LEWISTON — If the Internet has taught us anything it's that people love cats.
And if my recent reader query taught me anything, it's that Mainers really love their cats.
From actual, I-would-not-make-this-up emails:
"Blackie loves to lay on momma's pillow at night. Cranberry loves to be right beside daddy in bed, and Julie loves to meow at the kitchen sink just to drive us all nuts."
"Many households are run either by a controlling man or woman. Some are run jointly with both spouses having an equal say on when things will get done. Our household is run by a very loud and talkative long-haired Scottish Fold named Boo-Boo."
"I WOULD LOVE TO TELL YOU ABOUT YING & YANG . . . FORMER SHELTER KITTENS, THE LOVES OF MY LIFE AND ADORED BY ALL THAT MEET THEM."
There was also the woman so eager to talk about her cats that she told her boss she had to take a bathroom break — then ducked out to call me. And the retiree who wanted to reminisce about the cat he had when he was a boy and still misses greatly decades later.
Nearly 60 phone calls and emails from cat lovers waxing poetic about their feline companions, it was one of the largest reader responses we've had.
It's proof that Mainers are about as kitty crazy as the American Veterinary Medical Association says they are: No. 2 in the nation for per capita ownership.
I know how they feel.
I have two cats of my own, a highly photogenic Maine coon cat and the sweetest domestic short-hair kitty ever born. (I know you think yours is the sweetest ever, but you would be wrong. Sorry.) So I, too, am a fan of cats. A fan-cat-ic, if you will.
But why, exactly, do Americans, and Mainers, love their cats so much?
Let us count the ways.
Nearly 39 million American households have at least one cat, according to the American Pet Products Association, and there are just over 86 million pet cats living in the U.S. altogether. But how beloved are cats, actually? Well, consider this: The vote to replace Monopoly's iconic iron token with a new symbol went to a cat. So. Quite a lot.
In Maine, according to a 2012 American Veterinary Medical Association survey, 46.4 percent of households have at least one cat. (In contrast, 34.6 percent have at least one dog.) That cattitude is down from 56.4 percent five years earlier, a 15-year peak, but it's still high enough to make Maine second in the country for cat ownership. Only Vermont ranks higher, with nearly 50 percent of homes counting a cat.
Still, Vermonters have half as many felines as Mainers — about 234,000 to Maine's 498,000.
Ten of those cats belong to Jenn Buschmann of Lewiston.
"Any animal I love, but if I had to choose one pet, it would be a cat," Buschmann said.
Two of her 10 are office cats at E.A. Buschmann, her Lewiston-based business that deals with packaging solutions. Lilly is blind. Cassidy is missing an eye.
Buschmann's other eight are homebodies, including Tressa, a fluffy, white Norwegian forest cat who will only eat canned food out of the can, has a tendency to throw things when she's mad (yes, with her front paws) and sleeps under the covers at night.
"And not just a little bit. She dives way under the covers, in the middle of the bed, and then just kind of sprawls," Buschmann said. "She's a long-haired cat, but she's under a sheet, two blankets and quilt, which is just weird."
It might sound irritating to some, but those kind of quirks endear cats to Buschmann.
"They're all different, just like humans. They all have their own personalities," she said.
JaneA Kelley's three cats have so much personality they have their own blog.
Billed as a blog "by cats, for cats and their people," Paws and Effect offers counseling from a feline point of view. Siouxsie Mew, Thomas and Bella dole out sometimes cheeky, always sage advice for humans about fleas, grief, puzzling cat behavior and other cat-centric topics.
"They let me make posts occasionally, too," said Kelley, who lives in Portland.
A writer and communications specialist for a Portland-area nonprofit, Kelley started the blog 10 years ago while she was in between jobs. She's now also a contributing writer for the cat website Catster, secretary of the Cat Writers' Association and a volunteer at HART, a cat rescue organization in Cumberland.
