A stray tomcat saves the life of a heroin addict and becomes a celebrity. Strange but true, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
Recently, on ITV's This Morning show, people were mesmerised watching Eamonn Holmes interview the UK's latest celebrity -- Bob, the ginger tomcat who is the subject of a runaway book success which has seen A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen reach the Top 10 Hardback Best Sellers. Bob the Cat is the biggest celebrity to have hit the screens since Susan Boyle, and he doesn't even sing!
James Bowen was a heroin addict busking on the streets of London, living from hand to mouth in support housing. One evening in 2007 he found Bob in his hallway looking sick and miserable. Bob had been attacked by a fox and had a big abscess on the back of his leg. James took him to the RSPCA, where he bought antibiotics out of his meagre income, and he subsequently nursed Bob back to health. After two weeks of nurturing and minding Bob, there was no getting rid of him. Bob followed James everywhere, on the bus, on the tube, and so, with the streets and traffic being dangerous, James bought him a harness and the two settled down together into a daily routine.
James credits Bob with his rehabilitation and giving him a focus and reason for living. Bob sits on James's shoulders when he doesn't want to walk, and tells Bob when he wants to go to the toilet; the pair have become a familiar sight in London. Bob sits calmly on James's bag to guard it when James is busking and doesn't move, and is going nowhere without James. Now they are celebrities and no doubt we can expect Steven Spielberg to step in!
Eamonn Holmes looked gobsmacked watching the pair interact as they sat on the sofa, for Bob just thinks he is human -- nothing fazes him. When James speaks, Bob gazes at him, or gets up on his hind legs. But the star turn was when James gave Bob a biscuit, and put up his hand to do a high five: to everybody's jaw-dropping surprise Bob high-fived him back.
"Can you do that again?" asked Eamonn Holmes. No problem -- High Five Bob!
Cork-born vet Clare Meade knows all about the wonders and skills of cats. She opened the Cat Hospital in Glanmire, Cork, in 2009, which has attracted cat lovers from all over the country. It certainly didn't feel like any veterinary practice I had ever been in, much more a like a beauty salon with its soft Zen-like colours and lights, pictures and aromas, which are relaxing for moggies and owners.
"You will be very happy here," Clare laughed on hearing that I had Siamese cats, Bobby Dazzler and Bruno.
"Our colour scheme is derived from Siamese cats. I heard about cat hospitals in 1996-97 when they started opening in America and the UK. Ireland wasn't ready for one at that point, so I ran a veterinary hospital in Dublin for eight years when I was a very young woman. I sold that hospital in 2006 and came back to Cork and bought this house, which had a gate lodge which was the perfect site for the new venture. I had noticed, to be fair to the little cats in Dublin in the mixed small animal practices, that they struggled a lot with hospitalisation. It was difficult for them. You do your very best to keep them comfortable, but being in the same environment as a dog doesn't really work for a cat.
"That said, you have cats who have a great relationship with dogs at home, but those dogs are familiar to them. An unfamiliar dog really leads to quite a stressed cat, and that's not a good environment to be in when you are trying to recover from an illness. So I was just delighted when this little place was suitable for building my cat hospital. A little cottage industry, as it were."
Clare actually grew up in this house -- she bought it from her parents when they were selling -- and moved back with her husband and children. It was a really exciting project for Clare to work on. Her husband did all the branding and choosing of the colours.
"I have always wanted to be a vet, probably since I was about four years old, even before I really knew what a vet was. It was a ridiculous obsession which came from nowhere, as my dad was in the bank and my mum was a teacher, but nothing was going to stop me working with animals. All the way through I loved cats.
"Cat medicine and cat veterinary is a rapidly expanding area -- so it is really, really interesting and dynamic. Cats are becoming the most popular pet in the world. They are outstripping dogs in almost every western civilisation."
What about all those people I meet who don't like cats, I asked.
"I know, and Irish people would not be famous cat lovers, but in America, Germany, and Spain, cats now outstrip dogs -- indeed, 70 per cent of the small animals in Germany are cats."
Is it that people are realising their intelligence and attributes, or is it that they are a small animal they can keep more easily as a pet?
"I think it's a combination of all things. Lifestyle would be a big factor in dog ownership, and unfortunately society is becoming intolerant of dogs and dog behaviour -- dog barking, soiling, all of those kind of things. Cats are considered an easier pet to take on. That said, any cat owner would know that a cat is a major commitment. That's the beauty for me in cats: the more you give, the more you get, it's absolutely incredible."
Clare says that the throwaway comment people make that 'cats are selfish and self motivated' is belied by what they see over and over again.
"We had a cat here recently for three full weeks without seeing its owner, who lived in another part of the country. This was a domestic cat that just wandered into her garden. He was very sick, but after three weeks when she came to pick him up, that reunion was like something from a music video; they were just besotted with each other. He hadn't seen her for weeks; it wasn't about food, it wasn't about resources, it was about the connection with the owner. They sat here and literally hugged for half an hour before they could get over it. People say cats don't do that, but they do. We provided the cat with everything he needed physically, but the extra dimension was there with the owner. It is amazing."
Clare didn't want the hospital to be clinical.
"All animals suffer from the 'white coat' syndrome, where once they see the white coat and smell the smell of the vet they start to get anxious, and we want to do everything we can for cats to minimise that, to fool them into thinking they are not in the vet's at all, and it works."
The cat hospital pens are carefully designed on two levels -- actually a bit like a doll's house with four rooms. The lower room they sleep in, with access next door to their litter tray. They can then go upstairs into the top area. Most importantly their toilets are separate, because nothing would upset them more than having to sit next to their own toilet, so they designed them to keep everything separate.
"Our drip lines are specially ordered at two metres so they can still move around. A lot of psychology goes into all of this -- the pens are 20cm off the ground, for cats don't like to be on floor level -- they like to look down on the rest of us from a height!
Clare has some really good advice for cat owners.
"One of the things about cats is that they are obligate carnivores, they must eat a meat-based diet, so it can be a commercial diet but they are all about protein so it is important to get that across for cat owners. Another thing is that if you think your cat is sick, they are probably quite sick, because they are masters of disguise. They disguise their sickness and their symptoms. They would rather just sit quietly and not eat than make it very obvious that they are sick, so it is really important for cat owners and cat lovers to be really vigilant about those kinds of things .
"Unfortunately, by the time the cat gets to the vet they are often far sicker than the dog, because the dog comes in and it's a great big explosion in one direction or another -- they make it really obvious. Cats are really good at hiding that, so we always tell cat owners, if you think your cat is sick, it is quite sick, because if it's only a little bit sick you won't know at all."
If, unlike Bob, your cat does not give you a high five, don't be disappointed, he probably loves you very much for, as Clare says, like the Scarlet Pimpernel "cats are masters of disguise".
The Cat Hospital, Barnavara Hill, Glanmire, Co Cork. Tel: (021) 482-4601; www.thecathospital.ie