Christmas Eve, 2011. I am squatting down in a field off the 101 Freeway, about an hour south of San Francisco. I say field – it’s a very big patch of manicured grass beside the parking lot of a Target. This being the coastal side of California, it’s all blue sky, golden sunlight, clean pavement, and immaculate green lawn, even in the depths of winter.
I am squatting here because of the pussy hiding between my legs. No, not like that. My one-year-old brown tabby, Aífe, has just been in a car for the first time (a rental). She has spent the last hour or so loudly and unrelentingly meowing objections from her carrier in the back seat. We still have another five hours drive ahead of us down to SoCal, and I imagine she might need a potty break, so I decide to try taking her out for her first walk on a leash.
This is the first time she has ever been confronted with the enormity of the open heavens, with something like freedom, and she is absolutely shitting herself. She is yowling in distress, and as I kneel down to try and comfort her, she rushes to cower under the only available shelter for yards and yards around, which happens to be my ass. I start giggling so hard at the ridiculousness of our position that I worry that I’ll fall on her.
However, I am also aware that I do have a serious problem on my hands – my best buddy is terrified of the sky. She is only a year old, and has developed acute agoraphobia, and on my watch. Which means that spending time with her will always mean staying at home. And since we both like spending all of our time together (or as much as possible), this means I’ll pretty much never be leaving the flat. This is not a very cheerful prospect, but I have no idea if there is anything I can do about it…
* * *
If I was trying to demonstrate how not to get your cat to enjoy walking on a leash, then I would have nailed it on that first outing. Clearly, I had no idea what I was doing, and I scared the bejesus out of my poor fur-baby in the process. I’m absolutely willing to take about two-thirds of the credit for my epic cat-parenting fail. The rest I blame on society and circumstance.
I shall explain.
I had adopted Aífe on New Years Day of that year, 2011, when she was just a few months old. She had spent every day of her life since then in my little studio apartment, the door of which looked out onto a long, lifeless corridor, and the windows of which looked directly out onto the shut blinds of more flats only a few meters away. And someone had even put netting over the small gap of sky between the buildings, so there no chance of catching even a glimpse of a bird on the windowsill (not that you got many birds in downtown SF anyhow). So aside from the aggressive hollering of drunks and honking of cars, there was not a hint of any world outside our little pad.
To try and take Aífe straight from that bunker-like lockdown to a huge open area surrounded by traffic was a terrible idea, that obviously could only have ended in trauma. If I wanted to be able to take her out and about, I should have eased her into the idea of there even being an outside. I should have started with gradual, regular outings from our flat, and introduced new elements incrementally. I should have let her get used to wearing a harness at home. And I should have started doing all of this while she was still a kitten. I should definitely not have waited until she was fully grown and then just plopped her into the sensory overload in one mighty whack.
There were, however, three chief factors that had kept me from doing things properly like that. The first problem was geographic. The bit of world surrounding our apartment building was the Tenderloin, the part of San Francisco where you go if you want to do see people shooting-up or shitting in the street, where cars and cyclists and trucks and pedestrians battle for use of the asphalt and shout abuse at each other in the crosswalks. Not the sort of place to let a tiny, timid, powder-puff kitten delicately get her bearings in the world.
The second problem was one of resources. I was hustling a bunch of different part-time and temp jobs, and I was still barely making rent. I didn’t have a car, or a bicycle, or any other means of transporting my cat besides carrying her. So if I had wanted to take her to a big park, I would have had to carry her several hilly San Francisco miles just to get there. And even a small cat gets to feeling like quite a heavy, cumbersome load after a few steep blocks, when pet carriers are designed to be carried on one side, and the strap cuts into your shoulder, and the case smashes into your hip and leg with every step.
But these factors would have stopped me, if it weren’t for the third problem, which was societal. I had adopted Aífe from the San Francisco SPCA, who, like most folks, saw the world of cat owners in two categories: there were those who let their cats run amok outside, and those who kept their cats safely inside. The ones who cared about their cats were the ones who kept them inside, because left to their own devices out in the world these kitties would surely get poisoned, run-over, etc. I had lost several childhood pets to traffic, and known several others that had just never come home. So there was no way in hell I going to let mine go waltzing out into the concrete jungle. And at no point did I hear anybody suggest that there was a viable third option – one of going outside together, as one would with a dog. I’d seen a few homeless folks and gutter-punk teens holding cats on the street, but I’d never seen anyone out actually taking their cat for a walk. Indeed, I’d never known anyone who had trained their cat to do anything besides poop in a box.
But after a couple of years together, well after the incident on the 101, fortune moved Aífe and I to Los Angeles. Our new apartment was on the ground floor of a small complex, a bit removed from the very busy road around the Silver Lake Reservoir, and there was nice leafy foliage right outside our front door. One of the neighbors above had a cat that would happily roam the premises, so I decided to try putting a leash on Aífe again, and see if she too would enjoy roaming around. Unfortunately, she did not. She hated being on a leash, and wouldn’t get more than a few yards from our door without freaking out and tugging to go back in. I would guess that the lingering smells of the other cat, and those of the coyotes that sometimes wandered through the walkway, were pretty scary for her, on top of her general fear of being out of doors.
