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Go the @&*# to sleep, Charlie

Moving can be a traumatic time for animals
At last, Charlie lay the heck down and slept (photo: john zipperer)

Tired parents across the country have read or heard about Adam Mansbach’s indelicately titled Go the F*ck to Sleep, a storybook for parents at their most stressful time: children’s bedtime. My household includes no children, but it does include two cats, neither of whom generally finds it difficult to get to sleep.

Then we moved, and one of our cats was so unnerved by the change that it seemed as if he would never go to sleep.

I agreed to move into our new home a couple nights before the moving truck would get there with all of our stuff so I could get the cats acclimated to their new surroundings. Ashes, our younger tuxedo cat, took to her new digs immediately, relishing the extra space and the great big floor-to-ceiling windows for bird-watching. She quickly took to running around and examining everything. Charlie was another story, however.

Charlie is a 14-year-old Maine Coon, a gorgeous medium-longhaired feline with a rap sheet. We adopted him eight years ago from the San Francisco SPCA, where he had been adopted and returned by two previous owners. The third person who tried to adopt him changed her mind after he bit her. He was what the SPCA labeled a “Level 4,” meaning he couldn’t be around children, he got easily “over stimulated” if you pet him, and he was prone to biting or scratching — not out of anger but simply as an automatic reaction. He didn’t like being picked up and, no, he doesn’t want to sit on your lap.

And yet, he loves to be around people. He’ll follow me around like a puppy dog all day long when I’m at home. He is very smart and has an outsized personality for his little cat body that made him a favorite of the people working at the SPCA during his yearlong tenure there. Playful and sweet (usually), he just needed a household that could put up with his peculiarities. He found that in our home.

When we changed homes, however, it unnerved him.

The first night, I honestly don’t know if he slept at all. I woke up frequently throughout the night (I was just sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor), and every time, Charlie was walking around, usually along the walls of the bedroom, and he was purring.

Cats don’t just purr when they’re happy; they also do it when they need to comfort themselves. As Scientific American noted in January 2003, cats purr when under stress, and there is even reason to think it might play a role in self-healing from injuries or overwork. I’ve seen it myself over the years with several cats; it seems like they’re saying to themselves, “I’m fine, I’m OK, I’m fine …”

Trying to comfort Charlie only worked as long as he was being actively comforted. I had hopes that if I petted him and talked calmly to him, he would stay settled after I stopped. But as soon as I stopped, he would stand up and resume his walk around the room. Shouldn’t he realize that I was there with him, that he was with a friend, that he could curl up next to me and risk closing his eyes?

I tried keeping the bedroom door shut, I tried keeping it open. Neither mattered to Charlie. He wasn’t going to sleep. I stayed up late reading, hoping the light and my wakefulness would comfort him; but he didn’t sleep. I played nice classical music – which he usually loves – through my smartphone, but Charlie was deaf to its soothing effect. I tried taking him for a tour of our new home, so he could see that nothing threatening was in any of the other rooms, but no luck.

There were plenty of times those first two nights when I thought, “Just go to sleep, you stupid cat; nothing here is going to hurt you.” But I came to realize that Charlie had the more intelligent reaction of our two cats.

Ashes was running around a completely unknown house without fear. If something had been there that could have hurt her, she would have run at it full-tilt before she even realized what it was. Charlie, on the other hand, was smart enough to know that there could be dangers anywhere — other animals, strange people, loud noises, who-knows-what. The fact that he turned out to be incorrect about the actual existence of those threats doesn’t mean he was wrong to be aware that they could be there.

Perhaps it was a wariness he developed during his time living on the street before being picked up by the SPCA. Or perhaps the more intelligent one is — even as a cat — the more one is aware of all the possibilities, good and bad.

Of course, he finally got more comfortable or exhaustion just crept up on him. In the middle of our second night in our new home, I heard silence and didn’t see Charlie pacing anywhere around the room. I looked over and saw him sprawled out on the floor,
sleeping at last.

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