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What happens when you bring a pet into your life for the first time

I always loved animals. But I never thought I’d own one. When I was a kid, my parents said no to pets. Five kids gave them enough to think about. They handed us some line about my brother being allergic, and that was that.

In college, a roommate tried giving me two kittens as a present. The responsibility overwhelmed me, and I refused to accept them.

Ten or 15 years after that, I had a dog, for exactly 24 hours. The story was so harrowing that I wrote it up for The Buffalo News for therapy’s sake. “We aren’t all St. Francis of Assisi,” I had sniffed on that occasion, urging others to learn from my experience.

That’s it, I thought after that. I will pet my friends’ pets. But a dog or cat of my own? Too much work. Howard, the guy I married, agreed.

And then came Alley.

We called her that because she was the alley cat. We didn’t take her in, worrying that a cat would wreck the house, but we fed her and grew to love her. Naively, because we could find no lost-pet notice that matched up with her, we figured she was simply a stray.

Then came the day we took her to the vet for a checkup. She had a microchip – and, we soon learned, an owner.

It was an awful moment. The vet, no doubt feeling terrible, left the room. Howard and I were left alone with the cat we had known as Alley.

“Maybe we should take the cat and run,” Howard said. But no, we took the high road. Alley – actually named Waffles – went back to her owner. We went home brokenhearted.

“Howard,” I said, “I think we should adopt a cat.” More cautious than I, he made me promise to hold off. I promised.

But then I changed my mind.

His birthday was coming up. Why not get him a cat?

I do not take vows lightly and so, on the way to the SPCA, I said a prayer to St. Francis of Assisi, who I hoped had forgiven me for my long-ago essay about the dog.

“If this is the wrong thing to do,” I entreated him, “let me know.”

Long story short, I found no cat at the SPCA.

It was weird, I had thought it would be like cat heaven, and my only problem would be deciding on one. But the few cats that were there were all asleep in their cages. No volunteer reached out to me, and no cat did, either. Back in my car, I remembered my prayer. “OK, St. Francis,” I said. “I guess I have my answer.”

Then, that very minute, my phone rang. It was my sister.

“Do you still want a cat?” she said.

She told me, excitedly, about a friend in East Aurora who had taken in a tomcat. She had come home from vacation and found the orange tabby sitting with her cats on the couch. He had come in the cat door.

“He’s a lovely cat,” she said. “My friend has too many cats. She ... ”

“OK,” I said. “We’ll take him.”

And then worry set in.

What if the cat wrecked the furniture? What if he scratched the antique Steinway grand? What if Howard was mad? What was I thinking?

My sister shrugged off my doubts. She had adopted a stray, a black cat named Jinx.

“It’s good to have a cat around,” she said.

In a daze, I went to Wegmans and bought litter, a litter box, some cat food. I went home and awaited the cat.

A dog’s tale

In books, adopting pets is easy. In real life, things can be complicated.

I am not the only difficult case. In an unrelated incident, my friend Michelle also recently became a first-time pet owner.

For decades, she wanted a dog. Her husband didn’t want one. Then the marriage ended, and Michelle found herself in a new apartment in the City of Tonawanda. And she remembered her old dream of a dog.

Why not? she thought.

She is a vice president at Denton, Cottier and Daniels, the piano firm. Like me, she had a Steinway she was concerned for. But like me, she decided to cross her fingers and take the plunge. With qualifications. She wanted a mature dog, a modest-sized dog, a dog trained and docile.

She went to the SPCA, the same one in Town of Tonawanda where I had gone to look for a cat. And she met a series of dogs. One, a pit bull mix, charmed her. She took him for a walk, and they hit it off.

But when she went back for a return visit, the dog acted up. He growled. Michelle, disappointed, was ready to give up on the idea.

Then appeared a spirited black puppy.

The puppy, a girl dog, jumped up on her, licking her. Michelle was enchanted. Her boyfriend was also charmed.

“I’ve got some cash,” he said. “How do we make this happen?”

