My Dog, Zorro Part 1
By Kathie Arcide
I just lost my dog.
First Disclaimer: Zorro was actually a cat, but I’ve never met a cat who acted more like a dog than my Zorro.
Anyone who has had pets, if they tell you the truth, will admit to that one animal they loved the best. In my 70 years I have had so many animals, I can’t count them anymore…cats, dogs, gerbils, turtles, lizards, hamsters, rats, a boa constrictor, birds, mice, giant leaf bugs, and a duck.
Apparently, I can bond with anything….but Zorro was my hands-down favorite.
Like many people, I thought of cats as aloof and condescending, which suited me just fine because I have a significant cat allergy. But some of them are so dang cute and cuddly, it’s hard not to indulge in physical contact anyway. Unfortunately, I’d have to wash my hands, and sometimes even change my clothes immediately after. That or sneeze, itch and in extreme cases, have an asthma attack.
Here’s how I lucked into Zorro.
I had a horrible stretch of loss at the turn of this century.
In a period of about 18 months, there were 11 deaths in or close to my family.
The man I was married to slept with one of his therapy clients. His actions also destroyed my 30 yearlong private practice, and my reputation. Of course, it also blew up what was left of our marriage, the rest of my personal life, all my business relationships, and decimated my finances.
This relentless stretch of ordeals was topped off by losing all three of my longtime pets; a 16-year-old, pure-bred German Shepherd, Joy, as well as two cats, Bandit, 13, and Surprise, 23. All three of them gone within a two-month period!
Best Buddies, Joy and Bandit
Talk about the straw and camel’s back thing.
Our pets often shine the most for us when we are in pain. Losing all 3 of mine in the middle of the months and months of unrelenting emotional hits was my breaking point…the end of my road.
My brain was mush and my body was trashed with an undiagnosed adrenaline depletion syndrome. (No wonder!) And my heart…well, it felt like a cigarette butt someone had ground to dust on the blacktop.
I made a decision. The only thing I could do to control at least some future pain was to have no more pets…ever.
Some time passed, and things actually seemed to be calming down, but I was still physically ill, carrying an extra 50 pounds, and dealing with a whopper case of PTSD.
I thank God for my two best friends, Lee and Linda. Much wiser than me for sure. They convinced me it would be good for me if we did a good-bye ritual for my three beloved pets. But they’d also been scheming behind my back. They had more in mind than just scattering my animals’ ashes on the beach in Port Townsend, my dog Joy’s, favorite place.
When we finished this long-postponed farewell ceremony, my two smart-ass friends sat me down and informed me they were doing a Love Intervention on me. To quote them, “We just don’t like you as much when you don’t have any animals to love”. Harsh. And then, they proceeded to kidnap me and drag me to the Jefferson County Animal Control facility in Port Townsend.
They shoved me through the door of the building and I found myself in a big room with some County employees behind a counter on one side, and on the other side, an entire wall with cat-filled wire cages stacked to the ceiling.
Lee and Linda said, “We’re not leaving until you pick a cat”.
Let me just say, I was not immediately grateful…but I trusted them.
About 10 minutes later, I had my Zorro. I already knew his name because the very first thing he did when I picked him up was accidentally kitten-scratch a perfect “z” on the back of my left hand…swoosh, swoosh, swoosh!
Little did I know then that he had branded me as his, for life.
I could tell he was the one. The place was eerily silent given the number of kittens and cats in those stacked cages. Except for one tiny, psychotic-looking creature, hanging from the wire cage by his claws. Like the movie screen prisoner who grabs and shakes those jail bars and yells “I’m INNOCENT!”, that little kitten was climbing the cage wire and letting out a blood curdling yowl, way, WAY too big for his only 6-weeks-old size.
The sounds this tiny animal made were just like the sounds I had been feeling, but not expressing, way down deep in my soul, for the last 18 months.
As we were leaving with my new pet, one County employee behind the desk said “Oh thank God. He’s been yelling like that for days. Finally, some quiet around here!”
Linda, Zorro and me Lee, really proud of his bullying me into this
I never heard Zorro make those sounds again…at least, not until many years later, when our new kitten, Phineas, probably about 9 months old at the time, accidentally got himself trapped in the basement.
Zorro, my Dog, who adored his new little kitten, came running to find me, yelling that same incessant yowl I’d heard when I first met him at Animal Control. Then, he led me right to the basement door through which his little buddy Phineas, had escaped. Bark, bark! Good Dog Zorro!
