Columnist Laura Briggs: Remembering Sophie, who used up her nine lives

  • Sophie, who died at 14 on March 22, is shown in January with her last great love, Toby, a red heeler mix.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Sophie the cat passed peacefully March 22. She leaves behind three humans — Laura Briggs, Jennifer L. Nye and Jackson Briggs-Nye — and an uncounted number of half-siblings and full siblings from the feral colony where she was born.

Her mother, Mama Kitty, her aunt, Aunt Kitty, and father, Grey Kitty, predeceased her. They were well known in the Armory Park neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona, where they lived for a decade, cared for by neighbor Jane Barrett, before succumbing to coyotes.

Sophie was born in the winter of 2004, the first of many litters that Jennifer and Laura captured and gave to everyone they knew (for awhile their private joke was, “Become a women’s studies major, get a kitten.”) Sophie’s brother, Milo, was the first to be captured — a little bolder and more curious — lured out with a string from under the porch where they lived. Good friends Nancy Robinett and Jen McGuire moved Milo to Washington and then to Minnesota, where he lives still.

At first, just after coming to live with Briggs and Nye, Sophie sat in a window and called to her mother, who braved the humans’ porch to be with her. Indeed, Mama Kitty eventually came there every day to eat, and learned to bang on the door when the humans were too slow with the food.

For her second eight weeks of life, Sophie and her mother meowed to each other through the window, grieving their separation. It was during this period that Laura Briggs’s second book, “Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption,” on how birth mothers lose their children to adoption, really took shape.

Not long after her capture, Sophie was nearly lost to a viral illness. During that period, her humans took her to the vet a lot, jammed pills in her, washed her butt in the sink, and in one particularly heartless event, put the whole smelly kitten in the shower.

Sophie eventually learned to tolerate their unkind behavior, but not surprisingly, she gave her heart to a dog, Rafael, who cuddled, cleaned, and sheltered her. Throughout her long life, many speculated that Sophie in fact thought she was a dog, often preferring to eat dog food from a dog bowl to cat food. Rafi, a 60-pound pit bull mix, was utterly smitten with her and would lie near the bowl patiently waiting until she was done eating his food (as did Luna, the coyote-Chow mix, but not really because she liked Sophie; it was more that Luna was often afraid of her own shadow and the cat intimidated her a little).

When she was 3, Sophie tragically was the victim of a vicious act of feline aggression. While visiting the feral colony where she was born (which she did often, after being allowed out again after the eight-week taming period), she was savagely bitten by Grey Kitty. During her recuperation, we learned that she had been infected by FeLV and FIV, the infections that ultimately killed her.

Sophie made full use of her nine lives. One day in Tucson, Briggs returned home to the news from neighbors that Sophie had died. A construction crew working on the road had found her, they said. Briggs made inquiries and found someone who showed her where he had buried a tortoise-shell cat. Thinking the better of an initial impulse to dig her up and see, Briggs told Nye, and they, grieving, were discussing a small marker in the meridian when Sophie turned up, asking for dinner.

She outlived by more than a decade her predicted demise from FeLV or FIV, primarily by bulking up. She was a famously round cat, over 15 pounds in her prime. She had the last laugh over those who criticized her size, as all agreed that she got her last six months of life by being big because she survived for a long time while eating little or nothing. Briggs finally acknowledged that her final act of cat-cruelty, taking Sophie off free-feeding beginning in her 13th year, had been a terrible mistake.

Many attributed Sophie’s clumsiness and inability to jump to her size, but those who knew her mother and aunt did not make that mistake. All of Sophie’s people were incapable of walking across the top of a fence without falling off, and in fact were tortured by pigeons who ate the food Jane Barrett left out for the colony, who they weren’t fast enough to catch.

Sophie dealt with her inherited abilities gamely. She used all of her claws to climb paw over paw up the bed covers to share the humans’ bed on cold nights. If that event drew blood, it was not actually her problem.

The last great love of Sophie’s life was another dog, Toby (as in Ziegler), a solidly built 65-pound red heeler mix. Especially after they moved to a cold climate and turned the heat low to make the cats suffer, Sophie spent many hours curled up with Toby on the dog bed, and taught him the proper way to groom a cat with his tongue, and she returned the favor, sometimes stepping on him if he moved too much while being cleaned. When she didn’t wish his company on the dog bed, it was understood by all that Toby was to go lie on the floor, which he did.

Sophie was a tortoise-shell cat (Nye affectionately called her a “bag of leaves cat”) and like many with her markings, she was a loud talker and a bit of a character. She was memorialized in Briggs’ most recent book in the acknowledgements: “Sophie cared not one whit about this book or my labors, feeling that such things were not the affair of cats.”

Sophie was gloriously and thoroughly disdainful of anything that didn’t involve either dogs or food. Yet, as many remarked on her passing, “She was a good cat.”

She never deliberately caused suffering in anyone. Indeed, she could be astonishingly tolerant. On at least two occasions, her humans found toddler Jackson standing on her back for a better view over the baby-gate at the top of the stairs. In her glory, she loved to take evening walks with the dogs, following halfway up the street and then hiding so as to leap out and scare everybody on their return.

She was gently cared for in her final illness by the hospice team of veterinary nurse Hanni Beyer Lee and Dr. Helen Spiegel, who made sure she had everything to make her comfortable. She sought out humans and the dog for attention and affection throughout her last days, seeming to take time to say goodbye.

She will be long remembered as a bad password on various accounts, and she will be missed.

Laura Briggs, of Northampton, is chair and professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her most recent book is “How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump.”