North Coast June 8, 2019 | 2:44 pm

DR: Island of mysterious and improbable rewards

'Cause it's about cats and islands and a Hawaiian in the DR art by Brad Parker

Renn Loren

A disclaimer of sorts:

First of all, I have never really been a very likely candidate for being what some might call a “cat person.” I may at this point have become a cat convert of some sort. I would officially declare myself to be at the very least a cat enthusiast. But I never imagined myself to be any variety of “crazy cat person” home and property awash in a deluge of the wondrous furry highly-evolved mini-predators rescued from an all-too uncaring and indifferent world. Sure – I’ve got my idiosyncrasies, faults, inconsistencies, shortcomings, quirks, and all-out irrationalities. But I never considered having more than one cat. Ever…

Still, this is an animal story. Kind of. It’s also an island story. It is really a chronicle about finding some very profound unexpected treasures and gifts in the DR. It is also a story about cats. And, to a much lesser degree, dogs. It’s an ongoing saga of unanticipated personal growth, self-discovery, rediscovery, and even a type of redemption—through or via an improbable combination of cats compliments of the island itself...

I have come to think of the Dominican Republic as an island of mysterious and improbable treasures: it rewards in mysterious ways. And in the minimalistic backdrop of developing nation tropical island living sometimes the biggest most profound pleasures and rewards in life are measured by the seemingly smallest and most insignificant events.

When we first got down to the DR I had become fairly neutral about animals. I’d gone through an uncommon amount of loss and had become emotionally distant, removed, and just plain numb.

We had Melinda’s dog Annabelle and two cats that we’d adopted back in Florida and Louisiana through sheer circumstance. But I really didn’t feel too much for them other than a mild sense of concern for them as living sentient beings tempered by a trivial annoyance with all the shed fur, food expenses, and waste products.

While in Florida we just kind of adopted Kitty because no one else did. A family who lived in our apartment complex in the small fishing town of Punta Gorda had just dumped him out of their home to live in the relative wilds of the property. We know this because the little girl whose family had previously owned him told us the short story with sad eyes. “Mama said we couldn’t keep him anymore,” she said.

Soon our Puerto Rican neighbor Carmen had taken him in and given him the name “Kitty.” But Kitty was young and energetic and a few scratchings on her sofa later he was back outside, banished to food and water bowls on the porch.

We’d often have morning coffees at Carmen’s over her highly entertaining tales of her former life in Puerto Rico. And we would always see Kitty coming in for a morsel or drink on the porch. Kitty has a shimmering jet-black coat and greenish-yellow eyes that glow incandescently against the contrast. He looks uncannily like a miniature black panther. He is also clever. He had to be in order to survive the dogs, gators, bobcats, owls, snakes, and other predators that lived in the area. Kitty also managed to avoid the plentiful cars zooming by in the bordering parking lot thoroughfare.

Kitty would follow us back to our door. We hadn’t fed him so this was odd.

Soon enough Melinda had brought him in out of a sense of pure pity for the hapless young cat. Kitty quickly adjusted to Annabelle, entering into a fast friendship that would only deepen.  

Opportunities were drying up in Florida. And as much time as we were spending on the road touring it didn’t make much sense to maintain a static residence. So we decided to buy an RV and camp wherever the jobs led.

Even though I’d kind of come to like and even enjoy Kitty – his antics were endlessly entertaining – I didn’t really want to take him along when we left. I wanted to ask Carmen or our other neighbor if they could take him now that he had grown a bit and calmed down accordingly. But Melinda wanted to take him along citing that we were “his people” now and he had bonded with us.

I was in the throes of a major life change. And it was one where I sought to minimize all aspects of my life. I wanted to cast off all unnecessary possessions and anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary for survival. So I only saw a cat or any pet as a liability, unnecessary expense, and potential impediment to freedom but I grudgingly went along with it.

I feel I should clear some things up at this point lest I come off a robotic animal-hating curmudgeon.

Once upon a time back in my childhood and for much of my adult life, I had loved all animals. I had especially loved and been keenly interested in wild animals but also cats, dogs, rats, rabbits… And for the record: I’ve never had a preference in either dogs or cats: I liked dogs and cats and didn’t see that there was any reason I needed to prefer one over the other. I had always enjoyed them equally in the apples and oranges paradigm.

Fast forward to many decades later along the way and I had come to a philosophy that animals were best in the wild and the whole ecological natural food chain structure and predator-prey arrangements of nature were thoroughly fine with me. As a young child, I had always detested one animal being eaten by another. And though it’s still not at all comfortable or pleasant, I have come to the complete understanding that it is nature’s way.

