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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2002
I hate to admit this, but I think I am developing a soft spot for cats, of all things. I have been a dog person all my life, which I guess is a male thing. I grew up with bird dogs, beagles and other hunting dogs that fit into the macho culture of my youth in rural Georgia. I always associated cats with the opposite sex and looked with disdain upon any man who was openly fond of cats. Besides, I have long argued that cats, unlike dogs, have no personality, a view that gives great offense to my colleague Lucy Morgan, the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief. Ms. Morgan is always talking about her two cats, Lewis and Clark, and I fear I have sometimes behaved rudely, yawning in the middle of her discourse about their latest antics. It has made for a certain amount of strain in our relationship.
My aging golden retriever, Barley, is still the joy of my life, and no cat could ever take his place. However, I have to admit that I now have joined the ranks of those who hold the house cat in high esteem, although I am not yet a member of the fancy, as cat people call themselves. My change of heart is largely the result of my relationship with a neighbor's cat. His name is Stripes, but I call him Old Sourpuss, for from the day he moved in next door I considered him to be brusque and stand-offish, like most of the other cats I have known. He must have sensed my attitude about cats, for he had nothing to do with me for the first year or so. We rarely exchanged glances when we passed each other.
But that has changed lately. Old Sourpuss and I are on the best of terms these days. He lies outside the back gate and when I come out he starts purring and meowing. I reach down and scratch him behind the ears, and the next thing I know he is rubbing himself against my leg. He is 18 years old and has the scars of love and war from years of nocturnal prowling. I can imagine him in his prime as a gay caballero, going off into the night to seek adventure, ever ready to sing a song or fight for a lady's hand.
In the sunset of his life, Old Sourpuss seems to fancy himself as a watchdog (is there such a thing as a watchcat?). In the evening, about the time the street lights come on, he stations himself on top of the fence at the corner of our garage, leaving his post during the night only to pounce on a field mouse or some other snack that comes along. I have been sleeping better knowing Old Sourpuss was on duty, keeping an eye on my estate. (My friend Mary McGrory, who knows something about cats, insists that he is just trying to draw attention to himself.)
His vigil has not been without cost. Old Sourpuss likes to keep the outside light on, which suits Florida Power just fine. It's a motion-detector light, which means any movement in a certain area turns the light on. He seems to have figured out how it works. I have observed him late at night, and I have noticed that when the light goes out, he flicks his tail until the motion snaps on the light.
He is a fine sight, this back-fence sentinel, fearless and alert, ready to take on any man or beast who poses a threat. At first, he sat -- precariously, I thought -- atop a fence post. I told my neighbors, Ed and Mindy, that he looked awfully uncomfortable and that I worried he might fall off the fence if he dozed off. The next thing I know they have added a platform at the top of the fence so Old Sourpuss could sit comfortably and even stretch out and take a nap.
That may have been a mistake. At first he seemed to appreciate his new sentry station, but lately I've noticed that he has all but abandoned it, spending more time patrolling the perimeters of the yard. In fact, the last time I saw him on the fence he was sitting -- precariously -- on another post, about 10 feet down from the platform his owners constructed for him. I can't figure it out. Maybe there is something about a cat's nature that resents any human intervention in feline affairs. Or it could be that a cat on sentry duty knows that if he gets too comfortable he might doze off and let an intruder slip by, which would be humiliating to him. Of course, there is always the possibility he just became bored with the whole thing.
Anyway, it doesn't seem to have affected our relationship. Old Sourpuss still purrs when I approach him and rubs his bowed back against my leg. I haven't had the nerve to broach the subject of why he appears to have let down his guard, so I guess I'll just have to settle for his affection. Maybe my old dog Barley, who still answers the doorbell with a ferocious bark, could start pulling his share of guard duty, as long as he is not asked to perch himself on top of the fence.