Sled Cats

Monday, July 15, 2013

Three months before my divorce was finalized, we hit the sales doldrums of January and the department store laid off a quarter of its employees. After seven years in customer service I had some seniority, but was given two months’ pay and a promise that I’d get called back when I was needed. I didn’t hold my breath. Based on rumors I’d heard in the break room, there were customer complaints about me being “snippy.”

During those irksome divorce days, I’d dragged myself to work when I should have been doing anything but talking with people. When people were snarky with me, I was snarky back. It was the reaction a normal person would have, but normal people should not work in customer service. The profession needs to be reserved for prospective saints.

I was thirty-three and woefully unemployed for the foreseeable future, and had to deal with stupid attorney fees and joint credit card debt. My bank account nearing zero, I started a roommate search. When I griped to my friend Steph about my financial worries over lunch, she shook her head and said, “Stay with me. The cattery is a job for more than one person.”

Steph wanted to tour the US promoting her business, and she needed help caring for her Siberian cat herd while she was away. Her house was a mess of catnip toys, food dishes, floating fur tufts, and room deodorizers. I’d been helping her for a while, since I loved Siberians. They behaved more like dogs than cats, had the same follow-you-around-the-house loyalty, and sat on the kitchen table chirping conversation while I washed dishes.

They were also the size of small bears. Steph said some Russian monasteries had kept watch cats instead of dogs. The males weighed twenty-five pounds and females weighed twenty pounds, most of that being muscle and fur. Nothing was safe from them unless it was in a box, until Aristotle learned how to nose open boxes and gorge on peanut butter puff cereal.

Steph had thirty-five cats and lived in the country, so there was ample space to walk six cats at a time. They didn’t mind harnesses since Steph leash-trained every cat, whether or not she thought it would be show material. A good show cat needed the right looks and couldn’t be bothered by thunder, vacuum cleaners, or other cats. The perfect show cat was completely Zen.

Steph left for her tour in mid-September, so it was just the cats and me. She had two big rooms on the side of her house devoted to them. The cats each had a cubicle (Steph refused to call them cages) that was three feet wide, four feet long, and three feet high. We left the doors open so the cats had free reign.

Keeping everyone brushed, watered, and fed was a full-time job. Working with cats was more demanding than customer service, but they read my mind like therapists. The cats knew when I was uptight, and gave me tongue baths while I watched TV on the couch. They also took a quick dislike to my ex, who often came to Steph’s house with legal papers. When a car pulled into the drive and cats started growling, I knew it was him.

“When is this going to end?” I grumbled as he walked to the door with another yellow envelope. I think he made his lawyer draw up unnecessary agreements so he could see me and try to make up. Three cats twined around my legs, growling low in their throats. My almost-former husband slowed down when he saw them. He was a dog person.

“We don’t have to go through with it,” he said, stopping on the front porch.”Can’t we talk outside?”

“The cats might escape if I open the door too wide,” I said.”And yes, we do have to go through with it. Get closer and I’ll crack the screen.” The cats went outside all the time so it wasn’t an issue, but I didn’t want to speak with him longer than I had to. When I grabbed the envelope, all three cats hissed and spat. To his credit, my ex didn’t jump back.

I knew we never should have gotten married. Our fights were obvious red flags. I was independent and he stuck to people like Velcro. When the issue about “maybe” having kids surfaced, he was on the yes side and I was on the no side. I was frugal and he was a spender, which partially explained the two credit cards in his name he “forgot” to tell me about. You’d think someone who worked at a bank and negotiated with people who’d dug themselves into financial holes would know not to wedge himself into debt. I wasn’t liable for the cards in his name, but we’d maxed out three others buying new living room and bedroom furniture. Most of it we sold to pay off the bills. After that marital ordeal, feline companionship was all I wanted.

In the evening my cats liked watching nature documentaries, so thirty felines plus me clustered around the couch and wide-screen TV. Their heads swiveled in unison, tracking fish and foxes and mice, but when we saw the show about dog sled racing I started to get ideas.

