Saturday, July 20, 2013

Grounding Miss Annie?

July 21, 2013

Dear friends,

Miss Annie does not regard the Fourth of July as a holiday. The sudden lights make no cat-sense to her, and the noise of the explosions hurts her ears. The unpredictable patterns of lights and explosions send her central nervous system into hyper-sensitive, hyper-reactive red alert.

Our usual routine for managing this yearly crisis is simple: we stay at home with doors and windows securely closed, and have lots of together time and a large ration of treats. This year we were proceeding as usual and were doing quite well until the evening of the Fourth.

Friends stopped by to share wonderful food from their afternoon barbeque. Involved in the interesting conversation we were having, I forgot that it was the Fourth—no, that is not what happened. I remembered the fact of the date itself. However, interacting with my friends in the relative quiet of late afternoon sunlight, I stopped giving attention to Annie’s reality.

By this time Annie was bored with being indoors, particularly since with company present no one was paying sufficient attention to her Duchess self. Annie walked sedately to the door and with exemplary good manners asked to go out. My friend was sitting near the door, and noticing Annie, asked, “She goes out, doesn’t she?”

“Yes,” I responded absent-mindedly. My friend, in logical response, opened the door, and Miss Annie made her exit, dignified, lady-like, her long white tail held elegantly erect.

When I realized what had happened, I was cross with myself but relatively unconcerned. Annie consistently demonstrates serious attention to food. I thought she would come home for her supper before the evening’s fireworks began. My friends and I continued our conversation, and I left Annie out and on her own without further thought.

After some time—it was, however, still quite light—there was a sudden loud explosion followed by a series of smaller explosions. The initial sound was so loud and unexpected that all of us were physically startled.

“What on earth was that?” I exclaimed.

“I suppose someone fired their Large Special Fourth of July Firecracker early—couldn’t wait until dark,” my friend replied. “That was really a cannon shot.”

Then, becoming suddenly in touch again with Miss Annie’s world, I said, “Good grief! I left Annie out, and she'll be scared witless!"

We walked around the neighborhood looking for her but Miss Annie was nowhere to be found. In a world that from her cat’s eye view had gone mad with lights and sound, Miss Annie had gone to ground.

My friends went home, and I settled in to wait for Miss Annie. As the late summer sunlight faded into night, the erratic explosions and the disconcerting flashes of light increased. From time to time I would go to the door to see if Miss Annie had returned, but there was no sign of the Duchess. She was making herself safe in the best way she knew with the resources available to her. From her point of view, missing supper was a necessity, no matter how uncomfortable it was. So long as the lights and noise continued it was simply too dangerous to attempt the trip home.

Sometime around one o’clock the fireworks ceased for the most part and the dark became quiet. I went once again to check on Miss Annie, but there was no Duchess sitting regally on the mat waiting for me to open the door. At this point, thinking about the next day’s tasks, I decided to go to sleep. Miss Annie would have to bed down wherever she could find a place and make her way home when she could. But I did not do this easily. Since I have seen both coyotes and a fox in the neighborhood, I had reason to be concerned about Miss Annie’s safety.

But when I came down to put the coffee on, Annie heard me. When I unlocked the door Annie quickly emerged from her hide-away under the bayberry bush and set a speed record getting in the door. She was tired and ragged as a tramp; her long fur was decorated with leaves, grass and a generous amount of dirt, but, no matter the cleaning job that lay ahead, Annie was glad to be home.

She immediately demanded to be petted, admired, and welcomed home with a can of her favorite cat-food. She clearly expected a splendid homecoming party, and, I confess, I happily met her expectations.

Once safely home, Annie felt quite pleased with herself, and ridiculously proud of her all-night adventure. I noticed, however, that throughout the day Annie stayed quite close to me, limiting herself to one trip outdoors during which she took a brief nap on the glider facing the door.

When I shared Miss Annie’s all-night adventure with a friend, she asked (with a twinkle in her eyes) if I had grounded Miss Annie for failure to keep curfew. We laughed, but her question made me think. Despite the real danger, why was it that the idea of grounding Miss Annie seemed so absurd but yet worth asking?

The practical reason, of course, is that grounding would have no positive effect on Miss Annie. Like most cats, Miss Annie largely goes her own way despite human efforts to interfere. I could, theoretically, as the adult-in-charge, ground Annie. I knew, however, that resting comfortably under her favorite chair, Annie would simply watch the front-door traffic carefully, and then when the opportunity presented itself, she would slip noiselessly out the door and find whatever adventure interested her that day. Grounding might crimp Miss Annie’s style and sour her disposition, but it would not control her behavior. Grounded or not, Miss Annie would remain Chief-Cat-in-Charge. It’s her nature.

But I thought about my role in Annie’s care.

The whole affair began with my failure to keep clearly in mind what the environmental events meant to Miss Annie. Noise that simply startled me, hurt—painfully—Miss Annie’s ears. Unusual light patterns in the night sky that were entertaining to me were terrifying to her. I wondered if in some non-verbal instinctive way, Miss Annie thought the world was coming to an end. Perhaps animals have their own wordless sense of possible Armageddon.

At any rate, from Miss Annie’s viewpoint, this human she had come to trust had willingly permitted her to go out into a world full of unexpected events that were painful and terrifying. In these circumstances, Miss Annie was faced with keeping herself out of harms’ way as best she was able, then making her way home as soon as it was safe to do so.

When she arrived home, Miss Annie logically demanded recognition of her brave exploit—she had kept herself safe in a place of danger, and had found her way home with great difficulty. A celebration was certainly the logical conclusion to the story. Grounding? What a ridiculous response.

During the night while Annie was taking refuge from the terrors of light and noise, I, however, was thinking about the threat of foxes and coyotes. I trusted that the noise that frightened Annie would at the same time keep her safe from foxes and coyotes. I trusted that, like Annie, frightened by the fireworks, foxes and coyotes would (hopefully) keep themselves in their dens. Nevertheless—full disclosure—I was anxious and slept restlessly.

I did not like being anxious. I know that Annie is only a pet—and an imperious Duchess-type cat at times—but I do not want her to be fearful, nor do I want to be fearful in turn.

Being responsible for Annie and for myself raised an awkward question. Maybe I should require Annie to give up her adventures and become permanently a house cat? Should I ground Annie altogether to avoid the dangers that lurk in the big world outside?

Pointless to try, for starters.

Annie, rightly, will insist on having her own choices, some of which I may not like, but Annie will insist that she act on her choice. Annie will find a way.

But more: Am I willing to make Annie a prisoner in my house so that she will be “safe” and my sleep uninterrupted?

What price for my comfort and freedom from fear am I willing to require Annie to pay?

Thinking with you that freedom, like rules, is a tricky thing to manage.

See you next week.


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