Upon moving to LA I also bought (aka signed a huge loan for) a car, so suddenly Aífe found herself being driven to visit nearby family at the weekends. Over the course of a few months, her absolute shrieking hatred of being in the car began to mellow to a grumbling dislike. So that was progress. And when we would get out to the suburbs, I discovered that Aífe would wander out into gardens and patios if I left the door open. Which was a very encouraging sign that she actually did want to go outside. So I bought a used pet cage from a neighbor – big, open, just a mesh of thin black bars, lots of visibility. I put that on a little red wagon, and tried wheeling Aífe around in it. Unfortunately, she hated that, too. She kept meowing and trying to smoosh her delicate little face through the bars, and eventually I realized that it wasn’t so much being outside but being caged that she was objecting to.
However, we were only in Los Angeles a few months before fate had us moving up to Portland, Oregon, and she had to live in that cage for a couple of days on the drive up. The cage was buckled into the passenger seat of my little car, with our belongings wedged tight around us. And, having no choice, my cranky little co-pilot finally learned to accept being in a cage and car reasonably well.
Once we got to Portland, and found somewhere to live, we had a garden for the first time. And when spring finally rolled around, I started spending a lot of time out there. Aífe, having grown up in a one-room flat with me, objected to having any closed doors between us – she would meow and fuss if I even closed the door on her to use the bathroom. So going out into the garden without her resulted in much howling and knocking over of things. Only when I let her follow me out, and sniff around as she pleased, and have aggressive stare-downs with the squirrels, she was mollified.
Okay, so the great news was, I knew that she definitely wanted to be outside with me. The bad news was, she only wanted to do it leash-less. And that wasn’t going to fly – partly because of the general concerns of her getting lost, or poisoned, or hit by a car (again, as many of my childhood pets had), but also because of the specific concern that the nasty ginger cat down the street, who’d been beating up all the other the cats in the neighborhood, would get my Aífe. Our neighbors next-door had just spent thousands of dollars and tears trying patch up their beloved cat Dino, efforts which included an operation to try to save a several damaged eyeball. I didn’t have the stomach or the cash to deal with such wounds on my own kitty, and I often spotted that ginger bully darting through our hedge. So if Aífe wanted to get out into the fresh air – and we now knew that she did – she really was going to have to do it on my terms.
Over the course of several weeks that summer and fall, and again the following spring, I tried bringing Aífe out for little on for walks on a leash. At no point did she show any signs of taking to it. Not really. We’d sniff around out in the garden, and a little bit in front of the house. We’d go sit in the car and peer around. That was all fine. But if I tried to take her more than a few yards from the house on her leash, she would start meowing and panicking and struggling to get out of her harness and run home, as she had at our apartment in LA.
It was very slow going, and very frustrating. And I wasn’t convinced it was ever really going to work. And as a result I proceeded in a pretty half-assed way. But in 2014 I happened to fall in love with someone, who happened to live in Germany. Which meant that, in 2015, I found myself moving to Germany. Which of course also meant Aífe was moving to Germany. And suddenly the need to be able to take Aífe outside became a pressing one, because I needed to get her not only out of the house, but onto a plane, and out of the country. And I only had a few weeks to get ready.
And then, one fine, sunshiny, blossomy spring morning, we had a breakthrough. I was wrestling with Aífe to get her into her harness and out the door. She broke away from me, and went running back into our room to hide. A big, new, electric blue tote bag was laying on the floor. In a moment of unpremeditated exasperation, I scooped her up in that tote bag, harness and all, and just carried her out into the sunny spring day.
And she liked it.
It was amazing. We strolled up and down the streets of our little tree-lined neighborhood – the exact streets that I had been trying to drag her down for months. This time, there was no crying, no fighting; there was no noticeable fear. She was just riding along at my side, little head peeping over the edge of the tote, quietly and intently looking and listening and sniffing as the world passed her by.
She was outside, but not exposed. She had the comfort of feeling enclosed, without the panic of being in a cage. And I had the luxury of carrying her in something that had actually been designed with the idea that it should be comfortable to carry (thanks Columbia sportswear!). It was the perfect compromise, the route Goldilocks surely would have gone… if she were a traveling cat-lady.
Since that big, breakthrough day with the tote bag, I’ve tried to make cat-schlepping a regular activity. Our outings usually entail me carrying Aífe most of the way, with her walking on her own paws for small distances now and again. The amount of walking she does herself really depends on how chaotic the setting. For example, a crowded farmers market or city intersection, I carry her, because it’s too scary for her, and because there really is a very high likelihood of her getting crushed underfoot. Sometimes we go by bicycle, and then she rides in a basket. And of course, when we travel on a plane or bus or train, she obliged by staff to stay in her carrier the entirety of the journey. But somewhere quiet like a side street or park or woodland or cemetery, she gets to do most of the walking, and gets a certain amount of say in what route we take. Some days she is remarkably keen, and other days she is decidedly not. We just have to take it as it comes. Such is life. At least we are out in the world, living.
Cat-schlepping evolved organically, sporadically, and sloppily from of a series of haphazard responses to changing circumstances in my life. I had no idea what I was doing, and we got a very late start. But even still, we're making it work. It’s now been a little over a year since we started schlepping with intent, and we’re starting to get the hang of it. Though she is still rather cowardly, Aífe’s resilience continues to grow and grow, and with each new display of her bravery I am inspired to keep going, and to try new adventures.
So if you have a cat, and think it could never be taken out on adventures, or have indeed tried to take your cat outside and it was a disaster – don’t give up! For ages I despaired that I would never get my cat out the front door, and now I take her with me around town, and indeed around the world. It took a lot of experimentation, patience, and willingness to look like a nutcase, but now that we’re able to leave the house, there’s no telling where we will go.