I would also say that there comes a time in one’s life when one simply cannot take the loss of another animal friend. As an adoptee, my life has been one of momentous loss: loss of family, loss of homeland, loss of friends, and loss of loved ones. There has been so much consistent, constant loss in my life that I wasn’t able to and haven’t been able to process it all. And beloved animal friends have been a part of all those emotional losses.

I am fully aware that every human being deals with losses throughout their lives. My declarations are not made to elicit sympathy but as it applies in the context of my evolving naturalist’s deterministic attitude toward animals and their changing place in my life.

We headed off in our van with Annabelle and newcomer Kitty along with the intent of setting up camp in Lake Charles 1000 miles away to the west. I had a lot of bookings around Louisiana and East Texas on down to Galveston Island in those days. We were towing our aerodynamic low profile TrailManor trailer.

TrailManor in towing mode

We were both amazed at what a great traveler Kitty was. Things were going pretty smoothly until we reached a Walmart in Pensacola. Kitty jammed out of the van quick as a flash and headed out under other parked cars.

I figured that was it, he’d head off into the oblivion of the parking lot and bordering wilds of the Florida panhandle. I just suggested we just get our shopping done and be on our way. He was clever and able to survive surrounded by cars, bobcats and the Gator Alley environs of Punta Gorda he should be fine here in the north.

But Melinda, undaunted, was persistent. She snatched a bag of cat treats and called Kitty. Amazingly, that cat came running back, remaining beneath the cover of parked cars as he made his way back to the van.

Okay, Kitty scored some major cool pet points for traveling calmly like a dog and for coming back when called. Although I’d had a few cats as pets throughout my life: I had never owned a cat like that.

Kitty popped out of the van one or two more times along the way but he always came back when we called.

When we got to Lake Charles and settled into Sam Houston State Park, Kitty settled effortlessly into his life as a camper cat. He popped out of our camper a few times at the park and we weren’t sure if he’d return but he did.

… And in dwelling mode

We finally set up camp at Kershaw’s Cajun Village for an undetermined stay. We planned on being there for a good while. Kitty was allowed out and he would wander around camp chasing rodents, lizards, and birds around the grounds. Whenever Annabelle went out for a walk, Kitty would come bounding in from wherever he happened to be and ran in playing with Annabelle all the way in across the football pitch-sized field. He would also call from outside when he was ready to come in. If we’d gone out for the day, upon our return we would find Kitty laying around near or under the camper ready to go in at dusk.

Kitty is a champion ratter. I’ve seen him hauling rats half his size around the yard much to the amazement of the other campers. He also attacks and eats mice, cockroaches, flies, and other pests. Additionally; once his scent is distributed around the camper no pests will come near let alone inside. We were completely pest-free while some of our neighbors’ campers were being inundated with mice, rats, or cockroaches. I soon realized that Kitty was “earning his keep!”

Kitty the ratter prowls beneath Cajun swamp bus at Kershaw’s Cajun Village, LA

Our camp neighbors would all say what a great cat and hunter he was: how entertaining his carefree lackadaisical yet dog-like attitude was. Kitty is funny in that he likes to hang around where the action is. He’s uncharacteristically sociable for a cat and likes to be in close proximity to people. He also follows us around like a dog and comes when he’s called.

He also responds to the command “no!” Occasionally when he’d try to enter people’s campers or cars without permission, I would shout “Kitty, no!” at him and he would look at me and stop. It works well with other unwanted behaviors or actions.

Many of our fellow campers liked to invite Kitty into their campers because he would chase out or catch any pests. We often let our next door neighbors borrow our cat for an afternoon to control their pest problems.

I came to really appreciate Kitty’s pest control capabilities and would often sit talking to him while giving him lots of pets and praises whenever he hunted any kind of pest.

One time Kitty had caught and killed a giant rat out in the fields. Melinda couldn’t stand it so she was trying to get it away from Kitty. He ran off towards me with the rat in his mouth. He laid it at my feet as he also took a prone position looking up proudly – acting much more like a dog than a cat. I gave him big pets and much praise.

Hmmm… What have we here?

With his hunting prowess, dog-like behavior, and cool demeanor I really came to enjoy and appreciate Kitty. He’s all right.

Our neighbors across the way got a kitten named Zara. She is a beautifully marked grey-brown tabby: she looks like a natural wild cat. She began hanging around with Kitty in the park and often returned home with him to our place. Melinda kept her in our place at night because she was concerned for her safety with all the bobcats, coyotes, snakes, owls, raccoons, and gators roaming around the borders of the camp.

When Melinda voiced concern for Zara’s being out late at night Amber just replied that Zara was used to living in the swamps near Cameron which was where they got her. I started calling her “Swamp Cat.” She looked like a wild cat so it suited her really well.

