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An (Epic-Length) Elegy for Munchkin

Munchkin was born in the third week of March, 1995. They estimated that she was born on the 27th, based on analyses I'll describe in a moment. She was born to a feral mom, and concerned citizens brought mom and her litter to the "pound," where they were put in a cage.

Unfortunately, Munchkin was the runt of her litter, and an animal that wants to optimally pass on its genetic material instinctively wants to devote its resources to those offspring most likely to survive. Munchkin was small and weak and less likely to grow up and pass on the family genes ... and so the mama cat started attacking her before she was 3 days old, when she wasn't very mobile and her eyes were still closed (not to mention the fact that she was locked in a cage with this humongous creature and unable to get away even if she'd been able). The workers at the pound had to isolate Munchkin for her own safety, but there was no way they could hand-raise a kitten from that age; it would simply require too much of their time and effort. So they figured they were going to have to euthanize her that same day.

Cue heroic music! A volunteer from Hopalong Rescue happened to come by the pound that day, because she (and other HR volunteers) visit the shelters frequently, looking for animals that might have a good chance of being adopted if just given a chance in foster homes until permanent homes can be found. This particular HR volunteer saw Munchkin and heard her story, and she said, "My cat just had kittens a few days ago. Maybe she'll foster this little one."

So she took Munchkin home and introduced her to the mama cat in question and the new litter (which included the tiny kitten whom I would one day name Cobweb), and Munchkin found a place in the bunch. The litter into which she had been adopted had been born on March 27 (the night of the Academy Awards that year), and when Munchkin later opened her eyes on the same day as the rest of her adopted litter, they estimated that she had been born on the same day as well.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, I had decided that I wanted to adopt two kittens. In fact, I had decided it some time before, but I had only just gotten into a living situation that made it possible, and then I had waited until it was "kitten season." Hopalong Rescue does mobile adoptions all the time, and I happened upon one of their events, but they didn't have any kittens that appealed to me. There was one cage full of long-haired kittens that were cute, but I wanted short-hair. I chatted with the nearest woman working the event and told her what I was looking for, and she told me that she had a litter of short-hair kittens at home, but they were too young to leave their mother. I could come by and meet them, though, if I wanted to.

I took some ridiculous number of obscure buses out to her house in some (reasonably nice) Oakland neighborhood I'd never seen before, and entered a House of Many Pets. Seriously. This woman took foster care responsibilities seriously, and her kids seemed to really enjoy the resulting furry chaos.

Among the teeming throng of moving bodies were a whole lot of tiny kittens, about 5 weeks old. They had just started eating solid food, but hadn't yet given up milk. They all had different personalities, some racing around like maniacs, some playing more sedately, and one very small one who just wanted to sit in my lap the whole time I was there. She'd been running around just fine until she found out I was willing to cuddle, and after that she stuck to me like glue, just curling up and falling asleep on me.

How could I not choose the one who already loved me? How could I not choose the one who preferred to cuddle with me than to play with the other kittens? Cobweb was a more difficult choice: she was smart, she was active, she was friendly, she relatively calm for a kitten ... but I didn't connect with her from the first moment as I did with Munchkin. There were a few different kittens in the litter who were similar to Cobweb, but none were anything like little Munchkin. I decided to adopt her within probably 10 minutes of laying eyes on her for the first time.

But she and Cobweb were too young for me to take home right then, so I had to wait for them to be fully weaned and all that jazz. Then they had some kind of ear infection, and I had to wait for that to clear up (mostly -- I still had to put drops in their ears for a while after I took them home with me). But on May 24, 1995, when they were nearly 9 weeks old, I took Cobweb and Munchkin home with me.

babies-with-jay
When she first came to live with me, Munchkin was extremely small. I figured this was due to her being the runt of her litter, as I'd been told the story about her being saved from early euthanasia at the pound. She literally weighed half as much as Cobweb, despite their being the same age. But within 3 weeks of their adoption, Munchkin weighed almost exactly the same as Cobweb, so I began to suspect that her diminutive size when I got her had perhaps been partially due to her "interloper" role in her adopted litter, that perhaps the other kittens were already bigger and stronger when she arrived, and so perhaps she had difficulty getting enough milk/food. At my house, I put out plenty of food for two kittens, and she had less competition, and so she grew amazingly quickly. I felt a little sad that she'd apparently been a bit deprived before, especially after having such a traumatic few days of life. I was determined to give her a better, more comfortable life with me.

