CAT ADOPTION, RUSSIAN STYLE The Sacred Cats of St.Petersburg


Cat Glorifying Poem #1

Oh, cat-breath! How I miss the sound

of your little fuzz-feet,

Your claws, your jaws,

ouch, ouch,

Your climbing on my head,

Your fuzz-cakes-shoe-lace sitting pretty

On the corner of my tub,

Bouncing, trouncing "mousie"

your stuffed pet.

My stuffed pet,

oh cat of fuzz-fun-flake-cakes

Biting me in the morning!

What has happened to my brain? I wrote that thing hovering abovethere like a flying saucer from another planet. Where has the deep depressed literaryseriousness of my poetry gone? What is going on here? ---I came to to St.Petersburg ofcourse, and have been adopted by a cat, and life, particularly depressed literary life,has gone straight out the window.

RussiaCatsGirlwithcatonstreet.jpg A little girl sharesher "gamborger" with a street cat.

It began last July: I and my roommate Milla are coming home verylate one night, and as we are about to enter the street door of our apartment, a small,furry, rat like creature weighing perhaps 8oz begins to make loud noises at our feet. Ilook at Milla, and Milla looks at me, and we both look down and check out the situation.On the ground before us is a three week old, starving, flea ridden cat,"meow-ing" with considerable lung power. Any American kitten in that sadcondition would be terrified and intimidated by two sets of great galumphing human feetsuddenly appearing before her. But this little fuzz ball, with oversize eyes, ears, andtail, is obviously already aware that cats have special status here in Russia. Instead ofrunning away in terror, she just gently sinks her tiny claws into the cuffs of my 501'sand demands (in cat of course) to be fed with a rapidly increasing volume. She does notlet up with either voice or claws until she is safely ensconced in our flat eating a tinycheese omelet and drinking sterilized milk.

PortfolioPortfolioscans2Womensroom.jpgLadies'room sign on Nevsky Prospekt with a cat as the symbol of femininity

She knows her rights of course, she is after all one of thesacred cats of St. Petersburg. Where in parts of India cows are venerated, and in Alaska(where I come from) killing a raven once merited the death penalty, here in St. Petersburgit is cats that have special privileges. I have always suspected that this originated inthe time of Peter the Great when the city was being founded. At that time the politicalcaricaturists of the Lubok (wood-cut) form frequently used a cat to stand in for Peter.Peter had a round, catlike face, and wore a whisker-like moustache instead of atraditional full beard, so the substitution would hardly be misunderstood. Additionally,Peter's court, busy adopting European customs as fast as they could, would not have beenleft out of the great 18th Century European cat revival, where the upper and middleclasses of Europe, previously scorning cats as "witches familiars", now boughtand bred thoroughbred house cats, to the disgust and envy of the poorer classes.

At our home the little cat, having eaten half its weight inomelet, now seeks a suitable sleeping area for herself and the, perhaps, 100 fleasadorning her slender form. After a thorough over view of her new flat, and hertwo new servants (us), she decides to take her rest in the shoe rack near the door, wedgedbetween my best flats. Resigned to our fate, we talk over possible names. The cat isskinny, no question, with a tail more appropriate to a rodent than a feline, so Milla goesback to the rack and brings me a tennis shoe. She pulls at the string and says "Whatis this in English?" "A shoe-lace." And so, we call her"Shoe-lace" or "Shoolia" for short, and get used to the idea of beingowned by a cat.

PhotoalbumCatCompukit.jpg Shoelace on my laptop

Fact is, cat adoption here is so impressively easy. Like Millaand I, you can find yourself a cat "owner" just by weakening for a moment atyour doorstep. There is a Russian saying, "You do not adopt a cat, a cat adoptsyou." Then there are also the cleaner, and disarmingly innocent looking, kittens forsale around many Metro stations. You get off the train, look for groceries for dinner, andbetween the cute little old lady with the onions, and the cute little old lady with thelettuce, is a cute little old lady with cute little cats! You are almost never faced withthis shopping dilemma in the produce department of Safeway.

And you have no excuse like at home: "My landlord won't letme." or "I can't afford the pet security deposit." According to my friendAndrei, a Russian would regard a landlord (particularly the government) interfering in catownership a major breach of a tenant's right to privacy. Only in communal flats is itconsidered politic to ask your flat-mates for permission to keep a cat. Even then it oftenisn't necessary. At present, Milla and I are taking a trip to the Embassy in Moscow. Whileon this trip we asked Sasha, another friend, to cat-sit the Shoe-lace during our travels.Yesterday Milla called to ask him how he was doing with the cat. "No problem! I wasafraid my flat mate would object, but I found her this morning, digging in the cabinetsfor a saucer---she had gone to a kiosk especially to buy her milk! If you stay away toolong, I think we will keep her."

