When your cat's just not that into you
Liz Palika rescued Xena from under the wheels of a car when she was only a kitten. Xena repaid the favor with disdain, but the two have grown closer since the death of Palika's husband, Paul.
It was a true case of unrequited love -- mine for my cat, Peavey. I loved him, and he couldn't be bothered with me.
Born to a stray pregnant cat I rescued off the streets of San Francisco, Peavey had a brother and sister who grew up to be perfectly normal cats. They sat on my lap, purred when I petted them, and slept on my bed.
Peavey, even though he was raised identically to his littermates, bolted like a wild animal whenever I looked at him. He wouldn't allow me to sit near him or touch him, and wouldn't even come into the kitchen to eat until I left the room.
He died more than a decade ago, but I was reminded of him a few weeks ago, during a conference I was attending in Orlando, Fla.
I was speaking on social media and animal welfare at a Maddie's Fund day-long seminar. One of the other speakers, Bonnie Brown, of the Nevada Humane Society, was giving a presentation about creatively marketing adoption promotions.
Brown showed a slide of a poster advertising "Catzillas" for adoption -- cats who had, let's say, not gone to charm school.
"I got the idea when I saw this show called 'Bridezillas,'" she said. "I figured if there are people who'll marry these brides, then there are people who'll adopt these cats."
The Catzilla campaign was a success, and that got me wondering what some of us get out of sharing our homes with curmudgeonly cats. Because I'm far from the only person I know who's had a cat like Peavey; almost every cat-owner I know has, too.
Take dog-trainer Liz Palika, who nine years ago rescued a kitten from under the wheels of a car in a supermarket parking lot. Palika took the kitten home, tucked safely inside her shirt.
Did the half-wild cat named Xena reward Palika for saving her with undying love and devotion? Not exactly.
"I lived in the house with her, and I cleaned her litter box, and I made sure she had food at mealtimes," Palika told me. "I didn't get any response from her at all -- except for anger if I tried to make the bed and she was on it."
Then there's my friend, Gina Spadafori, co-author of "Cats for Dummies" and the forthcoming "Your Cat: The Owner's Manual." She is besotted with a kitty named Ilario who could be the poster feline for the famous Rudyard Kipling quote, "I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me."
"He's an intelligent cat who just has a different idea of what kind of relationship he wants," she said. "Is he the in-your-face, fuzzy purr factory I was imagining? No. But I like his attitude."
Not all stand-offish cats are that way all the time, or with all people. During a brief period when he was my only cat, Peavey warmed up to me a lot. He slept next to my head on my pillow every night, and would let me pet him in the morning.
But when I adopted another cat, that was it; he cuddled and played and slept with her, and never came near me again. I suppose, really, there wasn't anything wrong with him. He was just a cat's cat, and accepted human companionship only as a last resort.
Peavey may have saved all his love for other cats, but Xena reserved hers for Palika's husband, Paul.
"Paul could pet her," Palika said. "She'd greet him at the door when he came home from work. She would allow him to brush her; she'd even let him clean her ears. She was very much his cat."
When Paul passed away recently, Palika was determined to make friends with Xena.
"I'm not expecting a huge transition, that I become the special person in her life because Paul's gone," she told me. "I'm taking it slow."
It may be slow, but it's paying off. Xena is now sleeping with Palika every night, sits near her on the sofa (although not near enough to touch), and in the last few days has been jumping onto her desk and following her out into the garden.
Palika thinks she knows why some of us love these less-than-cuddly cats.
"I take pleasure in such little tiny things from her," she said. "When she's asleep on the bed and I walk by, and she wakes up, opens her eyes, stretches, and goes 'meow' -- I hate to sound cornball, but those moments are precious to me."
I admit I always wanted something like that to happen with Peavey, and for him to be more like other cats. I asked his veterinarian about it, and when he couldn't find any physical explanation for Peavey's behavior, he told me, "Some cats are just like that."
I suppose if this happened today, I'd have consulted a feline behaviorist, or tried more modern cat training techniques, like clicker training, to see if I could bring him around.
Spadafori, on the other hand, likes her wild thing just the way he is.
"Ilario is a unique character," she said. "I don't want to change him. I like him, he's mine, he's gorgeous, and he's not going anywhere."