Munchkin's name in her foster family was "Tiny," for obvious reasons, but I initially named her "Mustardseed." (She and Cobweb were named after two fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but I liked that "Mustardseed" was also the affectionate nickname of an author I liked. I can't remember who it was, and I can't seem to find it via Google now, but I think it may have been a Brontë. I'd read about it in a biography of the author in question not long before adopting the cats.) "Mustardseed" didn't stick, though, because it's a big name for a little cat, and it was difficult to yell with authority when she was being bad (which was often). So I started calling her "Munchkin," which was what I called all small and/or young animals back then. The name began to stick, and I wasn't entirely happy about that, either, because it felt too generic, since I used it all the time for random animals I didn't even know. attack-cat I joked with my friends that I should name her "Fek'lhr," based on a stand-up comedy routine we saw in SF on Katherine's birthday in the mid-90's. ("Fek'lhar" is sorta-but-not-quite the Satan of the Klingon belief system, and Munchkin could look very evil sometimes, despite her almost complete defenselessness.) I also joked that I could rename her "Merkin," because she was furry and liked to sit on laps. (It would sound very similar to "Munchkin," and so would cause little kitty confusion, right?)

But I didn't really want either of those silly names, and she and I had both grown accustomed to Munchkin, and it was sort of appropriate to her small stature, so we went with it. To be honest, though, throughout her entire life, Munchkin never seemed to know her own name. If you said her name in a normal tone of voice, she wouldn't react at all (unlike Cobweb, Lucy, and many other cats I've known), but she would react to anything you said in "the cat voice." We tested this out, first by calling Cobweb's name (Munchkin always responded.), then random other words and phrases, some of them, I fear, insulting. She always thought "the cat voice" was aimed at her, but her name was irrelevant. Apparently, I could have named her anything I wanted, and it would have been ignored to an equal degree.

Perhaps the name thing was partially due to the fact that Munchkin clearly had some brain damage, probably from some combination of her slightly retarded development at birth (because she was a runt), her neglect and abuse from her mother in her first few days, and possibly insufficient nutrition in the weeks afterward. This caused her to be frequently confused, more dependent than most cats, and a bit uncoordinated. Cobweb loved to play with toys, but Munchkin never had much luck with anything she was supposed to chase. Give her a toy that stayed somewhat still and nearby, and she would like to play, but swing a "Cat Dancer" or other moving, flying toy that makes most kittens leap into the air or bat their paws, and Munchkin would try, but miss by a mile. It was a little sad to see her bat at a toy and be off by an inch or more, when Cobweb could usually catch things easily. There was one toy that Munchkin loved when she was young: a hollow circular plastic tube with a ball inside (similar to this). When I saw how much she liked it, I pried the flimsy plastic ball out and replaced it with a jingle ball that made noise every time she batted it, just to make it more exciting. She went crazy for it. Here was a toy she could chase, that moved quickly, but that couldn't entirely get away from her! Munchkin heaven!

(It's funny that Munchkin was so uncoordinated with toys early in life, because she was the mouser in our household and caught mice many times.)

Poor Munchkin-the-Uncoordinated used to hate it when I took a bath, because she got lonely, so would leave the door open, allowing her to wander in and out. When she was only 2 months old or so, she decided to walk on the edge of the tub, slipped, and fell in ... splashing right into the water and right on top of my naked body. We were both pretty surprised, and we were both pretty unhappy with the turn of events. After that, I started closing the door when I took baths, but for her whole life she loved the bathtub. She would hang around while I (or, later, Shannon) was showering, and when I was done, she would immediately jump into the tub and start lapping up water off the surface of the bottom. Sometimes she even tried to get into the shower while the water was running, though that never ended well. Other times, she would just stand between the outside shower curtain and the clear curtain liner, where she could watch us from relative safety, probably anticipating the moment when we would vacate the premises and she could jump in to have her favorite drink.

Munchkin-Cobweb-bath
She had some other weird behaviors, and I always suspected that they were caused by her brain damage. For example, she and Cobweb used to bathe each other frequently, but Munchkin would eventually get confused every single time and make like the owl in the old Tootsie Pop commercials: lick, lick, lick, BITE! Cobweb probably eventually figured out how the bathing would always end -- she was a very smart cat -- but she was ever patient with her weirdo sister, and so they continued to bathe each other well into old age.

Munchkin also had terrible trouble controlling the claws on her front feet. She would accidentally get caught in things pretty much anytime someone tried to pick her up. It didn't matter how much she wanted to be picked up, held, and cuddled, she would still get her claws caught in whatever was beneath her. Picking up Munchkin pretty much always involved a blanket or towel being dragged up with her, attached to her front claws, while she glanced around helplessly. We had to try to extricate her from the fabric, with her sometimes getting caught in it again with a paw that had been previously freed. It was a tiresome production.

