The mental stability of a cat is marginal at the best of times – and when you put one in a car, all bets are off. As my cousin Mike likes to say: "You can't argue with crazy." He was referring to an ex-girlfriend, but he's even more right when it comes to transporting a cat.
My last drive with a cat was a couple of weeks ago, when I left Toronto Animal Services with a new kitten and a punctured eyeball – one of our new cat's fellow inmates lashed out from his enclosure (probably because he was still crazed from his car ride to the shelter).
The ride home with our new cat was a rough one. My left eye was filled with blood, and my vision wobbled in and out of focus in a manner similar to looking through the bottom of a wine bottle. I called a surgeon buddy and drove straight to his house, hoping that I'd get to keep both of my eyes. (I did.) But I had learned yet another lesson about the emotional limitations of the cat, an animal with a nervous system designed by the same people who brought us the Gordian knot, Charlie Sheen and the French automobile.
Driving with a cat is asking for trouble. Unfortunately, you have to take them with you sometimes – like when I moved from Vancouver to Halifax back in the late 1970s to attend journalism school. I loaded my VW Beetle with my books, my mechanics' tools, and a calico cat I'd inherited from a roommate. I was in my twenties then, filled with the boneheaded confidence of youth. How hard could it be to chauffeur a cat for a few thousand kilometres?
I soon found out. Five days into the trip, my cat still hadn't gone to the bathroom. She stayed in the far corner of the back seat, glaring at me like a psychotic patient in a confinement cell. I tried to take her into a motel at night, but got clawed for my efforts. I slept in the car. Now I got the sense that something bad was happening. The cat's eyes were glazing over, and her midsection seemed to be inflating, like Elvis in his latter days.
My cat was turning into a car bomb – how long would it be before her intestines exploded from the accumulating pressure? I pulled over next to the Trans Canada highway somewhere near Sault St. Marie and tried to hook up her leash. She bit me, then leapt out the passenger-side window (which was partly open since I didn't have air conditioning). I watched as she streaked across an open field and disappeared.
I spent the next day and a half hunting for my cat. Then I headed east again, alone.
My next long drive with cats came in 1989, when I headed down to Georgia to fly hang gliders for a year and write a book about it. I was a family man now. My wife and I loaded our Honda Civic with my gliders, some dishes, our three-year-old daughter Catie, and the two cats we owned at the time. I made a temporary litter box that fit in the Civic's rear foot well, and we were off on our 1,450-kilometre mission.
The cats were definitely freaked out, but they actually ate a little food and used the litter-box. My wife had decreed that the windows couldn't be opened more than a few millimetres, so the aroma was inescapable. (I'd made the mistake of telling my wife about losing my cat on the Trans-Canada all those years ago, and we were now on permanent feline lockdown.) By the time we got to Georgia, our cats had the twitchy look of soldiers who have been on too many risky patrols. And it went downhill from there.
After years in a Toronto high-rise apartment, the cats found themselves on top of a mountain in the Deep South where the pet population ran heavily to the hunting dog end of the scale. Our immediate neighbour had two redbone hounds: Clyde and Dr. Red Dew.
Our cats responded in classic feline fashion. One burrowed into the back of a closet. The other insinuated himself behind the refrigerator. We extracted them, but a few days later, they disappeared. I hunted through the house for an hour before noticing tracks in the fireplace ashes.
I got a flashlight and peered up the chimney. Two pairs of eyeballs glinted back. The cats had found a ledge three feet above the fire pit and had taken refuge. I tried to coax them out with a bowl of food. No dice. Finally, I reached up and dragged one of out, hissing and clawing, only to realize that the cat was completely coated in black chimney residue. My clothes were trashed, but I couldn't let him go – he'd foul everything he touched.
There was a scrabbling sound. The second cat dropped out of the chimney, even more soot-covered than the first, and launched himself across the room. Half an hour later, I had managed to corral both cats in the bathroom, where I planned to wash them with shampoo. (In the meantime, they had managed to coat the carpets, the drapes and our furniture with greasy trails of creosote.) My cat bathing effort went downhill fast. I pinioned one cat in the water – it slashed at me like an alley fighter, and my forearms ran with blood. The second cat, meanwhile, was ricocheting off the bathroom walls, which were soon covered with black smears, like a painter's canvas that had been daubed with a tar-covered mop.
A few weeks later, both cats caught fleas, which quickly expanded their territory into the carpets. I had to drive the cats to the vets twice. It did not go well. Both of them howled like coyotes. I didn't know cats could make that sound, but their southern car odyssey had unhinged them.
When the year was up, we drove back to Canada. The cats seemed to know what was coming this time, and we were lucky to get them in the car. (We would have used cat carriers, but there was no room in our Civic.)
Those were the first in a long parade of cats that have joined our family since my wife and I got married in 1984. There have been cuddlers, hissers, biters, sofa-rippers and incontinent oldsters. We took in an aging alley cat named Cujo with breath so foul that it actually woke me up once. Cujo wasn't much of a car rider, either – we had to wrap him in a towel to keep him from clawing the seats. (Getting him into a car carrier wasn't worth the trouble or the non-stop howling.)
As a driving fanatic, I always dreamed that I'd find a cat that would ride with me like Farley Mowat's dog Mutt in his classic book, The Dog Who Wouldn't Be. Mutt wore goggles and hung from the side window. But I have lived a different story: The Driving Cat That Was Not To Be. Our cats were all different, but they were united in their hatred of cars.
About a month ago, we found ourselves without a cat for the first time. Our longest-lived cat had finally given up the ghost after 16 and a half years and countless trips to the vet. I breathed a sigh of relief. With the money we'd save on food, litter and vet bills, maybe I could finally get a new car.
But two weeks later I drove down to Animal Services and adopted another cat. And now, Tyrone is beside me as I write. Our history is yet to be determined, but I like him a lot. Maybe he'll like driving. Maybe he won't. Either way, my cat journey continues – as it must. I remembered a passage from The Dog That Wouldn't Be – Mutt killed by a car on a country road, and Farley realized that his dog's death marked the end of something much larger: "The pact of timelessness between the two of us was ended," Farley wrote, "and I went from him into the darkening tunnel of the years."
"The pact of timelessness." That's what I was actually looking for. Thank you, Farley. And thank you, Tyrone. The darkening tunnel of the years will have to wait. We have trips to take together.
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