We lost our 18-year-old cat Miss P a couple of months ago. It was a very sad time around here. But I still think I see her shadow out of the corner of my eye from time to time. Two months later I’m pretty sure some of the pet hair I see on my coat is hers. And I will always have the things she taught me in our time together.
There are many lessons one learns from living with a cat. Notice that I say “living with a cat” and not something ridiculous such as “having a cat” or—most preposterous of all—“owning a cat.”
You cannot own a cat. A cat may consent to live in your house as long as you keep the Deli Cat and tuna treats flowing. It helps also if you have a sunny window and some fine newly upholstered furniture to shred when they’re in the mood. But you can no more “own” a cat than you can own the air. Cats will be where they will be. Even captive house cats cannot be told to “be” on the floor rather than on the guest bed silk duvet cover. Try explaining rules to a cat and see where it gets you.
One of the most important lessons I learned from Miss P is to ignore people who speak harshly or say mean things. Internet trolls certainly fall into this category. So do people who work at the DMV. And some elderly relatives whose social filters are breaking down.
Try saying something mean to a cat and see how she reacts.
“Gosh, Miss P! Your litter box smells like a third world outhouse! What have you been eating?”
“Good grief, Miss P! I don’t need another dead mouse! I haven’t eaten the last one you gave me!”
A cat will look at you with sleepy eyes, delicately lick a front paw and go back to shredding the taffeta chaise. It would no more occur to a cat to feel hurt or shame than it would for her to take up square dancing or collect Hummel figurines.
Oh, you might be thinking something all logical right now, such as “But cats don’t speak English.”
Dogs don’t speak English either—or at least not fluently—and you can make a dog feel hurt or ashamed without even trying. Dogs have very delicate feelings. Use a harsh tone of voice with a dog and it can completely ruin her naturally jovial mood.
If I snap, “Darn it, Sophie! Did you send that fart cloud over here?” Sophie won’t even be able to look at me. She will hang her head in shame, tuck her tail between her legs and blink her eyes in abject apology. Sophie is obviously crushed that you would speak to her in such an unfriendly manner.
It occurred to me one day when I was observing Miss P that I could take a lesson from her.
I was having a particularly bad morning because of a snippy email from a client. It didn’t even make sense that I should be upset. I already knew that this client was notoriously tone deaf to how her email communications came across. Other people had mentioned how surprised they were at this peculiar aspect of her character. In person she is a delightful and warm human being. She will give you a hug if you haven’t seen her in a while. She always remembers your kid’s name and asks after him. She is always the first to thank you for a job well done.
But give that woman an email account and she has all the subtlety of Chris Christie responding to a heckler. Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to send emails.
Anyway, I was feeling injured and questioning whether this client even really liked me anymore when Miss P sauntered through the room. You know that wonderful cat saunter? It’s completely noiseless and unhurried, with the front feet planted carefully one in front of the other and the back hips rolling in sync. It’s like a small lion, but with more silk.
It occurred to me then that I could channel my inner Miss P. I could look at the irritable email, blink and go back to shredding the antique chaise. I could saunter over to the sunny spot on the couch and just rest my eyes and absorb the warmth. Or I could at least not let that poorly worded email launch me toward the cookie jar.
In my mind I know that an email from a tone deaf emailer doesn’t mean that I am worth less as a human being. I know it doesn’t mean that my work is lousy, that I’m horribly lazy, that I should just hang up my hat on my career and try a new profession as a manicurist. Or maybe give real estate or multi-level marketing a whirl. Logically I know that nothing about me has changed in the 10 minutes since I read the email. But it feels like it does.
Shame is a powerful emotion. I think that we all walk around in life with a bubble of bad feelings hidden deep inside. It’s so easy for someone to take their sharp words and put a little nick in the delicate, stretched membrane of that bubble so that the bad feelings begin to seep out, little by little, working as a corrosive on our self-esteem.
Cats don’t have this bad feeling bubble inside. They were all born bad-bubble deficient. As a result, cats never feel shame because they really don’t give a damn what you think or say. Yell at a cat to get off the kitchen counter and she might jump down. But if she does, she’ll act as if jumping down were the plan all along.
Cats don’t do shame. They do pride. They are supremely self-confident in their cathood. Nothing you can say will make them feel differently about themselves.
Now, thanks to Miss P’s lessons, when I am feeling particularly vulnerable or injured, I pull on my Miss P-like personality. I am confident and self-assured like a cat. Like Miss P.
The story I’m about to tell may make you think differently about me. I feel differently about myself.
It started this past spring. To fill out my coop I ordered six female chicks from My Pet Chicken—two Appenzeller Spitzhaubens and four Polish chicks.
If you’ve never ordered chicks before, you may be surprised to learn that you can order a wide variety of chick breeds online and have them delivered right to your local post office for pickup. Aside from breed and quantity, you have two options in ordering. You can order straight run chicks, which means you take your chances with sex and will probably get a mix of male and female chicks. You can also pay a little bit extra and order sexed chicks, so that you get females.
Anyway, I digress, but this is important background, as you’ll see.
The chicks arrived and thrived. It wasn’t long, however, before I began to suspect that one of the chicks was never going to grow up to be an egg-laying hen. That was an unplanned rooster.
Roosterly behavior begins quite early. Male chicks no bigger than a grapefruit will begin challenging other chicks with shoves and chest thumps. By the time they reach the size of a small cabbage, they are trumpeting their magnificence to the world, beginning with hoarse, strangled sounding vocalizations. Their general attitude of arrogance and entitlement grows until they begin trying to figure out the whole barnyard sex thing.
