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Sepia Cat (2004-2021)

Today is National Pet Day. Well, actually, if you are fortunate enough to have a pet, every day is National Pet Day! Even if pets are sometimes messy or obstreperous, I have gotten more joy from my animal friends then from all of the status-seeking human pursuits, endeavors, pastimes, and professions combined (and that includes the things that I love like art and literature, not just the pointless busy work of finance or real estate which are designed for no other purpose than making other people rich). Anyway, suffice to say that pets are the people we love without all of the infuriating dominance/hierarchy games of other humans (although pack/herd animals like dogs and horses understand hierarchical relationships very well indeed and will readily participate in such hijinks if you let them). There is only truly bad part of life with pets, but it is exraordinarily bad: they are mortal and, unless you have a pet ocean quahog, their lifespans are much shorter than ours.

This is a long way of saying that my beloved feline best friend Sepia died last March (2021). I did not write about her then because I was sad and depressed. I was going to properly memorialize her in the year-end obituaries column, but Grandpa’s obituary took all of my bandwidth. Sepia was a very private cat, so I did not blog about her during her life, but I miss her terribly and it does not strike me as fair that she has no obituary. Plus as time passes, I am forgetting all of her adorable tricks and amazing traits and she was so beautiful and so loving that I have to try to hold onto those moments, even if they are slipping away already.

I love pets with all of my heart, but back in my twenties when I was starting my adult life I did not want my own pet because my living circumstances were so cramped and chaotic (with roommates and 4th floor flats and 24 hour days out and suchlike). However, even if a pet could not find their way into my apartment back then, the mice did. They showed up to the old bachelor digs with endless voracity and started multiplying. At first I thought I could stop them by cleaning house and putting all dried goods in tight containers, but the mice scoffed at such efforts and my roommates thought I was trying to dominate the space with rules. So I bought a live trap and trapped some of the rodents…but I think they ran up the walls back up into the apartment before I could even get back up the stairs. Then I got snap traps and killed off some of the littlest and most naive mice by means of sinister guile and human mechanical contrivance–but by winnowing the population I only pushed the remaining mice to become smarter and craftier. At night I could hear them scampering around snickering, and maybe even reading my books (or at least nibbling on them). It was intolerable, and the only solutions left were glue traps (and if you have ever seen a mouse pulling off his own feet and dying of dehydration in one of those, perhaps you will concur that they are unacceptable) or a cat. A friend of mine in Manhattan wanted a single male cat for her apartment, but the rescue organization would not give her only one rescue cat, so I agreed to take the spare female rescue cat.

Thus, after a long day of grueling busy work, my friend passed off a cardboard carton with holes in it to me when I headed home. My grandfather got too into cats as he entered his dotage, and so I told the carton that I would take care of it, but it would be a strictly professional relationship–like a lord with his hired mercenaries. I was thinking I had a professional assassin a box, but it would not be like with Pawsie cat or Lily Cat (beloved cats from youth whose early exit left big holes in my heart). Then I got home and opened the box and Sepia Cat popped out. She was about 9 or 10 months old with big ears and huge green anime eyes. She had all of the beauty of an adult cat, but with most of the playful winsomeness of a kitten too. Actually, her rescue name was “Sally” but I rechristened her because her tabby stripes, white bib, and long, swift grabber paws reminded me of the Mediterranean cuttlefish which artists have used for ink since time immemorial. She looked at me and said “purrr” and jumped up in my lap and I said “Whose got beautiful whiskers?” and all talk of mercenaries and hirelings was forgotten forevermore. I loved Sepia with my whole heart as soon as I saw her. Oh, and also she committed terrible war crimes against the mice. We found one of two which had all of their bones broken into splinters (she liked to hurl them against the wall again and again and again) and after that the mice wrote “a dark entity of dwells here: do not enter!” in their hobo script and we never saw them again.

Despite her prowess as a hunter, Sepia was perfectly happy living in the apartment with bachelors. She did not mind the strange hours, or even care unduly if her kitty cat dinner was not on time. Her feline curiosity only got her in trouble twice, once when she accidentally slipped into my roommate’s closet (we were all running around the apartment shouting her name when we started hearing muffled meows from the behind the closed doors) and once when she got out of the apartment entirely. That time I discovered her down on the second floor hiding in an alcove with desperate panic in her eyes and she literally jumped up into my arms.

