Eulogy for Nigel, a black cat

Nigel in 2005 with tabby Oscar, enjoying the outdoors. 

by Karen Newcombe

Most cats don't get a eulogy. Nigel's random luck is that he fell in with a writer. We're not supposed to write about cats or dogs unless it's a scientific study or a children's book. Even Joy Adamson's magnificent book about life among Africa's lions, Born Free, has been relegated to the children's section as though it is somehow not worthy of adult attention. Millions of people have cats, dogs and other animals as family members or as part of their working team if they live in the country. Our society is full of cars named for animals, teams named for animals, a whole raft of spiritual paraphernalia based on animal powers and spirits, clothing that imitates animals' markings. We may feel removed from the animal world, but the men and women who first sketched the closely-observed bison and owls, horses and lions on the walls of Chauvet Cave 32,000 years ago knew how deeply entwined we are with the animals we eat and wear, and live alongside. That basic condition of life has not changed. 

So my life became entwined with Nigel's.

He was found by a friend of a friend of a friend whose name I don't know, a kitten crying between two cars in the gutter on Valencia Street in San Francisco. He was carried home, but was so active and demanding that he was quickly handed off to a second person. That person tried to control his demands and nighttime wakefulness by locking him in the bathroom. Nigel hated doors for the rest of his life. 

There may have been one more owner in the sequence, I'm not sure, but eventually Nigel ended up at my friend's house as a companion to another black cat, Santiago. 

This companionship was welcome, but did not do much to assuage Nigel's insecurities. He wanted attention from humans, right now, all day and all night, every day. He had discovered as he was passed from hand to hand that the best way to secure human attention was to behave badly, so he set out to perfect this bad behavior and gain for himself as much attention as possible. 

Nigel was an expert at removing books from the shelf. He selected a book, pulled on the spine until it fell off the shelf, then looked to see if anyone was coming. No? Crash number two.  Still no? Crash number three, and so on.

When he ran out of books he moved on to CDs. In those days everyone had CDs in plastic cases stacked on the floor, lined up on shelves, piled next to the stereo. These cases are hinged and have a ridge along the back edge of the spine, perfectly suited for a cat's single claw to snag the thing and send it flying. 

Pew! Pew! Pew! When Nigel was in full bore he could fling CDs back over his shoulder and across the room at an astonishing rate, making a tremendous clatter and sending disks rolling away, cases snapping apart on the hardwood floor, and scratching up your precious music collection. People came running when Nigel was at work. 

In spite of his sequence of owners trying everything recommended – yelling, saying "no, no" firmly, tapping him on the nose or behind, squirting him with a water bottle, and flat out ignoring him – nothing impressed Nigel. He learned instead to run like hell when someone came charging into the room; what attention he managed to get was fleeting and unpleasant. 

Nigel was also loud. He likely had oriental cat genes from somewhere back up the line, and it was obvious in his voice and the blue flecks in his emerald green eyes. He was a tall, big-boned cat of nearly 20 pounds during his glory days, strong, hefty and agile, with a huge wailing voice to match. He was pigeon-toed in the front, bow-legged in the back, and thrust his head out ahead when he walked, making for an odd rollicking gait. When you left the house, you could hear him meowing for you to come back up to a block away. A city block, in San Francisco, not the quietest place on earth. 

When Nigel was four or five years old, his owner moved to England, which at the time still practiced mediaevel animal import quarantines. A little research showed that up to a third of animals died of depression or illness during the lengthy quarantine. So through the workings of cat fate, Nigel and Santiago ended up with me, joining my Oscar and Sebastian to make a somewhat crowded and occasionally smelly four cat home. 

Somehow going from two cats to four made me a cat lady in many people's eyes, although I don't steal cats, hoard cats, mistake my cats for children, dress them up in doll clothes, or attribute to them emotions and intellectual capabilities that they don't have. They clearly do possess emotions and complex thought processes, as anyone who has lived with a cat for a week can tell you. Science has failed us significantly by hewing without question to the animal-as-machine nonsense cooked up by Descartes in the early 1600s. 

Oscar and Sebastian were relaxed laid-back snugglers who slept through the night, and had a nightly wild rumpus to wear them out before bed. Nigel had no idea how to quiet himself to sleep through the night and he had forgotten (or never learned) how to play with string and cat toys. Wild rumpus time was utterly confusing to him; he sat to one side watching the goings on – writhing strings, feathers on a stick, fur mousies, ping pong balls – and would have not one thing to do with it. 

After the lights went out and the house got quiet, then he sprang into action. Whether I was cooking, eating, listening to music, reading, working, or sleeping, he wanted attention. He broke CDs, glasses and dishes, ruined the spines of books, and kept me up half the night or more meowing, knocking things over, leaping on and off the bed, and trying to get something

My pet sitter suggested a different approach. "He's anxious. Why don't you just carry him around and fuss over him until he gets over his anxiety?" she said. Hmm. Every other would-be expert had said the opposite: ignore his bad behavior or he'll do it forever. Ignoring him had no effect at all, he grew more desperate, louder, and broke more things. Fussing was worth a shot. 