Zorro’s protective and rescuing behavior was like a combination of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin but you have to be really old to get that reference! Remember Lassie? Bark Bark BARK! (translation: “Help, Help! Timmy fell down the well!”) Zorro raised hell when he spotted Phineas opening this window to escape!
James called Zorro my dog, but I always thought that was because Zorro was such a one-person cat, and very guard-dog like in his behavior toward James. Poor James, a true Cat Person…his first failed cat connection! Heart breaking, but Zorro just would not relent.
Second Disclaimer: I am a self-admitted Queen of Anthropomorphism.
Early in those years of mourning all my turn of the century losses, Zorro was right there with me. I believe cats grieve, so I know he was doing his own mourning.
My Zorro had a really rough start.
The story they told us at Animal Control was that someone had left a box of 6 tiny kittens (4 or 5 weeks old) at their seldom-used back door, apparently at the beginning of a 3-day weekend. With fewer staff on duty, that door had gone unused long enough for all those tiny kittens to die…. except my Zorro. He was all alone with no Mom, surrounded by his dead siblings. When the staff found the box, they never dreamed that pitiful little abandoned creature could survive.
I figure Zorro must have done the cat version of “imprinting” on me, the first warm body that consistently took care of him, because he was all mine from the very start. And, he never did really bond with any other human. Amazingly though, Zorro, despite (or maybe because of) his own traumatic beginning, was always really good with other animals.
Here he is getting ready to reunite with my sister’s Dog, Ola, who he had known since she was just a puppy, and only saw once a year.
Zorro had quite a parenting streak and was very gentle and watchful with small children.
Zorro with my grandson, Julius
And he was very protective of each of his “kittens”, and so tolerant! When we got Phineas for James, Zorro took on a very distinct Dad role with him.
Zorro meeting baby Phineas for the first time
It was delightful to watch this often feral-acting cat, become such a patient protector.
Phineas “attacking” the Big “Z”!
If Zorro thought someone was hurting Phineas, he would switch to his Dog Personality and was in all-out attack-mode in seconds, not cat-hissing but dog-growling, like a Doberman. And he would lunge toward the perceived offender, teeth bared, sword-claws drawn!! James has several scars to prove this, not because he would ever hurt Phineas, but because he would play with Phin enthusiastically, occasionally eliciting too loud a meow, which would trigger Zorro’s primal guard-dog behavior!
Phineas and Zorro were rarely apart from each other, Zorro always watching…
Then, a few years later, we got Miss Lucy, one of 4 feral kittens unexpectedly born in our wood pile…
Zorro and Lucy meet and soon they became inseparable.
Lucy followed Zorro everywhere. She watched what he did and copied his every move.
Now THIS is sunbathing
Zorro was just as patient with Lucy as he had been with Phineas, and just as protective. He always knew exactly where she was…
Phineas, however, was not very welcoming to this little intrusion who was now the “baby of the family”.
But Lucy, the most laid back cat ever, kept trying to befriend Phineas…
Don’t worry. Phineas did not suffer from a lack of attention…….
As you can see, he is clearly a very stressed out cat!
Eventually, the three cats sort of worked it all out.
Until toward the end of his long life, with only a couple of exceptions, Zorro was a one-person cat, Me.
My niece, Emily, the Animal Whisperer, winning over Zorro
Even with me, he was not particularly snuggly. He would insist on remaining in charge of all physical contact, so no Lap Cat behavior for him…too confining, I suppose.
And yet, he also had these regular rituals when he could not possibly have gotten any closer to me, sitting next to me, or sleeping on my hip, or backed into the curve of my body, against my stomach and chest. His favorite position seemed to be snuggling into what my grandkids used to call the “tucky hole”. That’s the space formed behind your bent knees while reclining on your side.
He’d squeeze himself in beside me when I sat in my favorite chair.
Then when it was time for me to get up and move, he’d remain exactly as I’d left him, looking slightly pouty and insulted that I had the nerve to leave him there. He’d remain for a long, guilt-producing time! How dare I get up from his chair when he had so graciously deigned to allow that closeness.
Zorro…waiting for my return…
Anyone else was taking their face, arms, ankles and life in their hands if they risked even a proffered pet.
James, being such a dedicated Cat Person, tried for so many years to connect with him, but Zorro just refused.
