Pain In The Cats

       Product marketing no doubt varies from place to place around the world—that much is obvious. But less clear is why each advertisement says what it does, and to whom, exactly? In Thailand for instance, the local brands of toilet paper feature objects of exquisite sensuality on the packaging, the inference being that Zilk toilet tissue feels like a Persian cat on your rectum, or Tesco Brand’s indulgent, dewy flower petals leave anuses smelling of lilac and bees.

       I can understand the thinking behind kittens and rabbits, and even flowers follow a certain logic, but I haven’t figured out the one with a puffy, European infant grinning toothlessly on the package. Nordic baby skin may well be soft and even cool to the touch, yet surely they’re less absorbent than, say, a slightly dehydrated child born to drier, sunnier climes? And don’t get me started on the brand with nothing but a tangle of wavy blond hair on the label. Anyone who’s had a cat eat tinsel from a Christmas tree knows how that shit turns out.

       Growing up, our cat Terminator was a notorious tinsel thief, infamous for harvesting the stuff by the bushel from our Douglas fir each winter. Every year between the Macy’s Parade and New Year’s Day, Terminator, named for his casual disdain for all humanity, would disappear beneath our living room’s champagne floral loveseat to reenact scenes from Lady and the Tramp, or if interrupted, make for one of the deep, uncharted fissures of the unregulated dumping ground that was our garage. Like Jesus Christ, he would emerge triumphantly a few days later, a beacon of light shining upon all he surveyed. Unlike Jesus Christ, that light was reflected from eight to ten inches of festive, sparkly plastic trailing from his asshole.

       While it may have seemed perfectly natural to treat this strange, jeweled spaghetti the same as any loose thread appearing unexpectedly on your sleeve, my mother wisely thought to consult a professional.

       “No, don’t pull it!” implored our beloved veterinarian, Dr. Singh, urgently pressing at the air with open palms. “We cannot know how far inside the tinsel goes. Pull too hard, and you could cut his intestine,” he explained.

       My mother nodded slowly, her brow furrowed tighter than the knot on the doctor’s head scarf. “Well, that sounds bad.”

       “It is very bad. Very, very bad,” the doctor cautioned. “Cut his intestine, and he would, you know,” the doctor paused and narrowed his gaze, his melodic baritone softening to a near-whisper as he delivered a warning in stark, clinical verbiage. “Poop on his insides.”

       Like most parents, my mother’s opposition to found-objects rarely strayed beyond, “You don’t know where it’s been!” But this wasn’t an issue with Terminator’s gleaming ass rope, nor the thin, russet stains it left in annual Christmas greeting throughout the condo. We knew exactly from where it had come, and when—down to the approximate hour and minute of its inglorious arrival. Swallowing our disgust, we hoped to make peace with the intestinal pull cord tickling our knees during the cat’s nightly trundle across our laps, repeating mantras such as, “This is just a part of what makes the Terminator the Terminator,” and, “As a matter of fact, I don’t think this is nasty as fuck.”

       Ultimately, however, the revulsion proved too powerful, and my mom hatched a plan.

       “You go that way, and make sure he doesn’t get tangled in the blinds,” she ordered. Being December in Florida, our windows were tightly sealed and the air conditioning turned up as high as it could go.

       My mother, a spry woman who enjoyed hopping on a portable trampoline during her hatha yoga program’s infrequent commercial breaks, firmly clutched a towel with the words oliday and nn decoratively stitched onto the part I could see. The muscles in her forearm twitched as she readied to attack, and feeling the floor vibrate, I noticed her bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet with each closing step. Clearly, she had trained her entire life for this moment.

       “I’ll keep him occupied,” she whispered, and a haunting, unmelodic tune escaped her lips. “Terrrrminator, Terrrrminator.”

       She gestured to a figure huddled behind the sliding glass door curtain. In addition to the couch and garage, this was one of Terminator’s numerous private spaces, sheltered nooks he occupied while plotting, I can only assume, for the day he would rule our kind with both an iron fist and twinkling anus. Disregarding the obvious threat to our personal safety, we pounced in unison, trapping him in the hanging fabric. I carefully extricated the Terminator with the pilfered towel, holding him down while Mom produced a pair of tarnished barber’s scissors. She snipped carefully, taking her time, as though wrapping paper and a return receipt were involved.

       “Oh, now wasn’t that easy?” she sang when it was over, dangling the partially digested string in the light of the second-floor balcony. Pursing her lips, she blew softly, making it flutter. “Like a shiny little tapeworm.”

