In my senior year in college I lived in a townhouse that had a large, sliding glass door in the kitchen. One day, I noticed a cat peering in through the glass and I let him in. As my long-suffering husband now knows, if there is an animal outside waiting to come in, I will let it in. I also fed the cat, but that probably goes without saying.
My roommates and I named him Dorian, because, as you may have already guessed, he was gray.
Anyone who has ever fed a stray cat knows where the story goes next: Dorian kept coming back.
Except Dorian never returned to the sliding glass door empty handed. Each morning after a night on the prowl he’d return with a dead mouse, frog or vole that he’d deposit by my bed. I know I’m not the only person in the world who has been a recipient of such gifts from a cat, but I was deeply touched. Disgusted, but touched.
Dorian was not the only cat to surprise me. My high school boyfriend had a Himalayan cat who was the product of severe inbreeding. We’ve all known cats we suspect could do calculus, but not this cat. She’d been the sole survivor of her litter and her littermates were not the only casualties of the inbreeding. What I’m saying is, this was not a smart cat.
She had a chronic medical condition requiring daily pills that my boyfriend’s family dutifully dispensed. It was not until many weeks later when they discovered a cache of pills in a dark corner of the basement that they realized they’d all been outsmarted by what they’d thought was their special-needs pet. I revised my opinion of her after that.
Scientists tell us that we love cats because they are good for us. Studies have shown that when we spend time with cats our brains are flooded with feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which help reduce stress and improve immune functioning. A 10-year study showed that people who owned cats were less likely to die from a heart attack than their non-cat-owning peers. Interacting with a cat also promotes production of oxytocin, which induces feelings of optimism, trust and intimacy, and builds self-esteem.
What I’ve always felt, however, is that we love cats because of their wildness. I love dogs, too (I am the head-over-heels-in-love owner of a rescued Great Pyrenees called Stella), but dogs have completely bought into domesticated life. Despite our attempts to tame them, cats have retained their wildness, and their antics – whether they’re depositing rodents on the living room rug when company is over, or duping their “smarter” human counterparts – amuse, entertain and charm us. We love cats precisely because they are cats: there is nothing any human being can do to mold, funnel, channel, or adjust a cat’s behavior to her liking.
Wild as they are, they are not without their own sense of propriety. Dorian, like any good dinner guest bearing a bottle of wine or bouquet of flowers for his host, was unwilling to show up at my door empty handed. I supposed his “gifts” for me were an expression of appreciation for the juicy supper in a can he knew I’d provide, or the petting and cuddles he knew he’d receive after.
Oh Dorian. I'd hoped you knew. The gift, my dear friend, was you.