Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Bad Poetry for a Good Cat (and an Anniversary Wish)

February 25, 2011

All cats are special, I think. Some, though, just tunnel right into your heart and leave a deeper scar than most when they depart this world.

Gray & White, Gray for short, was one such cat. For years (we donít know how long) heíd been feral, discovered by us when we stumbled upon the wild-living cat colony at our local public boat landing. Right from the start we noticed he breathed heavily, a kind of peculiar snuffling, but he was vigorous too, gobbling down fish and throwing his weight around as the big man of the docks.

Eventually he sounded bad enough for us to take to the vet; the diagnosis came back as pneumonia, with a positive status for FIV (the feline version of HIV).

But as cat people know, FIV can be managed and FIV cats can be wonderful companions. We took Gray home (even as we fed and cared for the other feral cats) , and from that point on he and my husband Charlie bonded. They were two friends battling together against a catís hardscrabble life.

After a long course of antibiotics, the pneumonia was cured. We brought Gray outside to our spacious yard pen, where he joined other ex-ferals in the sun, adorning the picnic table or resting inside the shelter, coming to knead our laps when we visited.

Good days for Gray always mixed with bad. The cough increased, Gray seemed weak, an infection on his nose turned stubborn, and we feared losing him, but always heíd rally. In January 2010, in my view a month too cold for any Virginia mammal, we brought him back inside. Because it was best to separate him from the other cats, we shared a bedroom- Charlie, Gray and me. Gray favored a little sitting area with a brocade couch located under a window.

He had trouble eating and endured the extraction of nine teeth. Steroid treatment for one of his health problems brought on diabetes that required ear-sticks and insulin shots from us.

But hereís the thing. Gray just loved life. He conveyed to us in his special Gray way, a unique combination of stoic and quietly content, that bedroom dwelling was a treasured fate to befall a dock cat. The diabetes turned out to be transient and for a while he was stronger. He rolled around on the couch with us, inhaled turkey treats with greed, and enjoyed nothing better than an hour with Charlie, who, reading a book, shared the couch with him.

Around this time, I wrote a poem, in the imagined voice of Gray as he might speak with Charlie:

Dockside prowler

Big old tomcat

All right on his own

Thatís how others saw me

But you always saw more.

Others did like me

And called me near

Big-head Gray & White

But even the other kind one

(The tall one)

Thought I was too sick

Too wheezy

With time too short.

Thatís how others saw me

But you always saw more.

I rolled in the grass

Under your sky

With Tango

(I miss him)

And Big Orange

(Big old friend!)

But truth to tell

This couch is soft

This room is warm

Your love is soft

I like it here.

You always saw more.

Every day Charlie did what he could to ease Grayís way. When Gray lost weight, and eventually much of his appetite, Charlie coaxed him to eat baby food and, eventually, favorite foods put into a blender, warmed, and made extra-palatable.

Never did we wish to prolong Grayís life for our own sakes. When the time came, we knew what to do, and did it all three together, Charlie and I sheltering Gray with warmth and love on the vetís table.

That was last September. Three things I know: I miss Gray, and think I always will. (We have his ashes.) The poetry I write isnít any good, but it comforts me to write it. And to my Charlie, as we anticipate our 21st anniversary in a few days, this oneís for you with all my love.


  1. February 25, 2011 7:17 AM EST
    Not bad poetry, Barbara-- from the heart. It made me weep. I will always miss our Bucky terribly--the puffy feral kitten who stumbled into our neighbor's basement through a broken window during a snowstorm, who hid under the sofa for nearly a month before deciding we were safe, who lived with us for 10 years. He comforted me through my husband's two bouts with cancer and through my Mom's difficult aging. and right before she died (in September), he succumbed to a cancer of his own. All the dear animals are always with us, I think, though I miss the kneading and the early morning lick on the nose. (I'm writing with Thumbs Magee, the big white boneless stray we've had for five years now) on my lap, interfering, as usual, with the keyboard.

    And a very Happy Anniversary!
    - Mary Pratt
  2. February 25, 2011 9:28 AM EST
    Beautiful post! Beautiful poem! It's always hard to know when it's time to let go, but it sounds like you and Charlie and Gray chose well. HUGS
    - Marian Allen
  3. February 25, 2011 10:15 AM EST
    Thank you for this Barbara... you speak so well to the individuality of all animals, and also how our relationships with them are each unique in wonderful ways. I continue to be inspired by the way you care for the feral cats in your community. Love the poem!
    - Julia Tanner
  4. February 25, 2011 12:02 PM EST
    Happy anniversary, Barbara & Charlie. And this was a wonderful post. Our cats have always been Humane Society or Animal Shelter critters, and we cherish them. (Max, who died at 19 five years ago, was a Maine Coon from the DC Humane Society, and we still miss him.) THe two current feline members of our family are fluffy grey Sasha (totally self-centered as only a cat can be) and sweet tabby Sophie, who is the one who sits on my desk, walks on my computer keyboard, knocks papers on the floor . . . They are both from the Wbg Humane Society. When we adopted them I told the staff at the Humane Society that these cats will think they have died and gone to cat-heaven, living at our house. I really liked your line about a dock-bred cat thinking that a cushy bedroom life was a-ok.
    - Kitty Preston
  5. February 25, 2011 3:57 PM EST
    I think it's a lovely poem and of course it reminds of one a long lost feline friend.
    - Molly Mullin
  6. February 25, 2011 5:55 PM EST
    Very moving poem, Barbara, a tribute to Charlie as much as to Gray. Happy Anniversary to you both.
    - Marsha
  7. February 25, 2011 6:17 PM EST
    I loved the post and I loved the poem. Happy Anniversary to you and Charlie.
    - Colleen
  8. February 25, 2011 8:36 PM EST
    Mary, I think you're right, that any poetry from the heart does carry meaning. Though I won't quit my day job- and I will keep reading YOUR wonderful poetry to see how it's done. Thanks to everyone for your encouraging comments. I really enjoy reading about other cats like Bucky, Thumbs Magee, Sasha and Sophie. Today I sent this blog post to the person who tweets as Homer the Blind Cat (who is a real-life blind black cat, subject of a bestselling book) and because Homer posted it to 6400 followers, I'm hearing from other cat types. Very rewarding to feel the power of the cat community!
    - Barbara J. King
  9. February 26, 2011 12:04 AM EST
    well, you can imagine this brought tears for me, still hurting from losing Lennie, another tough, damaged, but life-loving cat to the end. And I really can't say whether Chuck or I loved him the most. We both thought me was the best possible cat.
    - Joanne Tanner
  10. February 26, 2011 8:53 AM EST
    "Another tough, damaged, but life-loving cat to the end"- a terrific phrase to describe your Lennie, and our Gray, and others' special cats, Joanne.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.