The strangest thing about Munchkin, though, was her obsession with plastic. Seriously. It was an intense lifelong passion, and it dramatically affected our lives. She particularly loved crinkly kinds of plastic: Pop Tart wrappers, grocery bags, any kind of tape (but especially packing tape), cellophane from our unwrapping any new product (even just packages of toilet paper), etc. She could smell it, no matter where we put it, and if we didn't somehow prevent her from doing so, she would grab it in her mouth and race away with it, so that she could chew on it, slobber on it, leave sharp little teeth marks in it, and possibly swallow some. Our shower curtain had dozens of tiny cat chew marks on one of the bottom corners. We learned to keep strong lids on trash cans, because if there was any way at all, and any plastic anywhere inside, Munchkin would somehow get her head into the can and pull out plastic, even if it had been hidden under other garbage. It was an uncanny ability. The police sometimes use cadaver dogs to find dead bodies, and other dogs to sniff out explosives, but if anyone had ever needed to locate plastic, Munchkin would have been the best possible searcher.

For the first several years of her life, Munchkin also had a foot obsession. When shoes were left out, she would often stick her head inside and roll around, writhing in pleasure. She particularly loved sandals, as she could smell the foot and the shoe at the same time. How great is that? In her later years, she seemed to lose interest, and I think this may have been due to a decreased sense of smell, since we saw other evidence of this in her last few years.

She liked to lick the surface of chemically-developed photographs. I couldn't leave them out where she could get at them, or she would lick them and lick them with her rough little tongue, and I figured it couldn't be good for her or the pictures.

If anyone (and this includes me) tried to pet her directly, she would yowl in annoyance. You had to present your hand to her, let her sniff it thoroughly and at considerably length, and then only pet her after she had finished and turned away from your hand. This meant that visitors often did not pet her, or felt rejected by her, because they would try to pet her as they would most cats, and she would yell at them. They took this as a flat rejection, when really it was a "Let me smell your hand first, bitch! Then we can be friends." I particularly found it amusing that even I, the most familiar person in the universe, had to go through this process with her nearly every time I petted her over the course of 17 years.

I mentioned that she yowled when people tried to pet her, and I'm not even sure that was a huge objection, because mostly the only sound Munchkin made was a yowl that sounded like a pissed-off complaint, like she was always annoyed, even when greeting her most beloved people. It was just the sound she made for all occasions. That, too, probably turned strangers off and made them think she didn't like them. We just knew it meant she had something to say, and there was absolutely no way to tell whether it was "Hi!" or "Give me food!" or "Piss off!" except by context. The tone was always the same.

She liked to be held over your shoulder, as if you were burping a baby, and she especially liked this when Shannon would do it first thing in the morning. It was her daily "Robe Ride," and Shannon would call out to her to let her know it was time. She would come and wait for him to lift her, and then she would purr while he carried her around.

When I was sitting down, she liked to sit as close to my face as possible, even to the point of clambering over Cobweb and sitting on her sister's head if I was slouching and Cobweb happened to be sitting high on my lap. Munchkin had to lie right up at the top of my chest, not quite under my chin, but close. She also liked to sleep on my pillow -- never Shannon's, always mine -- and would do so often if I didn't pull the quilt over my pillow tidily enough. She often would sleep on my pillow underneath the quilt, and she was even known to sometimes try to sleep on my pillow while my head was on it during the night. She would climb in between my head and the bed's headboard, and she would lie on any scrap of pillow that my head left exposed. I would wake up in the night feeling like I was wearing a very warm, furry hat.

munchkin-portraitMunchkin was very distinctive-looking, with huge round eyes that sort of stared and bugged, as well as marking on her face that I always thought of as a Hitler mustache that had been knocked askew. She also had tremendously long fangs like a sabertooth tiger, though as far as I know she never bit anyone but Cobweb (and then not violently). A mutual friend of Shannon's and mine, Eric, once told me that Munchkin was the ugliest cat he'd ever seen. I covered her ears and chastised him, saying that he was going to give her a complex. (I did the same thing to Cobweb when, at certain times in her life, people said she was fat.) Those who loved her, though, thought she was cute, like I did. Her buggy eyes were sometimes a bit disconcerting, as I rarely in her entire life saw her blink, and some found that trait disturbing, but I used to joke that she could win a staring contest against anyone -- human or animal -- on this or any other planet.

She was a funny, quirky, needy, mentally challenged cat, but I loved her tremendously and I'll miss her, and her stripey sister, for all my days.



R.I.P. Munchkin and Cobweb, 1995-2012



3-babies


3-grownup

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
wesleysgirl
Oct. 26th, 2012 10:40 am (UTC)
This was beautiful -- thank you for sharing it, and them, with us.

*HUGS*
wolflady26
Oct. 26th, 2012 07:39 pm (UTC)
Lovely. Those are two lucky cats indeed to have a mommy like you.
laazikaat
Oct. 27th, 2012 04:42 am (UTC)
What a lovely memorial. You gave that little cat a wonderful life.
christophera
Oct. 28th, 2012 05:56 am (UTC)
I enjoyed your elegy very much.
wild_irises
Oct. 28th, 2012 06:14 am (UTC)
I remember them so well as kittens!

We had Chewie lethally injected just over two weeks ago, so our lives are following parallel courses.

Thanks for writing this!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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