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Pets Afloat

We always wanted a cat. We put it off for nearly 10 years because our boat was too small and our life was so erratic. After we bought a larger boat and our traveling slowed a bit, the excuses over space and customs quarantines evaporated.

To complicate this emerging lack of procrastination tools, our dockmaster was an animal rights activist of the first stripe. One day she appeared with an orphaned kitten only a few weeks old. We took a casual peek at his perfectly formed little face framing wide blue eyes and fell instantly in love. We managed to resist another few weeks, but playing with him in the evenings finally sealed our fates. We were hooked.

We named him Wolf -- partly because he was malnourished and ate like one, and partly because of his wolfish coloring. But we now call him by a whole range of names. Some of them are terms of endearment and others can't be printed.

In the years since Wolf moved in to take over ownership of the boat, we've become aware that the cruising community can be divided into two major groups -- the petted and the petless. Many liveaboards and cruisers have cats, dogs both large and small, birds, and reptiles. Some of them share their boats with more than one animal -- in fact, 5 of our last dockmates had 15 animals among them. From the petless liveaboards, we now get numerous questions about what it's like to have a cat living on the water with us.

And every time we are on the receiving end of pet questions, my mind goes directly to Reece Palley. Asked by his editors to write a chapter of his book, Unlikely Passages, on the topic of "Children Afloat," Mr. Palley complied. The entire sum of the chapter consists of the title at the top of the page followed by the sentence, "It's a damn sight better than having them onboard."

One never gets just one pet on the boat. While you may see only a dog or cat, the owner is bound to be host to hundreds of other critters. Fleas, mites, and worms are part of the bargain. We have lockers full of flea remedies -- some sprinkle on the floor, some tie around the cat's neck, some shampoo into his silky fur. One plugs in and glows in the dark. We have even tried natural herbal remedies. As a last resort, a group of mediums will hold a seance and exorcism in the cockpit next week.

Of course, the easy way to rid the cat of fleas is to comb him twice a day with a fine comb. But he doesn't much care for this treatment, and when sufficiently aroused can become amazingly aggressive for a being one-tenth our size. An unmistakable hallmark of cat ownership is the hundreds of little scratches and teeth marks on the backs of hands and around the ankles.

We were astonished to learn that when the claws got too sharp, they are trimmed with toenail clippers and brute force. The destruction that can be accomplished by one frightened and angry feline has to be witnessed to be believed. Three hundred pounds of mankind with four hands is no match for a cat about to loose those razor points that were so carefully honed on the settees, carpets, drapes, and human flesh.

And then, of course, there is the bathroom. If you think Morris was finicky, consider a cat that has to go, but discovers that his box hasn't been cleaned yet. After announcing his disgust and waiting for action to begin on the human front, he usually decides that he might as well pass the next few minutes by taking a stroll around the deck in the rain. Hearing the final sounds of cleaning, he ambles back to complete his constitutional, trailing puddles of water across the sole. The water on his feet and fur obviously hold copious quantities of the clumpable litter, which he can now track back through the puddles where they await a bare human foot in the dark.

Occasionally Wolf pays a price for all these wanton misdeeds. When he gets a little too cocky, he falls off the boat for a good dowsing. Being nocturnal, these episodes usually occur in near-dark conditions. Cats swim amazingly well, but hate salt water with a passion, and since no claws will climb five feet of fiberglass he has to be rescued each time, shampooed, rinsed, dried, and reassured that it wasn't really his fault -- somebody must have pushed him.

In many marinas, the currents can flow faster than a cat can swim. This led us to a mini industry on the docks. We built a little liferaft and tied it to the stern of the boat for Wolf, and installed several kitty boarding ladders that dangle down into the water amidships. Other cat owners have expressed interest. Non-owners are instantly recognizable when they ask, "What are those?"

The cost of our association with Wolf has been much higher than anticipated. The normal vet bills, food, and litter are to be expected, of course. But the cat's travel ensemble was a rude surprise. And the car-wash-sized vacuum needed to pick up the clouds of cat hair out of every nook and cranny of the boat was also unexpected. We have yet to figure out how to amortize the cost of a diver hired to pull a toy mouse out of the scuppers. And how does one classify the medical bills resulting from stepping on a ball during a midnight head call?

Is Wolf repentant for these misdemeanors? Oh, yes, of course. When scolded, first he stares at us with those deep blue eyes as if to say, "What are you talking about?" Then he casually licks a flank, shaking off yet another cloud of silky fine fur onto the settee.

But when we come home after a long day at the office, Wolf is glad to see us. He arches his back and his tail stands at attention while he gets his pet. Then he showers us with little kitty kisses all around our faces while we brush his ears and neck. After dinner, we often play a game of ball that he invented and loves to practice nightly. Later, he curls up in a lap and purrs a pure contentment with his life.

It is then that we decide to keep him for just one more week -- but only if he behaves himself.

Tom Wood is offline  
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