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Outliving Our Pets: A Tribute To Pilar

Barbara J. King

Poppy, the world's oldest known cat, died earlier this month in England at the age of 24.

Near San Francisco, a homeless woman named Roza Katovitch and a cat named Miss Tuxedo met in a cemetery and bonded with each other, changing both of their lives for the better.

And last month, coverage of Tara, the California cat who saved a toddler from a dog attack, went viral and earned her an invitation to throw out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game.

Mostly, though, our pets — not only cats, but also dogs, rabbits, birds, snakes and more — don't make the headlines. They live beside us day by day, accompanying us in ways that are unremarkable in terms of headline news, but nonetheless remarkable in terms of their enduring positive impact on our lives.

My cat Pilar had that impact on me. I have loved all of the rescued cats my husband and I have cared for over the years. But once in a while a special connection materializes. Near to Christmas 1998, a tiny black kitten showed up in the parking lot of our small-town post office, planting herself by my husband's jeep. Once we discovered — to the best of our ability — that she didn't already have a home, she become part of ours.

I named her Pilar, after a small town in New Mexico. She learned her new name quickly and came when I called (when she was in the mood). We worked out gestures — Pilar using her whole feline body and I using my primate hands — to coordinate an invitation for her to jump (when she was in the mood) on my lap.

Pilar was her own individual self, different in personality and preferences to our other cats. She loved to play with pens and feared only hairbrushes. (We wondered, had she been hurt with a hairbrush and then abandoned at the post office?) Food was another primary force in her life, to the extent that she would steal whole pieces of pizza or broccoli from the kitchen and rush off with them.

On days when I read and wrote in my study, Pilar stayed by my side. In the cat hierarchy of our house, she was low-status, easily sent scurrying by a hiss from our big alpha cat. But back in my study, where only she was allowed, Pilar ruled.

During the last three seasons — summer 2013 through winter 2014 — when I was struggling with the side effects of chemotherapy, Pilar knew something was wrong and acted accordingly. Jumping up next to me where I installed myself in our den on a bright red couch (even if I didn't offer the invitation gesture), she looked closely at my face and stationed herself beside me, again and again. On Christmas Day 2013, when I was too depleted to join my family's celebration at a nearby relative's house, Pilar was comforting company as I read and waited to welcome back my husband and daughter.

I had 15 years with Pilar. They came to an end on Monday when, after months of illness, diminished appetite, loss of weight and loss of zest (plus veterinarian visits, diagnostic tests and new medications tried one after the other), we let Pilar go. Staying with her, ensuring that the last thing she saw and heard were the two people who loved her most, we asked our veterinarian to ease her way with a gentle death. It was time.

Just before Pilar died, I had reread the novel Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. Many of you probably know this book, published in 1993. A physicist, Lightman meditates in a series of short, beautiful chapters on time and how people experience it in different fictional worlds. Time flows backwards in one world, splits into three universes at every moment of decision in another world and is locally variable in a third world, such that an activity that takes 10 minutes in Berne might take an hour in Zurich.

On Monday, I wished for a while that I lived in the time-flowing-backward world. Soon enough, it would be December 1998 again. I would be a newly tenured professor again, our daughter would be just starting Montessori school again and Pilar would have her whole life ahead of her.

But then I remembered a passage in Lightman's chapter about the "catchers," people who trap nightingales because in their world, nightingales are time:

"The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life."

In our world, time moves forward inexorably. With our cherished pets, we know it will almost always be we who outlive them.

Time with them is precious and then, one day, it is time to say goodbye.

And if we are lucky, as I am lucky, we are filled then not only with sorrow but also with love and with happiness for having shared time with a remarkable animal.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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