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In Their Paws

At some point most novelists create non-human characters, who need to be as believable as human ones. I suppose this is particularly important for fantasy and sci-fi writers, but even those of us who write more realistic fiction create dogs, cats, or other animals who become important characters in their own right.
What’s odd about my fiction so far is that dogs keep showing up in it, despite the fact that I’m more of a cat person. I’m particularly fond of Welkin, a big wiry-haired mutt who showed up one day in an early draft of Bluebeard’s Mistress with name, appearance, and personality already in place.
Don’t get me wrong: I love cats and dogs and would have plenty of both if my husband would let me, but my primary allegiance is to cats. I think my preference has something to do with a theory I developed during my impressionable dating years that women were like dogs and men were like cats. Dogs are best at showing love in that excited, tail-thrashing, tongue-licking way: “I’m so happy I could die right now!”  Cats are more restrained: “I might like you. I might not. Give me time to consider the matter.” I haven’t been able to forget cringe-worthy moments from my youth in which I and my girlfriends approached boys in an enthusiastic, doglike way while the boys stayed cool in a catlike way.  I’ve revised my theory since then, realizing it had more to do with the personalities of the people I knew in those days than with a true gender difference, but vestiges of it remain in the vague embarrassment I feel when I see the shameless way dogs lavish their affection on mere undeserving humans.
I do think cats have one enormous advantage over dogs: they purr. Purring is the most comforting sound I know. When I’m working on my laptop with a purring cat on either side and another behind my head on the sofa, I enter a state of pure bliss that I call being “inside the purr machine.”  My best writing is done in this state!
It’s even harder to get into the mind (or paws) of a dog or cat than it is a human. It’s hard to know whether some animal behaviour is a result of high-level thinking or merely instinct. My own view of cats is that they are perfectly capable of sophisticated thought, even complicated strategic planning. A friend once watched her cat, who didn’t know she was watching, carefully place itself around a corner and wait as I came up the stairs, then run full-tilt in front of me as I reached the top step. My friend could see the whole strategy playing out in the cat’s mind: “Ok, that horrible woman is about to come upstairs. If I trip her she’ll fall down the stairs and die. That would be awesome. Yes. Not yet. Wait. Ok, now GO!”  Some people would consider this simply an example of the hunting instinct, but my friend and I are convinced it was deliberate and malicious. You have to admire the furry little masterminds, even if they do want to kill you.
Do you ever wonder what your pets would be like if they were human? Would you want to be friends with them? I’m not sure I would.
Here are my theories about what our three cats would be like if they were human:
Tansy pawsCat #1 would be the evil genius with unresolved abandonment issues. She is focussed on world domination but needs to bide her time until she can work out the details. She’d be interesting to talk to but I wouldn’t trust her.
She didn’t want me to take her photo but I managed to catch her while she was napping.

Sophie pawsCat #2 would be the cautious, highly-sensitive worrier. She also gets cranky and aggressive when people or other cats get too close.  I could certainly identify with her, but after a while she’d get on my nerves.
In this photo she is relaxed and happy to show off her dainty paws.
Minky pawsCat #3 would be the extreme-sports-loving, extroverted party animal (cue groans). She is also only too aware of her stunning good looks. She’d be entertaining but exhausting for an introvert to spend much time with.
She loves to have her photo taken.  Here she’s sitting on the sofa impersonating a human being.
To get back to the original topic, maybe the reason dogs tend to show up in my fiction more than cats is because I write about the Victorian period, and the Victorians loved their dogs in a very vocal and public way. To give just one example, one of my favourite poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, descended into uncharacteristic sentimentality in “To Flush, My Dog.” (Doesn’t that title vividly illustrate how important commas are?) The era had its share of cat lovers too, but one has to do some digging to find them, including reading private writings such as letters and journals.
One Victorian pet who richly deserved the public recognition she received was a remarkable mountain-climbing dog named Tschingel, whom I discovered while researching the history of mountaineering for my new novel.
Tschingel, who was either a large beagle or a small bloodhound, became famous as the climbing companion of the American mountaineers William Coolidge and his aunt Meta Brevoort. (Brevoort aimed to be the first woman to climb the Matterhorn but was narrowly beaten by her British rival Lucy Walker in 1871). Tschingel climbed with Coolidge and Brevoort for nine seasons in the Alps and was reportedly the first dog to climb Mont Blanc on her own four paws. (Another dog reached the summit before Tschingel but apparently broke the rules by having been carried part of the way.)

(c) Ronald Clark, The Victorian Mountaineers
(c) Ronald Clark, The Victorian Mountaineers

Here is a photo of Tschingel, along with a list of her important climbs (“Peaks and Passes”). Isn’t she adorable? According to Coolidge, Tschingel’s favourite drinks on the mountain were red wine or weak tea, and she was equally clear about her preference for certain languages. In The Victorian Mountaineers, Ronald Clark reports that Tschingel understood English, German and at least one Swiss dialect, but she didn’t respond to French. Coolidge believed this behaviour was due to Tschingel’s “decided views about the Franco-Prussian War, which in 1870 involved her in an arduous journey across Europe when she travelled home to Britain with her owners.”
Such a delightful find is too good not to share, and I hope an equally intriguing animal will show up in my new novel, but it’s too early to tell.
If you know of any famous mountain-climbing cats in history, I’d love to hear about them. So far they’ve been elusive, remaining in the realm of folk tale and myth (my favourite is the skogkatt from Norse mythology, ancestor of the Norwegian Forest Cat).
Knowing the cat mind as I like to think I do, they probably just don’t want the publicity.


  1. LoJ

    My dogs would drive me nuts if they were human. Jules, the chihuahua, especially would drive me insane. She is such an extravert, needs continual reassurance, and wants constant contact. These are wonderful qualities in a snuggly dog but not great in a human companion.
    Actually, Alfie might be ok. He’d spend most of his time as a human sitting in a corner by himself reading philosophical books and pondering the meaning of life.

  2. JT

    I too, believe that some cats have sophisticated and devious minds. Marley, my orange tabby, will calmly saunter over to her brother’s food dish with the intent on eating his left-over portion. If she sees that I’ve looked over at her, she will usually stop, mid-saunter, and look like she couldn’t care less about anything and she’s simply stretching her legs to pass the boring day. I swear if she could casually whistle while rocking back and forth on her heels, she would. Once she reaches the food dish, then it’s casual no more. She dives into her brother’s food in the mad dash to get as much food as she can before I take it away. My grey tabby, on the other hand, hasn’t a devious thought in his mind. He just likes cuddles.

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