As happens sometimes though, when a cat is ill, a bitter sweet, end-of-life behavior switch took place and Zorro finally accepted James. He allowed James to stroke him a little and some nights, even slept on the bed with James, in the crook of his legs (the “Tucky Hole”). James was so touched by this.
Zorro and I did have this one ritual that shocked those who knew him. Whenever I returned from being gone for hours or, more rarely, for days, I would scoop him up and hold him upside down on his back, rocking him, baby-style, and asking him if he missed me. He’d totally let me, and would gaze into my eyes for long stretches, while I told him where I had been. (It wasn’t until just a couple of years ago, when his eyesight became less, that it occurred to me he may have been gazing at himself all that time, at his own reflection in my glasses. My Narcissism or his? Take your pick.)
All of our conversations took place with this locked-eyes, staring contest. He would hold eye contact with me for as long as I wanted.
As if his very rough beginning, being dumped at the Animal Shelter had not been enough, he had a couple of other traumas that surely felt to Zorro like more abandonment.
Once, when he was still an indoor/outdoor cat, unbeknownst to me, he got stuck in my car…for 2 days!!
Though he didn’t scratch or soil anything, I know he must have been doing that kitten yowl the whole time, bless his heart. I thoroughly searched the neighborhood, and was frantic, but was told by others he had probably gone on one of those “walk-abouts” some cats did, sometimes for days. That just didn’t sound like my dog. He would not just disappear! I had to assume he would be back. It simply never occurred to me to look inside my own car.
The next trauma, a few years later, was similar except this time, he was accidentally locked in my neighbor’s garage (my old barn), for THREE days while they were on a vacation. This time, he apparently kept himself alive by diminishing my neighbor’s garage-mouse population…by several….the only time I knew of, by the way, that he actually killed something.
Again, being very fastidious, he found an isolated corner in which to do his cat business, making clean up a breeze.
He’d always been a cat who liked to watch the world from (and sleep in) hidden places. The car and barn must have seemed like perfect spots to him.
His “doggie door” was my leaving the bathroom window open so he could come and go at will, but I finally had to make the difficult decision to turn Zorro into an indoor cat. The combination of him getting locked in places, and the construction in our surrounding forests and greenbelts, caused the arrival to our neighborhood of packs of brazen coyotes (and the occasional bobcat). That made me too afraid for Zorro, as tough as he was. All it took was a coyote, midday, walking right through my yard, with a neighbor’s cat (well, half of it anyway) in its mouth, and my Zorro was instantly grounded…. for life.
“Uh Hellooo! I knocked on the front door, but no one answered!”
Zorro, given the choice, would have preferred to maintain his Warrior Cat status, bringing home snakes and a variety of rodents, none of which he ever killed! (Maybe he thought he was saving them?)
Ironically, one time when a bird got in the house, instead of instinctively trying to eat the bird, he did his Rescue Dog yowl to bring my attention to the fact that the poor thing was nearly killing himself, flapping around my living room, trying to escape. Zorro could have easily snatched him from midair, you know, to have a little snack, but I think, in the name of fair play, he didn’t. (I warned you…Queen of Anthropomorphism!)
bird on window sill in living room (and feathers on the rug) *A favorite movie of ours…
Even though his full name was “Zorro, the Gray Blade*-alias, The Slasher”, we often referred to him as the “Sean Connery of cats”, handsome, macho, but always fair.
He loved to play Hide n Seek and sometimes. I’d search the whole house only to find him right under my nose. This creative talent led me to photograph some of his more creative camouflages and hiding places. I even had a couple of books printed from the pictures, called the books “Where’s Zorro?”.
Some of his secret spots were so hidden, we’d think he had escaped to the outside, but we would then discover him right under our noses! One of his favorites was right next to where I would sit for hours, but without having actual contact. It was ingenious!
My desk…where I spend hours every day! Can you spot Zorro? (Zorro discovered a hidden access at the back of the desk.)
Phineas sees him but knows Zorro is off limits in this place, but that doesn’t stop him…
Some of his other hiding places were chosen, I’m sure, so he could observe without being seen himself.
Photos from “Where’s Zorro?” photo book
I’ve already said he was a really quiet cat, except in his desperate or Dog moments. But there was another time he was quite noisy. We would have these long, long conversations.
