The Kind Of Cat She Is

Ever since Lena Dunham announced she’d given up Lamby — the dog she adopted from a shelter in 2013 — citing problems with aggression, there has been a lot of chatter online about her decision. I hesitate to add another hot take into the mix, so I won’t. But I feel as though it provides a good opportunity to open up about a similar situation I’ve been dealing with for the past two years.

In April of 2015, I had been dating my then-boyfriend (now husband) Seth for almost two years. I was nervous we were going to break up instead of moving in together like I hoped we would, and I wanted to prepare myself for the worst case scenario. So I went to an animal shelter to look for a cat.

A shelter volunteer asked me what kind of cat I wanted and if I would take one with medical issues. I said I was pretty open-minded and I just wanted to give someone a good home. The volunteer put me in a large cage with bigger and older cats to see if any of us hit it off. They were all very handsome and regal but they ignored me. It turned out I wanted a playful and cuddly cat, so I relayed this to the volunteer. I said goodbye to the friendly but aloof fellows and she let me out of the cage.

The volunteer and I headed towards another cage, one holding younger cats. But before we made it there I heard the sweetest little meows coming from a small crate. I stopped in front of it and I asked the volunteer who “this” was.

She told me Hildie (then “Heela”) was rescued from a “hoarding situation,” but assured me she was very sweet towards everyone and good with other cats. This was important to me and I made a point of asking about it because as I mentioned, I was hoping to move in with Seth in the near future and I wanted any cat I had to get along with Steve, his lovable ginger cat.

Then, almost on queue, Hildie reached out and gently pawed at my body. I asked if I could hold her and when she was in my arms, she knocked her head into my nose. My eyes started burning but the volunteer said this was called “bunting,” and it’s a gesture of affection. Before I knew it, I was writing down the contact information of my character references and booking an appointment with the ASPCA to get her spayed. I was approved to adopt her the next day, and the day after that, I took her home in a cardboard box.

When she was out of the box, I lay down on the floor and talked to her as she explored the apartment. Every now and then she’d walk over to me and bump her head into mine the way she did at the shelter. I promised to love her and always give her a place in my home and in my family — no matter where it was.

Hildie and I spent the summer of 2015 together in a pretty decent apartment in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. Each room was filled with light, had shiny hardwood floors, and tons of space. It had a weird smell but we dealt with it as best we could.

There was a long hallway that led from the front door into the living room and Hildie loved running laps in it. When I’d throw a toy down the hall from the couch in the living room, she’d run after it, take it in her mouth and bring it back to me, looking as proud as a carousel horse. Every window had a little ledge for her to sit and nap on, and she loved to look down onto the street and watch our neighbors. I put a soft throw blanket in a wicker basket and placed it on top of my dresser for her to sleep in. If she didn’t sleep there or on a window ledge, she slept on the pillow next to me. We had built our home.

In the fall, Seth and I decided the time was right for us to move in together. When we told our friends about our plans, we said we knew the hardest part was going to be introducing our cats to each other, kind of as a joke (because we all know the hardest part of moving is determining the how many books can go into a box without making it too heavy to lift).

But each and every time, our peers would caution us. They said it would be harder than we thought and if we did it wrong our life would be a nightmare. Then they’d tell us about their mom or their mom’s second cousin who once tried to adopt a second cat but had to give it back to the shelter because it almost killed the cat they already had and made their lives terrible.

Seth and I didn’t want anyone’s life, human or feline, to be terrible so we did a lot of research to find out how we could safely get Hildie and Steve acquainted. We read articles by animal behavioral therapists, various shelters, and pet psychics. Each one said the proper way to introduce two cats took a lot of time and supervision on our part. We were surprised to learn how ambitious this process was going to be but were confident we could make it work, and all four of us would be living in harmony in no time.

First, we kept the cats in different rooms separated by a door. In our new apartment, that meant Hildie stayed in the office and Steve stayed in the living room. They had their own water, their own food, their own litter boxes, their own open windows, and their own toys. The only interaction they had during this time was when they playfully stuck their paws under the door frame and into each other’s faces. Seth and I spent a lot of time in both rooms so each cat got proper love and attention.

After a week, Hildie and Steve demonstrated the ability to politely touch paws through the closed door. Seth and I thought we were off to a great start!

Next, Hildie and Steve ate their breakfasts and dinners on either side of that same door so they would associate a good thing (food) with each other. They didn’t seem to mind that at all.

After another week, we propped open the door to the office just a little bit so they could really see each other when they ate. In the beginning, we used two door stoppers to keep it in position, but Hildie started using her head to try and barge through so we had to put a broken air conditioner on the living room side to provide resistance.

That’s when things started to get bad.

Hildie, on two separate occasions, squeezed her way through the door and attacked Steve in the living room. The first time it happened, Steve’s high pitched screams frightened me so much that it took about five or ten seconds for my mind to turn back on and figure out what to do. My first instinct was to pull Hildie off Steve but their entwined bodies kept moving around the room in wide circles around me, like a spinning top.

When I finally grabbed hold of Hildie’s midsection, she reared her head and sank her teeth into my wrist! I learned the hard way that breaking up a cat fight with your bare hands is the first thing you’re not supposed to do when cats are fighting. Still, I was able to hoist her off of Steve and into another room. One puncture wound became infected and my whole body was sore for a month.

