Somewhere in my distant past a college professor of biology, or was it anthropology or could it have been psychology? , informed the class that what separates man from animals–making us a unique, special and very distinct life form–was the ability to use tools. Or was it the opposable thumb that sets us apart, making us a unique and special life form on planet Earth? Did I just commit an act of insensitive specism which will get me in trouble with the PC crowd by assuming human exceptionalism? If you choose to believe you are on an equal plane with, say, a sewer living river rat, I apologize for my insensitivity and desire you nothing but success in both your current incarnation and the next three or four to follow. Regardless of any specism of which I may be guilty, the ability to use tools is what this story is about. Of course, one must define what a tool is and when something becomes one. For instance, is a seagull dropping a clam on a rock using the rock as a tool? Is a beaver dam a tool to improve the quality of life for the brotherhood of beaverdom? Is using a barn in which to build a nest manipulating the barn by making it a tool for the comfort and well-being of barn swallows? Can one life form use another life form as its tool? Ah, now that is a question for today’s philosophers to ponder. Of course, if the seagull, beaver and barn swallow are using tools, by my professor’s definition these creatures would be equal to humans.
In this story, I am the human, and the tool I used was a black Lab: an overweight, under exercised eating machine named Cleo. She was the gentlest, kindest, most loving quadruped ever to grace this planet. Had she been bipedal she would have been a Mother Theresa or a Mahatma Gandhi or St. Francis of Assisi. She did have her flaws. She was too lazy to bark and the emotion of anger was something that was beyond her willingness or ability to conjure up, making her singularly and spectacularly useless as a watch dog. She shed fur like Miley Cyrus sheds decency and she stank like a buzzard’s road kill buffet. But she sure was a kind, loving ol’ pooch. She was an 80-pound, fur-clad bundle of love.
Cleo became my tool one evening when a stray tomcat entered our kitchen. My family lived in La Paz, Mexico where my wife and I worked as missionaries who gathered newly transformed Jesus-followers into self-sustaining fellowships. Because of the benign climate of the Sonoran desert in Baja, doors and windows were often left open. Our kitchen, designed in some kind of architectural project gone awry by a student flunking out of college, had a door that opened directly onto the back yard. This became the portal through which the big black cat entered my kitchen and my life.
I don’t remember who discovered the cat – my wife, one of the kids or I. All I remember was this big, black behemoth of a cat in our kitchen. The quasi-lion sat there surveying his newly claimed territory, disdainfully challenging us mere humans to evict him. The instant we saw him we could see the rabies, distemper and who knows what else boiling, roiling and surging through his body, yearning to make the leap from his to ours . His evil, hate-filled eyes stared contemptuously at me. The deep rumble in his throat, a grumbling, rumbling 9.5 Richter feline growl from Hell quickened my pulse and compelled me towards battle. In his top-of-the-food-chain mindset he was clearly and indubitably the regent and I a mere serf, a vassal set in place to do his bidding. This could not go on. My honor was at stake and I had to reclaim the kitchen if I was going to retain the respect of my family. Fight or flight? “Damn the torpedos. Full speed ahead!” It was battle time. It was a fight to the finish and there would only be one creature standing at the conclusion of this fight to the death.
“Shoo. Shoo. Go away.“ This, the opening salvo of my attack, proved to be an ineffective agent for feline expulsion. My words, threatening though they be, failed to faze the furry demon who just sat there, as unmoved as if I’d said nothing more threatening to him than “Shoo, Shoo. Go away.” His angry, hate-filled eyes continued boring into my soul with an arrogant, knowing superiority. He mocked me. He scorned me. He belittled me in front of my family. Like a plump juicy grape in the Mojave sunshine my male ego shriveled away, becoming nothing more than a distant and pitiful little memory.
It was then that the inspirational words of my college prof came back to me. “What separates man from animals is the ability to use tools.” Suddenly, and for the first time in my life, my college education became worth the time, effort and money I had invested in acquiring it. I now had an opportunity to use what I had learned. I needed a tool, something to use, something outside myself, something that would leverage my limited power into something greater, bigger and more powerful than that of the monster before me. Cleo! Yes, Cleo! She was my answer. She was the tool to rid my kitchen of the cat. Dogs hate cats and the feeling is reciprocated. As a general rule, dogs are bigger than cats, although Chihuahuas do ruin the norm somewhat, assuming of course that Chihuahuas are indeed dogs and not some maliciously engineered mutant rat in canine disguise.