Third Disclaimer: Here it comes, I KNOW you’ve been thinking it already; she’s that Crazy Cat Lady
Anyway, we would have many back and forth discussions, Zorro and me. I wish I could include a video of one of our talks because just writing about it can’t possibly capture it. It could have gone viral on YouTube though. He’d meow, and I’d respond with my inferior human cat imitation. He’d reply. Then I would emphasize, and he’d retort. We could go on like this for long minutes, each sound different and always right in each other’s face! Clearly, we both had important points to make.
He knew my language much better than I his, and responded to several commands, again very dog-like.
I’d say, “Please don’t touch this.” And he wouldn’t…. ever. Good Dog!
“Are you hungry?” would send him running for the food bowl.
“Let’s get ready for bed” and he’d sit at attention, waiting for me at the bathroom door.
Actually, anytime I said, “I’ll be right back”, he’d sit there waiting, like a well-trained dog in “down-stay” command mode, no matter how long I took.
And I’d have to be careful with this next one, actually have to whisper it, if I was telling someone about him doing this, because the minute I said out loud “Wanna take a nap with me?” he’d run to the bed, and wait there…and wait, even if I was delayed by a complete change of plans. Good Dog.
Waiting for Nap Time
At night, he’d sleep on my feet, stretched along my back or on my hip, but mostly, in the uppermost corner of the bed, right by my head. I could reach out and touch him in that corner and was allowed to leave the back of my hand in contact with him all night.
But for some reason, during a nap, I’d be curled up on my side and he would scoot himself backwards right into the curve of my body, and we’d spoon, my arm draped over him. It was the only time he’d sleep in a confining position…as if in an act of complete trust. (Or maybe just because he knew it would be short enough to tolerate.)
And Oh Boy, when I was done with MY nap, he’d pour on the insulted guilt trip so thick!! These next photos are taken over a period of 25 minutes or so, as he lays there, waiting for me to come back, looking abandoned and forlorn!
It was more than just certain vocal commands. My favorite thing was anytime I’d whap the bed or couch three times, he’d immediately jump up onto whatever I had tapped. It’s the thing I miss the most now. Sometimes at night, without even thinking, I’ll tap the corner of the bed three times and then burst into tears in a complete Pavlovian response.
Wanna know the very best thing for me about Zorro?
I was not allergic to him…at all! I could pet him and hold him and brush him…nothing. No sneeze, no wheeze! I could rub my face in his fur, not so much as a tickle!
Zorro was my very first intimate, up close and personal relationship with a cat!
My Veterinarian at the time said there had been a study at the University of Washington showing that pure gray, short hair cats were the least allergy producing. She said Zorro was partly one of those, but with white patches. An interesting aside…when I went hunting for a kitten for James, I wanted another gray cat so I could not react. I found Phineas, who looked similar, but it turned out he was a white cat (the highest allergies) with gray patches. So that has backfired, and I am definitely allergic to him!
Fourth Disclaimer: I am a true believer about all living beings having equal and comparable rights. Please read the rest with that in mind.
My Zorro was sick with Kidney Disease for a couple of years, and I was on increasingly high alert about his care. He had become less active, but more affectionate than ever, especially with those in my family who had been locked out all those years. Even though this kind of personality change usually signifies the end is near for a cat, I’m glad they all had a little time to enjoy the Zorro I alone have always known.
The last few months were the hardest. I couldn’t stand to be away from him for long. And though he’s always been a fairly good “traveler” (we live in two places and road-trip a lot), it became more and more difficult for him to be in his carrier on a long drive. So, I did not go very far.
I knew it was time to reach out for support, even though my preferred state is strong and alone for the difficult times in my life. But not everyone gets that human/animal connection, so I had to pick carefully who I shared with. Just one unfortunate comment like, “Oh it’s just a cat. You can always get another one” and I might have been tempted to end a relationship.
I chose well. My women rallied around me and one wonderful and beautifully articulate friend, Lisa, was perfect. She lived far away but her emails saved me. Here’s one of her first:
I’ve been thinking of you and Zorro nonstop. I feel a sense of sacred circle with those you’ve invited in, sitting Shiva almost, in communion with you both.
The pain in your heart is also resonant in mine, in ours.
We are simply Here. With you. Holding the circle for you.
I know there’s nothing I can do or say to make it better, but know at least that you are not alone. You have reached out to us and we are here.
Love and pain are very close together in these life and death transitions.
Sacred, sacred space.
I wish you both peace.
Love and hugs.
(About to get graphic, and possibly controversial about euthanasia here so stop reading if you need to…)
During Zorro’s last two weeks, he stayed right by my side, ON me whenever possible, day and night. Remember, he was NOT a “lap cat” …ever. But he could not get enough lap time that last stretch.