       Terminator, seemingly aware of having lost the thing that made him unique, beelined for the tree only to yowl pitifully on discovering it’d been stripped of his beloved tinsel. He cried with real longing that day, wailing mournfully with what we thought of as a unique voice, gravely and rich, like a feline Tom Waits. He had really lived, the cat said. Lived, and now suffered.

       I would hear that voice again years later, this time emanating from a neighbor’s crawlspace, the outsized mewling of a tiny, striped kitten. Just a few months old, it’d been abandoned by its mother, who, rumor had it, had skipped town a few weeks back to model for a prominent paper towel manufacturer in the Philippines.

       It was that voice that caught our attention. So familiar, so annoying. The malnourished tabby poking its head from the shadows was terrified and in need, and won us over for good after demanding to nurse from our sixty-pound labradoodle. Surgically prevented from dabbling in the reproductive arts herself, Chloe was thrilled with the tiny creature fellating her undercarriage, and took to diving to the ground with such enthusiasm whenever the kitten approached that I worried she might crack a rib.

       That Katie tolerated a cat around the house, even an outdoor one, was a minor miracle. Having grown up with a dog, my wife looked at cats the way the rest of us do terrorists. Not just regular terrorists, either, but especially evil ones that both blow up cafes and talk through movies. Early in our relationship, I made the mistake of calling my then-girlfriend kitten during an intimate moment and was immediately threatened with a vicious, When Animals Attack-style retort.

       “What did you say? What did you say?” she growled, heaving me off the bed. “Don’t you ever call me that. This kitten will claw your motherfucking eyes out.”

       Denied any other mother, the kitten—dubbed Eli for reasons that escape me—quickly learned to emulate our dog’s behaviors. He loved wrestling with Chloe despite being massively outweighed, and proved to be a natural at fetching tennis balls and stuffed squirrels, eventually graduating to real ones—the half that wasn’t vivisected and partly devoured on the way to the front porch, at least.

       The once-thriving squirrel population in our laurel oak was quickly decimated, and I became desperate for the carnage to end. The thought may be what counts, but Katie and I could only appreciate so many dismembered heads, hind legs, and internal organs deposited on the welcome mat before pining for something a little less thoughtful, if no more edible, like a gift card to Shoney’s.

       After moving to Chiang Mai a few years later and separated from her adopted son Eli, Chloe took it upon herself to minister to each and every one of the Northern Thai city’s numerous neglected felines. A pitiable black and white stray missing its left ear was her first charge, followed by a skittish gray thing we took to calling Mr. Bits, for reasons that were immediately obvious when beheld from the rear.

       Encouraged by these international successes, I believe Chloe would have enjoyed graduating to the Big Leagues, for the chance at offering her maternal gifts to not only Chiang Mai’s domesticated felines, but its big cats as well. But ignoring her sparkling track record, Chloe was deemed unwelcome at the nearby tiger emporium, a subverted wonderland where snuggling with enormous, deadly tigers is not only allowed, but somehow encouraged by the local government.

       Despite this official stamp of approval, our many PETA-minded friends implored us not to visit Tiger Dominion—with or without Chloe—swearing that it harmed its tigers in some indefinable way. While Katie and I are typically quick to default to the side of animal rights, I felt deeply torn between my intense urge to protect such magnificent, vulnerable creatures, and cheaply fulfilling a lifelong desire to pet a motherfucking tiger.

       “Please tell me you aren’t going to that torture chamber,” our friend Felicia begged, pausing to tear into a gluten-free, sugar-free, triple-priced bran muffin, a ball of gritty brown dough that looked suspiciously like something plucked from a tiger-sized litter box. “Don’t you think it’s odd the tigers never bite anyone? Don’t you want to know why? It’s because they drug them, that’s why,” she preached. The French woman shook her head in disgust. “Tell me that’s not fucked up. Fucked the fuck up.”

       The check came, and Felicia whispered to James, who knew a guy. “Are you going to get that weed tonight?” A gray-haired woman manning the cash register eyed us suspiciously. “Ooh!” Felicia squealed. “Didn’t you say he had mushrooms?”

       All the information I could find online pointed toward Tiger Dominion not, in fact, drugging their animals. Unlike Tiger Pagoda, that is, a competing establishment known for its frequent and headline-grabbing tiger abuse, an especially curious practice considering it is run by Buddhist monks at an actual Buddhist temple.

       Katie and I are no fans of animal cruelty, but there’s an obvious security in knowing that the tiger drooling in your lap is literally incapable of sampling the Taco Bell-infused human delicacy sweating pungently before it.

