Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Replaceable

I asked a woman to kill our cat. And for about a hundred bucks, she obliged.

She was, of course, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. The felicide (call it “putting the cat to sleep” or “euthanizing” it if it makes you feel better) took place on a smallish, silver examination table covered by a pink and white patterned blanket. The duration, including the resting of the liquid-filled syringes atop the table; insertion of each (saline, sedative, barbiturate) into the IV; delivery into the vein; placement of the stethoscope against the victim’s chest; listen for the heart’s silence; and the awkward post-mortem IV tape removal (from her foreleg) “to avoid putting plastic into the ground” (when buried) was a mere minutes. The cat was a tortoiseshell that I adopted from the Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation shelter in Oak Harbor for my then 16-year-old daughter, a year after the-best-pet-we’d-ever had, an eleven-year-old tortie named Haley, disappeared from our new house’s fenced yard after being left out unsupervised for too long.


The summer day we adopted Fortune, who my daughter renamed Athena, was during our third trip to the shelter. By then, Alina had repeatedly assured me that she would be fully responsible for the cat’s care. As I completed the paperwork, we spied another mother-daughter duo falling for Fortune, but we weren’t worried. We’d spent several trips doing same with this particular cat and the volunteer had already accepted my check. My biggest fear was that our daughter chose Athena in part because she looked so much like her beloved Haley and would be disappointed that this “replacement cat” would never measure up to the original.

Tortoiseshell cats have unique genetics and personalities. “In cats, one of several genes controlling fur color is located on the X chromosome. The gene has two versions, or alleles. One form of the gene codes for orange fur (XB), and the other form codes for black fur (Xb). While it’s difficult to say which allele is dominant and which is recessive, since only one is ever expressed…let’s say, for the sake of argument, that orange is dominant to black. Ordinarily, this would mean that an animal inheriting one copy of each gene (genotype XBXb) should have orange fur. Surprisingly, a female cat heterozygous at that locus (XBXb) will not be orange. Instead, her coat will be a patchwork of orange and black, a condition known as tortoiseshell. Tortoiseshell and calico cats are female, except in rare instances when a male cat is born with a genetic variant, sometimes with two X and one Y chromosome, which is known as Klinefelter syndrome in humans.

Although our replacement cat (and yes, I actually did sometimes call her that) was different than the original, she was easygoing, low-maintenance and absolutely lovable, so it didn’t take long for us to let go of our urge to compare the two. During the year before we adopted Athena, we had tried and failed to add two other prospective replacements to our pet family: Bella, a Maine Coon that we adopted from the local shelter but failed to bond with, and a calico whose former owners had dumped when they moved away from a nearby neighborhood that scratched and clawed her way out of our hearts in less than a week. When we finally settled on a Athena the tortie, Cat Rambo’s 2014 short story Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable came to mind. Set in the future, it’s about a Seattleite named Antony who buys his mother a pet cloning kit to replace her recently deceased tortoiseshell, Taco Cat. When the replacement arrives, they realize that she’s smaller than the original, and a calico. Her different-than-the-original is initially a disappointment, but when his mom gives the cat a chance, she concludes, “She’s more loving, this time around.” There are bigger cloning-related implications in the story, which I’ll leave to you to find out, but it supports something I’ve learned during the last decade: the grass is rarely greener on the other side, it’s just a different shade of green. This was definitely true about Athena.

Athena was slightly more standoffish than Haley. We never allowed her to go outdoors because our original tortoiseshell had disappeared from our home (of a few months) adjacent the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (where we learned, too late, coyotes sometimes roamed), so we aren’t sure how her hunting skills would’ve compared. She tended to terrorize our two small dogs, disliked being picked up, and only occasionally allowed petting, but with her unique personality, she easily ingratiated herself with the family. Our replacement cat spent time every morning in the infrared sauna with my husband; waited patiently for a few licks of the milk left in his cereal bowl; leaped higher and more skillfully than any cat we’d ever had; climbed ladders; fed herself when we didn’t do so in a timely manner (removing the food bag from the cupboard and tearing it open), and most importantly, hung out with her person–our daughter Alina. During the last month of her life, when she still seemed completely fine (we noticed her likely tongue cancer-related symptoms only during the last few days before her death), she spent time around me, solicited caresses, and even lay on my lap a few times.

After four and a half years with our family, one could conclude that the perfect eulogy for Athena would end with these words:


Rest in peace, Athena. We’ll miss you.


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