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Orlando’s Odyssey

Two continents, one precocious cat, and an owner determined to risk it all.

The day I brought my ten-week-old kitten home, he screamed for four hours. He wailed, with the desperation of a creature in existential pain, from the moment the rental car started moving in Greenwich, Connecticut, until the moment I pulled up in front of my apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts. I have ruined this animal’s life, I kept thinking, and maybe my own. After a few miles, I turned on the radio, and Orlando – that’s what I named him, after Woolf and Ariosto – provided the appropriate soundtrack to the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett.

Orlando’s persistence is something that I, as an American, respect. He is an animal who excels in nonviolent protest: he does not destroy furniture, soil linens, bite or scratch. He simply makes his objection abundantly clear whenever he is placed in a situation that he does not appreciate and, as I quickly learned, there are many situations which are not acceptable to Orlando. These may include: being in or near motor vehicles; having fewer than three hours of play time per day; seeing that my attention is being given to someone unworthy, especially those of a masculine persuasion; and me having the audacity to close the bathroom door. Perhaps what’s so charismatic about Orlando isn’t only his strength of will and the reserves of energy he can summon to continually convey it, but what it suggests about his spirit: hope springs eternal in his feline breast. In the middle of a trans-Atlantic flight, Orlando – out of both ignorance and nobility – truly believes that the plane will land if he just cries loudly enough.

About a year after Orlando came home, we moved from Massachusetts to Oxford. He began his protest halfway through the drive to the airport. The two pills I had wrestled into his gullet seemed useless. Gabapentin is wonderful, everyone had assured me on the pet travel Facebook groups. I gave mine half a pill and she slept through the whole flight. Yet Orlando, his great willpower undimmed, continued to shriek, with at most a 10 percent reduction in volume. In shame, I carted my luggage – one large suitcase, two large boxes, a backpack, a duffel bag and, perched on top, my sweet, screamy, furry darling – down the long corridor to departures. There were more than a few small children and babies on the flight: Orlando put them to shame. Parents of toddlers gave me judgemental looks. ‘Does he have medication?’ my seatmates kept asking, with passive-aggressive concern. ‘Yes!’ I would sob. ‘I have drugged him! But he is too powerful!’

About three hours in, I noticed he had grown quiet and assumed in a panic that he had died of heartbreak. When I lifted the blanket to check on him, he woke and started howling again.

All summer, my friends warned me about the difficulties of bringing a cat to England. The same conversation between two inadequately knowledgeable parties would play out: they alluded vaguely to the sufferings of distant aunts and family friends, to bureaucratic puzzles and quarantine kennels, and I would tell them, ‘It’s not like that anymore,’ projecting all the unearned authority of someone who has skimmed the first result of a Google search.

What I had yet to understand was that it had been 119 years since the last case of human rabies was acquired in England and that this is a country that will go through great lengths not to break streaks. Witness, for example, the monarchy, the British Museum’s possession of stolen artefacts and desserts made by leaving food in a closet to congeal for at least a year.

For these reasons (and I am aware that I have not given many reasons; I do not think there really are any), all pets entering the UK by air must enter as cargo; they cannot travel in the cabin. This travel can only be arranged at great cost through third parties, who charge upwards of £750, not including the purchase of a carrier and the completion of paperwork, which must be certified by a regional USDA veterinarian within ten days of travel.

There is, however, another way – a way that requires twice as much paperwork but slightly less logistical finesse and personal anxiety. In fact, there’s an entire Facebook group dedicated to this one particular method of importation. It is not unpopular. Price-wise, it isn’t actually too much more expensive than taking a pet as cargo. And yet objectively it is absurd; when I decided to go on this journey, I had no choice but to face the fact that I had become One of Those Pet People.

Reader, I flew to Paris and hired a taxi – and not just a taxi, but a pet taxi – to drive me to Oxford (the Eurostar will not take pets, I checked). So when Orlando and I finally touched down, we had to navigate the labyrinthine hellscape that is France’s largest airport: tired, weighed down with a cat, and carry-ons so full of books that I had to forego wheels to be able to make the weight limit, and stared at in multiple languages. To my horror, I discovered that my gloriously fluffy Orlando had soiled himself during the flight and the pungent wads had matted themselves to his tail. So it was that at six in the morning local time and 11 pm in my country of origin, with the sun not yet risen in either nation’s sky, I found myself kneeling on the floor of the ladies’ holding my wailing, wriggling, stinky cat down with one hand and yanking pathetically on his tail with a fistful of paper towels. Now the parents of toddlers looked at me with pity, and they didn’t even know that I had at least an eight-hour car journey ahead of me.

By the time I reached Oxford, Orlando had screamed so much that for several days all he could do was croak. His carrier, still redolent of shit, was ruined. He refused to eat his new, wet food. Still, he settled in well, and quickly, and seemed unperturbed by the 500  percent increase in damp that accompanies a move from Boston to Oxford. I perhaps less so, and therefore, the next morning, on the landlady’s advice, I swung the kitchen window wide open to achieve some equilibrium in moisture. A rookie mistake. Where I’m from, windows have screens. In England, no such precautions need to be taken: no barrier stood between Orlando and the narrow sill on my first floor flat. After losing one of my own nine lives, I lured him off the ledge with the false promise of some extra kibble.

Two months passed and, unlike the moisture levels in my home, Orlando and I seemed to have reached an acceptable equilibrium: I bought him a cat tree; we accumulated books; after a week of hand-feeding and affronts to my dignity, the little prince learned to appreciate the subtle differences between the American and the English Purina offerings. All was well, until one evening when I had a friend over for dinner. With both the oven and the stove on, the damp became unbearable; the window had to be opened as wide as possible. On my second glass of wine, I heard a noise that will haunt me forever – a kind of mad rustling, and then something abrupt, like a thud.

It took a minute for me to accept that my cat had fallen out of the window. As I raced down the steps, I tried not to speculate on his uncharacteristic silence – not to wonder whether there would be blood, or if we’d make it to the vet in time, or if I had really spent all that money just to fatally defenestrate my cat while on a skilled worker visa. When I opened the door, I saw him under the window, standing in a patch of grass. Standing! And then running! Would he make a dash for Christ Church Meadows? Try his luck on the window sills of Magdalen Tower? Become a Fellow of All Souls and look even further down his nose at me? He scurried just far enough past me to let me understand, as I picked him up, that he was allowing his newfound freedom to be curtailed.

The next afternoon, I told the SCR what had befallen Orlando – or rather, how Orlando had befallen Oxford. ‘But he survived,’ I told the astonished crowd. The physicists, calculating madly, were stumped; the medics were aghast; the theologians felt their whole careers validated, the existence of God proven at last. Yet still some questioned how it could have been that Orlando survived a fall from that most perilous height, too high for the force to be bearable, too low for a normal cat to right himself in time. How had my little cat been spared his gruesome fate? ‘Because,’ I replied, marvelling at myself, ‘he is too powerful.’

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