DICK CHENEY VOLUNTEERS AT A CAT SHELTER

Picasso ornery winner 2

Anything’s Paws-i-ble Cat Sanctuary is a private shelter for stray and rescued cats in the tiny town of Soapville, Wyoming. About 100 cats wander around the drafty converted barn, tabbies and tuxedos and Persians and Maine Coons and on and on.

Ms. Gillooly is 51 and has been running the shelter for over fifteen years. She is plump as a pumpkin and her thinning blond hair is worn in a Mary Tyler Moore haircut from 1974. Her pink-framed bifocals are fastened to a shot bead chain around her neck, and rest on her pink Hello Kitty sweatshirt from 1989. The red bow on the female kitty head in the logo is so faded it looks like a head wound.

Ms. Gillooly is in her office—also overrun with cats—when DICK CHENEY, the former Vice President of the United States of America, enters. He idly brushes fresh cat hair off the lapels of his Brooks Brothers slate-gray suit. His crown of white hair is thinner, his skin is grayer, but all things considered he’s not looking too shabby for a guy who’s had five heart attacks and a heart transplant.

Ms. Gillooly squints suspiciously at the ex-Vice-President like she’s trying to sniff out a bomb.

DICK CHENEY: Good day, madam. I am very much enjoying my brief time at your establishment. And I find your sweatshirt tremendously amusing. “Hello Kitty,” that is a fine and lucrative brand. When we were in Tokyo trying to get the Japanese to squeeze the Chinese a little harder on Kim Jong-il, Lynne insisted we bring back a case of those shirts for the grandchildren.

MS. GILLOOLY: Not all that impressed with the name dropping, sir. I’m sure your friends are all very important. Napoleon is wayyy back in my family tree but you don’t see me invading Russia.

DICK CHENEY: I beg your pardon?

MS. GILLOOLY: Never mind. I have looked over your resume—

DC: You know, hemm… I realize that I left off my stints at Halliburton—

MS. G: I’m unfamiliar with that name. Is that another cat shelter?

DC: Are you serious, madam? It’s one of the largest oilfield service companies—

MS. G: I’m sure that’s very nice for you. I’m sure I can wish in one hand, Harburton stint in the other and we can both see which one fills up first. But what I would like to know is what your interest in cats is.

DC: I assure you madam, I am a serious person. I am very serious about loving cats.

MS. G: So you say, Mr. Cheney. But I am a tad concerned about your sportsman activities.

DC: In what way, madam?

MS. G: Well, Mr. Cheney, hunters are typically not the type of people who volunteer at animal shelters. Hunters kill animals, Mr. Cheney. We try to save them here. I’m not sure if you saw the sign walking in here. But it read “shelter,” not “animal shooting house.”

DC: Madam, if you don’t mind me saying so, you remind me an awful lot of Condi. Hemm… Condoleezza Rice?

MS. G: Was she the name of your cat?

DC: No, madam… she was the National Security Adviser and the—

MS. G (throws up both hands): Don’t need to hear it, sir. I’m sure she’s a lovely person. Did you shoot her in the face too?

Ms. Gillooly looks up, her eyes diamond cutting the ex-Vice President.

MS. G: Thought you could hide that little incident from me, did you?

DC: Madame… no. That was a well-known story, and it brought my poll numbers way down—not that I care, mind you. I have never cared a lick about polls. You see, madam, no matter what the polls say… sometimes a gathering danger must be directly confronted—

MS. G: Was danger gathering on your friend’s face, Mr. Cheney?

DC: You keep interrupting me, madam… that was an accident…

MS. G: Sir, there has been an awful lot of gum flapping in this office today, but very little about cats. This is a place for cats and I need volunteers. I don’t need Harburtons or face shooters, sir. And I don’t need any funny business. Do you follow me, Mr. Cheney? No funny business at all, or you can let the cat door hit you on the way out.

DC: Here, madam. Let me prove it to you.

DICK CHENEY scoops up a puffy black cat wandering by and nestles him in his lap. DICK CHENEY furiously pets the black cat, giving MS. GILLOOLY a cracked grin.

