For Father’s Day in 2011, our youngest daughter who was a student at UC Davis, and roommate with several Veterinary school students, adopted a Bengal from the campus research colony as a gift for her dad, who has been a “big cat lover” most of his life.
When I met my husband, he’d wallpapered the study of his house with lion wallpaper, and we made a special trip to pet baby lion cubs at Game Park in Bandon Oregon on our honeymoon.
|Cuddling twin lion cubs on our honeymoon|
“Dad, this is the closest you’re ever going to get to having a lion or tiger for a pet!” our gleeful daughter announced.
A Bengal is a cross between a striped domestic cat and an Asian wildcat. Their offspring are known by F numbers. In most states it’s illegal to own a wild-domestic cross that is an F1, 2, or 3. Our cat, a female, is an F4, meaning she is the fourth generation descendent of the cross between domestic and wild.
Researchers at the UC Davis vet school breed and study these colonies of cats. Bengals have a tendency toward deafness, and when that occurs, those particular cats become objects of continuing observation. A healthy hearing cat, on the other hand, is adopted out from the campus, free of charge, and evidently to anyone who’ll take them.
Our female Bengal, who is a 7 pound runt (this breed is usually large 13-14 pounds and very powerful jumpers) arrived with unsuitable name of “Tigger,” which did no justice to her exotic origins or markings. We changed her name to the Persian, “Malika” meaning Princess, because she is sleek and regal. She also has all the instincts of a wild animal—to hide from anything she perceives as a predator, not just the vacuum cleaner like most cats, but humans as well.
|Malika, playing in wrapping paper Christmas 2011|
Malika hid under the quilt on our daughter’s empty bed her first month with us, then discovered a rip in the fabric below the box-springs and hid up inside them for another month. Since she never let us see her, I was often worried she’d somehow sneaked out of the house and had disappeared into one of many hiding places in our two acres of fenced-in yard. When we sealed the hole under the box-springs, she climbed inside the back of our couch for another month, and I could rest easy, seeing a small lump in the leather, knowing she was safe.
When she finally came out from hiding, she came straight for Theo, a rescue we’d had 7 or so years by then, a feral, who’d been much more easily tamed, since he was a domestic cat way down the gene pool. Malika shadowed Theo everywhere; she pawed on his belly and nuzzled her mouth against his fur as if she were nursing, soothing herself to sleep. Or she grabbed his head and kicked him. Whatever her action, snuggle or wrestle, he responded in kind: it was his nature to adapt.
|Theo and Malika grooming each other|
When we moved to Washington and built an enclosed cat yard our first spring here and installed a cat door we thought Theo, who’d had years of experience, might teach Malika how to nudge through headfirst. Instead, he mimicked her ineffectual pawing at the flap while balancing on hind legs, an arduous process that didn’t always produce results.
Because Theo loved us and cuddled in our laps, Malika would sometimes sit by our feet on the couch or bed, but always out of arm’s reach, and if we leaned too far forward to stroke her, she’d rocket away. It wasn’t until this January, when Theo died, that Malika, after four and half years of living with us, came voluntarily to my lap and allowed me to pet her.
|Malik sitting just out of reach|
Not only did she come to me for affection, she spoke to me all day long, loud, plaintive. She missed the love of her life, and I was a poor substitute. Even though I was laid up from injury and sitting much more than usual, I wasn’t what she needed. Her cries told me so.
|January 2016, the first time she came to my lap voluntarily. The zebra pjs probably helped disguise me!|
I thought we might try being a one cat family for a spell; it’d certainly be easier to remodel our house with one cat than with the 3 to 5 we’d had since moving to Washington (two of those are “grand-kittens” who live with us for months at a time). But Malika, rubbing against my wobbly legs, nearly tripping me while I crutched around our house, needed a cat, a young malleable cat who’d look to her, as she had to Theo for companionship.
And so I set to looking at cat rescue websites and Facebook pages. I knew the second I laid eyes on Theo’s online photo that he was meant to be our family’s cat; and was waiting for the same zinging feeling. There was a little darling named Velcro I thought was the one. My husband helped me into the car along with my crutches and we drove to a pet adoption fair to find out Velcro was promised to a couple who’d been looking for a kitten for a year.
But less than a week later, I found a rescue near Tacoma that posted this photo along with the message: “Hi, my name is Tux. I am looking for a forever home that has other kitties. I am a little shy around people, but I love other kitties. Looking for someone that will take me in as a buddy for their kitty, but won't care that I'm not very much of a people kitty.”
And I knew Tux needed Malika as much as she needed him. We brought him home two weeks ago today, and call him Tuxedo because the extra vowels and syllables are easier on the tongue, and I hope on the ear, as our new feline family member learns his name.
Tuxedo was a feral rescued at three months and fostered for another three months in a home with two cats. His foster family said he’d hide for a few days, which he did, and so Malika was shocked to find another cat in the house with her when he came out from hiding. After two days of half-hearted hissing and chasing, their friendship began, and Malika quickly became the object of Tuxedo’s affection and adoration.
|Tuxedo enjoying a sunspot and computer cords|
At six months, he is almost Malika’s size, and he walks alongside her, rubbing against across rooms, down hallways, as though they’re one creature. Their camaraderie and resemblance harkens to mind Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg’s 1978 album Twin Sons of Different Mothers. Like those musicians, these cats belong together.
Though feral, Tuxedo is not wild; he has all the makings of a domestic housecat, lounging in plain sight, looking at me as I call to him by name waving. He even allows me to come within a foot or two before scuttling away. If I weren’t still hobbled, he’d find me reaching under beds, sliding him into my warm lap, pressing him beyond his comfort as part of my acclimation efforts. But with my immobility comes forced restraint, and I suppose that works in Tuxedo’s favor, the relationship developing on his terms not mine.
In this transition, Malika has decided, to my great delight, that I still must pet her, and this is a conundrum for Tuxedo. He must be near her, even if it means standing on my legs while I’m pinned under a bed quilt, carefully keeping his body just beyond reach of my fingertips, leaping down when I squirm, his weight is too much for my sore muscles. Most often, Malika jumps down to join him, and they slink way linked like the Siamese cats in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, without the bad attitude.