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Facts and Arguments After taking in two cats, I remain mystified as to why people keep pets

kim rosen The Globe and Mail

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I accepted two cats into my pet-free home because I was asked to by friends. The animals' presence and their demands have left me with a big puzzle.

After a few months of looking after them, I remain mystified by the whole issue of why people keep pets.

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I talk to owners about this, and invariably they get all mushy, as if their pets were members of their family. I've yet to share this view.

The cats came to me because they lived in a basement where they were tended to but didn't have much human contact. Eventually, they had to be moved.

Friend Rosemary phoned to ask if I would take in two cats "for a couple of weeks, maybe a month?" I was astonished: "Cats? Pets? Me?"

I was having trouble with failing vision in one eye, faltering stocks, a battered Corolla and a huge pile of sentimental items left over from the sale of my cottage.

In childhood, the only pets I was permitted were guppies. Years ago, a cat seeking warmth in the motor of my car had to be given up because of restrictions in the apartment building where I lived.

I am very fond of Rosemary and her family, including the daughter who owns the cats and is seeking her way in a new, adventurous life. What the heck, I thought. A few weeks. How hard could it be?

So, here they are in a third-floor walk-up apartment with someone who knows next to zip about pets. Ariel is a 26-toed, reclusive, tabby female with a yellow streak on her head. Buddy is an affectionate, once-feral, Russian Blue male. I was told that both are nine or 10 years old and neutered.

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First days: Buddy hiding under the bed; me trying to figure out their food likes and dislikes (it's hard to read the back of furry heads, and babbling to them doesn't help); Buddy leaping on me as I slept.

In the days that followed, I got the measure of cat ownership. You must feed them, make sure they have water and get rid of their poop and pee, which is no small problem. You must pay attention to their meows and show some affection.

I asked customers in grocery stores what cat food they advised. The question was good for much chat: Cat Charlotte likes Savoury Salmon; cat Silver is fond of an expensive kibble.

Being pet-illiterate, I visited a nearby pet store. Merciful Persival! Shelves and shelves of stuff. Should I have bought stocks in pet companies instead of fuel-cell research and U.S. banks? Most of the place was devoted to dogs. There was food for ferrets (apparently they are slinky, mink-like things that people wrap around their necks). There was food for birds, fish, guinea pigs, hedgehogs.

Another pet store offered crickets as food for reptiles. A gentleman refused to buy a product in an orange package because his cat doesn't like orange. Cats have colour preferences?

The things one learns: My broker's aging Great Dane has more beds than the total family, one lady's cat lives in the bathtub and "Three-dog night" doesn't only refer to an American rock band (Joy to the World), but to a really cold evening when people bring in three dogs to cuddle. That's a lot of dog.

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Cats may be fastidious in cleaning themselves, but they leave their hair sticking to everything: rugs, cushions, your favourite black sweater. For a mere $700, one can buy a specialized vacuum cleaner.

At lunch, a former boss of mine showed photos of her two cherished cats. What does one do about the hair, I asked. Said she helpfully: "You wear it."

There seems to be an atavistic connection in all of this. Pets are fellow creatures who share our planet, our history and our need for touch. With them we share a tie of life that we don't have with, say, trees. They bring out the parenting instincts in both women and men ("fur dads").

On the other hand, are we paying for companionship? And why shouldn't we if it gives cheer and comfort? I am still working on this.

Rather than a few weeks, Ariel and Buddy have been here for six months now. We are going through the seasons together. At home, Ariel licks Buddy's ears, the two circle one another, tails twitching; they fight and chase up and down the hall. Then they curl up and sleep. An old married couple.

If I come to love them, and ask to keep them, my worry is that some day they will become ill and they will die. I've had too much of this. But they are so vulnerable and so trusting, and they have their own sweet ways.

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Tomorrow, Ariel will hog the bathroom mat and Buddy will join me on the computer chair.

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