Modern St. Petersburg, with it's average of only 59 square feetof living space per person, renders cat ownership the norm, and dog ownership both anexpensive luxury and a personal nuisance. The relatively primitive state of sanitation andpest control common in most apartment buildings also renders cats a general communitybenefit. In our own apartment block, the local cats, as if to remind us of this fact, dumpa disemboweled rat corpse at the street entrance about once a month, just to keep all ushumans properly grateful.

No, cats here are definitely in charge. Within 24 hours ofShoolia's adoption of Milla and I we were buying her an imported flea collar to rid her ofher pests, arranging toilet facilities near our own, and were finding it increasinglydifficult to please her palate. She now makes it clear that we will provide her canned catfood on demand or we instead will endure loud screeching, take our pick. If I do not wakeup when she is hungry, she simply jumps on my head and bites my toes until I do. Neverhave I been in a situation where the authority structure was clearer.


Milla is an artist and I am a costume designer. So thoroughlydoes the cat hold us in her power that I designed and made a costume for the cat to beamused with. It provides a firmly anchored hat which she climbs on. and a surrounding netand noisemaker "cage" for her to enter. Shoolia happily climbs into it and playswith the noisemakers until my neck hurts from the strain. Mila also spent some time tryingto design cat amusement sculptures, until she found that one of her existing creations isthe best of all. It is a metal mobile of brass and steel objects that Shoolia plays like aone-cat-band, making wonderful noises that fill our apartment.

TravelRussiaMilalamp.gifMilla's lamp

But it is not only in apartments that cats are kept and caredfor, but in nearly every shop, restaurant and workplace. It's amazing how many cats inthis city have achieved the ultimate level of Cat-Nirvana: living in a fish shop. Ourlocal branch of Detsky Mir (Children's World) has two massive round beasts who laysprawled on the counters like tourists on an Hawaiian beach. It may rain and snow outside,but the cats neither know nor care.

I ask Milla, "Where do they come from? Does the store takeinterviews for the position of store cat? Does the government issue them, so many cats forso many feet of floor space?" "The people who work there just adopt them."Right. More like the cats just adopt the people...How is it, with 70 years of socialism,with the government regulating everything, interfering in everything, sticking its noseinto everything, with shortages, with quotas and well, with, with everything, Russiansretained the God given right to keep a cat at home, at work, anywhere? No free speech, noproperty rights, no free elections, nothing but the Right of Cat Ownership? Huh? What isgoing on here?

Last week Mila had to go visit the KGB to try to get a policecertificate for the U.S. Embassy for her fiancée visa. "Milla, at the KGB office, didyou see any cats?" "No." "Do you think, where the public can't see,they keep any cats in their offices?" "No! It's too gloomy." So there youhave it. The one subversive element in a perfect Soviet society that not even the KGBcould eradicate except in their offices: cats. Cats, the ultimate symbol of the privatedomestic life, flourishing through 70 years of government "control" of thatdomestic life. An unbroken line of fuzzy footed feline companionship through all the upsand downs of the Century.

When people get all bent out of shape at the apparentcallousness and "hurry up" attitudes emerging in the new capitalist Russia, theyshould remember that some small things like this show an equal attitude of kindness andcare for the little things in life, even through the worst of times. A good example comesfrom an article my mother sent me recently from an American paper. It describes how a niceman in Wusendorf, Germany has taken on the task of feeding the approximately 150 abandonedcats in the former Red Army base there. The article faintly sneers at the Russian soldiersfor leaving the cats in Germany in "filthy deserted barracks". What apparentlyhas not occurred to the author is, why were the cats there in the first place? Did hethink the Red Army issued them? Knowing that the troops must themselves have had tolive in those "filthy" barracks before they were pulled out, should haveprovided a clue. Out of their miserable Army pay, and living in "filthy"barracks, the Russian soldiers managed to feed and house (against all Army regulations, Iam quite sure) 150 stray cats! Given what I've read in the papers here about theappalling conditions for soldiers in the Army, this was, in itself, no small achievement. Who canthen be surprised that the troops, called to return home to an uncertain future, couldnot, while traveling in troop trains, stuff 150 cats into their backpacks? The idea isridiculous.

But I bet one or two did. I know I plan to. If you are anAmerican like me. and you think that you have an excuse to avoid cat ownership: "Ican't take it with me to the States." Wrong! According to U.S. Government PrintingOffice pamphlet 1990-249-187:QL 3 "Pets, Wildlife: U.S. Customs," cats are theeasiest animal to import to the States. The only restriction is "all domestic catsmust be free of evidence of diseases communicable to man when examined at the port ofentry...vaccination against Rabies is not required for cats." In other words, Shooliahas special "visa" privileges that Russian humans don't.

