Cats are not always sure of themselves, I can't have you thinking that. Rats don't win popularity contests
They have to work through things like everyone else. Murphy is now the self-confident and highly-respected Queen of the Household. But back when she was about a year old, she'd managed to get herself very confused indeed. The thing that fascinates me still is the ways cats work things out, accepting the result however odd it might appear to an observer, then making it part of their cat experience.
The confusion comes from the fact that the objects of her attention and affection, when she was not staring rapturously or hopefully or with trepidation at me, are three rats named Salt, Pepper and Sugar.
The rats are refugees from a classroom terrarium. When, at the end of the school year, the question arises of what to do with them for the summer, Kathy volunteers as temporary guardian and so they come home to join Buford the Rabbit, an earlier classroom graduate. Murphy develops a healthy distrust of the the rabbit, but she learns to love the rats.
I come to love them, too, in a way, odd as that might seem. But stranger things happen. For instance, it might seem even more strange that cats, the consummate killers, could give me a lesson in forbearance and tolerance, but that's what they did.
Rats are not popular animals and I don't really know much about them. Before Murphy showed me my error, I probably shared the general feeling. Our rats were lab rats. Salt and Sugar were all white, Pepper was brown and white and all of them lived with us at the same time, for about two years. Their life cycle appears to be such that at about the two-year mark they develop respiratory ailments which turn into pneumonia, which often kills them.
I did not really like these rats at first; they made me uneasy. The kids had no problem. Chris would amuse himself by wandering around with one on his head. Always looking to put on a show. At first this shocked the neighbors, delighting him no end. Eventually the neighbors got used to it, then accepted it as part of the scenery, this kid with a rat on his head. Once the shock value wore off, he soon lost interest. Not in the rats; just in carrying them about on his head. Salt needs her friend
Peter simply loved them, as he did all animals, and they responded to this, particularly Salt. Just before bedtime, she'd wait on the stairs for him, then scurry ahead, leading the way to bed. She slept on his pillow on top of his head every night.
By this time, Murphy had been joined by three other cats; Muffet, Misty, and Idgy. Muffet, a small grey and white tabby female, came from the Humane Society's cat room in my first-ever visit there. She was soon joined by Misty, a half-dead Russian Blue, who Peter found on his way to school. We found Idgy in a pet shop one evening as my wife Kathy and I were shopping for a sports jacket. We never did get the sports jacket.
Each cat comes to accept both rats and rabbit, but it is always Murphy, as the leader, who sets the tone. At first, she shares all of my suspicion and when the rats eventually approach her, three pointy muzzles twitching, heads up, whiskers alert, she taps them gingerly.
When she does this to Buford the rabbit, he immediately turns on her, making his buzzing sound, and charges. She recoils in horror, hissing. Eventually, Murphy decides to pretend he does not exist.
But the rats are different. When she stalks them, not sure whether she wants to play or to attack, they confuse her by sticking their noses into her face, tickling her with inquisitive whiskers. She sneezes, licks her lips as cats do when confused, and wonders. This behavior is truly remarkable because Murphy is a skilled hunter and has actually been known to kill rats. But those were rats which behaved like rats, not like these strange creatures, who behave in some confusing way a bit like cats and a bit like she doesn't know what.
These creatures look like prey, and her instincts sing very quietly about it, but on the other hand they don't act like prey. They don't move in the short, jerky movements of a mouse, say, or in the way of what she understands as a rat. They don't show any sign of fear when she does approach them.
Soon, the rats are finding Murphy as she rests and apparently she has come to a decision. They still make her uneasy, as they do me, but Murphy suspends her judgment. She does not understand these creatures, is not sure she likes them, but she will give them a chance.
They begin to sleep with her, one along her back, one with its head tucked under her chin, one against her belly. The other cats notice this and begin to follow her lead, in some cases forming friendships, showing bellies to the rats, always the ultimate sign of trust, batting at them with claws sheathed, a courtesy usually extended only to other cats. It becomes clear before long that the two species have developed a bond.
One morning, when the boys have gone to school and Kathy to her classes, Murphy does something that forever changes my attitude towards animals in general and to rats in particular. Salt had developed a sniffle two days before and when that happens there is little we can do except hope for the best. Most times they will recover, but as the rats get older, around two years, recovery becomes more and more difficult.
This morning, Salt does not follow Peter downstairs as she usually does when they awaken.
"I think she wants to sleep in," he says as he leaves for school.
When I go looking for her, I find her on his pillow, laboring for breath. I stroke her head and she snuggles against me, finally managing to sleep. I leave her, not knowing what to do.
Later, as I sit reading the morning paper with Murphy beside me, the cat pricks her ears at a small noise on the stairs. I see it is Salt and for a moment, as she makes her way into the living room, I think she has rallied. She stops in the middle of the living room, then with great difficulty, raises her head.
I realize two things almost simultaneously. Far from rallying, she has become much worse, each breath has become an immense effort. And it is not the human she is seeking so urgently, it is her cat friend Murphy. When she spots Murphy, Salt labors towards her again. She tries to climb the leg of the settee as she usually does, but now it's too much for her and I lift her gently onto my lap.
She goes to Murphy, moving with great difficulty. Murphy receives her, curling one paw around her, drawing Salt closer as if to protect her. Then, gently, comfortingly, the cat begins to lick the head of the rat. Salt, snuggling closer one last time, rests her head on the paws of her friend and gives a small sigh. Then, softly, she dies.