Swamp Cat Zara blending into her surroundings

Eventually, she only wanted to be around Kitty and us. Her owner Amber told us that tiny Zara often got stepped or stomped on because Amber had a vision problem and asked us if we would please keep her. We did. And then we had two cats. Zara was small: half the size of Kitty though, so she wasn’t much trouble.

I found myself admiring the characters, qualities, and personalities of the cats and began to realize that cats were quite useful, full of personality and didn’t pester as badly or vie for attention the way that dogs can. They also totally recognize different people and their own names: looking up and at you when you say it or call them.

But; they were still cats – ultimately just animals however pleasant or enjoyable. However, the ice was melting.

We brought all three of our animals down for our trip to the DR. I was OK with the dog because she had always been there but thought maybe we shouldn’t take the cats. We could leave them with friends and maybe bring them down later. But Melinda explained that the cats were as attached to us as the dog was. So off we went with two cats and a dog.

The original three

In the fully crowded, noisy, chaotic airport we were asked to remove the cats from their carriers in the security checkpoint. Of course just as we had taken him out of his carrier where he was happy, something slammed, and Kitty went flying off across the terminal. I thought that’s it. He’s gone.

Amazingly one of the ticket agents spotted him, called out: “Here kitty, kitty, kitty!” And Kitty, hearing his “name,” unknowingly called as it may have been, went running to the ticket agent who snatched him quickly and firmly up.

Melinda collected the frightened mini panther and we were soon on our way to the Dominican Republic. Zara remained calm and had no troubles or misadventures.

After settling into our Dominican apartment, Kitty began asking, very vocally to go out. We didn’t really want him to go out but he was insistent. We let him out and he came back about four hours later. He has defined his territory around the tropically lush verdant grounds of our complex. He visits with friendly neighbors and slinks by the pool often hanging out with us as he sits in or beneath the chairs around the tables at poolside. Letting him out to wander for a few hours has become a near-daily routine.

One afternoon as we were picking up some food from a nearby street kitchen, a small orange tabby kitten went streaking into a small concrete parapet next to the building. I went to check what he was doing and picked him up. He was clean, healthy-looking, disoriented, and appeared to be relieved to be picked up.

He seemed completely happy being held. Looking around we tried to determine where he had come from and if anyone was looking for him. We rang some doorbells and asked people around the neighborhood if they knew where he belonged or if anyone had a cat with kittens. No one knew where he came from or had seen any other cats around the area. Looking closely at him it looked as if he could have been out on the streets for at least three days.

We took him home with no struggle whatsoever. He rode happily on an arm the whole way. After arriving at the apartment he soon settled in with Zara and Kitty. They were unfriendly or just outright ignored him for the first three days. But on the fourth day, our two resident beasts accepted and welcomed him into their tribe playing with the 8-week-old kitten as if he’d always been a part of their world.

We struggled with a name for the newly adopted Dominican orange tabby and didn’t call him much of anything other than “Kitten” or “Baby Cat.” In honor of his Dominican island origins, we sought a Spanish (Tito, Poco…), Taino (BBQ, canoe…) or island name (Tiki) but none stuck. One day, out of the blue I just started calling him “Morris,” I suppose in reference to the cat from the old Nine Lives cat food commercials. He seemed to like it and, being orange and laidback, it suited him. For the sake of accuracy, Morris’s personality lies somewhere between Nine Lives Morris and Garfield of comic strip and film fame.  

Dominican Island tabby cat Morris

Something I’ve learned or perhaps re-learned is: cats are funny. They are relentlessly weird with bizarre entertaining behaviors. When life gets rough and things aren’t going all that smoothly cats can still bring a smile. And I have to admit that petting them as they purr reassuringly is enticingly comforting and relaxing. I can’t begin to count all the times our cats have lulled me into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Our local island cat Morris continued to develop increasing aspects to his already engaging and hilarious personality. His intelligence was becoming impossible to ignore. One day I taught him to sit on command. It took less than 30 minutes. He comes when he’s called, stands on his hind legs and opens drawers and cabinets. He also ceases to do whatever he may be doing that is not desired when shouted at or scolded.

Sometimes he would jump up on the dresser and dig through the various treasures that lay strewn across the desktop. Upon being told off Morris would casually stroll to the empty desktop and curl up innocently as if going to nap. I would always say “Good cat” and he soon did – and continues to do this every time.

He’s also very talkative voicing meows that sound very much like casual “yeahs” whenever you ask him a question. He also has highly distinctive stuttering alerting sounds that he makes whenever Kitty returns from his morning outings.

I didn’t know it back when we first adopted these cats but each has been a gift. And Morris coming directly from the DR as he does was a special improbable gift from the island itself that would make itself known in the months ahead.

 

To be continued…