A columnist is hauled hissing and scratching before a panel of his cat-loving readers

I may be in trouble with our cat, and with my wife as well.

My wife has gone to Baja with our older son and his family, and while she's gone, I am supposed to feed both the cat and the dog.

Last night--the first night of her absence--it slipped my mind.

I drove down to Highland Park for a quiet dinner and a glass of wine at All That Chaz, and I came home unmindful of my responsibilities to the lower species.

Today I saw the dog through the kitchen window and fed her a bowl of kibbles, which she ate greedily.

The cat did not show up. She was probably angry with me, and was allowing someone else to feed her.

Meanwhile, I am rebuked by some of my readers for quoting Penny Ward Moser's article in Discover magazine, in which she observes that cats think only about three things: "food, sex and nothing, and if they're neutered, that leaves food."

I thought it was about as perceptive an analysis of the cat's mentality and character as I've heard.

"How can you repeat Penny Ward Moser's stupid assertion?" writes Olga S. Opfell of Torrance. Opfell signs herself "an ailurophile," which means a lover of cats.

"What about their marvelous curiosity?" she asks. "As Eric Gurney says, 'Cats are admirably designed to be curious.' And let me just throw in Sir Walter Scott's observation: 'Cats are a mysterious kind of folk. There is more passing in their minds than we are aware of.' "

I have to admit that I don't know who Eric Gurney is, which probably exposes a great gap in my knowledge. But I certainly know who Sir Walter Scott is, having once brought down the wrath of all the Scots in Southern California by calling him an English poet.

Actually, I didn't know that Scott was a cat man. In the famous statue of him on Princes Street in Edinburgh he has a dog at his feet. There may be two dogs; I'm not sure.

As for his notion that there is more passing in cats' minds than we are aware of, that is simply an occult speculation that yields to no argument or examination. The same thing might be said of women, or of any other species. How do we know what goes on in the minds of frogs? Maybe they dream of being princes.

As for cats being spoiled by their owners in America, Tracy Anton of Brentwood admits that she spoils her two "fluffy white Persians," and encloses a picture that proves it. Two fatter, sleeker, more self-satisfied-looking loafers it would be hard to imagine.

"They eat only their favorite foods," Anton confesses. "I respond to guilt far too well to give them anything they don't like. I'm usually into something frozen or something McDonald's.

" They stay home in an air-conditioned apartment all day to do as they please. I go off to work and battle the world to earn a living. And finally, there is affection on their terms . . . determined by their needs.

"But I can't say that I would have it any other way. When I come up the walk after a tough day, or when I've decided that men aren't worth the aggravation, or when I'm simply too weary to face the world, Alex and Benjamin are there, rubbing my ankle, licking my face, looking at me with love (I think) with those big green eyes, and I am the most content person on Earth."

It's curious that Anton finds solace in her cats when she's had it with men. I wonder if that doesn't explain the peculiar position of favoritism that cats enjoy in almost every household.

Martha Purviance says she started a lively discussion in her office cafe by showing my column to some fellow workers. "For a while there, we were like a clump of village folk gathered around the potbellied stove in a country store." The question was which was smartest--cats, dogs or people?

She says her mother tells her that no man likes cats, but she knows as many men who do as women. She thinks it is considered somehow more manly to like dogs, so men don't admit liking cats, even to themselves.

I don't think it would be any more manly of me to prefer our dog, which is useless and cowardly, than our cat, which at least is wild and independent.

I have just taken a break to feed the cat. I was dismayed to find that the cupboard where my wife keeps the cat food was bare. I had to drive down to the market to buy some cat food. All they had was something called liver and beef--at 66 cents a can. I think my wife has always fed the cat tuna, but I figured, what the heck, if the industry was spending millions on scientific experiments to find out what pussy liked, one kind ought to be as good as another.

I emptied a can of beef and liver into the cat's pan and put it out on top of the patio table, as usual. She showed up instantly. After faking around a bit she jumped up on a chair and then to the table. She approached the pan suspiciously, wrinkling her nose. She wouldn't touch it.

This is the second night that I have failed to feed the cat.

As Freud probably said, "What do cats want?"

For my own dinner, I'm going into something frozen.

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