I introduced Cleo into the kitchen. For a nanosecond time ceased to exist as dog eye met cat eye. It was that moment of stillness between tides. It was the calm before the storm. It was that silence-filled moment when opposing generals, facing each other across the open field, have their arms held high, swords grasped tightly in hand, pausing before yelling “Charge!” Then, suddenly, fusion or fission or some other yet-to-be named source of limitless power and energy burst into existence. Future astronomers on distant galaxies will look back at this moment and call it the Cataclysmic Cleophany. Not since the discovery by Nicolas Big and Horatio Bang of the theory which now bears their name has such a massive release of energy been contemplated in theory, or as in this case, observed directly.
In mammalian, reptilian, piscine and avian physiology, flight or fight are the natural responses engendered by perceived threat. In this instance fight and flight became one, and its progeny was a mess for which my wife has yet to forgive me. Cleo, for the first time in her life, experienced a momentary awakening of the latent wolf gene buried deep within her; she wanted to fight while the cat chose flight. In the flight mode muscles instantly tense and contract, ready to spring into action. The guitar string tautness of the muscles prepares them for an instant release of energy allowing the animal to run faster, jump higher or fight harder. Most muscles tense up but not all. Certain muscles, namely sphincter-type muscles, relax under stress. Cats have sphincter muscles. As Cleo’s eyes made contact with the cat’s eyes everything went to hyperspeed. The cat, in a velocity bordering on that of light, began to run around the kitchen, leaping from counter to cupboard to fridge. The process was repeated faster and faster. Like stunt motorcyclists in spherical cage the cat seem to defy gravity as his centrifugal force allowed him to run around the walls perpendicular to the floor. It was at this point that the cat remembered that sphincter muscles relax under stress. A misty, moist, malodorous London fog was atomized into the room. The tom cat sprayed our entire kitchen as effectively as any south Florida mosquito abatement fumigation airplane ever covered a Floridian swamp. Male cat urine is particularly pungent. It is unlikely that our kitchen will ever be the same.
The inertia of plates in the drying rack, pitchers on top of the fridge and decorative wall hangings were no match for the kinetic energy being released by the black furry bullet-like cat. The specific density of flatware is less than that of a hard tile floor, meaning that when plate and floor made contact, the floor won. As our kitchen floor began to fill with the shredded, shattered shards of plates, cups and pitchers, Cleo became the perfect caricature of a cartoon creature. Her claws, designed for digging and outdoor traction on rough ground, failed to gain a purchase on the slick tile floor. Like Wile E. Coyote, her legs pinwheeled at great speed propelling her absolutely nowhere. I believe Cleo to be the source idea for Paul Simon’s hit song “Slip sliding away, you know the nearer your destination the more you slip slide away.”
Shortly before the cat in the kitchen escapade, I had scored some major spousal reward points with my wife by having had brand new custom kitchen cupboards installed. I was still reaping the rewards from my kitchen cupboard coup. Marriage was really good and getting better. Then the cat entered my life. It was then that I made the horrendously inappropriate choice of letting a dog do a man’s job. I turned to Cleo as my tool of choice to rid my kitchen of the emissary from Hell, that evil harbinger of horror in my home. As the cat sped around the kitchen leaping from cabinet to cabinet and counter to counter in the fight for his life, it made no difference to him that our cupboards were brand new and quite pretty. Claws met wood. Claws scratched wood. Claws gouged wood. The running, clawing, urinating cat redecorated our kitchen. It was his claw marks on our new cabinets which became the inspiration for the trade mark logo for Monster’s energy drink.
Cleo has now gone on to wherever good dogs go when their time on this planet comes to an end. We have moved out of our house in Mexico and now live in the US. However, the claw marks of the cat still scar my soul as surely as they still scar the cabinets in Mexico. My marriage survived, and my kids still respect me, but the gouges to my ego will never heal. The cat? When he was satisfied that he had ruined my kitchen and my life as much as possible, he ran out the open kitchen door, up a tree and then jumped across the wall to the neighbor’s yard–leaving only a wretched memory in my shattered psyche. I’m reasonably confident that unless he had a feline version of a deathbed conversion, he is not where Cleo is and that his abode has become a new tenth ring in Dante’s inferno.