For a while there earlier this year, I made several references to The Emily Experiment and had promised to describe the outcome of the experiment. For reasons that will become apparent over the next few days, this seems like an appropriate time to finally fulfill that promise.
This is actually a story about Eliot the cat. I had decided that it would be good for Eliot to have a feline friend, someone to be home with him when I went off to work or was away from home for a few days. Perhaps he wouldn't mind being inside all day so much if he had someone with whom to play, and would spend less time outdoors, where his chances for injury or harm are so much greater. Meanwhile, my boss' pet charity is an animal rescue and she keeps several of the rescued cats at our office. As a result, every day I spend at least some time at work petting some cat or another, which I actually find quite therapeutic in the high-pressure, competitive world of consulting. So there was no shortage of cats to pick from as Eliot's new friend.
I wasn't sure how Eliot would react to having another cat in our home, as he's been the sole pet of the house for over a year now. In consultation with my boss, I decided to go with a (fixed) female cat to avoid any alpha-cat conflicts. We finally decided on Checkers, a tiny black-and-white tuxedo cat. She had been rescued from the mean streets of Atlanta, where she had suffered from worms and other parasites. As a result, her growth had been stunted and she will never grow much bigger than a large kitten. I reasoned that her gender and diminutive size would not threaten Eliot, and that the two would get along well.
Now, cats are territorial animals, and don't take well to a new interloper moving in on their area. I've read that the best way to introduce a new cat to the house is to keep it isolated in one room for a week or two to both let it get used to the scent of the resident cat and to let the resident cat get used to the scent of the new cat. They will sniff each other under the door and maybe even touch paws, and after a week or so has passed, they'll be curious enough about each other and used to each other's presence sufficiently to overcome their territoriality and get along.
Sounded simple enough and I had a spare room that I could easily set up for Checkers. So on a late-winter Friday evening, I left the office during a freak snowstorm with the little black-and-white cat in a carrier cage. Traffic creeped along (as a rule, Atlantans don't drive well in the snow) and I got to Pet Smart just as it was closing to buy a second kitty-litter box and other supplies for my second cat.
I somehow sneaked her into the house without Eliot noticing and set her up in the extra bedroom (actually my home zendo/meditation room). But soon, Eliot heard a meowing behind the door and became extremely excited about the prospect of a cat behind the door.
At first, everything went according to plan. They sniffed, they pawed, they communicated with each other in some feline way under the door. I didn't wait a week, though, until I opened that door and let them meet each other; it was actually the next afternoon that I let them meet.
I couldn't have been prouder of Eliot. He was friendly and inquisitive, and went up to Checkers in a non-threatening manner to sniff her a little.
Checkers, on the other hand, was extremely defensive, arching her back and hissing anytime Eliot came within about five feet of her. Eliot just shrugged it off and walked away, and Checkers would retreat to the carrier cage, her little "safe zone," until he was gone.
I think she was terrified of Eliot. Maybe I hadn't counted on the corollary of their size and gender difference, but she wanted nothing to do with him. I closed the door again and gave them more time to get used to each other, but the situation never changed - he was always friendly and accepting, she was always hostile or defensive. Even after I removed the carrier cage to force her from constantly retreating to her safe spot, she still hid in the room and finally made herself a more-or-less permanent home on the top of my home alter, the highest place in the room. I finally moved my Buddhas over and put her little bed up there so she'd be comfortable.
Over the next several weeks, we all tried to forge a peaceful coexistence with our new guest. I renamed Checkers "Emily" after the bride at last March's wedding and after Emily Dickinson, another poet like TS, Eliot's namesake. When Eliot was out of the house, Emily would run around the house, meowing noisily. But as soon as he came back in, she went up to her little perch and stayed there until the next day when he went outside again.
Even while she was alone in the house, though, she was a nervous wreck. She was always looking over her shoulder for Eliot and would jump in panic at any unexpected sound. Worse, she was usually too nervous to eat, taking one or two bites and then running for safety. I think she felt very vulnerable when her head was down in her food bowl. Whatever she didn't finish and left in the bowl Eliot would scarf down as soon as he came in the house, and he started getting noticeably fat. The only way I could get her to eat was to put Eliot out in the morning, give her a bowl of food, and then stand reassuringly over her as she chowed down. But even then, she would take one or two bites and then look nervously around for Eliot before taking another bite.
The weather, meanwhile, took a turn for the worse, and Eliot started spending more and more days indoors while I was at work. When I would get home, Emily would be up on her perch, and there would be no evidence at her food bowl or in her kitty litter box that she had come down at all during the day.
My little experiment in providing Eliot a friend wasn't working. Emily not only wasn't a good companion for him, but her own life must have been miserable. She was a nervous wreck and spent her whole day afraid to leave the security of her little perch. And with the passing time, she just got meaner and more aggressive any time Eliot so much as walked into her room.
Not that Eliot was always an angel. Sometimes he would get fed up with her hissing and would charge her on the rare occasions when she was down on the floor. He was also more than capable of reaching her secure little perch, and learned that whenever he wanted my attention, all he had to do was jump up there and she would start screeching and I would come running into the room to find out what was going on. Once I was up and away from the computer or the television or whatever, Eliot would be all, "Um, dude, I'd like to go outside now."
I gave them two months to see if they'd just get over it all, but the bad behavior became ingrained and habitual. The Emily Experiment was a failure. After about 6 to 8 weeks (6 to 8 weeks that felt like 6 to 8 months), I returned Emily to the office where she once again became "Checkers."
Two post-scripts to this story. First, sadly, things have not gone well for the human Emily, Checker's namesake and March's lovely bride. So poorly, in fact, that she is now in prison serving a five-year sentence for a drunk-driving accident she was in a year ago. I don't have visitation rights (there's only enough for her husband and her family), but I hear that she's taking it as well as possible, spending her time reading and developing her spirituality.
The happier post-script is that once back in the office, Checkers has developed a full-blown infatuation with me. She sits outside my office in the morning waiting for me to come in, and loves to jump up on my desk to be petted while I'm working. If she's not on my desk, she's usually curled up by my feet under the desk. Frankly, it's downright annoying much of the time, as she's already scattered papers all over the floor as she jumped up on my desk, and she's interrupted important conferences by meowing loudly in my face while I'm on the telephone. Due to her sound, I keep getting asked if I'm working at home. But she apparently considers me her protector, and it is a little gratifying to be met so affectionately at the office each morning.