       But if not drugs keeping tasty Americans such as ourselves from touring the inside of a tiger’s intestinal tract, what the hell was it? Curious, we asked the first official-looking person we saw in the Tiger Dominion parking lot, a Thai man wrapped in a beige safari suit. He leaned jauntily beside the establishment’s front door as we approached, gazing off to his right, apparently toward nothing in particular.

       “Tiger is a nighttime animal,” he murmured in response to our query, artfully swishing a short length of bamboo through the air as he spoke. His obvious skill with the stick, no thicker than a pencil but at least twice as long, lent the impression we were conversing with a deeply tanned Mozart. With nowhere else to be, it seemed the man’s only job was to stand here soothing terrified Westerners.

       “Tiger active during daytime if tiger hungry only,” he continued, slicing the wind with his baton. “If tiger no hungry, tiger sit. If tiger no hungry, tiger sleep.”

       We took our time digesting this information. Eventually, Katie piped up. “And tiger no hungry, right?” she asked, wide-eyed.

       “No,” he huffed, punctuating the word with a sharp jab of bamboo. “We feed tiger so much,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “Every day, like…what you say?” He thought for a moment. “With the big bird.”

       “Sesame Street?” I offered helpfully. “You feed them children?”

       “Thankgiwing,” he nodded firmly. “We feed like Thankgiwing.”

       Katie had been strangely hesitant on the drive up, on the fence for some inexplicable reason about locking herself in a cage with several thousand pounds of orange, cuddly death. But venturing inside the ticket area, she pointed out a couple striding confidently through a nearby enclosure, overweight retirees whose intense body odor, evident from twenty feet away, suggested a spicy, high fat diet. Those people must be absolutely delicious, I thought. And there was so much of them—a walking, reeking, tiger buffet. Yet the animal they stooped beside, a killing machine the approximate size and speed of a new Volkswagen, seemed barely conscious.

       I was beginning to worry Felicia might be onto something, when a roar straight from the MGM logo filled the space directly behind us. I spun to find another khaki-clad man swinging a a long bamboo pole through the air, a brightly colored paper bird attached to the tip by a length of twine. An adolescent tiger pursued the toy at full speed, leaping atop a wooden play structure before vaulting what must have been ten feet into the air in an effort to claim its prize. The cat snatched the bird with a massive, extended paw, eliciting a chorus of cheers from a family pressed anxiously against the inside of the fence.

       “Jesus Christ!” I yelled to Katie. “Did you see that? Holy shit!” The tiger, easily three hundred pounds, acted no different than an exuberant house cat chasing a piece of string, only a thousand times deadlier. “Yeah, that thing’s been drugged, alright,” I huffed. “With fucking cocaine.”

       Not long after, a woman with a clipboard pushed into the crowd and barked a set of ticket numbers, motioning toward an enclosure housing the largest, and presumably deadliest, of the tigers. “Fifty-nine, fifty-nine?” she shouted, staring our direction. “Your number is up.”

       Once inside, our handler, a rail-thin man introducing himself as Tune, led us to the first cat, a gorgeous, fully grown animal lounging in a pile of hay to the left of the entryway. “Always from behind,” Tune told us, explaining the safest angle of approach, “or tiger think you want play.” Remembering the flying super-beast from the next cage over, we most definitely were not feeling playful.

       We took turns snapping photographs hugging and petting the cat’s rear half, and I could feel Katie starting to relax. Like a female spider being fertilized by a stealthy, smaller male, the tiger didn’t really seem to notice us. We were more cavalier with the next one, another four-hundred pounder sprawled against a different section of fence. But unlike its aloof friend, this tiger was very aware of our attentions, arching its back and lifting its tail seductively as we shuffled near.

       “It is the time for her,” our guide said softly. “She have the heat.”

       “The heat? It’s a girl? Oh, that’s good,” I said, thinking back on years of newspaper stories about wildlife attacks, articles reporting chimpanzees ripping off lab worker faces and grizzlies devouring their lifelong trainers. The incident highlights the dangers of working with aggressive males of the species, the stories always noted. Knowing I shared a cage with this sweet, docile female set my mind at ease. “Females aren’t as dangerous, right?” I offered knowingly, impressed by my own knowledge.  “More predictable, yes?”

       Tune shook his head vigorously. “Oh, no. Female tiger most dangerous tiger. Female tiger very,” his eyes flicked over to Katie, “not predictable.”

       I found myself flashing back to our first night in China Mai. Taken out for welcome drinks by Allen, a friend from the States, our host had casually relayed a tidbit picked up during his time in the country, something about Thailand being a world leader in nonsurgical penis removals.

