No one knows how old my cat Bruiser Joe is. One coal-black ear is tattered from a lifetime of fighting; half his face is salt and pepper, the other half shows paralysis from some neurological catastrophe—he can’t blink one eye, he has only one fang, and he is deaf.
A long, muscular male, Bruiser strayed in ten years ago, beating up on my neutered pillow cats and taking their food (hence “Bruiser”). No one could get near him—he was streetwise, crafty, a survivor. But no one was caring for him either; his mouth hung open and he drooled. So instead of driving him off, I trapped him and had his ruined teeth pulled. Outside, I set up a heated bed for him under the eaves, left food out, and so he came to live on my deck. Neighbors recognized him as “Joe” who years before had lived up the block where he wasn’t missed.
The first decade of the twenty-first century passed, and then one night last winter, he scratched at the door. I slid it open and the now old cat stalked in, jumped onto the couch, and wobbled into my lap. He stood awkwardly and stared, and then he curled up. A few weeks later, he found a forgotten, rusty purr.
At least eighteen, Bruiser remains regal and strong despite arthritis and thyroid medication. He is legendary at the vet hospital where he once fought so hard against a blood draw that they shut it down, fearing he would have a heart attack. When Frank, my vet of forty years, first saw him recently, he stared at Bruiser Joe and said, “This cat has a very powerful spirit.” He peered intently, then said “I can feel it.” Science meets metaphysics.
And science meets art. This week, Frank confided that he had written a poem after having to put down a dog he had treated and liked. A poem for an animal by someone whose daily routine involves euthanasia?
Of course, exploration of human-animal bonds is not unprecedented. In the eighteenth century, Christopher Smart cataloged the virtues of his cat Jeoffrey:
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
In “Lines to a Favorite Cat,” Big Sur poet Eric Barker wrote about the death of his beloved Pawtucket at the teeth of raccoons:
This is the way things are:
I have carried your bedding of ferns
To the deep hole I have dug, crossed
Your paws in the way
You used to sleep.
In “The House Dog’s Grave,” Robinson Jeffers immortalized Haig, his English bulldog, whose spirit speaks from his garden grave to comfort his grieving owners:
You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.
And British poet Roy Fuller wrote “In Memory of My Cat, Domino: 1951-1966,” addressing him:
. . . I avoided calling up
What I know is intact in my mind, your life,
Entirely possessed as it was by my care.
Fuller also edited a book of animal poems titled Fellow Mortals. In his documentary film Gates of Heaven, filmmaker Errol Morris explored the phenomenon of pet cemeteries. And the film Language Does Not Lie notes that the Nazi dehumanization of Jews eventually included a prohibition against them keeping pets.
Quite properly, you may be asking what this animal story is doing on a higher education blog. The answer is just this: the relations of humans to animals are profound, mysterious, and haunted by grief. Higher education’s prized STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, math) are necessarily silent on this essential experience of the human condition; human affection and sympathy for animals can’t be observed, quantified, measured or explained so their significance and mystery lie outside STEM’s boundaries. Sir Ken Robinson speaks of how the route to a college degree often “marginalizes most of the things you think important about yourself.” Only art and literature, particularly poetry, offer a chance to imagine what it was like being ordered to surrender your cat for euthanasia, or what you hope your house dog’s spirit would say to you, or how it feels when an ancient animal decides, after a span as long as the Trojan War, that you have proven yourself worthy of his trust.