Monday, April 28, 2014

A boy and his cat

Jackson is not pleased with Ellington lying on the train tracks.
Blood. Tears. Mayhem. That's how it would end.

They were across the room. I could see Jack's windup. He wasn't moving in slow-motion life's not a genre of fanboy stylized violence, like a Tarantino film but in real time. Even if I had foreseen the danger, I'm not fast enough to stop a blow from 30 feet away.

He's two. He possesses neither impulse control, nor judgment, nor proportion. Although he is learning the rules of life, of civility, gentleness, kindness, affection, consequences, he's not mastered any of them. (Do any of us?) This tabula rasa has only faint etchings.

We draw boundaries and Jack scribbles right over them. It's not that he's naughty; he's quite well-behaved, for a toddler. But most lessons are absorbed by doing and experiencing.

Caution him against standing on the edge of the couch? He won't believe you until he slips off.

Warn him of the dangers of sipping Mommy's extra hot tea? He'll taste it to see how hot.

Discuss the perils of holding Mattie's leash and then trying to get her to run? Faceplant.

Jackson knows he's supposed to be gentle with our dog and cat. Light petting. Hug them but not too tightly. They don't like it when their tails are yanked. Nope, not even one time. Giving them a ~boop~ on the nose will not be well received. Our cat won't appreciate you trying to lift his back feet while he's drinking. Fastballing a treat at the exuberant dog is not how we reward her for coming inside from the rain.

He knows to be gentle. And he is, nearly all the time. Which is why this incident would be so upsetting, so hard to help him understand why Ellington would lash out. Jackson likes to remark that Ellington is his "baby." Ellington has grown accustomed to the full-body embrace, endures the weight of Jackson's head and torso as the boy uses the cat as a pillow. He puts up with more than his fair share of clumsy toddler love.

Cat pillow.
Some contact, though, is just too hard, too startling, too emasculating for a cat especially a slightly crazy cat to endure. How do you explain to a two year old that the streaming blood from gashes on his face was a somewhat foreseeable outcome of his thunderous blow?

If you believe the paradigm of fight or flight, Ellington eschews the flight option. Oh, how we'd love it if Ellington would learn to . . . well, we know he won't flee, but at least stride huffily from the room. His brother, Montgomery, who died a year ago, was all flight, at barely a hint of a possibility of danger. Incongruously, Monty had no worries about Ellington. If they wrestled, or had an exceedingly rare spat, Monty invariably triumphed over his sibling. Those triumphs were fleeting, however, because Ellington is too dim stubborn to accept defeat.

Monty, the wimpy cat, is pleased with having defeated Ellington's assault on the top level of the cat tree.
I think stubbornness is Ellington's defining character trait. He can't accept defeat. He'll meow for food even when confronted with a full bowl. Every night he gets shooed away from Kate's water glass on the bedside table, undeterred. Arm bar him from getting into your lap and he'll try another angle, and another, and another, and damn it he'll jump to the top of the couch and walk down your chest. Ellington could flee danger, but he's too stubborn. So he must endure or fight.

Before Jackson was born, I gave serious thought to an exit plan for Ellington. I knew he'd struggle to adjust to a baby. A newborn who sleeps a lot and lacks locomotion? Not a problem. But a baby who squeals and crawls and grabs, that's a gamechanger. Accordingly, in my game planning, I thought perhaps Jack's grandparents would take one for the team and accept the cat to protect the baby. Or failing that, we have some crazy cat lady cat-loving friends you know who you are who might've been willing to take on an extra furball.

Kate wouldn't deign to entertain the thought, of course. Ellington would have to learn and adjust. But I had some doubts about how safe a baby would be with Ellington around. A short-fused bomb, just awaiting ignition.

This is a cat that won't only hiss or swipe at a dog he doesn't know. He doesn't merely fight back in self defense. No, he goes on the offensive. Catches sight of the dog as his prey, locks on target, and launches himself. A full frontal attack, with teeth and claws. One time my apologies to our friends Erin and Mickey he leaped onto a dog's back, held on with four clawed feet, and tried to bite the dog's neck. If I hadn't been nearby to tear Ellington off, I'm not quite sure how it might've ended.

After that incident, we've kept all dogs out of the house, or at least locked Ellington into an upstairs room if a dog came to visit. We've had dogs in the backyard, and Ellington has crashed repeatedly against glass doors trying to vanquish the intruders.


We know some folks look askance at our getting a purebred dog. But we already had a rescued bird, an Australian rainbow lorikeet. And we rescued Ellington and Monty as kittens from a cat hoarder. When we decided to get a dog, we knew we wanted a double-coated breed that would have a better chance at surviving any attack by Ellington. We also wanted to raise a puppy from a very young age, so the puppy would be trained to be cautious and respectful around cats, especially Ellington. As a bonus, Mattie was born into a household with cats and from her birth was already accustomed to careful interaction with cats.

How could Ellington not love this new puppy?
The rainbow lorikeet, Fruit Loop.
Mattie's introduction to our household was exceedingly cautious. We let the cats get acquainted to her smell for a night before they ever saw her. Then we let the calm cat, Monty, meet the new puppy, and then Ellington had a chance to sniff Monty. In the first meeting between new puppy and Ellington, they were both locked in crates a short distance apart. Then we would let one out to sniff. The exuberant puppy was too excited to meet Ellington, of course, and Ellington's response, of course, was to try to lash out (but blocked by the crate door, of course).