DC: See? Love me the felines.

(to cat; his voice raises about five octaves)

And what’s your name, my little black fellow? Such a wovely wittle boy…

MS. G: That’s Poe.

DC: Aww… little Poe-y Woe-y.

(to Ms. Gillooly)

When I was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff I had a black cat named Orion. Black cats are beautiful, mysterious creatures. I trained Orion to shit in Kissinger’s shoes. Heh.

MS. G: I’m sure that happened. What’s your stance on scooping out litter boxes, Mr. Cheney?

DC: I believe the cats will, in fact, greet me as a liberator. Of their turds.

MS. G: Okay, I’m just going to come out with it, Mr. Cheney. Let’s just drop our knickers and see where we are, shall we? My grandchildren are frightened of you. They’re six and four, and they have nightmares that you’re under their bed. They think you’re going to eat their hearts out.

DC (smiles crookedly): I only do that to Democrats, Ms. Gillooly—

MS. G: I told you I want no funny business, Mr. Cheney…

The black cat, Poe, bounds out of Dick Cheney’s lap and perches on the desk. The cat squats and licks one paw, keeping one eye on Dick Cheney.

MS. G: A lot of children come through here, Mr. Cheney. They don’t need some bogeyman ex-Vice President scaring the animal crackers out of them.

DC: Madam… I believe in time the children will come to see me as a jubilant clown, if you will. A non-Gacy clown. A firm, joyful, non-homicidal presence in this shelter. Hemm. And I promise you I will preserve, protect, and defend all the cats in this sanctuary.

MS. G: Well… I do believe in giving everyone a fair shake, no matter what their past. I will certainly be fair and square when I make my decision. I will be in touch, Mr. Cheney. On your way out, please tell the other gentleman that’s waiting to come in.

10 MINUTES LATER:

MS. G: I’m sorry, I seem to have misplaced your resume. Who are you again?

AL GORE: Ma’am, I am Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, and former crusader for the perils of climate change.

MS. G: What? Another ex-Vice President? Is this some funny business? This better be about cats…

AL GORE (unpacking a heavy box): Ma’am. If you give me a moment… I have a really wonderful, illuminating PowerPoint presentation on why I, Al Gore, will be a vocal proponent and dedicated cuddler of your cats.

MS. G: Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. Gore. What’s your stance on scooping out litter boxes?

AL GORE: No fucking way. Get Bush to do that.

THE ISLAND OF MISFIT ELEPHANTS

babies forage

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

A lot of people have asked me why I chose to go to Thailand to volunteer with elephants.

The journey to Huay Pakoot began when my black cat Bandit got sick in the summer of 2010. Bandit needed to be monitored closely because of his sickness, and my boss was kind enough to let me take all the time off I needed to nurse him back to health.

My job as a trailer editor was demanding and stressful. I worked an average of 50 pressure-packed hours a week, many times much more. Studio executives hounded me, deadlines barked at me, lunch had to be gulped down, and I felt like a scarecrow propped up and roped down into my chair in front of the computer.

About a week into my “sabbatical,” Bandit was improving daily and it was clear that he would make it. Because he needed less direct care, I found I had some extra time on my hands. So I did something I had considered for a few years but had never done anything about: I volunteered to help some animals—at a cat “sanctuary” that was close enough to my house that I didn’t have to leave Bandit alone for very long.

This was a non-profit rescue organization called “Kitten Rescue” that owned a house where they brought rescued cats in to take care of. Many of the cats were from the streets or from kill shelters. A lot of them had medical conditions or temperaments that made them tough candidates for adoption, so I sometimes called the place, “The Island of Misfit Cats,” after “The Island of Misfit Toys” from the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

My ego wasn’t crazy about this volunteering idea.

Don’t be hasty here. First of all, this volunteering shit will inconvenience you. You’ve got shit to do, my friend. You’ve been working hard. You’ve got some serious chilling to do in front of the TV. Me time—don’t forget. You need your ME time!

