Sep 16, 2020

Why Isn’t My Cat a Service Animal?

He provides valuable support, like preventing my sleeping in

By Ed Goldman

Do I qualify as my cat’s service animal? I ask because these days, whenever I head “down-state” (from Northern to Southern California), I get a little uncertain about leaving behind my 18-year-old cat, Osborn the Magnificent. 

For the past couple of years, Osborn’s had a wonderful caregiver—musician and pet whisperer Laura Sterner. She comes by a couple of times a day to feed him, clean up after him and, probably discuss a few of the day’s issues. While Osborn’s tendency is to dominate conversations (usually saying the same thing over and over, to be candid about it) Laura holds her own with anecdotes from her dual careers in science and performing. (You can hear one of her latest recordings here.)

I worry that Osborn may not be as emotionally okay with my being gone as he was when he was younger. Physically, he’s shown fewer signs of aging than I have, even though his 18 cat years are the equivalent of 88 human ones. He’s one of those cats that come when called, which I’m told is pretty rare; conversely, when someone’s visiting and I call Osborn but he doesn’t come, the visitor will suddenly become an animal expert and say something like, “At his age, he’s probably going deaf.” 

Nope. At his age, just like at any age, he’s a cat. 

Osborn prepares for service.

Laura prepares for Osborn.

He picks and chooses not only whether he’ll answer but also how rapidly. Remember, in cat years he’s 18—and, as such, he responds just like many boys and girls at that age when addressed by someone in a supposed position of authority, like a parent or a pet owner. At least he doesn’t snark out, “Wha’?” and leave his mouth dangling open, as some teenaged humans are wont to do.

Since he was born on Bastille Day, I’ve wondered if it could be that his behavior is similar to that of a French male. In fact, I can just about picture Osborn with a Galois cigarette dangling from his mouth as he says, “Oh, did you wish something of moi? Je suis occupé pour le moment.” (Which means either “I’m busy at the moment” or “I would enjoy polishing your doorknobs.” I haven’t been to France for a few years.)

So here are my choices: 

  1. Do I put Osborn in his carrying case and take him on the plane with me for a 60-minute flight, not knowing how the cabin pressure will affect him nor which one of us, if either, the flight attendant will decide is the service animal.
  2. Do I man up and strap Osborn’s carrying case (containing him, of course) into my car’s back seat and make the eight-hour drive to Southern California—a drive I’ve done (and nearly always detested) perhaps two dozen times since moving here 44 years ago? 

Back then, there was at least the brief respite of stopping off for a meal at Pea Soup Anderson in Los Banos (in English: “The Bathrooms”). Farther down Interstate-5, you came to Harris Ranch in Coalinga, where you could smell and sample your meal-to-be as you drove past acres upon acres of hardworking, methane-producing bovines. 

If I got weary, I could even stop at a motel in, say, Taft, a small town about 40 minutes from the under-appreciated city of Bakersfield, which used to call itself Nashville West though not very loudly. 

But these days it’s a toss-up whether eateries and sleeperies are open at all, how safe they are and whether they allow cats, even if masked? So I thought about taking Osborn with me on Amtrak or Greyhound. Amtrak doesn’t make it easy. Greyhound doesn’t make it possible.

Amtrak’s website says: “Small pets like dogs and cats can travel with you on the train for free, as long as they don’t annoy other passengers, or put them in danger. … They’re for paying passengers only.”

I’m not sure what that “paying customers only” means. Does someone think I’m going to buy Osborn a seat on the train and see him off at the station, in which instance he’d still be a paying customer? He’d sort of be traveling on a junket, the kind councilpersons from, say, the city of Bell, are treated to when they tour Scandinavian fjords to study “comparable” conditions in their California town. (The mayor’s official report after the tour: “We have now satisfied ourselves that, despite our pre-travel assumptions, no real comparison can be established between Norway and Bell. We are, however, declaring but keeping the gifts of frozen lefse we received”.)

Greyhound is even stricter: “Greyhound is strict about the animals it allows on its buses. With the exception of certified service dogs, animals of any species are not permitted on any Greyhound bus, either in the cabin with the passengers or below the bus in the storage compartments.”

Hey, tap the brakes a moment here, Greyhound. A cat doesn’t qualify as a service animal? Do you know how many times Osborn has saved me from sleeping in by yowling and climbing all over me at 3:45 a.m.? Or reminded me that it was now 6 p.m., and time for me to not only feed him but, more to the point, to enjoy a relaxing Vodka martini after a long day’s work, especially if I’m immersed in a Zoom meeting at the time? Is getting someone out of a Zoom meeting not a service? I think I’d better call Laura. I’ll ask Osborn for the number.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).