So it was with a sense of the surreal run slightly amok that I overhead some of my fellow inmates here at the egregious mold pit discussing their pets. Now, before every animal lover reading this takes the coach section of umbrage to give me a piece of their minds, I just want everyone to know that I love pets…well, I like pets, most of them, anyway. I am very fond of fish, since you don’t really to do very much for them, and we once owned four or five six-toed cats, which my father kept outside all year round. He didn’t want cats in the house; he regarded cats in much the same way as he regarded the neighbors’ kids, as useless mouths who showed up at his door while he was trying to get some sleep to mooch a free meal. And so we never fed them, the cats, I mean, not the neighbors’ kids—Mom insisted on feeding our friends whenever they showed up, which was suspiciously often, now that I think of it, and she didn’t care to hear what Pop had to say on the subject. Pop went along with her on this because he wanted to keep peace in the house, but this grudging largesse did not extend to the six-toed cats. Cats were predators, he said; he knew that because he’d seen umpteen episodes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom that said just that, that all cats are predators; and if they were predators then they could just stay the hell outside and damn well predate; he was supporting enough open mouths and bottomless bellies as it was without keeping healthy carnivores in tuna fish and catnip.
In any case, I sort of drifted into this conversation without really meaning to; I’d gone back to my miserable warren to get a drink of anything with a lot of caffeine in it; librarians do not enhance the institutional dignity of the public library by keeling over at their desks for a quick coma, if for no other reason than the library-using public is not apt to regard such down time as a proper use of their tax dollars. The conversation had apparently been going on for some time, with two of my co-workers listening to a third talking at length about a local veterinarian’s skill at feline orthodontics and how reasonable his rates for removing one of her cat’s molars were. I must admit that I found the whole concept of a cat having dental work done somewhat odd, given that I did not know that dentistry for cats existed as an organized field of professional endeavor, but it seems that is, and a very lucrative one at that.
I hadn’t realized before this conversation; well, I haven’t realized a lot of things before most conversations, for one reason or another, and I am sure this one got by me due to a profound lack of interest on my part; but a scandalous number of cats in the United States, perhaps even a majority of the feline population, are totally without any form of dental plan. Cats exacerbate this problem by poor dental hygiene, possibly a societal reaction to not having opposable thumbs, and living on a diet virtually guaranteed to foster tooth decay in laboratory rats, which form a major part of the laboratory cats’ diet.
My co-worker discovered the problem with her cat when she (the co-worker, not the cat; cats are not really stoic creatures, but they do have a habit of keeping things to themselves, rendering them unreachable by most conventional methods of psychoanalysis) saw that her cat had red gums. I asked if this was significant; I have never been close enough to a cat to look inside its mouth—I don’t believe in that sort of thing unless it’s a long-term relationship—and the co-worker gave me the eye-rolling, head-swiveling, omigod exasperated look that women display when a man says something particularly dumb. Teenaged girls do this look better than almost anyone else you care to think of; my niece, for example, who spends an inordinate amount of time trying to get me to see the benefits of popular music since the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album, spends an equally inordinate amount of time giving me and everyone else in the room this look, as if to say how can I be related to someone so utterly clueless?
The red gums, my co-worker informed me, in a tone of voice that suggested that she had better things to do with her time than to bring me up to speed on the widespread problem of poor cat orthodontia, were a sign of the gum disease gingivitis, and a sure sign, I think, that here cat has not been gargling with Listerine as often as it should be.
And what were her thanks for doing all of this for the cat? Nothing apparently, not even the slightest sign of appreciation. In fact, the cat scratched and hissed and bit as she (again the co-worker and not the cat) tried to give the ungrateful beast (the cat, not the co-worker, for a change) its meds. Yes indeed, Shakespeare had it right when he almost wrote that how much sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a thankless cat with a toothache. Serpents, on the other hand, if you can use such a phrase when referring to a creature without hands, legs, or visible appendages of any kind, usually have an excellent dental plan, as well as the usual health and life insurance, as well as a good portfolio of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. They also spend more on new cars than other folks do; serpents being snakes with an education, they would just as soon not deal with used car salesmen, who remind serpents too much of their own more uneducated cousins and whom, the whom here being used car salesmen and not their cousins—what can any of us do about our relations, really, except deny that we know them when the bill collectors call at our houses looking for them—your average serpent regards with the same cold loathing that most people reserve for loud drunks, school superintendents, and the more than occasional politician. Perhaps I should get out more often; conversations about cats’ molars wouldn’t seem so strange to me then. I suppose someone has to tell the cat to rinse and spit.