Bowlly. Two years later.

It was two years ago this week that we brought Bowlly home. Just weeks before, he had been rescued from living on the street in Paris near Palais Garnier, chained to a chair, helping beg for money that was probably never used to feed him or care for him properly. If the terrified and defensive emotional state we received him in is any indication, he was surely, as the woman who rescued him described, living life as a function and an object, not as an animal.

And yet, given the right behavioural nurturing and healthy food, one of the benefits animals have over us is that they can be rehabilitated to a point where they don’t retain the memory of their past in the same way that humans do. Removing the conditions that have caused pain and fear in the past is usually enough to make an animal regain confidence. Though Bowlly isn’t, of course, capable of this level of introspection, I do think where he is today is a way of remembering to remain positive. And so this song posted below, sung by the man he was named after (due to both of them having light, trilled voices and a similar sharply parted ‘hairstyle’) has come to be for us a sort of anthem for him and his way of being so rambunctiously joyful today despite having spent his first three years in such deplorably horrible circumstances. Historically, the song is an anthem of its era. A 1930s popular song from a musical of the same name expressing a commonly felt sentiment of its British Depression times and while generally upbeat, there’s a bitter sweetness to its tender longing. But that’s for another blog post…

It was a relatively difficult few months last summer in the events leading up to us leaving France and all its associated annoyances and challenges, some of which still linger today like a crackle in one’s breathing from a weeks old chest infection. Bowlly in our lives helps us in ways he’ll never understand, keeping us positive by remembering that nothing we’ve gone through is as bad as what he went through and to remember that one can not change what has happened, nor can one always design the options one is given. But one can choose how one reacts.

Now when we hear this song we think of our Bowlly and how despite what he went through, he’s happy today nevertheless due to our efforts and the efforts of friends in two countries who have met him who probably don’t realise how much their understanding and gentle touch have helped him come out of his shell. The only way we can thank him for what we’ve learned observing him over the last two years is to make sure he lives like a star. A small in stature, unassuming star, like his namesake.

“I’m looking on the bright side, though today’s all care and strife.
I can wear a grin, keeping up my chin, looking on the bright side of life.”

Sweet Sue

SusieSusie, you’ve rendered your otherwise long-winded, annoyingly talky owner rather silent with an achingly heavy heart and a tightly knotted throat.

We gave you perches on windows and beyond those windows we gave you Manhattan and Paris and inside those windows all the things worth living for (…namely prosciutto, comté, and Cumberland sausage). Funny how many people knew you over your 18 years, especially those you met in your short time here in Paris.

So long, ma petite puce. I’ll play the song for you, once again…

A new home for a new friend…

There is a new addition to our home who only recently became officially ours. He is a rescue cat that had been living on the streets in Paris, we don’t know for how long but it’s safe to assume that it had been for some time.

We found out about him online when we came across a post on an animal rescue forum from a woman who acts as an independent rescue shelter and was trying to find him a home. This cat and another cat he was with had been used on the street by a homeless man, as happens often in Paris, and had been chained (to not get away, I imagine). These are not often loving companions, but rather a means to get people’s sympathy. As this woman went to her full time day job every day and passed this man she began to see this cat in a state of declining health to the point where one day she even had to check to see if the cat was breathing because he was so lifeless. She began befriending the homeless man in the hopes of convincing him to give up the two cats. She told him that if he ever got tired of having them to let her know. One day, he told her he was leaving Paris and asked whether she wanted to take the two cats and she agreed. The two first went to stay in a veterinary office. The other cat, a gorgeous long haired persian was adopted very quickly. But this guy went so long without being adopted that he needed new lodgings because it was taking too long to find him a home. I can’t imagine why nobody was interested in him for several months. Perhaps people thought he looked too common, perhaps people are afraid of a cat that’s been on the street having problems of some kind. If you know us, we have a bit of a mission to find shelter cats or those with difficulties in finding a home because several cats over several years have turned us into rather well versed cat behaviourists. That’s the part in the story where we came along. We spoke with this woman, followed a very professional adoption process and after a one month trial period (in truth, after about an hour) we decided this cat would be fine with our current cat and just this past week we became his official owners.

This cat needed a home that knew how to address his fear issues, his high sensitivity to people, and his slightly defensive behaviour. In our experience with cats, we don’t think he was abused but he was clearly treated as an object and very roughly physically. It is at once a particularly alarming and heart breaking thing to see a cat react so abruptly and so full of fear upon just seeing a hand move. He definitely was never given anything resembling affection or care or proper food. What’s most important today is that he and Susie, our current cat, are fine together. This of course was after a strict and detailed process of proper cat introduction to which they both responded well. He adapts more each day and we hope he continues to do so. What we can promise him is that he’ll never sleep on sidewalks night after night, he’ll not feel weak from a lack of food, he’ll not hide during rainstorms and cower from thunder, he’ll not fear hundreds of noisy footsteps and buses as he tries to sleep through the day outdoors. The cat in him will be nurtured so he can be who he’s really meant to be and not who a human is forcing him to be.