In San Francisco you can (and must) wear a heavy sweatshirt nearly every day of the year, so I turned up the front like a sling and carried Nigel in it from room to room, or held his giant body on my lap while I was writing. I fussed over him every time I passed him, even if I had to wake him up to do it. After a month, he was down to flinging only a half dozen books and a couple CDs a day. In two months he was down to about one a day and he slept through the night. In a year he only did it when I'd been out of town or incredibly busy for several days in a row. After two years he never did it again. 

So for all you folks with a demanding, obnoxious, loud, destructive, desperate cat on your hands, just smother him with attention for two years and your problems will be over! Good luck! 

Florida Bound

In 2004 I sold my furniture, donated my car to the animal shelter, shipped my books and belongings via UPS, and moved back to Florida to be with my family. Due to a number of highly publicized airport disasters involving pets, I decided not to fly with the cats. My dad flew out to San Francisco and we spent a few days making UPS runs, dropped a load of things in a storage unit, rented a van and headed towards Florida on I-80, I-70 and I-75 with all four cats in their carriers. We arrived just after Hurricane Ivan and just before Hurricane Jeanne. Our timing was perfect.

The cats and I settled into a small rented house near my parents. I began working at home full-time. With family members going in and out and friends stopping by, the all-day activity made for a happy cat home. Nigel was particularly fond of lying in the grass, something he had never done before. The yard had a low chain link fence around it, that seemed to present an impenetrable force field to the cats; only wise old Santiago had the smarts to slip through the gap in the gate and go around to the front stoop. Nigel, Oscar and Sebastian never once tried to climb or jump over it, and were content to roll in the sand, sniff the grass and lounge on the patio. Halcyon days for the big boys.

2005 was the Year of Many Storms, with hurricanes slamming or brushing us one after another, punctuated by messy tropical storms. After the third or fourth one we left the shutters up for the rest of the year. For 21 days after category 2 Hurricane Wilma swept over us from the west we lived without electricity, cooking on propane camp stoves and washing clothes in an ice chest. We did Halloween in the dark, which every kid thought was the best thing to ever happen. I bought a gas generator hoping I'd be able to charge up my laptop, get on the Internet and work, but the Internet was down even longer than the electricity and I had to use an old telephone modem and a free AOL disk to get online. 

Not long afterwards the real estate boom started to unravel, and my landlord offered to sell me the little house at an exorbitant price. It didn't work out, but he was selling it and I had to go, so I ended up buying a villa in a development west of I-95. My parents planned to move into the same neighborhood when they retired, so it seemed like a good option, at twice the size and 2/3 the price of the cute little house. 

Once again we packed up and moved, but this time it was just 3 miles instead of 3,300. 

Life in the villa

The villa turned out not to be ideal for cats. The wooden fence had 5-inch gaps that were magnetic cat attractants: the moment the cats were let into the yard they headed straight for the fence and climbed through. With a neighbor who prides himself on having a snarling, aggressive hunting hound and a constant stream of mowers, gardeners, snippers, inspectors, tree trimmers and sprinkler line plumbers wandering in and out of my yard at all hours, the cats were forced to accept living indoors again. 

Old Santiago slowly became Very Old Santiago. He laid down in his bed one night, heaved a big sigh and was gone. 

Nigel had lost his lifelong best friend, but he was well-schooled in making the best of bad circumstances and quickly decided that mellow tabby Oscar would make a fine pal. Oscar's brother, Sebastian, contracted chronic kidney disease and died within a few months. We almost lost Oscar the next week. He looked everywhere in the house for Sebastian and then laid down beside the water dish and refused to eat or drink. Quick action by the veterinarian saved him, and during his long convalescence Nigel stayed right beside him. They became best cat friends, and since then have been inseparable. 

Never one to shirk his duties, Nigel interjected his loud opinions during all my conference calls and Skype meetings with clients, and on eviction from the office he wailed outside the hated door to be let back in. 

He greeted everyone who came to the house by standing up on his hind legs and reaching up to pat their hands with a paw, or by climbing onto their laps to peer intently into their faces. Everyone thought he was wonderful: "It's like he's been looking for me his whole life!" Many offered to take him off my hands, but they hadn't lived through his CD-flinging years: Pew! Pew! Pew!


On Friday August 29, 2014, the lawn service came around as they do every Friday. Some neighbors had complained to the HOA about finding a tick on their dog. When asked how often they sprayed for such pests, it turned out the landscapers hadn't sprayed at all for six or eight months. They got right on it, and probably fearing to lose their contract, they got out the big guns. 

As I drove up from the grocery store the smell of pesticide was strong. I immediately got the hose out and washed down my dooryard, driveway and grass, but when I went in the house I could smell it indoors, too. The lawn service probably sprayed right up to the houses and around the doors, and it had come in through the crack around the door.