Steve received a bloody scratch on his perfect pink little nose and a cut on his lip. Luckily, they both healed very quickly. Hildie walked away without injury because Steve was declawed early in his life (against Seth’s wishes), so he can’t really defend himself. He’s also older than she is, so his reflexes are slightly slower. He’s a very easygoing guy who never wants any trouble.

After the second time, Seth and I took Hildie to the vet. The vet asked about Hildie’s background and I said I adopted her from a shelter that revealed she came from a “hoarding situation,” but she was supposed to be good with other cats. This was when the vet explained how lots of animals who previously lived with hoarders are aggressive towards other pets when they are adopted into new homes because they believe they have to fight for food and attention. She said Hildie probably developed attachment issues and didn’t want to share me with another cat after living with me one-on-one.

The vet said she wanted to write Hildie a prescription for 5 milligrams of Prozac to take each day with food. The medication was supposed to calm her down enough that she would lose interest in Steve.

The Prozac calmed her down, but not enough.

We continued to keep our two cats separated by a door at all times. At night, Steve was in the bedroom with us and Hildie was free to roam around the apartment. But whenever I’d open the door to go to the bathroom, Hildie would dart out of nowhere and pounce on a sleeping Steve. For a while, I kept a broom in the bedroom so I could put it in front of her face and block her vision when I opened the door.

After she learned she could go around the broom faster than I could move it and got into the bedroom a few more times, we went back to the vet. She upped the Prozac dose to 10 milligrams a day. A nurse recognized our sadness, frustration, and hopelessness and informed us she was also dealing with a similarly aggressive cat. She suggested we get Hildie a playpen (which is like a big bird cage) so she can be in the same room as Steve without attacking him. This was supposed to teach her about boundaries.

The higher dose of Prozac and the playpen have made our lives better. Hildie is less moody and it’s easier to keep her and Steve separated. She also hasn’t bitten anyone in a very long time, but she can still be hostile. If she’s in the playpen and I’m on the floor petting Steve, she glares at him with her ears back. Sometimes her tail gets puffy and she starts to howl and won’t stop until he goes back in the bedroom and she gets out of the playpen. When we attempt to socialize them by holding Steve up to the playpen, she swipes at his head and he hisses back.

Steve stays in the bedroom during the day (with his own litter box and water and food and toys and our bed and window ledge to perch on for prime bird watching) and Hildie is free to roam around the office, kitchen and living room. I work from home so we cuddle in the morning on the couch (this is the crazy part — she loves humans. Cat sitters say she and Steve are the two sweetest cats they’ve ever met). In the afternoon, she usually takes a nap in the playpen and Steve gets his time to hang out with me. Hildie eats her meals in the playpen and Steve eats his meals right outside of it, so they can see and smell each other. Sometimes they even touch noses.

At night, Hildie sleeps in the office (with her own litter box and water and food and toys and bed and window ledge to perch on) and Steve has the rest of the apartment (including our bedroom, where he usually sleeps).

But they always have to be separated by a door.

If I want to go into the bedroom during the day (which is Hildie’s time to roam around the apartment), I can’t just open the door because she will run in and attack Steve. As such, Hildie has to be securely away somewhere (either in the playpen or the office). This is particularly annoying when I’m running late for an appointment and I realize I forgot something in the bedroom. It means I have to catch Hildie and put her away before I can go into the bedroom and get what I need. I have to make sure Steve stays in the bedroom, and I have to let Hildie out of wherever she is before I leave. It’s a lot of wrangling.

When Seth and I talk about all this to other people, they think we’re insane for living how we do and for not returning such a troubled cat to the shelter.

But I promised Hildie she would always have a home with me, and even though our home feels a bit like a game of musical chairs, we’re not going to give her to someone else. There have been times when I’ve thought about trying to find another place for her to live (maybe with someone who would never want two cats), but then I picture her hanging her chin over the top of the cabinets in someone else’s kitchen, wondering what she did to make me stop loving her enough to give her away.

At a recent visit to our vet, I asked our nurse friend (the one who also has the aggressive cat) why Hildie despises Steve but loves humans. She was stroking the length of Hildie’s body, and Hildie was purring and squinting her eyes happily, like she was staring at the sun. The nurse smiled and said, “this just might be the kind of cat she is.” The vet agreed.

Once we were in the backseat of our Uber and headed home, I turned her carrier towards me, met my eyes with hers, and whispered that I loved her.

Hildie’s behavior is wrong by human standards, and by Steve’s standards. I love Steve tremendously, and Seth and I try hard to make up for the fact he has to live with Hildie. We cuddle him every night. We brush him a few times a week, and he loves it. He loves catnip and he can have it whenever he wants. We’ve made our bedroom his safe space, and he knows that Hildie can’t get to him when he’s in the bedroom. We try and make sure he feels special by putting him in between us and snuggling him when we’re reading in bed at night like he’s our baby.

But if the vet and the nurse are right and Hildie’s aggressive behavior came from living with a hoarder for so long, I can’t really blame her for that. We’d all do whatever it took to survive.

And so I keep my promise to her. I only have one family to give her and it’s the only one I can give. I hope she accepts it someday.