I love animals and seldom travel. This combination seems to make me the go-to pet sitter for my friends who book family vacations on school holidays. I learned quite a while ago that when someone asks me, "What are you doing over spring February break?" they aren't questioning in the hopes that I have planned a fabulous trip to Paris and they don't want to hear that I am working on my book or planning day trips for the kids. The big question is really whether I would mind watching their pets while they are away.
I take pet sitting seriously. Maybe too seriously. When I was a teenager, I was a Saturday-night babysitter. I planned activities for the kids and brought a bag of crafts and picture books with me when I arrived. We would spend the hours together putting on puppet shows, making forts out of pillows and exhausting each other. The parents didn't have to worry and could enjoy themselves, and I got a chance to know the kids better.
Pets aren't as simple. They have their routines and can't be charmed with new squeak toys or yarn balls. They want their guardian to deliver kibble in the exact way that breakfast is distributed every other morning. Change in routine seems to be disquieting. I find this to especially be the case with cats. Dogs, eager to please, grudgingly accept my mistakes and small alterations to their routine. They are pleased to see me and happy to go on a walk or catch a tennis ball. Cats are beautiful, but elusive. I love cats. I should say that I admire them. They are agile and stunning and ... infuriating. I am also allergic to cats and thus have never had one of my own. Their ways are a mystery to me.
The worst cat-watching experience I can recall is when one morning, I walked into a friend's house and could only find two of her three cats. In lieu of the third cat, spread across the home were ample tufts of its white fur. It wasn't just a little bit of fur. There was enough to fill a Ziplock sandwich bag. I was sure the creature must be dead, and that it had fought with its housemates the night before. I saved the baggie of fluff in case we needed to bury it in a memorial plot for the poor persecuted cat and tried to imagine how I was going to explain his demise to his doting guardians. I searched everywhere, but couldn't find the missing (maybe bald) creature. I enlisted the help of other cat-owning friends to help locate the missing feline. I stayed up for nights worrying about him and left every cupboard and closet in the house open in case he had wormed his way into a small space. On the third day, he lined up for breakfast with his feline friends looking perfectly well and fully furred. When his people emailed to check on their pets, I let them know that he had been missing but was found. I mentioned the fur. "Oh yes, they fight," they answered. "He can take care of himself." I was exhausted.
Another time, I was so sure a friend's cat had escaped that I put up posters around town with pictures of the poor thing. He was on the upper shelf of a closet all along. The friends weren't amused when the saw a flyer that I had forgotten to remove at the playground the next week.
I have searched for (outdoor) cats in the woods on cold nights and have left Hansel and Gretel styled trails of treats for them. I have tried to comfort and cuddle kitties and have played with jingle balls and feather wands, stringed mice and yarn enticements with cats. I have offered them fishy treats and bowls of milk. I have stayed with them to keep them company and have been as still as can be in the hopes that they would choose to curl up beside me. They don't. I think they know they have the upper hand.
This weekend, I am dog-sitting for two labs and a pit-mix. They tend to steal food, but if you keep things out of their reach and give them plenty of exercise, they sleep.
Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.