Also, dude, you’re only one person—not like it’s gonna matter if you volunteer or not… you can do it tomorrow if you want. Tomorrow you can think about doing it next week. Next week you can think “okay, tomorrow I’m going to make a phone call for sure”—then you can just forget about it for another two months…

I volunteered for a couple of hours a few days a week. I would sweep, mop, fill food and water dishes, change bedding, clean up vomit. Some of the staff would sheepishly ask me if I would mind cleaning out litter boxes and I never had a problem with it —thinking I got this!— I was coming from a multiple cat household anyway. But at the cat sanctuary I was dealing with a tad more than my four cats at home—about 100 of them, actually, so the litter boxes were like toxic waste dumps.

I would stumble around in a green fog huffing through a gas mask, eyes watering, skin peeling, scraping up pee and poo with a dozen cats hanging off me by their claws, yowling at me…

Not really. I actually didn’t mind cleaning the litter boxes. And the best thing was that I got to hang out with the cats.

Ten minutes into my “shift” on any given day I would have an entourage. The cats would follow me around as I swept or mopped, rubbing up against my legs as I scooped out litter boxes.

If I stopped and sat on the ground to pet one I would be mobbed by the rest of them. They’d crawl into my lap, lie on my legs, form a campfire circle around me. More cats would climb down into the low “branches” of the cat trees that were everywhere and meow at me. They crowded around me like I was the cat Socrates, traveling to see cats around the city, dispensing wisdom, liver treats, and scooping watery poo.

That’s because I had something they desperately wanted. They were starving for it.

Love.

What kind of man helps out cats, anyway? You better check down there, see if you still got two of those dangly things, cause I have my doubts now… What—are you gonna keep doing this? What about me… ME!

Turns out the cats weren’t the only ones needing love.

The work, the stress, the eyes glued to my bank account—my ego me making big problems for me me everywhere—had shut me down—and these cats showed me how shriveled my spirit had become.

With a couple of dozen cat groupies showering me with love–and the love that came from my sick cat who was dependent on me for his very life—together these things caused all this tension I’d been holding in my body to drain away, while my own heart opened up like a half-starved flower.

Volunteering is service and a good definition of service is love directed outward, with no expectation of getting anything in return. But what I discovered is that when you volunteer, you get a return of 100%—and then some—every single time.

But the ego will never get this.

What is this shit? Cat affection, are you freaking kidding me? I didn’t ask for this. I can’t eat it or spend it. Seriously… where’s mine?

In early 2013, I decided to get a little more ambitious. Instead of a twenty-minute drive to the cat sanctuary I decided I could go a little further afield. Somewhere that would frighten me—my ego gets really worked up when I get beyond my little bubble of safety. I had come to a point where I listened very carefully to what my ego had to say about my ideas… and then I did the opposite.

Bandit recovering in 2010. Somehow taking care of him...

Bandit recovering in 2010. Taking care of him…

... led to this.

… led to this.

I Googled “volunteer with tigers” and “volunteer with elephants.” To me these are two of the top ten species of animals on the earth, and because both are disappearing rapidly, it seemed like it was now or never to meet a tiger or an elephant.

I decided I would go with the elephants. The reason is because I already had all this cat energy in my life. Time to change it up, bring in something new.

I checked out different organizations that offered elephant volunteering projects. The filtering process was easy for me because my primary criterion was this: What program was really serving the elephants the best?

There was one that had you take care of your own elephant every day. Sounded great. This included shoveling elephant dung—well I had survived the poisonous green cloud of kitten poo, so I was cool with this—but when I looked closer, I saw that these elephants would spend half the day in tourist camps, performing tricks, doing very un-elephant things. Then half the day they’d be in a small sanctuary where people like me would be helping them.

To me that was like letting a child get beaten every day and then at night you bandage him up, pat him on the back—and send him out the door the next day for another beating. I didn’t want to be part of that.

Other programs had photos of volunteers riding elephants. Even though I hadn’t met any elephants yet, I was pretty sure they weren’t amusement park rides. So those programs were out.