Over time, we would let them both out in the house, but separated by a baby gate. And slowly but surely, as Ellington grew acclimated, he mellowed toward Mattie. For a long time, whenever we left the house, we'd place Mattie in a large dog crate in a corner, so that if need be she could cower out of reach of any attack by Ellington.

For all our worry, Ellington tried to swipe at Mattie only a couple of times. (At least, to our knowledge.) He came away with nothing more than a few tufts of hair score one for the double-coated dog! After a year or two, we felt confident enough to leave Mattie out in the house alone with Ellington, and have never had any suspicion of an altercation.

To our great relief, Ellington is wonderful with Jackson. It helped, we think, that he first learned to adjust to Mattie. A young dog and a toddler have many similarities energy, playfulness, sudden movement and volume, inquisitiveness, and so on and as Jackson progressed from a stationary infant to an exploring baby to a mobile toddler, Ellington didn't have as much fear or worry as he might have had otherwise. For a while, Ellington kept his distance. We'd have to pick him and plop him down in front of the baby to let Jack have a look and grab a chubby handful of hair. Now, Ellington is so accustomed to the cacophony of toddler life that he doesn't even stir. If a stray ball bounces on him he meows but doesn't move. He'll allow Jackson to stack items on him, like stuffed animals or hats.

Just for good measure, even a hairband on the ear.
How many hats does your cat wear?
Still, the violence in Ellington lies latent. We don't let him encounter many dogs, so it's hard to judge whether, at age 14, he'd still go on the attack. But we're always mindful and cautious. On a couple of occasions, when pushed to his limits, Ellington has uttered a grumpy meow and very slowly tapped Jackson on the cheek with a soft paw. For his part, Jackson dutifully obeys these warnings.

And then came the blow to the head.

As a rule, getting hit in the head with an orange Little Tikes dump truck will not be gentle. When the deliverer of the blow doesn't have quite the coordination to control the force, it's going to hurt more. Combined with a stumble forward and loss of balance, the impact goes from a bonk to a thwack.

It was mostly an innocent strike. Jackson was excited. He wanted to show his "baby" his truck: "See this truck, Ellington? It goes vroom!"

The truck smashed Ellington's head, pounded it down and to the side. I heard the thump. Felt it, from a distance. Jackson's momentum carried him face-to-face with Ellington. Retaliation would be swift, a perfunctory hiss followed by multiple slashes with claws. In a flash, I envisioned Ellington jumping onto Jackson's back and going for his neck.

<<< Blood. The scream. Tears. The second strike. More blood . . . >>>

But Ellington didn't flinch. Didn't flick his tail. Didn't make a sound.

Instead, he started purring. Purring.

What the f---?

The cognitive dissonance was too strong for me. I couldn't believe it. I waited, thinking the strike had been so fast that Jackson didn't notice at first. Any moment now. Here come the tears.

And then, slowly, came the realization that Ellington would endure almost anything from Jackson. Perhaps Ellington realized it was an accident. Possibly he has relaxed in old age. Or maybe the impact threw him for a loop.

No bloody gashes. No tears.

Whatever his reasons, Ellington acquiesces to all of Jackson's ministrations, whether gentle or rough, loud or soft. Jackson gets a free pass. Not only does he permit Jack to bother him, he seeks out the kid for attention. Pushes himself into the toddler chaos, ready to endure a bonk if it means getting affection, too.

I did not foresee this.

The aforementioned orange dump truck.
I still have my occasional misgivings. Flashes of worry. But I no longer rush to the scene of an encounter between them. The bond between the boy and his cat is so strong that knock on wood I don't think an instance of blood, tears, and mayhem would rip it asunder.

Not even an orange dump truck.


  1. This is one of my favorite posts to date! :) Ellington is a rock star.

  2. When we were in Paris a couple weeks ago, the girl house-sitting our house let a dog in. Ellington went to sniff the dog, and then did nothing. At all. Just went back to begging for attention. Granted, the dog is one of Mattie's friends and so has been in our house before (with Ellington locked away), so maybe Ellington has become accustomed to its smell, and that's enough to relax him. Or is it possible that Ellington has done a 180-degree turn in his attitude toward dogs? I'm curious. But I'd hate to risk injury to a dog just as an experiment.

    1. Wow, Ellington has mellowed! I still remember well Raven's (Otterdog's mother) traumatizing attack when I had her at your house. It was one of the launch-onto-the-back-and-sink-the-teeth-into-the-neck kind of attacks. Scary but also hilarious. I'm glad he not only tolerates Jack, but seems to be very fond of him and the attention.
      ps- This post, and especially the pictures, made me laugh out loud!

    2. I forgot about that attack until you mentioned it. It was one of his early ones -- a formative experience for him! He's definitely mellowed since then.

  3. Mellowed, indeed! I flashed back to Ellington's attack on ME several years ago. Monty and I were playing and I quietly, gently, chastised him for getting too rough. Wrong decision! From several rooms and one floor away came a black dynamo, hurling himself onto my leg with every honed claw embedded in my flesh, holes in pajamas, only releasing - I'm sure - because my spurting blood made my leg too slippery to cling to any longer. Perhaps all his early aggressive, (might I say vicious?), behavior was performed in the name of protecting his beloved Montgomery cat? Who knows????

    1. Maybe so. And your story brings to mind the time he leaped onto Kate and she was left with long slashes across both sides of her face. (That's probably what my subconscious was expecting to happen to Jackson when he smacked Ellington.) I don't think he has any of that left in him.