Gene Lyons

Albert Takes a Powder

During a slow week in Washington, it occurs to me that readers might enjoy an update on my unusual cat, Albert, aka “The Orange Dog.” Born under a neighbor’s front porch in the country, he spent his infancy among dogs and free-range chickens.

Hence Albert has always been open to interspecies relationships. The first time Maggie, our aggressive Great Pyrenees, stuck her muzzle in his face, the tiny kitten jumped on her head. She adopted him for life. He grew up an honorary member of our farm’s security team: two Pyrenees, a German shepherd, and The Orange Dog.

Anywhere I went, they all four followed. Albert often sat on a fence post and let Mount Nebo the horse nuzzle him. Other horses, no. Cows he treated with benign indifference, a favor they mostly returned. When I’d call him at night, Albert came running. I’d pick out his orange eyes in the flashlight beam. To keep him tame, I never fed Albert outdoors.

An efficient predator, after he’d exterminated the mice in our barn, Albert began traveling across the pastures to a neighbor’s hay barn. I worried about coyotes, although he was too clever to attempt the journey after dark. So we’d walk over in the afternoon to fetch him. He’d come running from the barn, rub-a-dub on the dogs’ legs, and then follow us home, panting like a little tiger.

One time we encountered a half-dozen turkey vultures feeding on a cow’s afterbirth. Albert walked casually among them as if they were chickens. They waddled aside to let him pass. Live animals don’t much interest them. I was amazed; Albert, calm.

I said all that to say this: Academic behaviorists conducting experiments to study the affective bonds of domestic animals would do better to spend a few years on a small farm than in a laboratory.

I read dueling articles last week, one claiming emotional superiority for dogs, "What makes dogs so special and successful? Love," and the other cats, "Cats Bond Securely to Their Humans Maybe Even More Than Dogs Do."

I agreed with both.

See, unlike the professors, I don’t fear the “L” word: love. I’m a great apostle of Carl Safina’s 2016 book, "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel." An evolutionary biologist, Safina asks “[D]o other animals have human emotions? Yes, they do. Do humans have animal emotions? Yes, they’re largely the same. Fear, aggression, well-being, anxiety and pleasure are the emotions of shared brain structures and shared chemistries, originated in shared ancestry.”

Racehorses commonly pair up with goats, cats, sheep, pigs -- basically any animal that will keep them company. The great Seabiscuit used to sleep lying down -- horses normally stand -- with a small dog and a spider monkey lying across his neck.

Our basset hound Fred enjoyed snoozing in the hay with cows.

Out on the farm, we often met a group we called “The Three Amigos” -- inseparable companions meandering along our road: a pinto horse, a sheep and a small dog. Neighbors would feed and water them until their Mexican American owner showed up to fetch them home.

Which brings us back to The Orange Dog’s feat of empathy, something I’ve written about before. After I broke several ribs falling from Mount Nebo and suffered intense pain, Albert transitioned from an outdoor to an indoor cat, spending 90 percent of his time sitting with me, watching Red Sox games and purring. It was quite moving.

After I healed up, he headed back to the hay barn.

The dogs could tell I was hurting, but Pyrenees tend toward stoicism: “OK, so you’re hurting. Try not to whine.”

So it pains me to report that Albert has left us. Here in town, we have a neighbor who feeds cats on her front porch. The Orange Dog has picked up and moved. He comes to visit late at night maybe once a week, eats and runs.

My wife has taken it personally. “I love Albert,” she said plaintively. “I can’t believe he’s done this. I miss him.”

So the other night, Jesse the 14-year-old Pyrenees and I took our nightly constitutional down to Albert’s new hangout. He greeted us exactly as he once did at the hay barn. He and Jesse were always close. He followed us back up the block toward the house.

Then he heard barking, and Albert was gone. A light came on. See, it never occurred to me that a new dog would trouble him. After Maggie died, we’d adopted an energetic young collie/Great Pyrenees mix called Aspen.

Aspen neither herds nor guards. His ruling passion is playing chase. He’s mad for it: a great favorite down at the dog park, sprinting joyously in great circles followed by a half-dozen dogs trying vainly to catch him.

In a pinch, Aspen will be the chaser.

Also in a pinch, alas, it appears that he will chase a cat -- a pastime Albert evidently resents. I wish I knew what to do.