyes looked toward her companions who had not yet risen, but one of them was suspiciously moving around in bed. Though she had been awake for a while, Shelly extended her rump into the air, stretching herself as if her body were being pulled by invisible thread tugged at opposite ends. She walked onto the bed and lowered her nose onto her shuffling companion’s face. Just as she suspected, her companion was not fully asleep. Despite her companion’s eyes remaining closed, her shallow breaths and mouth movements were enough indication for Shelly to wake her up.
“Brrr…” Shelly spoke in a soft purr, still leaning over her companion’s face. The companion grunted and turned away. Shelly readjusted herself. This was part of the process every morning. Some mornings were more frustrating than others. Sometimes her companion didn’t stir out of bed until the sun was in the southern exposure of the house. By that time, Shelly would be starving and in a frenzy.
“Brr…” Shelly said again. She reached out her paw to stroke her companion’s shoulder. The companion grunted louder this time, apparently displeased from the feel of the paw.
Shelly lost patience.
“Meow,” she stated firmly. She only spoke this way with her two human companions. Other animals required different means of communication. Her companion unlocked her heavy lids and saw Shelly’s wide eyes making contact. Shelly’s face was multi-colored like that of a spiritually provocative impressionist painting, varying hues of black, brown, tan, and creamy clay—the face of raw Earth’s multi-layered crust. Her expansive owl eyes gave the impression that she brought urgent and important news. Perhaps she did, for there wasn’t anything more important at the time than abating hunger.
“Okay. Okay,” her companion grumbled. “I’m getting up. I’ll feed ya.”
Shelly leaped from the bed and ran into the kitchen, her tail firmly erect. “Meow! Meeoow! Mrr.” Shelly repeated over and over again as her companion dragged her feet slowly behind her. She retrieved a container of thawed chicken flesh that was simmered a week ago in millet, green peas, garlic, and sea salt. Shelly loves that meal.
Shelly’s demands became louder and louder as she smelled the cold but potent flesh. Her meows scolded to the level of insult in her companion. “Meow! Meow!” She swiped at her companion’s ankle, in a gesture of “move faster.” Her companion’s brows converged in a state of furious detestation. She stopped preparing the meal, stomped her feet, folded her arms in protest, and turned her back to Shelly. Shelly’s face grew confused and somewhat desperate. She didn’t understand why her companion got angry and stopped. Her companion knew that she was one of the few primary sources for Shelly’s regular meals. Why was she making her wait?
Shelly began to whine. “Reow…” Apparently, her companion didn’t want to hear her beg either. In fact, that just seemed to annoy her further. Her companion stomped her feet again, her back still facing Shelly. Shelly was completely flustered now and knew nothing more than to fall silent. Being silent during meal preparation made the meal come faster in the past, but sometimes she just felt too hungry to keep her enthusiasm contained. Besides, why should she? She rarely felt the need to contain her feelings. Most of the time, her companions encouraged that Shelly behave as herself around them. But every now and then, at unpredictable times like this, her companions expected something from her and stalled to give food in order to receive that something. During these times, she had no clue as to whay they were trying to tell her. All she knew was the discomfort, shame, and self-consciousness that resulted from those uncomfortable instances.
After a brief moment of silence, her companion finally turned around to face Shelly and placed the cold, fragrant food in front her. Shelly disregarded the discomfort in the silence and dug her face ravenously into the bowl.
This is a ritual that occurs a few mornings each month between Shelly and me. It’s one of the few times where we actually face a “conflict” or a lack of mutual understanding. Much of it stems from my refusal to accept her infantile behavior as an eight-year-old adult.
