Just because I'm a vegetarian doesn't mean I like pets. What's the fun in creatures that smell, scratch, bite and occasionally make unwanted sexual advances?
Actually, for me, the worst thing about pets is my allergies to them. When I was a kid I suffered frequently because my family was always visiting relatives with cats and dogs. So my vegetarianism and compassion for creatures has been more of an academic thing. I could go on and on about the moral, environmental and health virtues of a meat-free lifestyle. However, unlike many of my vegetarian pals who absolutely adore their cats and dogs, I am blissfully pet-free.
My new vegan girlfriend, Jeannie, is a lover of all animals, including injured foxes, groundhogs and squirrels left on the side of the highway. Jeannie handles wild critters as if they were her own children. Never before have I had to worry about picking up rabies in an intimate relationship.
Because of my allergies, I was not pleased when I learned that Jeannie had two cats. It's no fun to make out when you're a drippy, sneezy, allergic mess. But I really like Jeannie -- I've fallen in love with her -- so I decided to do my best to tolerate her dander-laden feline roommates, Samson and Delilah. It's not as though Samson and Delilah had a strong affection for me either, in the beginning, taking refuge under the bed whenever I'd come over.
After a few visits, though, Delilah mustered up enough courage to come out from hiding, especially if I was lugging a bag of aromatic takeout Chinese food. When there are eats around she meows loudly and persistently, "Supersize me." She is one fat cat.
But the frail, black and bony, 16-year-old Samson remained in seclusion for many more weeks. That is, until his health took a turn for the worse. We knew his progressing kidney disease would mean the end for him soon. Surprisingly, during his decline, Samson began to come out from hiding. He was no longer afraid of me, and eventually allowed me to pet him. We developed a new understanding -- cat to man -- which neither of us ever envisioned.
Despite his frail condition, Samson was still a beautiful cat with hypnotic green eyes and cute little fangs. And he became a mellow cat, with a cool, steady stride. Nothing much bothered him anymore -- not even my loud and persistent sneezing.
I was happy to assist with Samson's health care. Jeannie had me help administer his subcutaneous fluids, and I began making trips to the vet with them. In my 43 years, I never thought I'd ever set foot in a vet's office -- the equivalent of purgatory for a pet-allergy sufferer like me.
Samson hung on for a few months. He could have been a poster cat for Medicare with all his medications and medical bills, but he was okay. And though I visited Jeannie's house to visit Jeannie, I always made it a point to hang out with Samson and scratch him on the back of his head. (Of course, I'd wash my hands thoroughly afterward, and take a puff on the old inhaler.) Inevitably, Samson's condition deteriorated to the point where he had to be euthanized. That cold and dreary evening was one of the saddest of my life. Jeannie was devastated. Even Delilah, who never seemed to pay attention to her brother, was notably disturbed by his absence. The three of us were a collective wreck.
But my grief for Samson was indicative of a newfound appreciation for animals. What's most remarkable to me is that when faced with his own mortality, he transformed into a courageous and loving cat. He passed on quite gracefully.
I was so inspired and impressed by Samson, I decided to take my vegetarianism to a new level and become a vegan, forsaking all animal products (e.g., milk and eggs). What better way to honor my unlikely friend and hero?
I'll never be like Jeannie, combing the roadside for injured or abandoned animals. Nor does it appear that my allergies to animals are going to miraculously disappear. But it is nice to know that I -- along with the rest of the animal-human kingdom -- am capable of more compassion than I imagine, despite formidable barriers and obstacles. Just don't take away my inhaler.