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Cats, Dogs and Monkeys

March 22nd, 2005

I recently met a large and incorrigibly joyful german shepherd puppy called Bailey, who because of the wildly exuberant way in which she plowed her massive damp snout into my pliable flesh as well as that of anything else that moved or even did not, I shall forever remember more fondly as the Beast of Bailey Downs. This Beast, like all german shepherds, is very clever. She knows and obeys the commands her beleaguered masters might well have been bludgeoned to death with affectionate nose-rammings had they neglected to teach her. She sits. She shakes. She lies down. She rolls over. She fetches. And when she’s been especially bad, she even goes apologetically into her kennel to await forgiveness.

Yet it isn’t her ability to follow the letter of these limited laws where the problem lies. She simply doesn’t understand the spirit. She can figure out the master-pet heirarchy far enough to obey. It’s the self-control part she just isn’t ever going to get. Oh, she’ll sit, but then four second’s later she’ll knock you sprawling and wonder why you’re yelling at her.

At my work, as I believe I’ve mentioned, there are cats. More cats than I can manage to remember the names of. As a matter of fact my employer herself is rather catlike, in the way that cats in general are considered to be similar to people: she’s capable both of incredible whimsy and impossible demands within the space of seconds.

I had not until recently considered myself the cat sort of person. When I was a kid my Beast of choice was in fact a massive, drooly, german shepherd puppy with absolutely no sense of its own girth. I crossed streets to get away from cats. Yet these cats seem to like me, as well as cats can be said to like people, which is to say they don’t claw me in the face. Which is more than I can say for certain other cats I’ve met. Hence, having realized at last that in a manner of speaking I swing both ways, I am very much interested in remaining on my friends the felines’ collective good side. An encounter with a mountain of disgruntled cats whose names you’ve forgotten is not the sort of thing you walk away from.

Thus upon my return from the drool-coated clutches of Bailey “the Blunt Instrument” Jones, I was somewhat apprehensive as to the reaction of the forty thousand felines. Let’s not mince words. I expected it to rain cats like the tenth plague of egypt. I expected it to rain cats like cats and dogs. But it didn’t. They treated me as they always did, with a brush and a snuffle and a bit of tail-fluff in the face.

What the hell was going on here? Cats and dogs, man, cats and dogs! Dog my cats, if the whiff of Bailey the Canine Battering Ram on my coat didn’t scare the crap out of these flighty felines, then all our in-depth conversations on the subject of why the couldn’t have my turkey sandwich and whether they’d please get up off the keyboard must not have meant as much as I thought!

I’ll tell you what’s going on here: and while it might sound like not so much of a revelation at first, I think if you think about it you’ll discover its something we take for granted that we know without ever really stopping to consider it. Something that might just shake our society to its very foundations if we did.

This is where the monkeys come in.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was on last night. This classic film features rather prominently a lovable, traitorous, and ultimately tragic monkey. I don’t think I’m spoiling it for anybody if I reveal that the cute and seemingly harmless monkey who becomes so attached to Miss Ravenwood in the second act is in fact the agent of the shady-looking Arab guy with the moustache, the scimitar and the red pajamas. He gives Indy’s love interest away to the Nazis, nearly gets her killed, and then comes back to Indy all “But I’m so cute and crushed by remorse! Love me!” Of course, ultimately, the monkey is redeemed, and gives unimpeachable proof of having seen the error of his ways and repented by sacrificing his own meager life to protect Indy from the peril of the poisoned dates. Or at least that’s how I’ve read it every time of the dozens I’ve seen it over the past however many years.

So as Erin and I are sitting there watching Miss Ravenwood intrepidly frying-panning her lusty dagger-wielding assailant and scurrying off to take refuge in the glorified laundry basket of her doom, I can’t help but observe, “I’ve never really bought into the monkey’s motivations in this film. His character just isn’t given enough room to develop. Is he a spy? Is he not a spy? Is he a good monkey or a bad monkey?”

And Erin and I debate the subject good-naturedly for a while, but it is she who makes the final, stabbing point. As the monkey lies there sprawled on the crimson persian carpet beneath the whirling blades of the fan with the date still clutched in his tiny opposable-thumbed hand, and Sallah intones, “Bad dates”, Erin cuttingly observes, “Maybe he’s just a monkey.”

All those years I had been committing the fallacy of personification.

I went to the zoo the other day.

(“I went to the animal fair
the birds and the beasts were there
the big baboon by the light of the moon was combing his auburn hair…”)

At the zoo a gorilla walked right up to me and looked me in the eye, and in spite of the inch of plexiglass between his face and mine I was rather more inclined to cringe away for fear of getting a limb ripped out of its socket than I let on. But I held my ground. Bluffing. False courage. I looked cooly back, and even grinned at him, realizing as I did so that among gorillas the baring of teeth and meeting of gazes is the equivalent of breaking a beer bottle over somebody’s head.
Yet miraculously he didn’t take a swing at me. I judged he knew that glass was there as well as I. So we stood looking back and forth at each other for a span of seconds, and into his rich and glassy brown eyes I wondered what he could possibly be thinking.
And I hate to leave you with this kind of image, but at last do you know what he did? He nonchalantly reached back, stuck a finger in his ass, pulled it out and gave it a taste.
“And that,” said Erin, who was with me again to set me straight, “is why they’re called ‘animals’.”

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