While I’ve had cats in my life since childhood, there haven’t been that many. Learning how to properly care for them and give them what they need to be happy and balanced has afforded me the privileged company of three cats who lived well into their late teens, with the exception of my first who died at 14. Susie, our current cat, turns 18 this summer. My life has been accompanied at all times by cats and wherever I’ve gone they’ve gone with me. They’ve all been very lucky to have such a caring home but ironically it’s we that feel lucky to have had their company as late-night study partners and screenwriting partners, sous-chefs (albeit only observing and never helping), and all around companions. There isn’t a part of our lives our cats haven’t touched; lying on instructions while building Ikea furniture, diving into boxes while packing for a move, coyly commanding the attention of all our friends during dinner parties, watching as video game worlds are explored, sleeping and waking and then sleeping again through countless films, living not only through the agony of defeat during sports events (this is, after all, a Toronto Maple Leafs household) but also through the thrill of victory and the excitement of being raised in the air like trophies for what to them must seem absolutely ridiculous. Even if you were to have a momentary lapse and think your existence was little more than survival to them, it is in the moments when you wake in the middle of the night to turn over or adjust your pillow and find one of your cats joined as if magnetically to your body that you realise that the completely exposed and vulnerable belly, the limp paws, and the slightly ajar mouth with dangling tongue are all signs that you are, in terms any animal would understand, trusted. And that ability of an animal (be it feline, canine, or ‘otherwise-ine’) to sleep so defenselessly and deeply next to you is, even mid-sleep, capable of touching a part of you that few things know how to even reach.

Because of the little marking on his head that we immediately thought looked like a hairstyle with a strong part on one side from the 1930s and because of the delicately high-pitched voice that he has, we named him ‘Bowlly’ after one of our favourite singers from the ’30s, Al Bowlly, who possessed the same hairstyle and a similarly high-pitched tenor voice and strong vibrato. Al Bowlly was English and grew up in South Africa but spent the majority of his life in London. Though he’s not widely known today, if you study the development of popular music vocalists,  he is essentially the first real solo ‘crooner’ or singer in the world. I’ve always loved his music and as you may have noticed from my film work and other social media ramblings I’m particularly obsessed with music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. In our home, we’ve always thought of him as someone truly special. Guys like Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée started out by singing as part of a band or vocal group, but Al Bowlly was the first to be just a solo artist and found bands to sing in front of and record with. He was one of the first artists to have his records sold around the world and often found as he toured early in his career that people already knew the songs because of his records. While this is something that’s normal today, that degree of distribution was rarely heard of 100 years ago. It’s shocking when you know his music, that he’s only known today by scholars and aficionados but one reason is surely because he didn’t live long. Al Bowlly died tragically in 1941 in his sleep during a Nazi raid on London, when a parachute mine detonated outside his flat in the middle of the night. He was only in his forties. Time hasn’t been kind to the pioneers of what we today call popular music so I like to pay tribute when and how I can. Bowlly, the cat, has a grand name and we’ll see that he gets an equally grand life. I’ll be sharing some of his moments online in addition to those I already share of Susie with those of you who are kind enough to keep in touch via social media. Welcome, Bowlly!

For those of you that are curious, here’s a recording of Al Bowlly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bw5h-WPYBQ

Bowlly.. (you’re moving along quite nicely, pal)
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…and Al Bowlly.
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A cat named Django

In early December of 2009, my wife and I had to put our cat Carlota to sleep. She was twenty. According to my vet Arnold Plotnick, a cat specialist, that equates to about 100 years old in human years. In the months following, my wife and I became incredibly conscious of how many cats like Carlota must end up in shelters late in their lives for various unfair reasons and, some of them, while dealing with any number of illnesses, diseases and medical conditions. The next summer, we had decided that we wanted to adopt another cat. Living with us still was Susie, my wife’s cat that she went back home to get in Puerto Rico after permanently moving to our one bedroom apartment in New York. Susie and Carlota had lived together… tolerated each other… reluctantly, for about 5 years. Having cared for Carlota for so long even though she only got sick near the end, and having had to deal with a few medical issues with Susie as well, we decided that we wanted to find an older cat that needed the attention of people who could really dedicate themselves to improving his or her quality of life, even if it was only for a few years.