I’d heard about a woman who won a dog sled race with a team of two hundred Siberian cats. They covered three hundred miles in twenty-two hours and beat the closest dog team by an hour. She said they’d trained in the forest, and Siberian cats were natural racers because of their strength, agility, and love of work.

My uncle who lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan had raced sled dogs, assembling eight-dog teams from the pound. He knew which ones were born to pull, and most had husky blood. I’d loved watching my uncle and his team race glorious circles in the field behind his house, and while I preferred cats to dogs, racing almost made me change my mind.

Cat sled racing was the perfect sport.

Armed with a crazy new dream, I started the training process with my favorite males, Socrates and Aristotle. I grabbed their leashes close to the harness so the cat felt a little resistance, then gave them commands to go right and left, pointing them in the correct direction. My uncle’s commands seemed logical to use—gee for left, haw for right, out there to tighten the line, hike to start, and whoa to stop. Once the cats discovered they won treats when they were correct, they picked up the new words in a snap.

Next we went outside and I taught them to line out and keep the rope taut. I attached their leashes to a little plastic wagon I found at the Salvation Army, and threw Aristotle’s and Socrates’s favorite toys for them to chase as I followed. I made sure the other cats watched us romp, stationed at windows in the sun room and pawing at the screen to get out because they saw I had a treat bag. The cats were quick to understand any reward system, so one by one I attached their harnesses to the pull toy and shouted commands. It was easy to weed out cats who didn’t enjoy the work. After eating their treats and running a few feet, they stopped to take a bath.

“You won’t get another treat if you just sit there,” I told Coconut, a cream-colored male. He glanced up at me, meowed, and went back to licking his paw. It reminded me of the nonchalant look my ex-husband gave me when I asked if he was going to spend another night bowling with the guys. I took Coconut back inside.

I liked having a goal even if it was moderately stupid. I didn’t have goals when I worked in customer service, only the repetitive work of calming the next person. If I won a sled race, even a short one in the UP, Steph’s cats and I could go on morning TV talk shows and write a children’s book. It would be a great way to promote the cattery, and in two hundred years I might have earned enough money to form my own team. Siberian cats were expensive.


The next time my ex stopped by Steph’s house, Aristotle and Socrates were growling before he rang the bell. When I opened the door I kept the screen closed so my ex could see the cats and remember what he was up against. He’d always been thin, and I think he’d lost more weight since we split. His hollow cheeks made him look wide-eyed and innocent, almost boyish. I would have felt sorry for him if our joint debt hadn’t been looming over my checking account.

“I wondered if we could go out for pizza,” he said, toeing the step. “My treat. It’s been a while since we talked.”

“It has,” I said. “What did you want to talk about?”

“Stuff,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow.

“Stuff about us,” he said.

“I’m not getting back with you,” I said.

“I wasn’t asking you to,” he said.

I agreed to dinner as long as we took separate cars. We hadn’t been around each other for a few weeks, so I no longer felt like biting his head off. Pizza sounded better, anyway.

After we ordered, I discovered his plan was to plead for sympathy.

“We don’t have to date,” he said, “but we could get dinner a couple times a month.”

“You need to be with someone who wants kids,” I said.

“But I love you,” he said.

The claim seemed more desperate than sincere. He was living with his parents, getting his debt sorted out, and working overtime at the bank. I was his only chance at a social life, since he couldn’t blow his paycheck going out with the guys on the weekend.

“I’m moving on,” I said, then paid for the pizza and went home. Thinking about the divorce made me sick to my stomach. My parents and friends said that they supported me, and it was probably the right thing to do. I’d told most people about the split over the phone so I didn’t have to see their facial expressions. For me, it was shrouded with the embarrassment of having made a very public mistake and knowing everyone would talk behind my back.