Sepia moved with me as I moved from place to place in Park Slope and finally out to Flatbush. She has some roommate cats whom she hated (Simba) and some roommate cats whom she loved (Luster and Sumi). Her favorite foods were turkey and any sort of cheese. In fact, she almost knocked over a bookcase once trying to get some blue cheese which I thought I had hidden from her by placing up on the very top shelf, but not on the top.

When Sepia was young she had a North African desert cat’s preternatural agility and she could jump up on top of the kitchen cabinets from a flat-footed start. She enjoyed cat toys made of real rabbit fur, but her favorite game was “boxy cat” where she would shadow box with the shadow of my paintbrush. Speaking of painting, our most disastrous incident was when she unexpectedly jumped up onto my palette, which I was holding on my lap and which was covered in toxic oil paints. Because of the dangerous pigments she had to have a bath and she shrank from her normal elegant self (Sepia normally looked like a street tabby crossed with Lady Aster’s Somalian cat) into a sad little wet gollum-type creature. After the palette incident, she was much more circumspect about leaping!

Even when she was an older cat she could move with shocking speed and dexterity (yet also with silent ballet-like grace). Only once the cancer got into her head did she start to truly slow down.

Sepia’s true favorite thing was to curl up on my legs or next to me when I was reading science fiction space operas or epic literature. We would read for hours and hours and hours lying together as she purred softly. Sometimes I would just stare into her gorgeous green eyes as she blinked slowly. Oh also she enjoyed being combed! But only her stripey bits, she would only uncurl her white ruff and belly if she was very relaxed.

Sepia was always hungry (a legacy from her mysterious street era, when she was a stray kitten), but when she was about 16 she got ravenously hungry and would eat can after can of food (if allowed), but then throw it all up. The vet thought it might be a thyroid disorder, but poor Sepia became more and more desperately hungry and her poor face started to distort and ooze. I tried palliate her cancer with prednisolone, which worked for a little while but then started hurting her. On her last day, she woke up in bed with me with a look of absolute suffering on her face and with no interests in drinking or eating or anything. I took her to the vet and held her while she died and now I have her ashes in a little plastic funerary box with a silly label which I am meant to fill out (though I never have).

I suppose these details strike you as banal or perhaps as approximately familiar to all cats, yet thinking of them has me wiping away tears. She was so beautiful and she was a great hunter, a great athlete, and great at hiding (it took me so long to find her secure undisclosed location) but Sepia’s greatest strength was her sweet heart. I can still almost feel her curled in my lap as I type away at the computer…but that is not Sepia, it is Sumi Cat, Sepia’s little black sister (by adoption). Sumi is sitting my lap bathing her ears with her paws as I write this, and now she is looking at me curiously as emotionally I hug her and kiss the top of her head.

“Pet Day” hardly explains that our animal friends are one of the few transcendent things in life. Neither does this incomplete essay about my best friend during all of those years. Undoubtedly if someone asks me about the period between 2004 and 2021 I will talk about art, or the great recession, or urbanism, or Trumpism or something. But I should talk about a little white bib and moustache and big green eyes. That was the best part.

Australian Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) by Richard Ling

The Australian giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is the world’s largest cuttlefish.  Specimens can measure up to 50 centimeters in length and weigh up to 10 kilograms (23 pounds).  Like other cuttlefish, the giant cuttlefish are masters of color transformation and can use the chromatophores (special transformative muscle cells) in their skin to instantly change the hue, reflectivity, polarization, and even the shape of their skin. They use this ability for hunting, hiding from predators, and for spectacular mating displays.  Indeed, the giant cuttlefish is a remarkable animal in many ways, but, above all, it is notable for its operatic sex life!

Australian Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

Sepia apama ranges in all coastal habitats from Brisbane on the Pacific to Shark Bay on the Indian Ocean (effectively the entire southern coast of the continent).  Thanks to jet propelled speed, color-transforming ability, sharp eyesight, high intelligence, and lightning fast grab jaws (which are located on two extendable arms), these cuttlefish are terrifyingly effective hunters of fish and crustaceans.  Australian giant cuttlefish from different regions of the coast do not interbreed, even though they are genetically the same species.  Like humans, the giant cuttlefish seem to form different sorts of societies with different mating customs:  for example the giant cuttlefish of the Spenser Gulf region are unique (apparently among all cuttlefish) in that they join together for a spawning aggregation in the waters immediately around Point Lowly.