End result, as we say here in Buffalo, Michelle adopted the dog. The dog, still growing rapidly, is coal black, with a splash of white on her chest. Michelle named her KD, after k.d. lang, a girl who wears a tux.

I went to visit Michelle after work, and this is what happens: She walks in the door, and there is this covered kennel in the middle of the floor. She pulls the cover off the kennel and this creature comes rocketing out.

Sleepy at first, the dog quickly turns into a banshee. Licking your hands, licking your feet.

“Down, girl!” Michelle barked.

I am not sure, to be honest, I could handle such a handful. Still, I look around Michelle’s place and can’t see any damage done. Her fab couches, her piano, everything seems OK.

KD does eat socks, Michelle confessed.

“And I bought her two dog beds,” she added. “I find remnants of them around the house.”

But KD will grow up to be a lady. She is taking agility classes.

“I never thought of myself as one of those pet parents who would put my dog in classes,” Michelle said, sheepishly. “But she’s going to be getting 20 pounds heavier. I’m trying to train her before that.”

And Michelle has reaped the ultimate reward of dog ownership: constant exercise. They are training together for a marathon.

A cat’s life

Michelle, coincidentally, also said a prayer to St. Francis – a prayer of thanks, when she and KD walked past his statue.

“Did you ever own a dog before?” someone asked Michelle at a wedding the other day.

She said, “No, but I always needed a dog.”

Was it like that with me? Did I always need a cat, and I just didn’t know it?

I wonder that sometimes. Because it’s hard to remember life before Jeoffry, which is what we eventually named our orange tabby.

We named him My Cat Jeoffry after the 18th century poem – a religious liturgy, really – that begins, “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.” My dad read it to me when I was little. Howard, once he got over his shock and forgave me for breaking my promise, began calling him “My cat,” and I was calling him “Jeoffry,” and so the name stuck.

Both Howard and I had to get over a bit of a shock, adopting him.

It seemed pretty easy at first. I put the litter box by the cellar door. As soon as the cat arrived, he sauntered down the stairs to the box and did a job. Then he ambled over to his food bowl and had a snack.

That night, though, we let him sleep on the bed with us, and he kept pouncing on our feet. The next day, he had separation anxiety, and jumped up and scratched my legs when I was trying to get out the door to go to work.

He chased me up the stairs so often and so aggressively that I learned to keep a basket of corks on the landing to toss at him. “For he chases the cork,” goes one line in “My Cat Jeoffry.” Cats have not changed since the 1700s.

The vet – the same vet who broke the bad news about Alley – determined that Jeoffry was less than a year old. Even a year later, he is still a big kitten in some ways. He has not mastered the gentlemanly art of sitting in a lap. But he loves to be picked up and held. To this day I have never heard him hiss or growl.

He studies the birds, sometimes chirping at them. He has a squirrel noise he makes at the squirrels. He loves his cat carrier and likes to sleep in it, the way Michelle’s dog likes to sleep in her kennel.

At night, though, he still sleeps at our feet. But luckily he has learned that our feet aren’t prey. In the morning, he wakes us like the orange cat in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” – by walking over us and breathing on us. It’s hilarious, to look up and see this stern cat face.

OK, so he has ruined two armchairs. He shreds cardboard boxes, tracking bits of paper all over the house. He eats ribbon and barfs it up. And it’s a battle to keep him off the kitchen counters.

But slip covers seem to have protected the antique dining room chairs. The carpets are the same color as he is, which is convenient, to say the least. And our Steinway, like Michelle’s, miraculously does not interest him.

Plus, he contributes to the household. Once, we came home to find him dignified, lordly, holding his head high. He had caught a mouse.

Good boy! Good boy!! Yes, as a first-time pet owner, I have good news. Though you do have to be open to a little bit of chaos, it’s not as much work as you think. What work there is, is worth it.

Most importantly, never say never. Don’t think you’d ever own a pet? Don’t be so sure. There might be a cat or dog there for you.

Ask St. Francis.