That’s why I sank my energy into cattery management. It had frustrating points, but in the evening I could flop on the couch and list the day’s accomplishments. Honey Muffin was no longer peeing in the corner since I put mothballs there. Razzamatazz had pulled the wagon faster than I could keep up. Coconut didn’t stop in the middle of our play sessions to take a bath. I’d given him one more chance to make the team, because the day after I’d taken him inside, he’d mewed plaintively, pawed at the screen, and seemed remorseful. Since then he’d been performing better, so I held my breath, hoping the change would last.

When Steph got home from her tour, she overflowed with stories and souvenirs. I waited until she calmed down before demonstrating Aristotle’s and Socrates’s pulling abilities in the backyard and telling her about my cat sled plan. I thought she’d be excited, but Steph frowned.

“I don’t want my cats running around in the forest,” she said. “They could get hurt.”

“I’ll take great care of them,” I said, thankful I hadn’t mentioned the cats had been training for weeks.

“The cats are my investment and my babies,” she said. “Not yours.”

“The breed is designed for work and rough weather,” I said. “They’re from Siberia, after all. With its own cat sled team, the cattery could be one of the most famous in the world.”

“My cats are designed to be shown and hugged and watch TV,” she said.

“They can do this, too,” I said.

“But they won’t,” she said with the same smile my former boss had used when she ended an argument with a sentence.

While Steph holed up in her office doing marketing things, the cats and I moped around the house. I knew from their meows of protest that they didn’t understand why we weren’t romping in the backyard.

Three weeks later I was brushing the cats when Steph let out such a squeal that I thought she’d been injured. She burst from her office to hug me and every cat she could find.

“A month,” she said, twirling around with two cats in her arms. “A whole month in Russia touring catteries and talking with other breeders!”

She’d been contacted by a cat food company that was interested in using Siberians in advertising and wanted to sponsor her tour. I hugged Steph cheerfully, but had ulterior motives. That weekend I went to visit my uncle in the UP and asked to borrow one of his old sleds. He wasn’t running dogs but kept two sleds in case he decided to return to the pound and get another team. I said one of my friends wanted to try dog sled racing and needed to borrow a sled for an extended period.

“What kind of dogs is she going to race?” my uncle asked as we had burgers and fries at the local greasy spoon.

“I’m not certain,” I said.

“Tell her to send me picture if it works out,” he said.

I said I’d be sure to do that.

Steph used half of her two-car garage to store extra food, litter, and old furniture. It was so crammed with junk, I had an easy time concealing my sled and wheeled practice cart under a sheet.

Two weeks later Steph was in Russia and the cats and I were free to romp the wooded lot behind her house. My uncle ran dogs in gang pairs, ordering them based on maturity and how readily they obeyed commands. The lead dogs were big ones who knew how to pace the team and keep the line tight. Behind them, the swing dogs were training to be leaders, high-energy dogs that were naturally confident. The team dogs followed the swing dogs and didn’t have much responsibility in the middle of the pack. The wheel dogs were closest to the sled, strong ones that did most of the pulling.

I put Snowball and Ragamuffin in the lead—large, decisive cats that made room for themselves on the couch even if it meant shoving others away. Razzamatazz, Honey Muffin, Cornflake, and Edgar P. were the cats closest to the sled, four males who danced at my feet when I brought out the harnesses. I paired disciplined Marie Antoinette with Coconut in the middle of the pack. Motherly Marie would drag Coconut along whether he liked it or not.

Getting them hooked up was an event. It wasn’t difficult to harness everyone, but while they waited for me to finish, the cats got bored. They often groomed each other, which started with loving licks and ended with growls and smacks. One cat would try to run away, which didn’t work well in the harnesses. For that reason I got hitching down to a science, though I wasn’t able to stop Marzipan and Amaretto from having sisterly tiffs.

Racing was the kind of exercise I needed, a throw-yourself-into-the-moment sport, especially after a new snow, when I had to run along with the cats through deep drifts. Few people knew how intense the sport was for dog mushers, who had to be strong enough to carry an injured animal. I had to be strong enough to carry an injured cat. Twenty-five pounds might not seem like much, but it was after a mile. Luckily my team had few problems.

