To err is human, to purr feline…

P1110330It seems that some of our casual acquaintances, observing the Greta Garbo Home for Wayward Cats and Dogs from a lofty and somewhat condescending distance, consider that it is “ridiculous” to have so many residents. Of course this is nobody’s business but our own, but in the interest of improved public relations I would like to make a few points.

Firstly, most or all of our 11 cats would have departed for the great cattery in the sky were it not for Geraldine’s intervention. She has a background in animal protection going back many years, previously in the Paris region, and has sometimes braved considerable dangers to save an animal. Here in the country, all our cats lead free, happy lives, roaming where they please without needlessly propagating their species, since they are all sterilised. Geraldine is also a former zookeeper, and was once responsible for bigger cats than these in the Vincennes zoo. She has quite literally downsized.

Secondly, my mother was born in central Bohemia and brought up on her parent’s smallholding where living with many animals was part of normal, everyday life. She brought that love of animals with her to London. In our small suburban house, there were dogs, cats, budgerigars, guinea pigs, pigeons, hamsters, mice and anything else that needed to be brought in from the cold and tended to. Our visitors might be surprised to be greeted by someone with a mouse up their sleeve or a budgerigar on their head, eating dandruff and declaiming “I’m a pretty boy!”, but such was life at 21 Portman Avenue. 

Recommended reading for anyone unfamiliar with such a household is of course Gerald Durrell’s 1956 autobiography My Family and Other Animals. I used to work with someone who had visited the Durrells when they lived in Bournemouth and had indelible memories of their wonderful, exotic menagerie.

Thirdly, there is the question of numbers. At what point does one close the door and so “No more!”? This could be a budgetary consideration. I calculate that feeding a cat costs no more than 3 euros a month, though veterinary bills can be steep. There are also associations that help animals in distress, for example Gamelle 37 in our part of the world. But the numbers factor is also subjective. When I first met the core collection of cats in the Paris suburbs, I was taken aback by the number of them – confined in a small 8th-floor flat, whereas they now roam free. But this impression disappears once one gets to know the animals personally. This of course is the great lesson of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, in his relationship with the fox:

“I am looking for friends. What does that mean – tame? »

« It is an act too often neglected, » said the fox. « It means to establish ties. » 

« To establish ties? » 

« Just that, » said the fox. « To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world….” 

Lastly, living with animals is not just an act of charity. There is two-way communication and, without pretending to be Dr Dolittle, there is a lot we can learn from them philosophically and emotionally. Praise for cats is almost a literary genre in itself, from Colette to Dickens to T. S. Eliot to Perec, and so on.  But reflecting on the numbers question, I am reminded of the excellent writer and philosopher Paul Léautaud (1872-1956) – one of the great candid journal writers (see photos below) – who lived in relative poverty in a house in Fontenay-aux-Roses and welcomed abandoned animals into his humble abode, including nearly 300 abandoned cats. Let us close with his words:

Mon Dieu ! J’ai déjà pas mal écrit sur les chats. Je puis écrire encore. J’en ai eu tant autour de moi. A aujourd’hui, pas loin de trois cents, je crois bien. Chacun avec sa physionomie, ses manières, son caractère particuliers. Tout comme nous autres humains, je l’ai dit souvent.

Le mieux, c’est que je n’en ai choisi aucun, puisque tous me sont venus des hasards de la rue, malheureuses bêtes perdues ou abandonnées par des maîtres sans conscience, de ces gens qui prennent un jour un animal, chien ou chat, par fantaisie, et celle-ci passée, le mettent tranquillement à la rue, exposé à tous les risques comme à tous les besoins.


My God! I’ve already written a lot about cats. I can write even more. I have had so many of them around me. To date, nearly 300, I believe. Each with his own physiognomy, manners, his particular character. Just like us human beings, as I have often said.

The best thing is that I didn’t choose any of them, because they all came by chance from the street, poor creatures lost or abandoned by their masters lacking in conscience – those people who adopt an animal one day, a dog or a cat, on a whim, and when the whim has passed, they calmly dump the animal in the road, exposed to all risks and to all needs.

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Une réponse à “To err is human, to purr feline…”

  1. First: I err but I also purr….I agree with every word of the above, and so do Charlie (black cat) and Philomena (black and white cat) with whom I’m sharing the summer and my house in Provence…and who TALK to me every night – while I purr. Denise

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