I have learned that walking a cat is not at all like walking a dog.
I found Tali up a tree in a local park when she was just a kitten, hungry and covered in fleas. Despite her uncertain start in life, today she’s a healthy, pampered, and spirited three year old indoor cat. Yet from the day I brought her home, I have had mixed feelings about her confinement. Growing up, family pets of the feline variety were allowed to wander in and out freely. Now as an adult trying my hardest to be a responsible pet parent (I don’t love the term pet “owner”, apt though it is), I feel compelled to keep Tali contained. A stint working at a veterinary clinic burdened me with the knowledge of all that can, and does, go terribly wrong – encounters with cars, toxic substances, aggressive dogs, wild animals, and (by far the worst of all) sickeningly malicious humans. Beyond fears for her safety, there are broader responsibilities to consider. Given the devastation even a single cat can visit upon a delicate biosphere, I cannot justify unleashing my beloved little monster upon the outside world.
And yet, it does break my heart a little to see her gazing out the window of my apartment for hours on end (not to mention the other indignities she endures from her well-intentioned human overlord: veterinary visits, grooming, me loudly singing along with David and Freddie whenever “Under Pressure” comes up on my playlists). Is that wistfulness in her eyes? Does she remember the open sky above her and the feel of soil under her toes from her itinerant kittenhood? The practice of keeping animals as pets opens a Pandora’s box of difficult ethical questions, not least of which is: are we really providing the best life for these animals (and do we even want to know the answer)? Having recently read the excellent (and devastating) book by Jessica Pierce, Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, I found myself wondering if I was really taking all of my cat’s needs into consideration. Sure, she eats exceptional food (Stella & Chewies Freeze Dried Dinner Morsels, and ZIWI Peak Air Dried Cat Food, in case you’re wondering), her litter box is kept pristine, and she gets playtime and companionship daily… but true exploration and novelty is difficult to find in the confines a small Bay Area apartment. Thus, with inspiration and tips from Adventure Cats, Tali and I embarked on a new venture together: outdoor walks. After several weeks of harness training (yes, weeks – it’s important to take things slow), we were ready.
I had hoped walking my cat would provide her with a safe way to more fully experience the world; what I didn’t anticipate is that it would do the same for me. Now, as I said – walking a cat is not like walking a dog. We do not stroll down the street with Tali trotting amiably at my side, gazing lovingly at me as I praise her for heeling properly. Walking a cat feels more like dérive. We have no route, destination, or any particular goal. It started with vigilance. I had to watch her closely since she had a tendency to explore the world by, well, trying to eat it. I musingly wondered if I was missing out on a whole world of sensory experience by lacking her gustatory boldness. I realized on our first walk that it had been years, almost her entire life, since her paws had touched grass and dirt. Humans must have touched the ground constantly for millennia, but today modern life has fashionably swaddled our feet from that raw connection. I slipped off my shoes as my cat and I walked, and together we remembered the tactile world beneath us. We stood still and watched birds flit nearby. Her gaze was inscrutable, and although I might reasonably suspect her thoughts were full of murder, for me it was a moment of perfect presence and gratitude.
Now that we’re more accustomed to our walks, I’m not going to pretend I never become engrossed in a podcast or find myself compulsively checking my Twitter feed. Still, Tali has a knack for choosing those moments to suddenly bolt up a nearby tree or tangle the leash around my ankle, jolting me back to the present moment. I increasingly find myself satisfied to disconnect from my virtual connections and immerse myself fully in the present moment. I wonder often – and I’m sure readers with pets can relate to this – who takes care of whom. I provide my cat with food, shelter, and entertainment, but she seems determined to teach me how to be a better human.