Loving Othello by Lonna Enox

I remember a line from a song in THE SOUND OF MUSIC that asks, “What are we going to do about Maria?” When Othello, my “grand kitten”, moved into our house, we asked a variation of that question.

Othello moved in at Thanksgiving, and he charmed us right away. Some might only see a plump black cat. However, closer inspection reveals the shiniest, blackest fur ever, coarse enough to be smooth, but not so coarse as to feel wiry. He has a round face, a large head, a tail that stands straight up, and tiny patches of white hairs under his “arms” and in a triangle on his lower belly. But his most outstanding features are his eyes and his “voice”. I can’t be sure if it is the color of his eyes—sometimes emerald, sometimes celery green—or their shape. They tilt up on the ends, giving him an almost oriental look. For sure, they gleam—not so much with mischief or with the other characteristics which cats seem to embrace. They gleam with “life”. They gleam with “longing”. They gleam with a sort of “hunger” to be recognized. His voice, on the other hand, is not exactly a voice at all. Instead of the normal “meowing” one expects from a tomcat, Othello hums when he talks. If possible, Othello actually speaks with “vibrato”, which sometimes closely resembles a pig’s grunt.

Loving Othello is easy. He is cuddly, and yearns for affection. When I talk, he “hums”. When I work on the computer, he sits on the window ledge beside me, or in the chair behind me, or sometimes in my lap. When I go into the bedroom and close the door, he claws at the carpet, his voice becoming as raucous as is possible for it to become. When I take a bubble bath, he sits on the bathroom vanity and oversees the job, sometimes harmonizing with Kenny G and dipping into the bubbles with an inquisitive paw. If I recline on the couch to read a book or write a letter, he curls up at my feet in a “doughnut”. When I see that yearning look in his eyes, I pick him up and sing to him the special song that Marissa has chosen for him. He closes his eyes, arches his chin upward, and emits a breathy little “hum”—the closest thing to purring he can manage. At that moment, he most closely resembles a cat angel.

Living with Othello isn’t easy. It might be easier if I didn’t have two other cats, Simba and Quarternote. Simba loves Othello, and they are a “matched pair” of opposites. Strange? Simba, with his longer Manx body, his rusty stripes, and his beautiful, soulful face, is Othello’s opposite. Yet they are brothers in a deeper sense than any littermates could be. A large portion of the day is spent with their wrestling—rolling down my hall in a furry black/rusty stripe ball—and chasing each other up and down the stairs. No one is angry; eyes sparkle as they hide behind the bamboo room divider or jump off the kitty condo at each other. When not playing, they sleep…side by side…always touching. Eating time is a contest of “who can get the most food out of the bowl first?” At first I fed them in separate bowls, but as they ate from first one bowl, then the other, I have since saved the dishes. They team up in mischief. Simba is the jumper, so he easily pulled down the Christmas stockings over the fireplace, knocked the star from the treetop, and swats the Lady Bug magnets from the refrigerator into the floor. Othello is the demolition expert. He can open packages, shred plants, and drag trash bags down whole stairwells. Together, they are diabolical. They have learned to roll the water spray bottle—which I use to discourage their mischief by spraying them in the face—to new hiding places. They work together to open cabinet doors, drag washcloths from drawers, and chew holes in the bottom of dry cat food bags. They are truly a matched pair.

But few animals enjoy living with Othello. He came to my house because T.K., Marissa’s elderly Persian, and he argued constantly. T.K. began to lose weight and act in such a dispirited manner that Marissa feared for his health. So did we. So I agreed to keep Othello for awhile. After only a couple of weeks after Othello moved from Marissa’s apartment, T.K. perked up, began to gain weight, and resumed all of his previous activities—bird watching, sleeping on Marissa’s bed, and watching Orphan.

However, Quarternote was unhappy. She hibernated in my bedroom, and with good cause.

When she ventured out, Othello immediately pounced. And he wasn’t just playing—he was fighting her. As he has claws, and she doesn’t, the fight was far from fair. Whenever possible, he sneaked into the bedroom as I entered and immediately charged her; when she hid under the bed, he followed. No amount of water sprayed in his face discouraged him from doing the same thing moments later. Further, Rambo, our small black Pomeranian, no longer enjoyed his life as much. Rambo had been allowed indoors each day for some “loving time”. Since our older dog’s death, this had been especially important for him. However, now he was afraid. When he came indoors, Othello met him with claws. Othello didn’t growl, but he was so aggressive, following Rambo, swatting him over the head, face, back, tail, etc. When he had Rambo cornered in a room, Othello stood guard, sometimes still advancing. He gained satisfaction from the sight of Rambo cowering in the corner. And he was never sorry. No amount of scolding or “time out” in his kitty carrier had any effect. He was always obedient to go to “time out”, but when he emerged, the behavior was never altered for very long.

None of us could bear the thought of giving Othello away—except T.K., Quarternote, and Rambo, who were ready to put an ad in the local paper today. Simba, on the other hand, mourned at the idea of losing his playmate. At the same time, none of us enjoyed the situation among the “fur people”. Perplexed, I found myself watching Othello for an entire weekend. And I made an old—but heretofore ignored—discovery.

Othello, like a naughty child, grows bored. He also craves much more attention than do the other “fur people” in our household. When positive attention is unavailable, Othello opts for negative attention.
He harasses Quarternote until he hears my feet on the floor, heading toward him. Then, unrepentant, he
races out, his eyes sparkling. When Rambo comes indoors, I baby talk to him and pet him. Othello then
pounces on Rambo the moment I am distracted.

Noting the problem is only half of the solution. Othello cannot demand all of my attention every day. He is the member of a household. Still, I decided to try positive reinforcement and gentle discipline.
I reserved time each day to play “feathers” with him—his favorite sport. It only took a few days for his inward clock to prepare for that time. I also gave him a treat when he was nice to Rambo, and not when he was naughty.

The “time out” is still used on occasion, along with a severe tone of voice. Then, when he emerges, he is loved lightly but not given great attention. The other animals, on the other hand, are not allowed to play “victim” for Othello. Bullies have to be faced on one’s own. I could not reward them for their
cowardly behavior either. When they no longer cower, Othello does not find the “bullying” nearly so fun.
As he grows more secure in our love, Othello becomes less aggressive. Patience—and love—usually win out every time.

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