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On the cat walk: It's a nightly show

The feline of the family stars in this script filled with neighborhood characters (two-legged and four-legged). It's even got fight scenes and a little melodrama thrown in.

November 20, 2003|Bill Manson | Special to The Times

Let's face it, cats are entirely different from dogs. Oh, they like to walk. But first they lay down a few cat conditions: At least ours did.

One, leashes are infra dig, completely unacceptable.

Two, cats don't appreciate company. Well, groups are OK so long as they're composed of independent entities that just happen to be taking the same route.

Three, cats reserve the right to make a complete fool of you. If they want to smell something (and that's why they were put here on Earth), they disappear, and no amount of calling, whistling or begging with your head under a prickly bush will alter their schedule one jot.

And yet my wife and I do it. We walk the cats every night. It started simply enough. Mr. Whiskers, a 15-pound black-and-white neutered male who adopted us two years ago, just decided to come with us on our postprandial, pre-bed, around-the-block midnight ramble. He'd appear, hauling nonchalantly along, stopping to smell the flowers or, especially, cars' fenders, catching up.

At first my wife worried. "What if he runs out in the road? What if he wanders off and gets lost? Or follows someone else home? Or kids grab him at Halloween and torture him?"

But the argument became moot because Mr. Whiskers followed anyway. We developed patterns. At the long grasses outside the stucco condos, Whiskers would insist on playing lion waiting for zebra. We were the zebra. Near the corner, Mr. Whiskers would take a mad run at the flame tree, leaping up its trunk and out onto its farthest limb. Once again we were his prey -- unless it was spring, when sometimes he'd descend with a warm, live, pumping body in his mouth, presented with pride. My wife would quote Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness": "The horror, the horror." The bird rescue people started to get sick of my phone calls. "I've got this live, naked baby bird.... "

Yes, we tried to put Whiskers on a leash. But he panicked, squirmed and disappeared for a day. We got the message. I could almost hear the "Born Free" theme playing behind him as he finally reappeared and allowed us to grovel, with Kitty Kaviar and new cushions for him to lie on.

It was probably inevitable: Others started wanting to join in. First came Barking Cat. From across E Street we'd hear a croaking bark from under a car. At first we thought it was a frog. Then we noticed two white paws. After three weeks she got bold enough to come and roll and squirm her little fat body in front of Whiskers. She was in love. Whiskers didn't deign to notice her, but Barking Cat joined the nightly safari anyway, running along the curb, straight as an arrow. She was too plump and short-legged to make it up trees, too timid for the long grass, but she never gave up her flirting.

Then came Pumpkin, a longhaired marmalade siren from Temecula, here for the summer. And soon Niko-san, the slinky, intelligent, wicked Bombay Black who arrived from Japan with her Navy flier family.

Half a dozen others joined in. We didn't know whether to be thrilled or horrified, but every midnight, there they'd be: this hyped-up crowd on the sidewalk, darting, rolling, clawing palm trunks, chasing one another. Like dogs, but silent. You could feel the energy. Safari time!

They soon divided into attackers like Niko, who'd race ahead and lie in ambush, and teacher's pets, such as Barking Cat, who would get serious and into rhythm, trotting along, tails up like Iditarod dogs, doing whatever this was because It Was Important. But sometimes a madness would overtake everyone. Paw-thundering races to the nearest tree or gopher hole would bust out. Owners started complaining about their cats whining to be let loose late at night. And yes, we heard people pointing and muttering about "those Pied Piper people."

It couldn't last at that level. Barking Cat (she'd been abandoned; we adopted her) has become fearful of the outside world. Pumpkin was hauled back to Temecula at summer's end. And Zeus, a big, rangy 16-pound orange male street fighter, has turned up and scared the others off, all except his cute sidekick, Gizmo.

It was after Whiskers and Zeus became locked in an awesome leaping, grappling, down-and-dirty fight that I almost ended the walks. As I searched Whiskers for wounds, he swiped me deeply with a claw. I bled. I biffed him across the head, angry. He ran. For the first time I saw fear in his eyes when I looked at him. For the next week he hid, cringing. I was suddenly the monster. I felt beyond dreadful, like the worst war criminal.

I called an animal behaviorist, Lee Wells. "Wait for him to come to you," she said. "But what about the walking?" I asked. "Has that been a mistake?"

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