A Tale of Two Cats

We got our new cat Barney on the day the lockdown started in the UK on the 23rd of March. In the five and a half weeks since (has it really only been that long – it feels like at least two months!), we have just about managed to get them accustomed to each other (or should that be resigned?), but I’m not sure they will ever be friends. Part of that is their age of course (Zoe is eight and has been our only cat for six years, while Barney is fifteen), part of it their personalities, but I can’t help thinking that their very different life experience may have also had an effect.

Hear me out and indulge my fancy.

Zoe was born somewhere on the Franco-Swiss border and left by the side of the road in a bin bag with her other siblings. She has an aversion to bin bags to this day and suckles up to me constantly, a sign she was probably taken too soon from her mother. She was found by a homeless man and became his companion for a couple of years, until he found a place in a shelter or housing project and she ended up in a refuge. This means she learnt to bond with one person – and one person only. She gradually became Mummy’s girl, even though it took her nearly a year and a broken marriage to finally come on my lap, but she was initially not very accepting of anyone else. She has now included the boys in her ‘loved people bubble’ but is still frightened of other humans. As for other cats – forget it! She is deeply, deeply suspicious of them – perhaps a sign that she was bullied on the streets. Since we moved back to the UK, she has refused to befriend any of the cats in our close, despite some friendly advances on their part initially.

Look how safe Barney feels when he is fast asleep…

For Barney we have a precise date of birth. He was adopted (possibly together with a sibling) as a kitten and has been cherished and looked after all his life. He lived with another cat in the house, so he is predisposed to make friends with the other cats in the close. He is calm, laid back, friendly with everyone but not too clingy. He had a momentary glitch in his good fortune when his owner went into a care home and he was left to fend for himself. But after a few weeks in a foster home, he found himself yet more willing slaves – three of them now, instead of just one. And he has never attacked Zoe or even hissed at her, only occasionally creeping under the sofa when he thinks she might be on the rampage.

Zoe sleeps coiled up like a spring, and is often on the alert.

On the face of it, Barney is easier to love and get along with, but how much of that is thanks to his privileged background? How many of Zoe’s instances of aloofness and acts of aggression are really about a traumatised little girl not quite daring to believe her current good fortune is permanent (even though it’s been three quarters of her life by now)? I don’t know if the homeless man mistreated her, but she certainly backs down very quickly and guiltily if you raise your voice even just a little. She has never damaged anything in the house or climbed where she wasn’t supposed to go. Meanwhile, easygoing Barney nonchalantly pees in other people’s litter trays or jumps up on the kitchen counter and try to gnaw his way into the breadbasket.

Claudia Rankine’s defence of Serena Williams in her wonderful ‘poetry’ volume Citizen opened my eyes to the cumulative effects of countless micro-aggressions. All these might lead to a chip on the shoulder, to a belligerent personality that some people consider strident, to a question in parliament or a business meeting that may be waved away with a smile and a ‘Calm down, dear’. Meanwhile, charming and venerable older gentleman Barney has wrapped us all around his white paws, and wreaks havoc.

Well, I hope not, I hope this is where the extended analogy ends. But, now and always, I am the side of those who lack privileges and the easy life. This is not a conflict, but if it were, I am Team Zoe.


33 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cats”

    1. He really is! He fooled us all into thinking he is a sedate older gent, but when I let him out into the garden for the first time, he just zoomed off over the fence, leapt huge distances onto the neighbour’s garden sheds and visited all the other gardens.

  1. They have such interesting personalities, don’t they, Marina Sofia? And I agree with you that pets’ personalities are shaped (or at least, powerfully affected) by their early experiences. Our dogs are the same way – very different personalities, both impacted by their early lives.

  2. My mother has a feral cat, about 10 years old. It was taken from its mother when it was about a week old and that has definitely permanently left its mark. It trusts no human other than my mother and a friend who originally found it. He runs for the hills if anybody else comes into the house.

    1. Poor little orphans! A friend recently rescued a kitten that someone just dumped on a waste site outside their offices. Why do people do that? Why not just neuter their cats or take the kittens to a rescue?

  3. Aw, I hope they are able to begin to enjoy each other’s company. They do have their own distinct personalities, though, don’t they?

    1. They are getting better, but I don’t think they’ll ever be hugging each other like I see some other cats do. Probably the ones that grew up together.

  4. Our lovely cat, Squeaker, had clearly been kicked around before she came to us. It took years before my partner could walk close to her without her flinching. She did sit on his lap after six years or so! Her successor, Mischief, is very different, clearly much loved when her owners moved to a flat where they couldn’t have a cat. She likes to stretch out like rather like Barney.

  5. I don’t think age difference has anything to do with their not getting along. Possibly not even what they went through. I think it could just be temperament. I had no idea she had such a troubled past. I don’t know anything about my cat girl only that she’s half-feral. Nobody can touch or even approach her, even though my partner and I adopted her together. We adopted him one month after her. He was a little over a year younger, just five months old. But he also won’t anyone touch him, won’t even let anyone come near with the exception of us. But he’s very much my cat. They are so different that’s why they do t get along, The fights aren’t as dreadful as they used to be but still happen. Not pretty. I wish that yours will feel more comfortable with each other and don’t fight. They are both so cute and lucky to have been adopted by you.

    1. And I am lucky to have them! The semi-feral past would explain your girl cat’s wildness. I suppose I was lucky that Zoe did know some affection from her homeless friend, because she has become such a loving companion. I struggle to get her off me at times! Barney is more self-sufficient, and has a funny habit of lifting his bottom when he gets stroked. Makes us all laugh!