I generally wait to see how chickens look and act before naming them because I think the name should describe the chicken. So, for example, my pretty, round white Wyandotte is named Pearl. The creamy, caramel and chocolate Polish hen is named Twix. (You know, the candy bar?) The two Appenzeller Spitzhaubens seem to be tethered together as they cruise around the yard. They are Thelma and Louise.
And the rooster? Well, I named him Little Man because he reminds me of some diminutive men I have known who over-compensate for what they lack in stature with outsized attitudes.
When it comes to roosters, I like to think I have an open mind. I’ll give a rooster a chance to prove himself and pull his weight around the coop. My husband, on the other hand, has decided that all roosters are little sadists just waiting to rape, pillage and eventually come after me with their spurs when I am not looking. He began talking about the final solution.
“Give it some time,” I told him. T. Boone Chickens and Johnny Cash were were roosters and two of the finest chickens I have ever met—not overly rough with the hens and standing tall and alert to the sky while the hens were head-down pecking and scratching on walkabout.
On the other hand, Ricky Ricardo was a particularly wicked rooster. Good riddance to that bad boy.
What is it about nasty roosters that they tend to pick on one hen, in particular? Ricky Ricardo had it out for Tina Turner and Little Man hated Dorothy with a passion.
Poor Dorothy could never rest and could hardly eat. Little Man was always chasing her, mounting her, pecking at her and generally making her life miserable. She had lost a considerable number of feathers from his attacks. She had become nervous and twitchy.
I felt so sad for Dorothy. She is not a particularly pretty hen. She has a kind of undistinguished brown and white coat and the kind of facial feathers that resemble a fake Halloween beard. But Dorothy has spunk, I tell you. She is always the first hen to see when I am walking toward the coop with leftover pizza in my hands. Dorothy lives for pizza. She is also the hen who would most like to see the world. Chickens never stray far from their coop when on walkabout, but Dorothy always walks up the hilly driveway as far as she dares to go. I often imagine she is thinking, “I wonder what’s over that mountain. I will go there someday and see for myself!”
Sadly, I eventually came around to Harry’s way of thinking. Little Man had no place in our coop.
Now, getting rid of a rooster is a problem. You can’t hope they’ll run away from home because they never leave the yard. And you can’t give away a rooster. I have seen many ads on Craig’s List for free roosters and no one seems to be taking those ads down. People will go to some lengths to re-home a rooster. I once saw a huge roadside sign that said “FREE ROOSTER!” (Aside: I shared the photo on Twitter and one quick-witted follower fired back, “Who is Rooster and why is he incarcerated?”)
I decided to consult with my very experienced and skilled chicken-keeping neighbor V. V is a no nonsense person. She is not overly sentimental about what needs to be done with bad roosters and has become skilled at the task. If I needed to get rid of Little Man, I could do it myself or she would help. She described to me the method she researched and found most effective—a broom handle over the back of the neck and a quick snatch of the head backward.
I did what I normally do in these types of uncomfortable situations. I procrastinated. I kept thinking that the situation would resolve itself. Maybe one of the people I had asked would miraculously decide to take Little Man into their coop. Maybe Little Man would get religion and become a kinder, gentler Little Man. Maybe the Circle of Life would claim him early through disease, injury or stalking predator.
This did not prove to be an effective strategy. Day after day Little Man continued to torment Dorothy.
Finally, one afternoon Little Man pushed Dorothy—and me—just a little too far. I decided that was his final day.
I took the first step. I went into the house and had a glass of wine. Liquid courage.
I took some deep breaths. I put on my Little Man killing gloves and marched out into the yard with my broom. I could almost hear doomsday music playing in my head. I cornered that little tyrant in the coop. He was vocalizing and fighting like, well, I was trying to kill him.
I wasted no time. I took mean Little Man outside. “Okay, you. I’ve had enough of you!” I flattened nasty Little Man on the ground. “You do NOT, repeat do NOT mess with my hens.” (I was really working up a head of steam now.) I put the broom handle over horrid Little Man’s head. “This will teach you a lesson!” I yanked his despicable Little Man head back with a forceful jerk. He went completely limp.
“That’s it,” I thought looking down at my gloved hands. “I have killed with my own hands. Premeditated.”
I put down the broom, with Little Man at my feet. I stood up to meditate on what my fury had wrought…and Little Man jumped up and raced into the woods! He wasn’t dead!
Now I not only had a mean rooster, I had a mad mean rooster.
Time to call in the Special Forces. I called my neighbor V. Very calmly she offered to help.
“But I don’t believe in wasting perfectly good chickens. I can bring him home for dinner.”
She didn’t mean as a guest.
She was here within five minutes. I explained the ridiculous results of how I had tried to do the deed.
“That sounds like the first time I butchered a turkey in my basement.”
(Note to self: Do not mess with V.)
By this time Little Man had made it back to his torture Dorothy location.
V headed toward the coop. I noticed she wasn’t wearing gloves, so I offered mine. She took them, but I got the feeling that she was humoring me.
In no time flat V had snatched up that rooster, held him by his feet, slapped him on the ground, put the broom over his neck and sent him to rooster heaven (or hell). The end.
To reinforce her point about waste, I noticed that V had brought her own garbage bag to put Little Man in. Really, she could have just carried him home by his feet. But I suppose the spectacle of her walking down the road swinging a dead rooster by the feet was too much even for V.
So there it is. The story of how I tried to kill Little Man and failed—and then called in a trained professional for the job.
It’s not how I saw myself behaving when I began keeping pet chickens several years ago. I am still sentimental about them. I give them special treats to keep them happy and extra special treats on holidays. I give them names and mourn when a good hen passes. We bury hens that get sick and die. I have been known to cry over a chicken.
But now I know when to say “enough is enough.” I know when to protect the good chickens from a bad chicken. And now I know how to do it.
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