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An Irishman’s Diary about cats and Halloween

‘Pete Briquette, spent some of the run-up to Halloween under house arrest. Then, because we had to be away for a couple of days, he  was transferred to a high-security facility, the local veterinary shelter, where he remains under lock and key.’

‘Pete Briquette, spent some of the run-up to Halloween under house arrest. Then, because we had to be away for a couple of days, he was transferred to a high-security facility, the local veterinary shelter, where he remains under lock and key.’

Thu, Oct 31, 2013, 15:55

Our 14-month-old cat, Pete Briquette, spent some of the run-up to Halloween under house arrest. Then, because we had to be away for a couple of days, he was transferred to a high-security facility, the local veterinary shelter, where he remains under lock and key.

The problem is his colour. When I first rescued him, on a bog road in Tipperary last year, he was browny-black, like one of the scraps of turf for which I nearly mistook him. Hence the name that, having just avoided my front car-wheels, he immediately acquired.

But now, after a year of food, shelter, and worm doses, most of the brown has disappeared. His coat has instead resolved itself into a shiny black. It looks more like coal than turf these days.

And there’s the problem. Apparently, black cats lead a fraught existence around this time of year. I’m told that, because of their traditional association with good luck and bad luck, and their occult reputation generally, they are seen by some people as desirable accessories to Halloween celebrations.

It doesn’t help that one of the most popular Chinese-made fireworks is also called the “Black Cat”. As a consequence, I gather, there are certain miscreants out there who may even find it amusing to add one black cat to another and see what happens.

Now, in reality, I suspect this doesn’t happen very often. I suspect indeed that its incidences may be rare enough for it to qualify as an urban myth. So had the decision been mine entirely, I might have let Pete take his chances this week.

After all, Halloween is not the only time cats are at risk. On the mean streets of Dublin, there are many, more routine dangers facing them: dogs, traffic, gangsters doing machine-gun practice, etc. You can’t protect pets against everything.

Besides, as I reasoned until recently, Pete wasn’t yet in the habit of wandering. But then, about 10 days ago, he went missing for 36 hours. And by the time he had failed to come home for a second night running, my children were imagining him in all sorts of Halloween horrors.

Instead of which, the morning afterwards, he sauntered up the garden path without explanation, as cats do, looking like a bored teenager who only came back for food. Cue great relief. Cue also the detention order.

I heard a vet on radio during the week explain that, in general, cats are more prone to mistreatment than other pets. This is in part because, even among animal lovers, they divide opinion sharply. Some people (like the poet Baudelaire) almost worship them. Others can’t stand the creatures.

Despite my fondness for Pete, I remain somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Certainly, compared with dogs, cats are hard to love. If you do love them, it’s probably a one-sided relationship. At least dogs give you something back occasionally, if only a thrown stick. Cats don’t even do that sort of reciprocation.

The supposed aloofness and mystique are, for some people, part of their charm. Yet even this has to be projected onto them. The main reason cats have mystique is that, like people who’ve overdone the Botox, they can’t move their faces. They only have one expression each. It’s guesswork as to what, if anything, is going on behind it.

This also explains their other big PR problem: the absence of positive feline role models in TV or cinema. Unlike dogs, horses – and even kangaroos – cats are useless at acting: which is why you’ve never seen one in a lead role anywhere outside cartoons or animatronics. (And the Botox isn’t a complete excuse, by the way. Flipper had a very limited range of facial expressions too, but it didn’t stop him getting a TV series.)

The big paradox, therefore, is that cats seem to own the internet. Having utterly failed in mainstream media, they are the stars – albeit invariably anonymous – of a million YouTube videos. Although I suppose that fits as well. Along with a single facial expression, most cats can also perform one weird or amusing trick: just long enough for a video clip.

For all I know, their collective mastery of new media may be a Darwinian survival strategy: yet more evidence of cats’ supposed evolutionary cunning and ability to manipulate humans for their own ends.

Maybe, come to think of it, Pete Briquette knew exactly what he was doing when he went missing last week, precipitating protective custody. In any case, I couldn’t take the chance of him meeting a nasty end, especially one involving fireworks. My own guilt aside, if that ever happened, the children would never forgive me for naming him after a combustible fuel product.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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