She's known dozens of cats over the years, some skittish, some bold, some traumatized, some with disabilities. All have earned a special place in her heart.
"It's really like a relationship with people in a lot of ways," she said. "I think you don't come into a relationship with false expectations and you just see the person for who they are. It's the same thing for cats . . . see the cat for who they are."
Chris Longley was never much of a cat person herself.
Then, one snowy December evening, a cold, wet kitten showed up at her door, jumping up and down to look through the glass at Longley inside.
"I let him in and I told him, 'You mess on the floor, you're going out as fast as you came in tonight,'" she said.
Eight years later, D.C. — short for Dear Cat, Damned Cat or Dumb Cat, depending on the situation — has been a lifesaver. Literally. Longley, who is 75 and lives in Albany Township, has diabetes. DC sleeps on her bed and wakes her in the middle of the night when her blood sugar plummets. He won't take no for an answer.
"He will reach up and grab at the comforter," she said. "He's my medic alert system. And he's a good companion besides."
Cats have been a lifesaver for Melanie Knaut of Farmington, too, though in a different way.
She was involved in a major crash while working as a long-haul truck driver and has since experienced nightmares. But she noticed her nightmares disappeared the days she volunteered at the Franklin County Animal Shelter. Being with the animals helped her anxiety and depression as well.
She now fosters cats and kittens. Two former fosters, Morris and Optic, nicknamed Fat Cat, have found their forever home with her.
"No matter what my mood, what I look like, rich or poor, they love me just the way I am," she said.
Most of the readers who responded to the query counted intelligence, low-maintenance and self-sufficiency among cats' best attributes.
"They don't need a lot of care. They'd like a lot of love, but you don't have to worry about them. They can take care of themselves," said Fred Sanborn of Lewiston, whose had a number of cats over the years and now shares his home with Missy, a friendly Maine coon cat who also goes up to camp with him and his partner every summer. "They're independent as the dickens."
But while cats are independent — and cat fans love that independence — they're also good for spoiling.
"We buy him the special vet food. He likes cold spring water from the refrigerator. We buy him fresh tuna for treats. I brush his teeth. My husband laughs, but I wash his face," said Joline Chaloux of Lewiston, who admits that her cat, Scooby, sits at the top of the family hierarchy. "He's stolen my heart. I look at him as another son."
Diane Duplissis of Lewiston has four cats: one tabby and three devon rex, a breed known for its wavy coat, big ears and people-oriented personalities. Several years ago, Duplissis had her tabby but always wanted an all-gray cat. She got her wish for her seventh wedding anniversary.
"My husband offered me a piece of jewelry or a cat. I took the cat," she said.
They got Monty, a devon rex. They loved the breed so much, more soon followed.
Today, Monty, Arietta, Ellie Mae and Sadie are lap cats who get trips out to the family's screened-in backyard gazebo in the summer. They sleep where they want, including on top of Duplissis' sewing machine when she's trying to work. They see the best vets, including, when one needed it, an eye specialist.
"We spoil them. They're our babies," she said. "I'm sure everyone else is telling you the same thing."
Not a crazy cat lady
Although a lot of people love cats, not everyone is awed (or aww'd) by their sweet, fluffy side.
In January, a New Zealand economist and environmentalist proposed eliminating cats in an effort to protect the island's birds. Closer to home, scientists from the Smithsonian and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service reported recently that outdoor cats, mostly stray and feral ones, kill billions more birds and mammals than previously thought.
And many readers said they've encountered the stereotypes from non-cat lovers: that cats are too feminine a pet for a real man to love, that cats are aloof and unloving, that cats aren't the great companion a dog is.
"It just turns me off when I hear people say, 'I hate cats.' I look at somebody when they say that and it's like, 'What the hell did the cat ever do to you?'" said Jeff Garney of Minot, who loves both dogs and cats but is currently a proud parent to only 23-year-old cat Sassy. "There's nothing but unconditional love. A dog might bite you, but a cat probably won't."
