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Beet
July 15, 2006

By Gary Michael Smith

Steve knew that I was a cat man. Although I'd had German Shepherds, a Collie, and a Doberman in the past, cats are just easier care for, and more portable. So I was a good choice for the sweet black and white tuxedo cat that was left behind when Steve's next-door neighbors split up. He brought the unnamed black and white over in a box like a litter of kittens, but "Beet" as I liked to call him was probably a year or two old.

When Steve asked me if I would take him since he was obviously abandoned, my thought was to give him to my girlfriend, Grace, who'd just graduated from college and moved from the bayous of Cajun town Thibodaux to New Orleans, some 60 miles northwest. I would graduate a year later, but in the meantime Beet would keep her company. Grace and Beet lived in bliss, sort of.

Beet sleeping
Beet and Grace

I don't know what his life was like before we got him, but he had his quirks. For instance, while he would let Grace and I pet him and hold him and carry him around just like any other normal house cat, he had his own impression of what life with humans was all about. His routine was to stay inside for 3 or 4 days, sleeping, eating, drinking, and pooping. Then, no matter how hard you tried, you couldn't keep him in after the fourth day. After darting through the narrowest of door openings, for the next 7 to 10 days he would frolic in the wilds of our riverfront apartment building in New Orleans, not allowing anyone to get within arms reach of him.

A year later, after I graduated and caught up with Grace, a neighbor saw Beet come inside my apartment and expressed her amazement that someone actually owned this cat. She told me that many others feed and water him outside their units in breezeways, but admitted that no one could capture him. Except us, that is. After all, we'd taken him to the vet for shots, and even had minor surgery on him once after he showed up at our door with a large cyst on his side after a week on the prowl. The vet had to excavate quite a bit of muscle tissue and insert a drain tube in two places.

I tried extra hard to keep him inside to protect the open wound, but Beet just wouldn't have it. He finally squeezed through the door and off he was for the rest of the week. One evening I heard a couple of girls out in the breezeway, "Ohhhhh, look at the kittie. Hey little fella, come here. Come . . . EEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeekkkkkkkkkkk!" I figured they'd seen the two tubes coming out of his side like some Frankenkittie on the loose. Eventually, he came in and slept for another 3--4 days inside.

Beet was quite the hunter too. A neighbor once told me that he witnessed Beet stalking a pigeon in the common area near the swimming pool. When the time was right, he attacked, having to leap 6 feet in the air to catch the doomed bird as it took flight trying to escape. I confirmed my neighbor's story by telling him that I had found a dead pigeon on my front door threshold later that day.

We'd probably had Beet for a few years when everything changed. Grace and I split up after 7 years, and she couldn't take him to her new apartment because pets weren't allowed. So Beet got left behind again, but at least it was with me. After a year or so, I felt that he could use a buddy, so I adopted a little Chatreaux kitten (Boris) from the local SPCA. And a strange thing happened after that: Beet never had the urge to go outside again. From that day on he was content staying inside and playing with baby Boris, wrestling on the floor, playing "newspaper tent," and running and chasing and doing everything he always did before -- only inside.

After a number of years, I'd left the apartment in the suburbs and moved to a place in the city. I regret the few years that follow when I paid little attention to my boys. I was Uptown now, with much to see and do. So for the next three years I was out and about more than I was home. I still took care of Beet and Boris' basic needs, but I spent little time with them. It wasn't until I settled down with Brenda and moved into our house that the boys became part of my life again. And this was fortunate for Beet, too, since he started acquiring some bizarre medical conditions that seemingly started out as tics, such as twisting his head around and licking the air when I scratched his tailbone.

It was his tailbone area that was the heart of a problem later in life. He would lay with me on the sofa, then suddenly experience pain in a hind leg that was so severe he would attack this leg as if it were attacking him. He'd bite it so hard that I'd have to take him to the vet to get antibiotics and topical ointments and bandages. And if I happened to get in the way during one of these attacks, my arm would replace his leg as the target of his attacks, and this sent me to the emergency room several times for deep animal bites.

The problem seemed to have something to do with his intestinal tract and a neurological condition. He was plagued with constipation for years in his older life, and touching his stomach would send him into a biting frenzy. I spent thousands of dollars on him to see specialists, and it eventually paid off. While acupuncture seemed to provide some relief, it was a neurosurgeon who prescribed a cocktail of diuretics and muscle relaxants that seemed to do the trick. His constipation got under control, and his biting -- both of him and me -- ceased.

Beet lived to a ripe old age of 21+ years. Remembering that he was an adult when I got him in 1984, by the time I had to have him put to sleep in 2004 he had become uncontrollably incontinent and also was plagued with what is known as "flaccid bladder." I would have to bring him in periodically to have his bladder manually expressed and his intestines purged -- also manually, with the vet's lubricated finger.

At some point all pet owners have to determine when it's best for the animal to move to the next level of existence. We must think about their quality of life over our own emotions, no matter how much we want to keep them around. And we can always justify keeping them alive. To the end, Beet's eyesight was phenomenal. Once, while he was in his carrier on the counter at the front desk at the vet's office, I had to run next door to the pharmacy to fill a prescription because Beet frequently was prescribed human medications for his ailments. Then I went to my car to drop off the prescriptions so I could handle the carrier.

When I returned to the vet's office, the receptionist and assistants were all looking at me and smiling grandly. They told me that Beet watched me like a hawk, through the heavily tinted office windows as I walked through the parking lot hundreds of feet away. I was his dad and he was going to keep track of me.

Beet was cremated and now shares a spot on the dresser with Boris, Sylvester, Fuffy, and Malcolm. It's our way of keeping him in our hearts and minds.

Beet
Beet

Gary Michael Smith is a writer in New Orleans. He can be reached at ChatgrisPress@ChatgrisPress.com.