Love Beyond Our Species: Relationships that Challenge Ego

Love Beyond Our Species: Relationships that Challenge Ego May 6, 2024
love beyond our species
{‘Eloise’ Photo by Emily Bunker; love beyond our species}

Someone famous said having children is like having your heart run around in someone else’s body. Then here’s this heart of mine, frolicking off in the runt-body of a barn kitten I’d name “Eloise”—a creature barely the size of a rat. Love is always risky, but the perils of falling for something so vulnerable seem pronounced. With kohl lining around her eyes like an Egyptian queen, and orange-and-white candy-striped legs, Eloise is the most beautiful cat I’ve seen. The rest is a piebald of calico ordinariness: black, white, orange. As a kitten, she grew to be so desperately—heart-crushingly—affectionate toward me that at times she would knead the air as she looked at me, before reaching up to stroke my face. She’d converse more than any cat I’ve known (my older cats use voices mainly to kvetch). Eloise and I talk.

When my partner discovered Eloise and her four litter mates, they were tucked into a hay-bale cubby outside the henhouse, crying for their mother with voices almost inaudible; and I went to them immediately. Touching my lips to their hard, marble heads and holding them to my chest, I reassured: “she’ll come back.” And fortunately, she did. Within hours, Mama-cat was moving them to a safe, ground-level hutch at the back of a pullet pen one barn over. Yet I found the runt alone in the hay bales, bereft. Perhaps because I cuddled her when she was abandoned, Eloise and I bonded. That instance was only the first time I found her alone as Mama relocated the family (apparently, runts are left for last). Both times, I held Eloise in the warm jet stream of my breath, hushing her and praying Mama-cat would return.

Each morning, I visited the kittens in their new digs, day-by-day watching them grow. Because they slept in a tight pile at the back of the hutch, I threw down an empty feed sack and wiggled on it—snake-style—into the space. Each morning the pile broke up as they crawled up my arms and eventually, as they strengthened, onto my shoulders and back and legs. They knew my voice and scent, and I theirs. They knew the feel of my lips and fingers running over their little paperclip ribs. There are occasional predators on our farm, and I worried of a racoon or possum finding the stash of kittens, so I whispered incantations of protection.

Who would not fall in love with a kitten? The creatures are, as one friend put it, ridiculously cute. The way they notice their shadow and leap to catch it; the way they stalk one another around corners of a feeder and pounce then do the arched-back Halloween-cat side jump. The way they find their tail like it’s a novel instrument or turn a sibling’s tail into such; the way they vault and hang off the rungs of a hayfeeder like Olympians or wriggle their bottoms before pouncing, as if winding up for attack. Even watching them exercise brand-new, mundane skills like cleaning themselves or going to the bathroom in the wood shavings is surprisingly enchanting.

But one fall evening, from the window of my sewing room, I watched a coyote traipse across the farmyard, heading for the henhouse. I alerted my partner, who hurried down the path in time to scare it away; but from then on, I went to the kittens each morning with trepidation—each time, relieved to find them safe and well. Meanwhile, they grew bigger and more active, eventually outgrowing the short walls of the pullet pen, so I moved them one space over, to a horse stall with sturdy, opaque walls. Mama-cat approved, and they were safe.

Early in Summer 2021, the broader Portland area experienced a blistering heat wave. At our farm, temperatures reached the high 110s, but only after I’d ushered the kittens to safety in the farmhouse bathroom. Yet with the bathroom door closed to dogs, the room is out of reach of air-conditioning. So I devised a low-tech AC, with huge ice packs and fan, managing to keep the place moderately comfortable. And for two days, the kittens wrestled and played, gathering dust bunnies beyond reach behind the clawfoot tub. At night, they slept huddled in front of the fan as the heatwave gradually lifted. But it was after this that I began to bring Eloise indoors for part of each day. Even as weeks rolled on, she remained tiny, notably more vulnerable than her brothers—and I determined she was not destined to be a barn cat. Within days, the brothers had figured out how to escape the horse stall, leaving runt Eloise alone. So I brought her in full-time. (Truth be told: eventually all three un-re-homed kittens came indoors.)

