Mara and I are apparently unusual as cattery customers. When our friend Lori was staying with us, we loved her cantankerous old Maine Coon, Josh, and looked into local catteries to get a kitten of our own. We found Marsha Howard's Pacificmaine nearby, and asked about meeting a litter of kittens. She invited us to meet a kindle of brown tabbies (born on January 7, 2000) when they were four weeks old, enough to be ambulatory and show their personalities. One little brown tabby with white shirt and socks fell asleep in the palm of Mara's hand, and we knew which kitten would be coming home with us eight weeks later. Marsha was happy to let us claim that one, as her other customers were just interested in particular colors and not all the brown tabbies with white were spoken for yet. I don't know how Cleo's siblings turned out, but we think we got the pick of the litter.
One of the cat-care books we read before we brought Cleo home suggested that the way to spare the furniture from kitty claws was to make sure the cats knew where they were supposed to scratch. We made sure that from the first day, any cat in Maine Coon Manor knew that if they scratched on the cat tree, they always got verbal praise and sometimes a tasty treat. (Inconsistent reward is more effective.)
In That Yankee Cat, Marilis Hornidge’s book on the lore and folklore of Maine Coon cats, she describes the typical personality types: “The females are matriarchs-in-the-making, full of charm and affection and implacable, quiet determination to have their own way. They are also excellent hunters. The males, on the other hand, are little boys. If they were cast into human form, they would have frogs in their pockets, freckles and dirt on their faces, and complete confidence that the world revolves around them.” Cleo and Yeti have always been true to the type, with him a purring scamp and her a little fluffy princess. She was a very self-actualized creature, ready to demand what she wanted. From the top of the cat tree, she would wave a paw at the things that displeased her, as if she were repealing the laws of perspective to crush them— squirrels, outdoor cats, even inattentive humans. If she wanted a treat, she would carefully get human attention and then fling herself into scratching on the cat tree. If she wanted petting, she would gently swat a human with velvet paws to remind us what our priorities should be. If she was naughty, she would talk back— I always used the same litany for an out-of-bounds feline, and with Cleo it usually went something like this:
Max: “Cleo, down.”
Cleo: *waves tail gaily*
Max: “Cleo, down.”
Max: “Cleo, get off the table!”
Max: “Cleo, don’t make me come over there.”
Max (standing up and walking over): “Fee, fie, fo, fum, I see the fluff of a Coon kitten!” (gently push her off the furniture)
I didn’t often have to go past getting to my feet.
Cleo was quite the huntress. Her favorite toy was the Feline Flyer, a wand with a string attached and a fishing-lure assembly at the end that could attach to a variety of implements, including one that had three feathers that would flutter as I dragged it through the air. Cleo would jump up to catch the “bird” in her teeth and then drag it off into the bedroom in victory, fluffy tail straight up like a war banner. If she saw a bug high up on the wall, she would chirp at me until I boosted her to bap at it, standing with her back feet on the palm of my hand.
As a young adult, she made amazing leaps that were fascinating to watch. She would crouch on the back of a dining room chair and spend ten to twenty seconds making minute adjustments to her posture as she calculated her jump, then sprang eight feet through the air to land in the top of the cat tree, where she could lord it over the rest of us. In that time she could have easily jumped down to the tree and raced up it— but she preferred keeping her altitude.
When we brought Cleo home at the age of twelve weeks, our vet advised us to get her spayed soon, as at her size, she could go into heat at six months. We did so, but her maternal instincts remained intact: when we brought Yeti home (also at twelve weeks), he was about the right age to have been in her first litter, and she quickly started mothering him. It was nearly a year before she would play with toys with Yeti in the room, though she played just fine when he was out of sight; clearly, she wanted him to develop his hunting talents.
Mara had brain surgery in 2004, and was not allowed to lift more than five pounds while she was recovering. Cleo slept either next to or on Mara, and would lick her forehead when she was sweating (sometimes getting Mara’s long, fine hairs stuck on her tongue). It took a month before Mara was cleared to lift anything as heavy as a cat. When we got home from the checkup and Mara picked Cleo up, I could hear the purr all the way across the room.
She was also smart. Yeti is a very creative creature, inventing such games as rug surfing, ice hockey, and bedtime hide-and-seek, where I would call the kitties to the bedroom at night and he would run and hide, wait for me to find him, then run and hide again, tail always held high, repeated until he felt like letting me pick him up and carry him to the bedroom. Cleo observed the hide-and-seek game and created her own spin on it: she also started playing the game, but with her, it always ended with her scratching on the cat tree for a treat. She did invent her own version of “fetch”, where she would throw a toy out of the top basket of the cat tree and let a human fetch it back for her.
One handy thing about her being a food-oriented cat was that she was open to bribery. At quadrupedicure time, we would sit Cleo in Mara’s lap, leaning against Mara’s belly, with all four paws easily accessible. I would give her a treat to start, then clip the claws on one paw, give her another treat, repeat. Cleo could easily render such indignities as long as there was a steady supply of treats.
Maine Coons are more often known for being with their humans rather than on them; atypical for her breed, Cleo was a lapcat. She enjoyed showing off what a long cat she was by stretching along the entire length of my legs as they were propped up on the coffee table. Mara has a rule that I am not to vanish behind a computer when playing computer games; when I took up MMORPGs, I got a set-top computer with a video card that could clone its output to our HDTV. Cleo was quite insistent that I should not have a keyboard occupying my lap, so I got a split keyboard that could sit on either side of my legs as I gamed from the sofa, with Cleo occasionally reaching over and swatting the 6 key and triggering whichever activity I had assigned to it. (“Sorry about the plasma cannon, that was my cat.”)
We call Yeti our “belly boy” because he loves to have his belly petted. He will fling himself to the floor with an audible thud and roll over to call attention to the expanse of fluff. (And no, it’s not a trap.) Cleo was always more cautious, apt to nap with paws carefully tucked in, and only showed her belly when she was on the edge of sleep and around people she trusted; she had a particular way of rolling on her side in greeting at such times. On October 22, 2015, Cleo was hours away from a terminal infection from a perforated intestine caused by a lymphoma, and we couldn’t ask her to spend her last months of life recovering from major surgery while undergoing chemotherapy for her lymphoma and radiation for the sarcoma in her jaw. Pet euthanasia uses two drugs, the first to induce extreme sleepiness and the other an overdose of anaesthesia that shuts down the bodily functions; Cleo’s last conscious action as we eased her passing was to roll over, to remind us she loved and trusted us.