      1. She should be outdoors. She’s so wild. There was a total mix up at the shelter which we found out later. We wanted an 8 door I e and they showed us a feral. But we couldn’t bring her back. She was at that shelter over a year. Nobody would have adopted her. I have to play a lot with her. She was also clearly abused. Kicked or hit. She’s loving with me too. Too clingy sometimes.

        1. You just can’t leave them at the shelter, can you? That’s why I had to get Barney in the end. I knew Zoe wouldn’t be happy, but I also knew that no one is keen to adopt a 15 year old.

        2. I agree. Very hard to find a place for an elderly cat. I’m glad you did it. I hope she’ll come around.

        3. She sometimes passes quite closely by him and doesn’t stare him down and then she looks up at me and meows sweetly, as if to ask: ‘Am I doing OK, Mum?’ which breaks my heart a bit. I know it’s her personality, but it reminds me of gender differences, girls being trained to please etc.

        4. It’s quite cute. Maybe she also wants reassurance that she’s still the favorite.
          I hope this training has improved nowadays. It definitely didn’t do me any favors.

  6. Such cuties! I do believe every animal should get love, even if some appear easier than others. They can’t help the experiences they’ve had. Yûki was rescued by my mom when the owners wanted to drown the puppies. She was separated from her mother too soon and has always had issues. She’s an anxious dog, and for four years, she was my only baby. Then we rescued Iris, whose previous mama passed away. Despite being deaf, she’s had the right upbringing, she’s fun, she loves meeting new dogs and people, she likes adventures. But I love them equally.

    1. Ah, so yours have had the same sort of experiences as mine and that has possibly coloured their personalities. But, as you say, it makes no difference to the amount of love that I feel for them!

  7. Barney is definitely a charmer, but my heart goes out to Zoe. It’s amazing that she has relaxed as much as she has considering her rough start. It’s always fun to run across their little standoffs on Twitter.

    1. I’ve been oversharing their exploits lately on Twitter – I suppose because I find it a welcome distraction from all that’s going on. But not everybody likes cats, so I am aware I shouldn’t exaggerate. They are both so charming in different ways: Zoe has the cutest little meow, and Barney has a purr that can easily compete with a tractor.

  8. I love to read cat stories. How nice that you know your cats’ histories. Our cat was a stray before we got her and the only history we know is that she was at the shelter for three months before we took her. It felt like fate. We had to pay $1200 to get her dental work done, and she still has dental problems, but she is worth it. It took a year for her to acclimate but now she is loving to all of us, seeking petting and affection.

    1. Yes, I had to have most of Zoe’s teeth taken out – she was suffering, they were infected, poor thing! Meanwhile, Barney has plenty of healthy teeth – see, yet another proof of the good life he’s had to date.

  9. None of this sounds far-fetched to me, it all makes perfect sense! My two rescues have calmed down a lot in the 10 years I’ve had them, but they’ll always be highly strung which I’m sure is because their first seven years weren’t the best.

    1. Seven years is a long time for them to suffer, so yes, am not surprised that they still have that trauma. Were they together before you rescued them, so are they fine with each other?

  10. I hate to hear about animals being mistreated — and to drown puppies. Yikes. I assume there were animal shelters then. Those things can traumatize dogs or cats and humans who witness this for life. But in your household, sounds pretty normal. A neighbor had five big cats, all of different ages, gotten at different times. They each had a territory they protected (in a three-room apartment), some in the living room, some in the kitchen. The oldest ones were most territorial. But that’s behavior inherited from their cat ancestors for survival.
    I’m for Barney and Zoe, for peaceful co-existence, letting them be who they are, being as loving as you and your sons are and respecting their own personalities. I’ve loved even the orniest cats, including that of a neighbor who never would get on a lap, would lelt me pet him for a few minutes and would only let three people pet him when he wanted it. He was mostly feral, but lived for 20 years. I missed the feline curmudgeon after he was gone for quite awhile.

    1. Yes, I love them both very much. Like with the children, it’s funny how you think initially you can never love anybody as much as your first born (or in this case, the first adoptee) – but then you do! The heart has an infinite capacity for love.

  11. What lovely stories of your cats’ lives and backgrounds – they’re both very lucky to have found shelter with you, and at least there are now two moggies who are safe from cruelty.

    1. I’ve heard rumours that people are throwing out their cats for fear that they might be transmitting Covid-19 (and because most animal shelters are not accepting new entries right now). I hope that’s not true!

  12. They’re both beautiful! I’m sure you’re right about early experiences affecting their behaviour, and also about the effects of Zoe having been weaned too early – my own two still do that suckling thing and I’ve always assumed it was for the same reason. Must admit I’ve had two pairs of siblings in my life and neither pair got on – they tolerated one another at best. I always envy these pics other people have of their cats cuddling up together. Not mine!

    1. Ah, so siblings are not the solution… I was thinking of adopting a brother and sister pair of kittens (after Zoe and Barney are gone, not now) and naming them Sappho and Socrates or Max and Moritz. I was hoping they would be best friends… but like real siblings, it can vary, I suppose!

  13. I had cats who hadn’t known each other, introduced a female kitten to a young adult male Siamese/tabby mix. They were always together and loved each other. My male cat was the sweetest cat, always wanted to be on my lap, and since part Siamese, he talked to me constantly. As I had a partner who didn’t love cats and didn’t want them in the bedroom, they would wait outside the door until the person left the room, and they’d jump on the bed and curl up with me. Best legwarmers ever!

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