Slowly, she and I fell in love. It seems funny to say this—funny to describe oneself as “in love” with a kitten. Then again, I’m not sure why. Many aspects of our relationship strike similarities with affectionate human love. I think of her when I’m away from the house. I miss her terribly while on a trip. Randomly, I recall funny things she’s done, and no matter where I am, I smile. It is a variety of infatuation—this love. We have a relationship—something surely familiar to many who have loved pets (I’ve seen it in dog owners). As I work, she crawls into my lap and sleeps. As I sew, she naps in the windowsill, inches from my machine. As I sleep, she crawls under the covers between me and my partner, and I feel the vibrations of her silky purring body, still just inches long. She is wide-eyed at the world and learning. When I bathe, she stands on the rim of the tub clearly contemplating joining me, unfamiliar with the consequences of water.

However, there are questions of risk. How could I love her as much as I think I do and still let her play outside, which I did at about four months? Eventually she’d use the cat door and come-and-go at will as do my older cats. Generally, the cats frequent areas far from our rural road; and in general, that road is quiet. But twice a day, workers at the nearby organic mushroom farm speed past—heading to work and home. Even semi-trucks visit that farm, traversing the road just beyond our front garden, not far from the cat door. With the presence of predators and cars, how can I let Eloise escape the safe confines of our house? The reason is her ecstasy at being outdoors. She is an animal, closer to nature in many ways than I am. And if I was cooped up in a house unable to escape, I would protest.

love beyond our species
{Photo by Rakib Hasan Sumon for Scopio; love beyond our species}

Love When No One is Looking

Our relationships with humans seem often, inevitably, clouded by ego—whereas there’s something unvarnished about our love for animals. Even when we give love to a small child or elderly person who can give little back, part of us tries to cultivate a relationship that says something about us. We want the person to love us; we find ego-affirmation in the way they respond to us and bond with us, or even in our self-sacrifice; often we have the pay-off of admiration from that person or others because of the relationship. But when we love an animal when no one is watching—especially an animal in the wild, we receive little ego-gratification in return. Somehow the way the animal responds doesn’t define us the way the return-love of a human does. We are less likely to use that love to prop ourselves up.

Trust is also pivotal to cultivating relationships with animals. To animals, we are huge, scary beings. We must assiduously avoid doing things that reinforce fear in them or raise their distrust. When I start a relationship with an animal, I’m aware that every time I touch them, every time I lift them or set them down, I either cultivate or compromise trust.

More than any animal I’ve known, Eloise’s love seems commensurate to my love, reciprocal. I’ve never known a cat to stroke my face. It would be easy to think: This makes me special. But the singularity of the relationship emanates more from good timing than anything—that I was in the right place at the right time, when Eloise needed me. I have cultivated her trust, yet once she was underfoot and I stepped on her. And once she darted through the back door as I closed it on her. The injury didn’t do visible damage, but she must have been bruised.

And so I choose to love this cat—unreservedly—in a world not without peril, hoping to God she never comes face-to-face with a coyote or a car or my own clumsy foot.

Wren, winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal

Winner of the 2022 Independent Publisher Awards Bronze Medal for Regional Fiction; Finalist for the 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. (2021) Paperback publication of Wren a novel. “Insightful novel tackles questions of parenthood, marriage, and friendship with finesse and empathy … with striking descriptions of Oregon topography.” —Kirkus Reviews (2018) Audiobook publication of Wren.

About Tricia Gates Brown
Tricia Gates Brown is an everyday theologian working as a writer/editor in Oregon's Willamette Valley, mainly editing and co-writing books for the National Parks Service and Native tribes. After completing an MA in theology then a PhD from the University of St. Andrews in 2000, she continued to pursue her studies—energetically self-educating in theology, spirituality, and the emotional life. She is also an Ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon. Tricia is an art quilter, potter, and novelist. Her art can be viewed at https://bit.ly/TGBArts . You can read more about the author here.
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