When we first met Django, his name was Archie. He had been found in a home with 3 other cats. The lady who owned them had apparently died somewhere else because the cats had been alone in the apartment for 2 weeks. Django needed the most care when he was found: he was hyperthyroid, he had an infection in his mouth that caused him to lose several teeth and a few more needed to be pulled, he had blood pressure issues, minor kidney failure, and a combination of inner ear infections and ear mites that had caused him to scratch his ear to the point of deformity. Constantly kicking himself in the ear with untrimmed nails had caused his right ear to bend down like a Scottish Fold’s ears from the trauma. By the time we met him he had been cleaned up significantly but he was a bit thin, shaggy on all sides like he had just been through a dumpster, and his leg muscles were a bit weak from doing nothing but sitting in a cage all day waiting for half a pill, given to him in the evening. We had gone to see him after seeing the rescue shelter’s ad for him with the hopes of adopting him. Almost as though she thought we’d prefer a less problematic cat, the lady from the shelter tried to show us another, but it was no use. The first thing he did when he was put in front of us on the examination table at the vet’s office where we met him was to walk up to us and bump our face gently with his forehead. Done. We were sold. Django had a home.

We called him Django because of our love of jazz and because of a bizarre but loving connection we made between his deformed ear and the deformed left hand of jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, whose hand was burned in a fire when he was a young boy. With a thumb, his first two fingers and the deformity in his last two fingers he went on to be one of the greatest guitar players ever recorded and, in my opinion, of all time. Django, the cat, got treatment for the remaining ear infection, a few good baths, an amazing diet to help with his slight kidney failure and allowed him, even at an older age which our vet, Dr. Plotnick, guessed to be about 12 or 13, to bloom from what was a cat that basically just sat around to one that eventually interacted with us every day, jumping everywhere and sleeping anywhere, often with his face literally buried in his paws. It was a transformation that people who saw him more than once were quick to notice.

This past Monday morning, Ana and I had to put Django to sleep. And it was as sudden as that. A pervasive cough two weeks ago concerned us enough to take him to his vet and before we had time to get used to any kind of treatment routine we were talking about a tumor, and then just like with Carlota the decision to stop everything before it turned into suffering had to be made. This time it was just a lot sooner than we expected. Ana and I have a rule, we refuse to let vets make diagnosis easy for us to take. We ask for nothing less than explicit medical and clinical analysis with the express goal of answering at all times one simple question no matter how tough it is: “what is best for him right now?” without ever, under any circumstances, putting our feelings first. Django or any other animal not being able to speak or tell us what hurts deserves the kind of care that never puts anything but their best interests and health before anything else.

We’ve been through this so we know pretty much how it plays out. We’re human. It hurts. It hurts to care every day for an animal who is a family member, a loved one, a friend, and to not have that animal around anymore. At some point, I’ll stop stepping around the entrance to the kitchen where he’d sit and watch me cooking, waiting for something to drop so he could get a taste or just flat out demanding it out loud. I’ll stop leaving a little gap between me and the edge of the bed before I fall asleep so he has somewhere to lie down without too much effort in case he decides to join us. I’ll stop thinking I see him out of the corner of my eye on that spot on the couch which gave him both proximity to us during movie watching and a short hop away from food and water. And at some point, I’ll be able to get through this story, like I now can with Carlota, without getting blurry vision from tears. But being human, and having a logical brain that we’re all both blessed and cursed by that has no idea how to live in harmony with our emotions, the one thing I’ve never learned to answer is whether we did all we could do at every possible moment. I’m ok with knowing we at least tried to.

Dr. Victoria Sheheri, our lighthouse this past week who we didn’t know much before and now feel richer for having met, Dr. Arnold Plotnick our regular vet, and everyone at his private practice Manhattan Cat Specialists made the past week perfect as they seem to have figured out how to do with everything from check-ups to buying cat food. Dr. Whitney Long and Dr. Meredith Daly at Bluepearl Veterinary Partners made Django’s last 24 hours exactly what they needed to be, pain-free. We’ll never know how difficult his first 12 years were or even if they really were 12 years or more or less. We only had the traces of his life to interpret that were left on him when he was rescued . But we do know that a team of incredible, warm, compassionate and passionate people came together to make sure he received enough care and respect to make up for anything he may have lived through before. We’re not people of religious faith but the people that help animals like Django when they need it are our versions of angels.

Something struck me the other day when I was looking at him after having learned he was sick. To have had so much going on in him for so many years, to have had to deal with the condition his various ailments had left him with, to have had trouble with the simplest tasks like eating and rubbing his ear, and to still get so thrilled with something as simple as a bite-size piece of prosciutto, stroking his shoulders, or greeting us when we came home made me wish we could be as appreciative and thrilled by simple pleasures as our pets are. It reminded me that a large part of the trouble we have to go through in life is influenced by how we choose to deal with it.

I wish he could know how much philosophical thought he’s inspired. How desperately we wanted to make sure he never spent a moment not being given the life he deserved. And how much just sitting still and getting kisses on the little prickly hairs between his eyes pleased his owners.

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