Unlike humans, there are eleven male cuttlefish for every single female giant cuttlefish!  Large dominant male cuttlefish carve out territories with aggressive posturing and insanely bright flashing color displays.  Smaller males (who do not wish to be ripped apart), distract the alpha male cuttlefish by adapting the color schemes of female cuttlefish and courting him.  They then abruptly change color and pay (rapid) court to the polyandrous females. The female stores sperm packets from several males and she chooses the paternity of her offspring only after she lays her eggs.  Cuttlefish are semelparous—they mate only once, and then they immediately die. The whole beautiful horrifying op-art orgy in the waters around Point Lowly is of paramount importance—and is also reckoned to be one of the unrivaled diving spectacles of the world.

Unfortunately all of the Spenser Gulf cuttlefish tend to be in one place at once.  Since they only reproduce one time, they are very vulnerable to fisherman, who, up until the mid nineties, descended upon the area, captured most of the cuttlefish, and chopped them into bate for snappers.  When one cohort was removed, the next was seriously attenuated!

Fortunately the spawning waters of Spenser Gulf are now a protected refuge, yet hydrological changes, agricultural run-off, and industrial development could still threaten the entire population.  Perhaps the other Australian Giant Cuttlefish (who conduct their romantic affairs in a more disparate manner) are on to something.

Common cuttlefish - Sepia officinalis (photo by David Nicholson)

When I was a child, my family went to the invertebrate house in Washington, DC.  Upon entering the building, there was a very beautiful aquarium which contained the most alien creature I have ever encountered.  It was a beautiful glistening red…and then it instantly changed color to bright white with pale dun spots.  Next the strange being sank through the water column and changed color and texture. Its smooth skin knotted up into ropey bumps.  The speckled white tuned to wavy deep brown lines.  Intelligent eyes with W-shaped pupils regarded me from what suddenly seemed to be a hunk of rock. I had encountered my first live cuttlefish.  In fact there were two in the tank, as I discovered when a patch of unremarkable sand changed shape and color and jetted to the surface while flashing rainbow colors.  They were worked up because they were about to be fed and, when eating their suppers, the cuttlefish put on a particularly good show.  They changed color like digital screens and waved their eight arms about and then ZAP!  elongated feeding tentacles shot out from under their mantles to grab the anchovies from across the length of the tank. Then they rocketed around with uncanny torpedo speed.

Cuttlefish by Doug Deep

Cuttlefish are cephalopods like octopuses, argonauts, squid, and nautiluses.  Across the long ages they have descended from those magnificent nautiloids and othocones who ruled the world during the Ordovician era.  Cuttlefish are one of the most intelligent invertebrates: their brains make up a substantial portion of their body mass, and their behavior when hunting, hiding, and courting is complex. The unusually shaped eyes of the cuttlefish are among the finest in the animal kingdom.  Their blood makes use of copper rather than iron to fix oxygen so it runs green.  All cuttlefish possess poisons in their saliva.  In fact the Pfeffer’s Flamboyant Cuttlefish is as toxic as the Blue-ringed octopus.

Camoflaged Cuttlefish

But why am I talking about these extraordinary mollusks during a week devoted to blogging about color? First of all cuttlefish are “the chameleons of the sea.” As I observed at the zoo, they can change color with a speed and facility unrivaled by any other creature. They use their mastery of color to camouflage themselves, to hunt, and to communicate with each other.  The animal’s existence literally hinges around the color-changing chromatophores in their skin. But the association of cuttlefish and color doesn’t stop there. Cuttlefish produce a dense ink which they squirt into the ocean to disguise their movements when frightened. This sepia ink, collected from the ink-sacks of common cuttlefish destined for the table, was prized for writing and for drawing during the classical era.  Many of the great histories and literary masterpieces of Greco-Roman thought were first penned in sepia ink. Although other inks took the place of sepia for writing, it maintained its place in the artist’s studio up until the late nineteenth century when it was supplanted by synthetic pigments.

sketches for "The Last Supper" (Leonardo da Vinci, 1495, sepia ink on paper)

This means that many of the masterpieces of draftsmanship were also created with sepia ink.  A particularly effective and pleasing style was to sketch something in watered down sepia washes and finish the details with black india ink. Like chartreuse, magenta, and vermilion, the name sepia itself has become synonymous with a color.  This reddish brown is famous in old masters pen-and-ink drawings, antique photos, and memory-hazed movie flashbacks.  Not only has this ink provided some of the most beautiful drawings in history, recent studies have shown that cephalopod ink is toxic to certain cells—particularly tumor cells, so we may not have written the last concerning sepia ink.

Giant Grave by the Sea (Caspar David Friedrich, 1806-1807, sepia wash and graphite on paper)

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