In the end, it came down to two different volunteer organizations with two different elephant programs: one in Cambodia, one in Thailand. They both seemed like good programs, both seemed to put the elephants first.

The one in Cambodia offered a hotel-type accommodation with Western toilet, shower facilities, and bed. You had your own private room in a lodge with other volunteers. There was a village close by that had Internet, stores, and bars.

The one in Thailand offered a squat toilet, pail of water, and a gum wrapper-thin mattress. You had your own room in a local family’s house (“Shit! We gotta learn a foreign language?!” cried my ego). No real stores, no city within miles, the Internet was spotty, and getting to it required a hike up a mountain.

The one in Thailand also required me to do my own FBI background check—on myself. Thankfully no one ever found out about that time in the Arizona desert at three in the morning…

Just kidding. There were deep wounds, but we all made it out alive.

I read reviews of people who had done the Thailand project, and I kept reading quotes like: “exhausting days”… “the hikes are really hard”… and I kept seeing this one: “I wish I had stayed longer.”

The prices were about the same. (And by the way: these were really cheap trips compared to every other foreign trip I’ve ever been on.)

My ego drooled over the one in Cambodia.

But I think you know which one I ended up going with. The organization is Global Vision International.

I have gone on many trips to feed the ego, and they’re usually pretty good. I go out, I eat a lot, I see shows… I get plenty of “me” time. I’m not knocking them.

But this one—the first volunteer service trip that I have taken—is the one that cracked my heart open, the only one that transformed me.

Cracked your whaaa? I’d like to crack your freaking head open. Seriously, where’s my check?

And I can tell you this now: I wish I had stayed longer.

024

BREAKFAST WITH THE CATS

Bandit on the left, Hooper on the right.

Bandit on the left, Hooper on the right.

Recently I found this video that someone sent me a while ago (re-posted below), and it reminded me of my first two cats, Bandit and Hooper, and how they would wake me in the morning.

I adopted both cats in the days when I was drinking a lot. Bandit was part of a litter of black kittens that was thrown into a dumpster. Luckily the dumpster was behind an animal grooming business, so the kittens’ mewling complaints were heard by the right people. Bandit was my first cat.

Hooper I got at a pet store adoption event, but it took two tries. The first try he purred, nuzzled, and licked me when I petted him—and I chose a beautiful gray kitten with blue eyes over him. The gray kitten didn’t give me anything, no affection, he hardly even acknowledged that I existed on the ride home. He was like a beautiful painting of a kitten. But men are like cats in that I went for the shiny sparkly one over the one that was the best for me.

When I got home there was a message on my answering machine—this was in the 90’s—informing me that I had inadvertently kidnapped the gray kitten. He was supposed to be at the pet store for a grooming, and he got mixed up with the adoption cats. I probably could have ransomed him back, he was that beautiful.

When I returned the gray stunner, Hooper jumped into my arms—to make sure I got the message this time.

When I brought Hooper home to meet Bandit, it was the easiest cat introduction I’ve ever had in my life (and I’ve gone through a few by now). They both liked each other almost immediately. They made a good team.

Based on some information I had, it was likely that Bandit was part of a Hispanic family—until they decided to throw him out. Hooper’s origins were a complete mystery, though he had an odd bent tail that I thought might point to a wild and dangerous time out on the streets.

Of the two of them, Bandit was slightly dominant, but he was laid back about it—the cool, behind-the-scenes leader.

I was an erratic father to the two of them because of the drinking. I had a lot of love to give, but it was stuffed under twenty layers of armor. I was a knight stumbling blindly along, always about to teeter over… and land on a yowling cat.

I was terrible about feeding them breakfast on time, especially on the weekends. My hangovers were like bombed-out buildings, and on some weekends you couldn’t dig me out of the rubble before two o’clock.

Feeding time for the cats was at eight in the morning.

I suspect after the first dozen or so times of me feeding them so starvingly late, they figured something had to be done. Here’s how I imagine it might have went down, with my Mexican-American black cat, Bandit, and my streetwise one, Hooper:

BANDIT: Hooper, my compadre. look at eem. He’s not moving.

