I once owned an orange kitten who liked to bite my hand. He would be lying in my lap, purring as I petted him, and then—for no reason at all—he’d turn his head and bite me. I’ve owned cats off and on most of my life, but Gibson was the only one that bit me. He was also the only male I’d ever known. Were they love bites—a blend of affection, enthusiasm, and testosterone? Maybe, but I’d been to urgent care once from an infected cat bite, so I flicked my finger against his nose. He stopped and drew back, ears flattened. This small, supercharged kitten taught me that physically reprimanding an animal can backfire.
Gibson was quite young when I picked him up, and I mean literally “picked him up.” I was driving behind a pickup, heading for the freeway, when the guy in the passenger seat tossed something out the window that looked like a wadded-up brown paper bag. But before it landed in the dirt on the side of the road, the bag developed four legs and a tail. I couldn’t tell immediately if it was a kitten or a puppy. I swerved off the road, parked, and set off looking for him. I walked a good eighth of a mile, calling, until I decided to retrace my steps. When I turned around, Gibson was right in front of me, looking up into my face. He had followed me. As soon as I scooped him up and held him, he started purring. Of course I kept him.
Gibson was a typical orange cat. Water fascinated him. My fingers on the keyboard of my computer fascinated him, and he’d jump on my desk to watch me. I’d toss him off. He would jump back up. I did this nine times in a row until he jumped up on the filing cabinet next to my desk, instead, curl up on a stack of papers, and purr. Of course I let him stay there.
He also loved to play with my fingers. I would reach out to pet him and he would swat at my hand, claws retracted. Then he’d edge closer to my keyboard, and when I reached out to pet him, he would fall over on his side and pretend-scratch the palm of my hand with his hind feet while swatting at my fingers. Of course I allowed him to do it. And—of course—I had to flick my finger against his nose to reprimand him because the bites started getting harder. Then he started biting himself. I would see him on top of my bureau, glaring at me with his ears back, spitting out mouthfuls of his own fur.
A freak kidney ailment took him before things got any worse, but I knew, without Buck Brannaman telling me, what had happened, and that it was my fault.
When my friend Katherine and I rescued Gunsmoke and his sister Prada from their abusive absentee owners, Gunner was a five-year-old stallion. The horses had spent the last three years of their lives in a dusty paddock with almost nothing to eat or drink. During those three years, I kept calling Animal Control. They responded by coming out and looking at the horses and explaining why they couldn’t confiscate them. (The real reason they couldn’t confiscate them was because—and I didn’t learn this until much later—they didn’t have anyplace to put them. No stalls, no pipe corrals, no field with a fence around it. Nothing.) At one point Prada, the mare, got so skinny I thought she would die. When Katherine and I acquired them, they didn’t know anything. They didn’t know that a cluck—that sound cowboys make with their tongue on the inside of their cheek that means, “get moving”—meant, or how to lead, or what a bit felt like. They hadn’t seen a veterinarian in three years, or a shoer. They hadn’t been brushed or taken care of. Like most stallions, Gunsmoke was mouthy—he liked to nibble on things, including my hands, and would take air swipes at me with his teeth that never connected.
Like Gibson, I thought—and then I proceeded to make exactly the same mistake with Gunner that I had with my orange cat. (Something I’ve learned about myself: it usually takes twice for an experience to sink in.) I physically reprimanded him for nipping. I still hadn’t learned the lesson that Gibson had tried to teach me—our time together had been too short. What saved me was Gunsmoke’s personality
Continued next week as “A Forgiving Horse.”