       “Nonsurgical penis removals?” I asked.

       “Let’s just say I’ll be trying extra hard not to piss off any Thai women while I’m here,” he nodded.

       Suddenly grateful for the warning, I connected the dots. Do not call the horny tiger kitten.

       We stepped up to stroke the ovulating animal, remembering to approach from behind, which she was totally into. The tiger pawed at the dirt with an enormous front foot, and a deep rumble echoed through her body, the note vibrating like a slow, sexy earthquake. “Aw, she’s purring,” I said, and Tune leaned in to listen.

       Tilting an ear toward the cat, the Thai man’s face jerked subtly. “Tiger no can purr,” he said. “Tiger can growl.” Tune stood perfectly still, staring into the cat’s face. “She have the heat,” he repeated.

       We froze, listening closely to the animal’s wine cask of a chest. The sound grew, first to a snarl and then a full roar. In an instant, I recalled years of school field trips spent milling single-file past the Big Cats exhibit at Lowry Park Zoo, along with my constant disappointment at the striped blobs pooling motionless on the grass below. Roar, damn you! I would scream in my head, tapping rudely at the glass. Do SOMETHING!

       For the first time, it occurred to me how deeply unwise it had been for two soft, well-fed humans to willingly step into a locked box brimming with tigers, one of which wanted nothing more than to be violently mounted. As we stood to back away, the animal’s tail, as thick as a yacht’s anchor chain, swooshed suddenly, a movement eerily similar to that of a house cat grown unexpectedly tired of your previously mind-blowing tummy rubs. Slapping hard against my thigh with a quick, whip-like crack, it felt like I’d been kicked by a pony. However the saying usually goes, this was inarguably worse—hell hath no fury like a motherfucking tiger scorned.

       “Should we, um…” I trailed off, staring into the back of the animal’s head. Get the fuck out of here? “Would it be better if we left?” I asked the handler.

       “No,” Tune answered sharply, his eyes trained on the disgruntled sport utility vehicle rising to a crouch before him. The tiger’s body language suggested it might leap onto him at any moment. “Move … not now,” he commanded.

       The way Tune worded his sentence freaked me out, paralyzing me with indecision. Life or death situations might be great at tearing down fences, bringing people from unfamiliar cultures together in shared experience, but when it comes down to it, the language barrier could just as easily get you killed. There’d been some unnatural pauses in Tune’s instructions, glaring spaces suggesting that the words he said didn’t necessarily match up with the intention behind them. Did he want us to not move? Or rather, that we should move, just not now?

       While Katie and I stood frozen, Tune produced a thin bamboo stick similar to the one brandished by the man at the entrance. A quick glance around the cage revealed that all the handlers carried one.

       “Tiger know stick,” he declared, tapping the disgruntled animal sharply on the nose. Tune pulled the bamboo rod away slowly, arcing it through the air in a hypnotic Figure 8, and the tiger followed the movement, her colossal head bobbing up and down, left and right. The ritual carried on for a minute or so, the bamboo dance calming her little by little. The cat’s previously taut leg muscles relaxed and her claws retracted beneath the orange fur of her dinner-plate paws, and she collapsed roughly onto her side in a cloud of hay dust.

       At once exhausted and electrified, we navigated the remainder of the enclosure swiftly, returning to the same door through which we’d entered the enclosure earlier. Katie and I slipped through as the next pack of tourists were ushered in, a tall couple from Spain, judging by their excitement at meeting loth tigreth, plus a toddler the husband carried in a backpack, the same variety San Franciscans use to sneak small children into wine tastings.

       The child, obviously smarter than either Katie and me or its parents, took one look at the quarter-ton of danger eyeing it hungrily and let out a cry that would raise the dead. Or, at least, apply to join them. Sensing either danger or a snack, four sets of tiger ears perked up around the room, sending their respective handlers into a nose snapping frenzy. Everyone was on high alert, but still buzzing from our time in the cage, my heightened senses diagnosed the situation for what it really was.

       “IT’S OKAY,” I whispered at the cats, psychically beaming a blanket of warm, comforting energy throughout the enclosure, “DO NOT BE ALARMED.” Thinking back on the soft yet durable feel of their coats against my skin, I spoke slowly and clearly in my mind, motioning to the screaming child all the while. Empowered to speak by a new and special knowledge, I was positive these Thai tigers would grasp the message I was sending to them, and them alone. “PLEASE, BE CALM,” I carried on, my confidence growing with each and every breath. “WE ARE JUST DELIVERING YOUR TOILET PAPER.”

© 2020 Yael Boyle