When I first met Shelly, she was in a cage with a tin litter box, small bowls containing soaked pellets and water, and a matted cushion to lie on. She was pleasant despite the living situation. I suppose it helped that she wasn’t surrounded by overwhelmed, traumatized humans who spent more time at their job killing animals than actually finding them places to live. My partner and I wanted to adopt a cat from the shelter because we thought that since we care so much about the plight of animals that we should bring an animal into our “home.” I say “home” because since Shelly has become our companion, we have not had a permanent home and live more as nomads than conventional families in America. That means all three of us face pressure to be flexible and more self-reliant. Since Shelly has made a permanent fixture into our lives, she has shown that she is comfortable living up to the challenge.
Before living with my partner and me, Shelly lived in a modern house with a middle class white Vermont family consisting of multiple cats. Like most cats in Shelly’s position, Shelly experienced the modern cat’s lifestyle: spayed, primarily indoors living, and overabundance in eating. When we decided to open our lives to Shelly, she had never bore or raised kittens (because she was spayed young), she never really spent time outdoors (because she was raised to be an “indoor cat”), and she was obese. Plus, during her earlier life, she experienced a traumatic experience with one of the cats in her house, a trauma that remains a mystery to my partner and me. As a result, Shelly has an irrational loathing of other cats, to the point of losing her senses upon seeing another cat and wanting nothing more than to chase the cat or kill him. But over the years, Shelly has lessened her violent behavior toward other cats, though she still doesn’t like them. She also engages more outside even though she still primarily spends her life indoors. Now that she eats real food, with real meat and real plants, she has developed a palate for eating grass, insects, and small mammals; songbirds find themselves safe in her presence because she does not chase them and would be too heavy and too slow if she tried. Additionally, she is very flexible in our moving from one place to another; she has become just as nomadic as we are.
Despite Shelly’s shift in lifestyle and attitude, she still possesses a worldview and maturity level that I tell myself that I cannot bear to swallow. She still behaves as though she is an infant being nurtured by her mother. Based on my experiences and observations, I feel very confident that Shelly does not view me as her mother, nor does she view my partner as her mother. But that does not stop her from using the same tactics she would with her mother on us, since we are her primary food-bringers. And those tactics make me feel extremely uncomfortable and unpredictably angry.
I always wonder if Shelly had not been deprived of her reproductive capabilities that she would behave more as an adult. It almost seems as if her maturity level remained fixed once her reproductive organs were removed. As a descendant of domestication and an object of institutional oppression, was her last remaining rite of passage into adulthood the biological ascension into motherhood? Is that the case for all domesticated animals, particularly female animals? I compare Shelly’s life and attitudes to those of two cats I knew and helped nurture. They were never neutered and upon reaching the age of two decided to leave our home. They chose to live feral and have since birthed a second generation of feral cats in my old neighborhood, making a living from eating rats, mice, squirrels, some songbirds, few herbaceous plants, and insects.
I can’t help but feel partly responsible and guilty for Shelly’s stunted maturity. It’s more than Shelly’s infantile behavior than it is the nature of infants in general. It’s difficult for me to accept the deep-seated fear I have for human infants, where I feel unexplained animosity toward the sight of them with their parents. Who would want to? To make matters more pathological, my animosity occurs in conjunction with my admiration and appreciation for children’s minds and spirits, mind you, children who have grown past the stage of infancy. I suspect this dysfunction on my part brings about dysfunction in my relationship with Shelly, as I do not want her to remind me of infants and I take extreme measures to see that she doesn’t. When I refuse to accept her infantile behavior and thus “discipline” her (when I enter this mode, I unconsciously stray from the mutually negotiated language Shelly and I formed over the years and place myself in an elevated status where I give a demand in my own speak and place pressure on her to obey even if she doesn’t understand it), I am inevitably reproducing her infant identity and behavior. Ironically, this reproduction results from my desire to view her as an adult and the two of us more or less equals. In the end, because of my insecurity and refusal to accept Shelly on her own terms, we both end up reverting back to conventional roles of “master/parent” and “pet,” where we are both self-conscious and unhappy and the nurturing space for Shelly’s self-determination and autonomy and our mutual affection and respect for each other become that much more threatened.