When the cats ran together as a miraculous unit, it was amazing. Euphoric. Around us were bony skeletons of trees, snow-covered pastures, and the tracks of our previous runs. The cold wind chapped my cheeks and lips and made the cats want to go faster, defying the elements, remembering the winters of their great-great-great-grandparents in the Siberian forests. They were discovering a side of themselves they’d never known before, and they loved it. My felines didn’t have to be prissy show cats. They could be athletes. They could take down a bear.

We raced with a wheeled cart when there was no snow. The cats trotted along almost as swiftly with the cart as they did when they were hitched to the sled. We had to contend with rocks and bumpy terrain, but all we cared about was that forward momentum. After each outing the cats meowed to each other as I undid their hitches. I wished I understood what they were saying, but hoped they were congratulating each other on another good race.

Steph sent e-mails and pictures from Russia. I assured her the cats were just fine and tried not to feel guilty, reminding myself this was therapy for me and the stir-crazy cats. If Steph realized how much happier her cats were, I knew she’d be okay with it. I’d also keep pushing to make her consider the marketing angle. Once the cats and I were on TV, it would be difficult for her to object.

Now my biggest challenge was working with the cats who didn’t want to race and yowled at me for attention when I was home. I had to give them equal love and pats, not favor my athletes. It was draining, but I knew it was the price I paid for wanting to be a mother and coach. I was the hugger, the disciplinarian, the provider of food and water and catnip and all other elements necessary to a happy kitty life. But I was happy too, if totally exhausted.

I wondered how I’d explain this to my friends and family when I started entering races. As logical as I’d try to make it sound, I knew it would come off as crazy.

Did you hear? She got divorced, lost her job, and started training cats for the Iditarod.

I wasn’t that wacko yet, but the idea was tempting.

As we traipsed through barren pastures, I reflected on the past year and downgraded my ex-husband from “total asshole” to “really immature.” There were good things about him. His generosity. The way he never forgot an anniversary. How he called me at work to ask when I’d be home because he missed me.

But he loved chatting with customers at the bank all day, and his job didn’t sap him like customer service sapped me. At home, I wanted quiet. I admitted that sometimes I’d been too standoffish. When he wanted to go out and have a drink with friends, I curled on the couch with the evening paper. He pleaded with me to come along, but I needed to be alone. Silence made my husband nervous. He said the room felt dead.

We shouldn’t have tried running as a pair.

Every other week his mother called me with an update on how he was doing, which was usually not well. He didn’t go out with friends much (he didn’t have money), he worked overtime (to pay off debts), and he was sullen in the evenings (because he was living with his parents and felt like the lowest of the low).

“He worries me,” his mother said. I had to agree. We were both quietly nervous he’d really lose it and drive his car through a fast-food restaurant. My relationship with the cats was simpler. Cats would never lie to you. Piss you off on purpose maybe, but not lie to you.

Coconut lost his love for racing in the middle of a run. He decided he no longer wanted to train for marathons, and announced that to me and the rest of the team by yowling very loudly. He was being dragged along by Marie Antoinette, which did not make him happy, but I cut our run short because his cries got so annoying that I couldn’t put myself or the rest of the team through that. He and the other nonracers still wanted all the treats the sled cats got, so I gave the team extra food in the garage. They needed calories after those workouts, and I didn’t want to end up with a bunch of pudgy kitties inside. I think the inside cats suspected my team was somehow favored, but they couldn’t prove anything.

In the evening I spent hours grooming everyone to get the bits of leaves and grass out of their coats and check for fleas. It was winter, but I knew flea eggs and pupae could survive for a year, so I brushed them like my life depended on it. The last thing I wanted was for Steph to come home and find a flea infestation.

