Saturday, May 18, 2024

I might as well admit it – I am a speciesist

My niece recently commented that we should not consider ourselves superior to other animals. I immediately imagined the kitchen in which we were sitting being on fire, and me being able to only save her or my cat, Dash. My hunch was that she would want to be considered the “superior” choice, but we moved on to other topics and I lost my chance to confirm that with her (I will go with my gut if the unfortunate moment arises).

I might as well admit it. I’m a speciesist, or specieist, or whatever that word is I encountered for the first time at a horse-and-carriage slavery protest in Niagara-On-The-Lake this past spring.

Dash might not be my first choice in the kitchen fire scenario, but I do love him, and I know – in his own way – Dash loves me. Despite arriving in my care as an adolescent from a rescue shelter and not a malleable kitten from a litter, he is friendly. He purrs. He head-butts me. He rubs my legs. When I am sick in bed or on the couch, he seeks me out and curls up next to me. It is almost like he is of an equivalent species.

Until he tries to tear off my face.

A few weeks after bringing him home and watching a YouTube video promising this would be the easiest thing ever, I tried to clip Dash’s claws. If I told my niece I had to clip her claws, I am certain she would give me no trouble. Dash was a different story. When not even sitting on him could contain the frenzy of claws and teeth, I declared the YouTube creator to be a sadistic liar, put the $30 kitty nail clippers back in a drawer, applied pressure to my wound, and booked an appointment with a qualified professional. A silent agreement was made. I do not restrict Dash’s movement with my hands, and Dash does not scratch, bite, or hiss at anyone ever.

However, there are times when I must break that agreement.

Like the time he sauntered in the side door for some kibble, and I caught the unmistakable stench of skunk. I told Dash to go downstairs and have a bath … no, no, sorry – memory lapse. What happened is, I dug out my baking soda, poured hydrogen peroxide into a bowl, pulled him away from the food, and headed for the laundry sink. His claws were swinging before I made it down the stairs. When the water hitting the plastic sink sounded like heavy artillery and I placed him in it, instead of asking me, “Hey Colleen, what is that noise and can we add some lavender scent to that concoction?”, Dash lost it.

Every animal can lose it in scary ways. I have watched lions tear into a carcass on the African savanna. I have run from ravenous baboons who swiped my sandwich and tore through the plastic in seconds. I have even frozen in watchful anticipation as a hyena crossed the road in front of my idling car, shooting me a look that said, “Stay where you are, and no one gets hurt.”

None of that compares to the emotionally unregulated fury of claws, muscle, and fur that is a domestic housecat in distress.

“Julian!” I yelled to my teenaged son. “Get down here! Pour baking soda into the bowl!”

If you have completed the centuries-old make-your-own-volcano elementary school project, you know what happens when you pour baking soda into hydrogen peroxide. Do this anywhere near a cat who has already detected an existential threat, and you are inviting a slashing worthy of a Wes Craven film.

I had nearly emerged unscathed when he finally freed himself, leaping toward the basement crawl space, raining water and foam behind him, and swinging a claw as he went by. I was left with a Zorro-worthy gash reminding me to heed our agreement and never attempt this again.

But I must. For I am the superior species.

There is the annual trip to the vet that Dash never puts in his calendar, but which I unfailingly remember every October.  Asking him to drive himself is hopeless, and because he prefers to hide under the bed outside my reach, I have to ambush him and stuff him into a carrier cage, only slamming the locking door closed after I have managed to pry his four paws off the side of the doorframe and forced his twisting body fully inside. I raise that carrier in triumph, but my hands are shaking.

At last week’s visit, the vet noted that Dash has a bit of tartar on his back teeth and asked, “Do Dash’s teeth get brushed?” This was while she was holding a thermometer in Dash’s bottom, the successful insertion of which got me thinking an Olympic event should be created so someone could give this woman a medal.

The thermometer thing was new. I was about to ask her why we were taking Dash’s temperature (Dash couldn’t ask himself; he was too busy licking cat treats from a tube I was squeezing). Her question sidetracked me, and because at that moment he looked every bit a species that might not be up to brushing its own teeth, I decided to field it.

“No,” I answered, reflecting on the claw-clipping experiment, the skunk bath, and the athletics required just to get him to this office. “I don’t think that is going to happen.”

She didn’t say much, but I read, “Speciesist” in the look she gave me.

“That’s nothing,” my friend assured me when I ran the whole brush-the-cat’s-teeth scenario past her. “My girlfriend took her dog to the vet and was told he needs braces. Three thousand dollars! Braces!”

It’s a thing. I googled it. Canines with silver brackets and wires on their teeth, the cost of which seems to range from $1,000 to more than $5,000. Having been around dogs enough to know what non-food items they like to stick their snouts in and sample, I pitied the owners who brush the hardware on their teeth.

I suppose I must do better with the whole speciesism thing. Some days I reflect on my oppressor status, determine that I might not be so superior after all, and decide to explore steps to decolonizing the arrangement between Dash and me, giving him more agency over his life.

Take the other day, for example. I was brushing my teeth when Dash strolled into the bathroom and started meowing. “Ah, maybe this is it!” I thought. “Time for the heart-to-heart, a bit of vulnerability and sensitivity training. I will run it like a performance review, and take Dash’s feedback in the spirit in which it is given. So that I might be better.”

Turns out Dash was hoping I would open the toilet so he could have a drink.

I rinsed my toothbrush, smiling at his back haunches balancing on the toilet seat while he slurped the water from the bowl below, and thinking how boring the house would be without his antics.

My performance review will have to wait for another day. When it does, I will have to remember to make one request of him. To please close the lid when he is done.


Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart is a Carleton University journalism grad who avoided real work by travelling to 53 countries and writing about her adventures. In 2012, she founded Perfect Pitch Consulting to help businesses across North America tell better stories about what they do and why. In 2020, she published her first book, The Story Compass. Every few months, Colleen gets the itch, and that means escaping real work to travel and find some adventures to write about.

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