Paw it forward

Colleen Dougherty

The cat whose ashes I was picking up that day had not belonged to me. I’d found the beautiful boy dead on the highway and, having nowhere to bury him, decided to have him cremated.

I pulled into the parking lot next to a snazzy orange Corvette and went in. Sitting in the lobby were two men, 30-ish and muscular, their long black hair tethered with bandanas. One had tattoos on his arm.

“Would you like anything else?” the young man at the desk asked. “A paw print, or maybe a clipping of hair?”

Across the room was an empty carrier with a blanket inside. The two men looked at one another.

“Yes, sure,” they said.

I nodded to the tattooed man on my way out.

Images like that have remained in my head and my heart over the years. From a decades-old documentary about prison animal programs, I remember especially the image of one inmate cradling a tiny orange kitten in his big, muscular hands, tenderly combing the little fur ball with a flea comb after drying him from his bath.

From the 2017 documentary, “Kedi,” about the street cats of Istanbul, Turkey, I still see the shopkeeper holding a tiny injured kitten in his hands on his way to the vet; the rugged sailor who bottle feeds a litter of orphaned kittens on the shore; and the sweet man who, while feeding the dozens of cats and kittens on his route, talks about the deep depression he was in that “no one could cure.” When he began tending the cats, his depression lifted.

“They saved me,” he says.

What is it about seeing men show tenderness and compassion to animals that makes it so moving and powerful? We could argue that such images fly in the face of society’s stereotypes and expectations that “real men” don’t show emotions — especially those connected with compassion, tenderness and empathy.

Maybe we’re surprised when we see it, whereas seeing a woman do the same isn’t surprising at all and doesn’t attract any special attention.

Is it me or does that stereotype seem even truer when it comes to cats? Few have been able to explain to me why they “don’t like cats,” but some men have told me, “I don’t trust them,” “they’re sneaky,” “they’re not affectionate.”

Cat lover Marlon Brando, however, would disagree. A well-known photograph, taken sometime in the 1950s, shows Brando on his couch, a typewriter in his lap, his white cat (whose name was Desire Reading) draped across his shoulders. But there’s another iconic image of Brando and a cat that happened quite by accident during the filming of the 1972 movie, “The Godfather.”

On the day they filmed the opening scene, director Francis Ford Coppola noticed a stray cat running around the studio. Coppola picked up the cat and, knowing that Brando was a cat-lover, plopped it into his lap just before the cameras rolled.

Brando, as Vito “Don” Corleone, speaks to a man who has shown up out of the blue asking Corleone to orchestrate the murders of two men who assaulted his daughter. Corleone chastises him.

“You don’t ask for respect; you don’t offer friendship …”

Meanwhile, the cat rolls around in Vito’s lap, playing with his fingers and purring so loudly that it actually drowned out Brando’s dialogue, which had to be “looped in” later.

It turned out to be a magical moment — the interaction between he and the cat became a symbol of Corleone’s power and generosity; of loyalty juxtaposed with fierce independence and freedom and of friendship offered with no strings attached.

Those same qualities were reiterated recently by former rock-and-roll wild man turned cat-whisperer, Jackson Galaxy, mourning the loss of his feral cat, Alex. Galaxy, a.k.a. “Cat Daddy,” found his calling while working at a humane society in Colorado, and now works to restore harmony between people and their cats.

My mom says men pretend not to like cats, but it’s only because they don’t give themselves the chance. I think she’s right. Mired down by stereotypes and dogma, anyone can lose their ability to be authentic, genuine and real.

Remember the 1980s cliché, “Real men don’t eat quiche?” Of course they do — if they like quiche! Real men can eat anything they want, and they can nurture, and laugh, and grieve and comfort and love. Thank goodness for that.

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers, grandfathers, soon-to-be-fathers and to my late, cat-loving dad. We love and appreciate you.


(Colleen Dougherty’s history in animal welfare includes work in a veterinary clinic, shelters in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and currently as a volunteer for the Valencia County Animal Shelter. She has been a speaker at the N.M. State Humane Conference on three occasions, presenting talks on caring for small mammals in the shelter setting, and compassion fatigue in animal welfare. She holds degrees in art and counseling therapy, and certificates in eco-psychology and feline massage therapy.)

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portrait of Colleen Dougherty animal welfare guest columnist
Colleen Dougherty, guest columnist