The cat sled team was fine and healthy for weeks, until I saw Rumplestiltskin limping across the living room floor. He struggled when I picked him up, but handling Siberians had strengthened my arms so I could grab and examine his paws. The pad on his right forepaw had turned into an abscess, red and infected. My stomach twisted with nausea.

He might have been cut by a rock on one of our runs. How long ago had it happened? I almost dropped Rumplestiltskin and started crying, but made myself take a deep breath and hoist the cats up one by one to inspect their feet. Edgar and Loki had similar wounds, but cats concealed injuries naturally, a survival skill so they wouldn’t seem vulnerable to predators.

Steph’s cats didn’t mind carriers, but they did mind my taking them to the vet to lance their cuts and get a shot of antibiotics. I paid their medical bills out of my meager bank account and felt like shit. If Steph found out about this, she’d kill me. I was ready to stop the training process, but the next morning a dozen cats twirled around me, yowling to go outside. I refused until I’d made little cat booties for each them out of leather, staying up late sewing so my team’s feet would be protected from sharp edges. Soon we were bounding through the mock tundra again, and I felt only a little guilty.

When Steph returned from Russia she said it had been the best trip ever. The cat food company wanted to pay for her to tour the US, going to cat shows and promoting the breed along with their line of gourmet cat food.

“But I miss my babies,” she said, smooshing three cats together in her arms as they purred thunderously. Steph had the largest biceps I’d ever seen on a woman, but she was accustomed to hauling around seventy pounds of cat. At home for two weeks straight she ran the office, maintaining contacts she’d made in Russia and planning to film cat food commercials in California. The cats wrapped around her legs to prove everything was fine. In the evening they cuddled with her on the couch, but Snowball and Ragamuffin, my lead cats, gave me sideways glances during commercials. They were ready to get outside again.

After that Steph was home for a week and then gone for a week, so I took the team out every other day when she wasn’t around. I had to give them a rest between runs to build their muscles back. We never ran fast but we ran hard, and in the forest we bonded. They were my cats. I was their human. We loved and trusted each other. But even with the booties, we couldn’t escape injury. Georgette started limping after she pulled a muscle. Sampson shook off one of his booties and cut the pad of his foot. I inspected every cat after a run, made sure they were treated quickly, and paid the vet bills. But in the end I wasn’t as careful as I should’ve been and left copies of the bills on my desk. Steph was poking around in my room for an extra leash when she found them.

“Why didn’t you tell me about these?” she said, stomping into the living room while I was cleaning litterboxes.

“I forgot to mention that I broke a glass,” I said. “I cleaned it up, but a couple cats got shards in their paws.” I glanced down to the plastic bowl of cat shit I was holding.

“And what’s this?” she said, holding up a mass of hitches for the sled.

I couldn’t explain that one and had to resort to the truth, which meant I was almost fired.

“I trusted you not to hurt my cats,” Steph screeched. If three of them hadn’t been winding around her feet, she would have lunged for my throat.

“I didn’t hurt them,” I said meekly, “but there are rocks in the woods. They love running. I can’t stop them from wanting to go out.”

She didn’t believe me or my sorry excuses, and there was no way she’d let me hitch the cats up for a sled demonstration. That was clear when she slammed the web of hitches and rope on the floor and stomped into her office. I was sure she was thumbing through her address book, looking for another cat caretaker. I glanced at the evening paper on the coffee table and wondered if I should flip through the classifieds. Two hours later Steph emerged, cool and calm.

“We’ve been friends forever,” she said, “and the cats love you. That’s why I’ll give you one more chance. But just one.”

Don’t fuck this up was the unspoken sentence. I felt like genuflecting or kissing her feet—if they’d been my cats I would’ve been just as mad as she was—but I said a meek thank-you and went out to get us a pizza for dinner.

Nobody told the cats about our agreement, however, so the next time Steph was out of town they were like little kids whose mother was away and who knew they had a permissive babysitter. They yowled for three days before I relented, but when I got out the hitches I heard a meow of happiness. I barely had time to say “Hike” before they’d taken off into the pasture.

