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FIRST PERSON / ORANGE COUNTY

Fur Flies as His Gift Idea Spawns a New Pet Peeve

January 21, 1998|MARK YEMMA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps it was bad karma from all the years I've spent spinning industrial-accident tales to my cat-loving colleagues. One too many jokes about microwaves and clothes dryers. Secretly snickering "Get a life" while consoling a distraught neighbor on the loss of a beloved pet.

My mission, as Christmas was fast approaching, was to get a kitten for my baby boy of 16. Guilt, perhaps, was driving me as I watched his childhood rapidly fading.

That holiday job at Wendy's--his first--was more traumatic on Dad than son. Chris is the age that I was when I started working--and I've never stopped. Poor schmuck, wait till he whimpers home with the inevitable question: "What is FICA and why are they taking this out of my paycheck?"

A surprise kitten would be my ticket to salvaging just a bit more childhood.

Anyway, a few weeks earlier I had read a front-page story in this newspaper about the millions of abandoned felines roaming America and terrorizing Tweety. How many thousands were sitting in their teeny Orange County holding cells dreaming of a posh life in Portola Hills?

So I set out, brimming with self-congratulatory pride that I'd find that cat and I'd make something of her!

But to my horror, I soon discovered, my wife and I were unfit to adopt a cat.

Our first stop--the county's main shelter in Orange--is an efficient main central jail that processes cats like Ralphs rotates milk cartons. These critters are available Tuesday, those on Wednesday, those on Saturday and so on. When they expire, I suppose, they truly expire.

The cats are locked down securely, and there's no such thing as petting one to see if it purrs or hisses.

A predictable county operation, the bureaucrats are stationed behind plate-glass windows, and they talk to you through those microphone doohickeys that keep the public at bay and germs away. There are about six windows but five are closed, so the public dutifully queues up in long lines.

One bright spot: The uniformed security guards protecting the animals seemed to like them and were even helpful to this pair of cat ignoramuses. Each cat has a serial number, and by looking at the animals through the bars, prospective owners make their picks.

It quickly became apparent that most folks walk away not with a cat but with these neat little slips of paper that give other folks the right of first refusal on the more desirable pets. Anne and I came away with two slips, both asking us to come back at awkward times on different days from 25 miles away.

We had our "second hold" and our "third hold" on a couple of creatures.

My first thought: "What cat crisis in America?" My second: "Maybe Chris would like these neat little slips of paper instead. . . ." The days passed, and other folks got our cats, and I could only hope that they were hissers, holy terrors that would claw up their furniture.

*

The Irvine shelter was next. I stopped by on my way to work sporting a tie and hoping that I looked worthy. I wasn't.

Irvine's New Age cells allow the critters to sleep in the sun or within the shelter's interior. I cruised the pen and recorded a few serial numbers, then approached the front desk with my choices.

Three well-dressed women began their inquiries. I was handed a clipboard with multiple forms that rivaled those you face on the first visit to a new doctor. I was told that after I completed the forms they would do a background check.

"Say what?" I stammered. "Background check?"

I was told that, yes, a background check most certainly would be needed and that the whole family would have to come in and spend time with the potential adoptee to make sure all parties--cat included--are happy with the arrangement.

I struggled with this a bit but then concluded that indeed an Irvine cat might think differently from me about whether El Toro cargo jets should take off east over my house or west over Irvine. Maybe these critters would see the latter as a cat-astrophe.

And then I blundered, big time.

"But I want to surprise my son with a kitty for Christmas!"

Their jaws dropped, and all three women crossed their arms sternly.

"We do not believe in pets as gifts. The whole family must come in and bond with the pet." They pointed to the special bonding rooms. "What if the cat attacks your son?" they reasoned with me.

"My son is taller than me! He can handle a cat. What if I had just lied to you and told you I was a single guy?"

"Well, then you would have been lying, young man, and that's not nice," said one of the women.

"Yeah, but I would have walked out with the cat, right?"

They couldn't argue with that, but I'd blown it. I'd never get an Irvine cat because of my irreverence.

The women said they were looking out for the best interests of the pets in trying to match them with "compatible" families. Too many cats are returned within a few days, I was told.

My thinking, of course, was "Let's ask the cats if they'd rather be in your jail or in my home!"

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