HOOPER: Yeah, no shit. He drinks like a fish. Stinks like one, too.

BANDIT: Ohh, compadre… don’t say fish. Please, my friend…

HOOPER: Oh, give me a break. I’m fucking famished too. You know, I’ve been thinking… maybe it’s time to do some serious pooping outside the litter box. Send him a message.

BANDIT: Um… do you mean “thinking”? Thinking outside the box?

HOOPER: No, I mean Cheesing the Mousetrap. Down-Periscoping the Submarine. Warming the Porcelain Globe.

Bandit sits on his haunches, blinking at Hooper.

HOOPER: Trumpeting an Elephant? Chumming the Chocolate Water? Dropping the Ring into Mount Doom?

Bandit blinks…

BANDIT: Ohhhh—pooping. You mean literally pooping.

HOOPER: Well shit, yeah. I mean, what the hell, did you go to cat finishing school or something? I’m from the street, my friend. Look at this tail. Of course I’m literal. I could literally eat a fucking dead horse right now.

BANDIT: Yes compadre, me also… but I don’t think Dropping a Doom Ring would do anything except get us sent to the vet…

HOOPER: Hmm, you’re right about that. Don’t you love how he throws a treat into that cat carrier prison when he tries to get us to the vet? Like that’s gonna fool us. Oh yeah—no thanks, dude. I ain’t going to jail for some Fred Flinstone-looking vitamin shit treat. Seriously, who does he think he’s dealing with?

BANDIT: Yes, yes, compadre… But what we need is a plan… okay… here’s what we’re going to do…

Bandit raises a paw to cover his mouth as he leans in to whisper in Hooper’s ear… Hooper’s eyes widen as he listens to the details…

HOOPER: Yeah… uh-huh… okay… meow, that’s interesting…

Plotting.

Plotting.

And after that meeting, when I was in those dozes that were like drowning in my car at the bottom of the Chappaquiddick River, I would feel this wetness on my ear, like the kiss of an angel…

actually, it would be the wet nose of my cat Hooper, as he tried to gently nudge me awake.

I’d swipe at him—not to hit him or anything, but to force him off the bed—and he would jump down.

Bandit would watch from a high place, like a window jamb or the top of a book shelf. He was the general on the mountain top, while Hooper would launch sorties into the lumpy fortress of my hangover. I imagined Hooper was disgruntled and resentful, assigned the dirty work of stirring me from the deep caverns of my boozy sleep… while Bandit would sit up there and egg him on: “You’re doing great, compadre, doing great… just one more time… don’t worry, my friend, I have your back…”

Generally, it would take five to ten tries. Hooper would wet nose-stamp my skin, paw my scalp, lick his lips in my ear, or—my favorite—my eyes would flutter open to witness the Cat Stare, that peeling metal look that cats share with convicts.

If that didn’t work, then Bandit would basically yank the “fire alarm”: he’d jump up on me and march back and forth over my body crying and yowling, the cat version of cursing a blue streak: “What the fucking-fuck?! Seriously, this shit is old! We’re so hungry we’re crapping mouse toys! My food bowl just laughed at me! Get up, you bastard! I mean, god damn it, what the hell does a cat have to do?”

I still say we should start pooping everywhere,” Hooper would add. “Maybe poop on his head.”

Bandit takes a breath before unleashing another string of obscenities at me.

Bandit takes a breath before unleashing another string of obscenities at me.

Bandit cursed at me like this whenever it took me really, really long to feed him and also when I played AC/DC on the stereo. Anything by them. The first chords would rumble through the speakers and he’d be in my lap, swearing up and down at me. “This godforsaken head-bashing shit again?! Can you please lighten up? I’d give my left paw for some Julio Iglesias. Seriously—turn that shit off!”—And I would.

One night the cat alert duo was pressed into duty in the middle of the night. I stumbled beer-soaked and blind into the apartment at three in the morning and had a sudden urge for a hard-boiled egg. I threw the egg into a saucepan with a few inches of water, blasted the gas flame…

and passed out.