I was cheating on my promise to Steph, but careening through the fields with those cats felt so damn good I wished it would never end. I also decided to start going to a new vet and shredding the bills. I felt dirty, but it was worth it. Cheating always is in the moment.

While the team and I were out, I let the rest of the cats roam the house but made sure to shut the kitchen door tight. Usually. One day when we got home, I heard someone yowling even before I opened the front door. I figured Cashew or Miranda was hungry, but then I saw the kitchen door was open and poor Cashew was writhing on the floor. On the counter was a package of chocolate chip cookies she’d managed to rip through.

I ran to grab a cat carrier, scooped Cashew inside, and sped to the vet to have her stomach pumped. Most of Steph’s cats only wanted dry and wet food, but Cashew and Buttercup always meowed for whatever I was eating. Too many human foods were toxic to cats. I held my breath and gunned the engine. Dammit, dammit, dammit.

I flung myself through the doors of the animal hospital, blubbering the story of Cashew and the cookies as I shoved her carrier at the nurses.

“Don’t let her die,” I wailed, but Cashew’s meows sounded like she was in her death throes. I flopped into an orange plastic chair and prayed that Cashew would be okay.

Two hours later, the vet assistant gave me a dazed cat and a bill. I handed over my credit card and tucked Cashew back in the carrier for the ride home, having renewed my belief in miracles. In the car she started her “I’m hungry” meow. I almost pulled over to yell at her, but yelling at cats never works.

“You might as well be a person for all the self-control you have,” I muttered.

Cashew pawed the side of the carrier and meowed again. An I-want-potato-chips meow. Still alive and willing to gorge herself. I had to giggle.

When my ex-husband came back for another round of groveling I almost didn’t open the door, but he looked even thinner than before so I relented.

“We need to get counseling,” he said.

“No way in hell I’ll do that,” I told him cheerfully. “You should have tried to mend things a year and a half ago, before you destroyed my credit record.”

My ex must have had a bad day at the bank. I didn’t expect him to yank the screen door open and grab my wrist. My smile faded as I tried to wrest free.

“Is money all you think I care about?” he growled.

“That and sex,” I said.

“I’m not as dumb as you think I am,” he yelled.

“I never said you were dumb,” I yelled back. He just lacked mathematical skills. But now he looked desperate and sad enough to do something mean. He’d never been violent, but he was gripping my wrist harder than I thought he could. Desperate people are not logical people, and I was honestly worried he’d hit me.

“Leave,” I yelled, trying to wrench free as the cats clustered behind me.

“Not until we talk,” he yelled back. I kicked his shin. He aimed for my leg but I stepped back, so his blow hit a cat instead. I screeched and pandemonium ensued. My cats could neatly pull a sled as a herd of thirty, but I’d never seen them attack en masse, a hissing squadron of teeth and claws.

He shrieked and drew back. It took a few seconds for me to catch my breath and yell “Whoa!” Precision team that they were, my cats stopped to wait for the next order.

After ten seconds my ex had three bites and five sets of scratch marks on his legs. The claws had gone through the fabric of his jeans. He looked ready to cry, which is why I guided him to the bathroom and applied Band-Aids and disinfectant. Eight cats watched from the door.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I lost my head.”

“At least you didn’t lose much blood,” I said.

I walked him to the door because the cats were still growling. I figured he might come around again in a couple months but would think more carefully about his negotiating tactics. I might be willing to consider friendship with a sane person.

After he left my cats licked their paws, making sure every hair was in order, then gazed up at me with heads cocked. They expected another practice run. We usually did two runs on race days, one before lunch and one after. Steph would hate me forever if she found out about this, but I readied the harnesses as thirty felines danced ahead of me.

It wasn’t cheating exactly, and what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.

I reminded myself that Steph would love me when we were famous.

“Hike,” I yelled, and we were off.

Monday, July 1, 2013