He’d wobble over, sit by my desk and if I did not speak to him, he’d yowl…demanding that I make a space for him on my lap. I’d scoot back from the desk, tap my lap three times (our signal) and he’d jump up onto my lap, but in that way a cat does when they are considering a leap they are not sure they can make…starting, stopping, starting…then finally jumping.
About a week before he died, he had a small seizure that left him drunk-walking. But he was still totally present, interacting with me…still having our “conversations” and still responding to every command and invitation.
Bless his heart, right up until he stopped eating and drinking, and even though I’d put a litter box close to him, he dragged himself across the big room, up the stairs, around the corner, through the kitchen and down the hall to his regular litter box. He was always an exceptionally hygienic cat, and while he was preparing to die, he never had a single accident…Good Kitty…though on that last trip to his box though, he did need a little help to stand up to pee.
It shouldn’t be long now. He can’t really stand up much anymore, but he just rallied enough to walk himself directly into the darkest place in the house (not behind the furnace, thank goodness) but a little cardboard “scratching house”. He’s never been in there before…and he’s been voluntarily spending time in his carrier. I know what this behavior means.
My heart is going out to you both!
Are you going to let nature take him, or call the vet to assist his transition?
Oh Lisa, what a beautiful, freeing way to ask me…
I’m choosing Nature. He won’t leave my side. Even after 2 seizures he crawls to find me. I believe I’m supposed to ride it out with him…. My heart is cracked wide open now….
I keep thinking we’re minutes from the end and he keeps rallying. I’m a day away from having to choose between worldly things and my spiritual beliefs. Do I go officiate at a wedding on Saturday, or do I stay home with him? I have not slept for more than a couple hours at a time for 6 nights.
He’s just still here…I mean here here, interacting, responsive, not happy but in no apparent pain.
Again, thank you. Love, Kathie
I talked to my Animal Clinic daily during that last week, for coaching on Zorro’s comfort. Though they reminded me what my options for euthanasia were, they never pushed. They completely understood and supported my long-held, spiritual stance. (This is a topic for another day.)
The last few days were the most difficult. I sat right with him while he went about the business of dying. I was struck by how familiar the waiting felt, not like other deaths I have witnessed, but instead, a little like the labor and childbirth process I have assisted in hundreds of times… with different kinds of contractions…these were a wide swing between grief and relief at his departing our life together.
It was quiet, peaceful, long but also timeless, and deeply moving. Like animals do in the wild, he’d occasionally drag himself to a dark, isolated place (that cardboard scratch house, or behind a door or cushion) but just for a while.
Then he’d be back, wanting to be on my lap or next to my thigh.
I spent a lot of time within earshot and sight of him, mine and his. Sitting at my desk, I had a perfect view through the shelves that divide the office and sleeping areas of our big room.
He was quieter but would still muster a small response if I talked to him from across the room. I kept telling him he could go, that he’d be fine, that I’d be fine…but I could not say it without crying.
On his last morning, I had a really tough call to make. It was Friday, and I was due at a rehearsal for the wedding I was to officiate on Saturday. Lisa, my primary support through the whole process, wrote:
I have actually wondered if it’s harder for animals to go naturally when they are connected to humans. In the wild when they’re ready, they crawl away somewhere and just stay still until they go, just shutting down their bodily functions like the aborigines do (unless a predator finds them). In our environments however, they are continuously reminded of their human connections and rally due to the tether of love. I think maybe they stick around longer because of their connection to us!
I knew she was right, but hated hearing it. I wasn’t even sure I could muster enough strength to be the one to let go first. I could have skipped the rehearsal and stayed with him one more day, but when I asked Zorro that morning if I should go, he literally pulled himself up, and turned his back to me before collapsing back into his chair.
I understood. And told him once again, it was OK for him to leave while I was gone.
I didn’t cry. I really meant it.
I think he needed me gone so he could concentrate on the task at hand. Though James was here, right in the next room, Zorro spent the whole day in the quiet, darkened bedroom, in his favorite chair…dying.
That day, after the wedding, I got home at 5. I walked into his darkened room just to check on him, and then I sat down on the bed, to wait with him. I could tell he was almost gone.
An hour later, he looked over at me and I swear mewled “now”, so I picked him up and put him in my lap.
7 breaths later he was gone.
“Good, good dog, Zorro…”
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