36: The Great Fish-Tank War

36: The Great Fish-Tank War

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Cat

The Great Fish-Tank War

Not-so-fun fact: Many cats are sensitive or even allergic to fish; it is one of the top three most common feline food allergens.

The war between man and cat began the day my daughter Emily brought home two goldfish and a ten-gallon tank complete with gravel, filter, and one of those ancient Greek temples the fish are supposed to swim through and relax in but actually avoid like death. While the rest of the household regarded the fish with mild interest, Draco the cat ignored them almost completely. It wasn’t the fish that started the war; it was the call of the water.

Draco the cat was not named for the Harry Potter character, but he could have been. He was a sly and devilish creature whose inner vocabulary never included the concept of “no.” We got him from a pet rescue. He was a tiny black kitten with large golden eyes as round as a lemur’s, a soft purr, and the strangest “meow” I’d ever heard; it sounded more like the burble of some strange bird.

Like every kitten we’d ever brought home, we put Draco in the bathroom with his food and cat box until he became acclimated. All the other kittens had accepted this situation, even though they would sometimes yowl to get out and explore, and they waited more or less patiently until the day they were given free run of the house.

Draco had other plans. I was reading on the couch when, less than fifteen minutes after we’d put him in the bathroom upon his arrival, he jumped on my shoulder, nuzzled my ear, and began purring. I could not understand how he’d gotten out of the bathroom. I’d closed the door myself, and I knew it had latched. How could a tiny kitten open a bathroom door? I sat with him a while and read him some poetry. I then had to work on some writing and placed him in his little comfy box back in the bathroom and shut the door. It was maybe twenty minutes later when he startled me by hopping up on my lap where I sat at the computer. I inspected the bathroom door, and the latch worked as well as ever. I had to conclude Draco had magical powers, otherworldly assistance, or Super Cat strength in opening doors. This feat of his, though, was only the beginning.

In the years we had him, I found him perched on the tops of doors, curled up high on kitchen cabinet tops no cat should have been able to reach, and once found him asleep in the corner of a closet shelf he could not have gotten to without leaping ten feet straight up from the floor. There was no place you could keep Draco in or out of. He was the Houdini of cats.

There were three other cats living with us, all female: Little Kitty (a Sydney Greenstreet type of calculating villain), Eggnog (the perpetual damsel in distress) and Luna (the spacey hippie). Draco, as the male, considered himself a noble prince and Lord of the Realm, but it was pretty clear that Little Kitty actually ran the show, using Nog and Luna as her puppets. Maybe this was why Draco felt he had to show his superiority in scaling heights and performing grand feats. And maybe this was also how the war of the fish tank began.

As the fish swam happily around in their tank, studiously avoiding the Greek temple they were supposed to play in, the cats were watching. Once I passed by and, noticing the tank looked odd, paused for a closer look. I found Luna sitting in back of the tank, watching the fish. Another time, Eggnog hopped up and tried to get her paw in the top to scoop one out. Little Kitty even hoisted her enormous bulk up onto the bureau where the tank sat to study the fish and contemplate their untimely demise. These were all singular incidents, however; it was only Draco who never gave up.

Draco didn’t care about the fish. In his world, the fish were no more than wallpaper to his actual object of desire: the water. The fish-tank pump continuously sent a cascade of water arcing down into the tank, making a soft, sibilant sound even when the tank was filled to the top. And Draco loved water. He loved the dog’s water. He loved the water in the kitchen sink. He loved the water left in glasses on the kitchen counters or living room tables. He loved all water everywhere in the house except the bathtub. All of these, though, were still waters; the fish tank was sparkling, moving water — and its soft sound beckoned.

The first time I found Draco drinking from the fish tank, I told him “no” and put him on the floor. The second time I found him up there I yelled at him and tossed him onto the floor. The third time I discovered him, I squirted him with a spritzer and shouted “No!” The fourth time, I did the same. The seventy-fifth time, I repeated the above with variations. Nothing made any difference. My wife Betsy covered the opening of the tank with foil; Draco gently peeled it back and drank his fill. She covered it in plastic; he did the same. I covered it in plastic wrap, foil wrapped around with duct tape, and placed a large Styrofoam skull from Halloween on it to scare him off; he knocked the skull to the floor, broke through the plastic, and unwrapped the tank for a drink.

At first, I just hadn’t wanted him bothering the fish; then I’d not wanted him drinking fish water. I also didn’t want him disturbing the pump’s operation — which he’d done twice. Finally, though, it became a simple battle of wills. Who was this cat to continuously defy me? I was the man, he was the cat, and he was going to learn to behave as it pleased me. Draco’s view of the situation differed; in his world, he was the cat, and I was the thing he slept on. Who was I to constantly annoy him at his water banquet?

The war of the fish tank dragged on for almost two years until its dramatic conclusion. My last attempt to keep him off the bureau was to set up a number of pictures of the family in frames around the tank. I had also placed some figurines, a desk calendar, and a lamp there. None of these deterred him. Lithe as a spirit, he would hop up and manage to land perfectly between my obstacles, raise himself up, and drink from the tank. I knew this first because I heard him jump down when I was reading in the next room, and he came in to sit on my lap fresh with the scent of fish tank upon him. Then I saw him in action one time as I was coming down the stairs.

His skill at landing between the pictures and the figurines, not moving one of them an inch, was very impressive. Still, I could not let this cat defy me day after day and month after month. And so the day came when I walked into the room and there he was, draped over the top of the fish tank, absorbed in his drink. I grabbed the spritzer bottle and let him have it. He reeled away from the tank, scattering everything around him. A picture frame flew to the floor with a loud crack; another disappeared in back of the bureau; the figurines spiraled skyward and all across the floor; the desk calendar danced a pirouette and then joined them. Draco launched himself into the air and vanished into the other room.

I looked at the mess all over the floor and the cracked picture frame, thought of how I was going to have to now move the bureau out to retrieve the one fallen behind it, and realized that Draco had won. He had never been doing anything all that bad in the first place. Once I’d moved the pump farther away from the side, he hadn’t bothered its operation anymore. He never disturbed the fish themselves and, since I always kept the tank clean, it wasn’t like he was drinking water that could harm him. The whole war, I realized, had been one-sided, with me as the aggressor. All Draco had wanted to do was enjoy his special water dispenser.

So he won. After that day, I would sit writing at the computer, the fish tank trickling and bubbling beside me, and Draco would hop up, get his drink, and go on his way. The first time he did this after my surrender, he watched me carefully with his large, round eyes, suspecting a trap. The second time, he was also wary for any sudden moves on my part. The third time, he was a bit more casual, but still kept raising his head to make sure I hadn’t moved and that the spritzer wasn’t in sight. By the seventy-fifth time, he just ignored me and, after drinking, would sit by the tank while deciding his next move. He would then seem to shrug, gaze about a moment, and then hop down to go nap in his favorite corner of the living room couch.

I could have continued the war. I could have moved the fish tank, boxed the top, anchored the plastic or foil with hoops of steel, but what was the point? If you have a cat, you must at some point recognize who is master and who is not; and the sooner you do that, the happier you both will be.

~Joshua J. Mark

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