Sunday, November 23, 2008

Posse cats

(Some of this post is graphic and shocking.)

I made a huge change in my life today, one that will affect me for many years: I have two cats now. I'd show you photos, but they've been here for two and a half hours and they haven't come out from under the couch yet.

On Friday, I thought I'd check out the little pet shops across town near the big Banwoldang intersection, just to see how much they charge for cats. (Ordinarily, I would never, ever buy an animal from a pet store, but there simply are no shelters here. None. Not one. And there's no way I, in my situation, could lure a stray and domesticate it.) Turns out that the pet shops just have dogs: tiny pups the size of your fist, from little breeds; the puppies are kept one per little plastic cubicle. There was one sleeping pup, a terrier I think, that may not even have his eyes open yet. This is a cruel, cruel country for animals, and I will have much more disturbing, disgusting information a few paragraphs down.

But this part of the post is light-hearted: I went to Hami Mami's, the American-style brunch restaurant inside Club That, the downtown jazz club/bar. As I was leaving, I asked the cook, whose English is pretty good, "Where would you go to adopt a cat in Daegu?" She said that less than ten minutes before, a woman had been in, asking if she knew anyone looking to adopt a cat! I left my phone and email with a vague hope that they might call me and headed to the bus stop. Two blocks down, I realized I had left my Mets cap and turned back. When I returned, the cook said the woman had just called, was right downtown, and would be back in five minutes. (I know the universe tugging at my sleeve when I feel it.)

When the woman got there, we did some pidgin communicating (cats among the pidgins?) and she showed me online photos of four six-month-old cats, from the same litter, that her friend was fostering, street cats she had been feeding that had finally allowed her to pet them and pick them up. One of them is nearly an identical twin of JP, my beloved tiger cat who died 13 years ago. The cook translated for me that that one "is friends" with the orange one, and that "they are man". I told her I was very interested in taking the gray/brown tiger, and maybe his orange brother to keep him company, and she said someone would call by Sunday (today).

Later that day, Heeduk told me that landlords don't rent to people with pets, although if you sign the lease and just move in with pets unannounced, they can't do anything to you, as the leases don't have no-pets sections. (Apparently they're not familiar with the concept of the damage deposit.) The thought of the difficulties of moving with a cat in Korea, perhaps several times, and eventually returning to the States with them had my head saying it would be nuts to adopt one, and totally insane to get two. My heart wanted the company, though, and I went around and around with it.

This is what I found out on the Web on Saturday: though many Koreans love dogs, there is a folk belief that eating dog, in addition to being a great meal, is a cure for impotence. Also, they believe that if the dog is in horrible pain for a long time, it enhances the flavor and the potency, due to the adrenalin in its muscles. So dogs, especially big yellow dogs (which are considered especially tasty) are generally tortured to death. I won't go into details.

Cats, as a species, have it worse. Folk belief is that cats are devious, hateful animals, and strays are fair game. They are no laws protecting them, and Korean men especially (I read) enjoy killing them. I know that every single cat I've seen on the street slinks away when a person comes near. In addition to everything else, cat soup is considered a rheumatism remedy, and they are commonly stuck in a bag, smashed on the head, and, conscious or not, boiled alive.

I believe these things, because everyone has told me Koreans hate stray cats, these statements were posted by both Koreans and Westerners, and one posting had links to YouTube videos. I didn't watch them, of course.

At the moment, this country seems like a medieval third-world hellhole covered with a high-tech Samsung-LG-Hyundai veneer.

As you might guess if you know me at all, I could not not adopt a couple of cats after reading that information. Everything I believe in would be a lie if I didn't do so.

Today I got a call from a young woman who speaks excellent English and we made an appointment to meet at Club That this afternoon. I busied myself at E-Mart, buying food and supplies; there are a few people here who love cats, and the store's cat section if five or ten percent the size of its dog area.

When I got to Club That, two women were waiting, neither of whom spoke more than a few words of English. But within five minutes, Hyunjong, the young woman who had called me, arrived, and I heard the background information. There's a tiny, loose coalition of animal lovers in town who make it their business to TNR (trap, neuter, release) street cats. One of their friends, who was not there, had saved these four, paid to spay or neuter them, and has been feeding them for weeks.

After an interminable time over coffee, the four of us took the long drive to her house, where I met my new posse, my friends, my kids. Both the boys have rounded left ears, as Korean law says that the vet must clip the tip off the ear of a cat when it's neutered: it's against the law to harm a neutered cat, and the ear is how people recognize one (as if they would notice or care that it had been fixed.) I signed a contract saying that I would never be cruel to the cats or abandon them, paid 60,000 Won (a fraction of what she'd paid to get them neutered) and agreed that she could call periodically and come visit them to see that they're being treated well.

And so, eventually, Hyunjong and the two other women I'd met at Club That came back with me to my apartment, where we let the guys out of their carriers. That was three hours ago now, and they still haven't come out from under the couch. (After all, they're strays who had just learned to trust one person.) Once in awhile I hear a tribble noise. Sooner or later, they'll come out for food and we can begin bonding.

I know from experience that a cat has to grow into a name; the right names will come in a little bit. For the moment, I'm calling the brown-gray tiger Tug; it reminds me of the way JP would lie on his side and bat dry food to his face, and is the name of my favorite baseball player. The orange guy, for now anyway, is Tiki, after my favorite football player. Tug and Tiki: has a ring to it, I think, but maybe other names will present themselves.

I believe in spreading kindness and healing, though I have failed so many times to live up to it. This is one way I can act on what I believe in. I look forward to years of sharing my life with these guys. But first they have to come out from under the couch.

Update: bedtime, midnight, seven hours in: not yet.

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