I dreamed of Redwood trees dancing on hardwood floors… John Wayne Gacy clowns tunneling underneath in the crawlspaces… fires in the middle of forests eating witches… smoke from the fires downing birds and bricking up my lungs…

and cats screaming in my ear.

For real.

I woke up with the apartment filled with smoke. I stumbled into the kitchen. The water in the saucepan had long since burned away. The saucepan—it was metal—had scorched black through and through and cracked open. There was a deep greasy bomb blast scar on the ceiling. The egg had undergone a flash-rotting in the intense heat—it looked like the charred fetus of some hell-bound rodent.

And the fire alarm was shouting the neighborhood awake—but I had slept through that.

It was the cats that woke me up.

2 of them on bed

After that I didn’t swipe at Hooper any more when he tried to nudge me awake. I still was late feeding them a lot of times though.

It would go like this: After a few paw bats, nose kisses, and Cat Stares, Hooper would hang it up, slinking off the bed, and Bandit would descend from his perch to take over. At the instant of the tag-team paw slap—that’s when I would get my ass moving.

Now Bandit and Hooper are gone, and with them the best alarm clock I’ve ever had.

The cats I have now don’t wake me up like this. They don’t need to. I’ve stopped drinking. I’m punctual at their feeding times.

BANDIT: Yes, that’s because of us, dumbass. We taught you, compadre.

HOOPER: Damned straight. And we also noticed that you don’t try to pull that stupid throw-the-treat-into-the-carrier crap any more, either.

BANDIT: A-men.

Direct link to the video on the creator’s website is here. Quality is better I think.

A CAT IN ELEPHANT TOWN

At the end of a long day of hiking and other activities in Thailand I would walk home alone. Sometimes it would be prairie wolf late and the other volunteers and the people of the village would be asleep. The air would be like thick glass and the cicadas would be in low throttle, probably fatigued from all the head crashing of the daytime. Sometimes I would walk by Lulu the baby elephant and she would be still. Elephants sleep only four hours a day and I would freeze when I walked by her because I knew this was one of the moments—that she was sleeping only a few feet away even though I couldn’t see her because the night crept out of a dark closet and around us both.

I’ve walked alone many times in life. I had a paper route when I was a boy and I would get up at five in the morning when the dark was still splayed out all over the neighborhood. I’d walk past the graveyard, the crosses spreading their arms in the shadows, past the corner store with the loud hum of the neon sign. I walked that paper route in the winters with the snow robing the trees and I could hear the snowfall. I could hear it sighing in the air and sometimes I would pause, maybe on someone’s porch. I’d sit there in the dark and watch and listen to the little hoof falls of the million snowflakes landing.

In college I wandered the USC campus, on my way home in the middle of the night in an L.A. ghetto, and I was lucky I guess because even the muggers, rapists, and killers would be asleep. I would be buzzed on a few beers so the edges of me would be soft but I still had a back pocket-type of awareness, and there would be a strange city-quiet accompanying me. The sirens, cars, crazy gibbering homeless people all muffled, all the crazy filtered through a wind sock. The city had a rat-eye clarity at three in the morning.

Later, walking in the Thailand jungle, fatigue drooping down the corners of me, a day full of elephants and a night with stars fender bendering in the sky, and in all these times and in all these places there was a danger in that silence. Anything could happen, a snake could swerve into me, a maniac could pogo stick out of my bad dreams and drive a blade into my spine, and the quiet was just like that—coiled violence and heavy breaths, a pirate waiting for you below decks.

In all these moments, of course, I was not alone. In these moments I was walking with divinity. I was holding the ace of spades in my hand.

This guy was my companion for many of my walks:

ace of spades 1

He was a stray from the village. He would dart ahead of me and cut me off at the ankles so I had to stop to pet him.

His coat was such that I didn’t know where the dirt ended and the black spots started. By the end of the trip he would look for me and I for him, even in the daytime. He would walk with me past the elephants, but stop laughing-dead before we reached stray dog territory.

He looks like the ace of spades, don’t you think?