Nigel was lying on the mat when I opened the front door. He spent most afternoons there as the sun shone on the door and made it warm, and when I went out he waited on the mat for me to come home. In the days when he could still hear my car coming down the block, he'd shove his face through the blinds and meow out the sidelight as I pulled up, but he had grown completely deaf over time, so for the past year he was sound asleep on the mat every time I came in. 

The entire inside of the house smelled like pesticide. By bedtime Nigel's eyes were running and he was coughing. The next morning I took him to the hospital, thinking he had a cold. By Monday morning the antibiotics were having no effect, he had developed diarrhea, and he was wheezing, coughing and sometimes having difficulty breathing. 

His blood tests were clean, as were his x-rays. He didn't have pneumonia or an infection, and no sign of cancer. He had no discharge from his nose and his eyes had cleared up, but he was clearly having respiratory problems. Doc asked me if there was any chance he'd been exposed to a toxic substance, and I remembered the pervasive smell of pesticide on Friday afternoon. Nigel had been sleeping on the doormat and had taken a full hit of whatever came in around the door. 

I learned from the HOA's board that the landscapers had used Dimethoate to spray our neighborhood. This is an organophosphate pesticide that works by interfering with the nervous system; it is toxic to humans, animals, birds, fish, and insects – everything that moves, swims, or flies. Lawn services love it: it gets results. 

Symptoms of poisoning by Dimethoate read like a list of Nigel's woes: "coughing, chest discomfort, difficult or short breath, and wheezing due to constriction or excess fluid in the bronchial tubes", eye irritation and tearing, diarrhea. Nigel had clearly gotten enough of a dose of Dimethoate through the closed door to cause his condition. A greater exposure would have resulted within days or even hours in loss of coordination, progressive weakness, convulsions and death. 

Yet Nigel started to recover, the wheezing subsided somewhat and he spent most of his time resting. For an entire week he seemed to be slowly improving. But he wasn't a young robust cat anymore and he began losing ground. 

Even with nebulizer treatments, large amounts of fluids, and antibiotics to prevent infection, Nigel didn't have the reserves of strength to turn the corner in the healing process; his body began to wear out before it could fully heal itself. 

Nigel's last night was spent at home on his favorite pillow with his buddy Oscar curled up with him. The next day, September 11, he would no longer eat or drink, and could not stand more than a few seconds. There was nothing more to be done, so I let him go. I hate putting animals down, but even worse to make him suffer an unnaturally long and slow death. In the real world, animals that go down have their suffering ended by predators rather quickly. 

Dimethoate is extremely dangerous: it it a teratogen, meaning it causes foetal deformities such as extra limbs; it is mutagenic, causing mutations in the DNA; and it causes cumulative nervous system damage over time with every exposure. That is, every time you breath in a little Dimethoate, it destroys part of your nervous system. As damage builds up it can result in "impaired memory and concentration, disorientation, severe depressions, irritability, confusion, headache, speech difficulties, delayed reaction times, nightmares, sleepwalking and drowsiness or insomnia. An influenza-like condition with headache, nausea, weakness, loss of appetite, and malaise has also been reported." 

There are still more, and worse, effects, including death. I leave it to you to click through on the blue link above or below to Cornell University and read about the thing in detail. You may end up wondering, as I do, how such a dangerous substance can be available for use in any residential neighborhood, and what can be done to stop it. Your lawn service or pest control could be spraying this on your home every month, building up nervous system damage, or worse, in you and your kids.

If Nigel had died of a natural cause I wouldn't be angry, but to die because a neighbor didn't buy tick treatment for a dog during the summer months in Florida seems deeply wrong. Spraying an entire neighborhood with poison to kill one dog's tick is extremely risky. If Dimethoate can kill a cat so easily, it can also kill a foetus or a child, or an elderly man with an oxygen tank. We have pregnant ladies and kids and old folks all along our street. The board is now looking into hiring a pest control company that uses natural methods. We'll see. 

I may not stay. The large space is nice but a pain to clean all the time, so maybe I'll get something smaller. The next board or the one after that may want stronger pest control measures. Some people want to live in a cartoon version of Florida that is sanitized of everything: opossums and foxes, insects, crabs and frogs, pine woods and cypress hammocks, sugar sand and Shepherd's Needles. Pave it all over and bring in a new tax base with a new set of carpetbaggers. Maybe I'll move somewhere that's less popular, a little wilder. A place with no HOA and no pest control. 

Oscar is looking for his friend under the bed, in the back of the closet, and I looked for him last night when I drove in, expecting to see his wide open mouth and hear his loud wail through the window. Nigel is gone. For the first time in many years no one is at the door and my house is silent.  


Information on Dimethoate is from Extonet, Extension Toxicology Network, A Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis. Click on the link above to read the full entry. 

My heartfelt thanks go to Dr. Lance Weidenbaum, Dr. Michael Shaff, Candi and Sabrina at Deer Run Animal Hospital for their efforts to save Nigel, and excellent ongoing care of Oscar, Zelda and Bilbo Baggins. 

© Karen Newcombe 2014