Milla fell in love with an American guy I know, and the two ofthem have been struggling for a year to get her a visa to the States so that they can getmarried. I, on the other hand can casually pack the Shoe-lace into a pre-fab carrier andzip home with her when I please. Today Milla and I are in Moscow. Why? Well, the U.S.Government insists that she spend $110 getting blood tests and medical exams out the ears(not literally, although they did check her ears too) for her visa, but Shoolia, thelittle street cat, isn't even required to have a Rabies shot! Even the U.S. Governmentgives Russian cats preferential treatment.

Everyone here in Russia treats cats like objects of veneration.I recall, when I first came to Petersburg two years ago, standing amazed in DLT, theSt. Petersburg equivalent of Macy's, one day as a thick crowd of pushing desperate shoppersblithely bumped and shoved each other in a shopping frenzy, while carefully steppingaround one of the store cats who had inconveniently chosen top center of the mainstaircase to nap. Today as we kill time in another store, we see a huge round tabby catwith thick fur and aggressive looking orange and black stripes sleep with calm assurancein one of the fancy new baby carriages on sale there. The customers, far from deploringthe inevitable cat hair accumulation this will cause, each take turns going up to the catand scratching its ears. They whisper soft nothings to the great purring lump of fur asthe store clerks look on with approval.

PhotoalbumCatKioskcat.jpg Cat in a florist's kiosk

Step out on any street and you will see them: sleeping in thesunniest windows, stopping by the butcher shop to get free snacks, carried on the Metro byanxious humans transporting them from apartment to dacha. When a cat begins to feeldistressed in a basket on the bus or Metro, watch how fast everyone comes to the basket tocoo soft words to it to calm it down. No bus conductor would dream of ejecting a noisy catfrom the bus like at home.

Look at the corner. Has a "Zootovari" kiosk emerged inyour neighborhood overnight? With all the talk of hard times, (and hard times these are)the demand for Whiskas, Wist, Brekkies and other expensive imported cat foods keepsexpanding faster than the supply. How often do you see an elderly pensioner, nothing inher shopping basket but cabbage, rice and potatoes, stop before checkout to pick up cansof fish costing more than the previous three? In every economic bracket kitty gets thebest.

RussiaCatsManwithcat2.jpg Pensioner & cat go to buyfish

And here in Moscow now, I have proof positive of actual catworship. I just turned into this little book shop in Mayakovskaya to get a book onmushrooms and what should appear on the book counter before me but Cat Shrines. In eachshrine/bed lies a sleeping cat, so spherical as to be barely recognizable as belonging tothe same species as skinny Shoe-lace. The woman behind the counter of the children's booksection, where the cats are located, is a cute elf like creature with giant eyes behindgiant glasses. She herself almost resembles an illustration in a children's book, so smalland thin is her body, so big and round are her eyes. She obviously is thepriestess-handmaiden of the cat shrines which she has decorated with little overhangingbeads and cat photos, the better to glorify cat-dom.

Missing my Shoe-lace, stuck back at home in Petersburg, I showan interest in the cats, looking as round and sleepy as hibernating bears. The elf womanis delighted, and when I ask if I may take her photo with the cats she proudly pops out analbum of her and kitties at home, in their shrines, when young, etc. For the photo-takingshe puts dorky little hats on the cats. She puts a baby cap on one sleeping beast, who isso inured to the indignity he simply lies there as if dead. The other wears a fetching redstraw hat with a half asleep depressed look that would do a Basset hound proud. The otherbook store employees look at the elf lady in kind amusement, as if to say "Well, yes,Irina is crazy, but she's nice to cats and children, and, after all, is it so bad to becrazy about cats?"

Now, three months after the Shoe-lace appeared in my life tocause chaos and reduce my poetry to Dadaist gibberish, I'd say no. If this is crazy, Idefinitely want to stay this way. So, what the Hell, I can take the shame:

Cat Glorifying Poem #2:

My beloved golf-ball-brains!

How sharply your pointy little ears pierce the sky,

How deeply your pointy little teeth bite me!

Oh, cat-cakes, how I long for the sound

(Mraa! Mraa!)

Of your yowling for breakfast,

Your furry-fuzz-feet standing on my chest,

Your pointy nose, (Oh, pointy-ears) sniffing my face!

"Is she dead?" you wonder, oh fish-breath.

Nyet, oh fur buns, I am alive and kicking,

The proof is in the can. Can you taste it, my fur-cakes?

Oh fuzz-feline-hair-ball of my dreams!


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