And then there's the "crazy cat lady" stereotype. Don't believe it, said Kelley, who, thanks to her blog and cat writing gigs, is intimately familiar with it.
"I can tell you, I know lots and lots of cat people, and I have yet to meet one who meets that 'crazy cat lady' stereotype," Kelley said. "Cat people have all sorts of different personalities, they have all sorts of reasons for loving cats. I've also been to cat bloggers' and cat writers' conventions and I've never met one person who smelled like cat pee."
Readers' cat stories, in their own words
My mother and I have had possibly hundreds of cats between the two of us. Cats with names like: Snugglebum of the Kissinger Clan, Benjamin Malcolm Sinkum, Insanity, Hemmoroid, Ulcer, Speigs, to name a few. I bet you can guess we have had some colorful characters in our life.
— Susan Wells
Both my husband and I are cat lovers. We have been married for 30 years come May and we have always had a precious kitty. Our first, a beautiful gray domestic short-hair female named King. Yes, she was a king. My husband held her while she was being born, and he held her while she took her last breath, while she laid on my husband's chest. She lived to be 21 years old. We then had a long-haired domestic yellow cat named Buffy. He weighed 22 pounds and diabetic. I gave him his insulin shot every day . . . He passed, at the vet's office, unexpectedly about two years ago. After two days, we could not stand the quiet any longer, so we took a ride to the Responsible Pet Care Shelter. We ended up adopting, not one, not two, but three brothers. We could not bare to break them up. They were almost 6 months old. I had forgotten what it was like to have kittens again. But as much trouble as they may cause, we would not give them up for anything. They bring us so much joy. No matter how bad the day may seem, they always bring smiles to our faces.
— Bonnie Morrissette
My life has been defined by cats . . . But the ONE who was special, arrived in my classroom on a Friday afternoon after all the kids had left. The grandmother of a student came up to my desk sheltering a very tiny black-and-white kitten who needed a home. He was too tiny to eat on his own, and would I take him home? Little did I know, I would have a "cat son" and that I would worship the ground he walked on. Little did I know he'd show up in the candid photo I took of our son in his tuxedo before senior prom. Little did I know he'd get picked up by an eagle and dropped, seven Januarys ago. He'll never be forgotten. His portrait hangs over the fireplace. He has a photo album and a cat garden. When we had to say goodbye at the vet's, my last words were, "No matter where you are, sing, and I'll be listening." He's with me always.
— Cindy Turcotte
I fostered her mother, her and her siblings since they were 12 days old. I had every intention of bringing them back to the shelter once they were old enough to be adopted. And I did. However, on the drive home I was in tears because I had grown attached to the little female. Which was unexpected because my boyfriend and I were talking about getting a kitten, but I was adamant on a male, and any color but white. Eden was, of course, a white female. So I was bawling and my boyfriend told me to just get her. So I called the shelter back when we got home and told them I needed her back! Of course they told me that was fine. (I'm pretty sure their whole "foster program" is a giant plot to get these cuties adopted out to their foster parents! Who wouldn't get attached?)
— Kerry Wellington
I don't think words could ever accurately describe Billy, but I'll try. He was a true feral cat that took me almost a year to catch. So, yes, feral cats can be tamed with a lot of love. He's incredibly smart. He'll ring bells to go outside, comes in when you call him and, yes, that stroller is his. He sleeps cuddled next to me on a pillow every night. I had an Afghan hound that became ill and Billy would sleep on her every day until she passed. He was there for her.
When I finally caught Billy, I took him to Dr. Kinney. He had a broken leg, a lacerated eye, broken teeth and a lung infection. He was totally covered in ticks. Today I can't spoil him enough. He brings us tremendous joy and love. He knows we saved him and shows his gratitude daily. So, for as long as the world lets us have him, we will take great care of him.
— Eva Cailler