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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 21: Pets #1; Cat 1, Bentley

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Welcome back to the Woods!  After 7 months of trying to explain complex engineering topics “simply” I’m back to telling stories (with a little engineering thrown in here and there).

A regular reader (one of the three), told me several months ago that he really likes the stories about animals and especially pets.  So, this next year of stories are for him. 

Kristen and I have always had pets; usually just dogs, cats and fish – but when the kids still lived at home there was a rabbit, a parakeet, frogs, turtles, newts, hermit crabs, a salamander, toads and a few wayward birds including ducks and a Great-Horned owl.  To date we have had 9 dogs (never more than two at a time) and 4 cats (also never more than two at a time).  Currently we are at our average pet load of two dogs, two cats, two aquariums and one koi pond and that number has been pretty stable for the past several years (although some of the individual furry critters have changed recently, and fish are flushed and replenished regularly).  For this first Pet Story I’m taking you back 31 years to Kristen’s and my first non-swimming pet, Bentley.

In May of 1988, Kristen and I moved into our first home, 23331 W. Bentley Drive, Plainfield, Illinois – a small flagstone and cedar ranch nestled on the west bank of the DuPage River.  As a house-warming present, friends from Urbana, Roger and Lisa, brought us a gray striped tabby barn kitten from Roger’s family farm.  We named him Bentley, and we took him everywhere.  He came when called.  He loved attention.  He was a best friend to four dogs, 3 kids, and us.  Here are just of few of my memories of him.

The Evacuation

Bentley was our first child.  We would never leave him home alone, or worse yet, in cat prison at the vet’s boarding gulag.  So, he went with us EVERYWHERE.  One of his first trips was to Huntsville, Alabama to help us celebrate Kristen’s Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Ed’s wedding anniversary.  I don’t remember much about the trip except that Kristen made a “travel” litter box from a cardboard box lined with a plastic trash bag, we stayed in a brand-new Courtyard by Marriott and we snuck the cat in and out of the room.  We drove my 1987 Saab 900s sedan (blue with orange pin stripes – when the University of Illinois still had the Chief and, consequently, I still cared about the school) and the trip there was uneventful.  I do recall that during the weekend we had too much beer and too much food (except asparagus, Uncle Ed would allow only 3 spears per person and any attempt at additional vegetal nutrition was met with a shout and a quick and violent slap to the wrist).  On Sunday morning we awoke pre-dawn to begin our nine-hour trek back home.  Kristen’s sister Jamie followed us in her car.  Jamie tells the story that a few miles outside of town, just before the Tennessee border, the brake lights of the Saab screamed bright red and the Illini-mobile violently lurched into a gravel parking lot where it slid to a stop in a cloud of dust.   The front doors flew open, and Kristen and I each launched onto the powdery gravel where we rolled and retched, tears streaming down our dusty cheeks.  Bentley had used the litter box.  The odiferous cat must have eaten some asparagus, more than three spears.  That car smelled like rancid asparagus cat crap for the next seven years until I sold it to my nephew Brice at a post-contamination bargain price.


The Litter Box

With three bedrooms, but only one couple, we were able to reserve one of the bedrooms in our tiny house for the litter box/office and one for the guest room.  As we added human offspring over the next eight years, the two spare rooms became nurseries and the litter box had to move, but where?  The bathroom was too small.  The living room and family room were too public.  The laundry closet was too cramped.  A litter box in the kitchen is just gross.  Plus, we had dogs.  Dogs love litter snacks, until they regurgitate them into slimy pools of liquified cat feces speckled with litter.  It is exponentially gross as the following graph shows:

So, we had to keep the litter box away from the dogs.

We had a 2¼ car attached garage, but Bentley was an indoor cat, so we couldn’t put a cat door in the door to the garage or he would get out when we opened the garage door.  What to do, what to do… Although most engineers think inside the box, I have been accused of living so far outside of the box that I refuse to accept that boxes even exist, unless I make them myself, which I did.  I built an insulated plywood box with the front side open, no bottom, a hinged back with a hasp, and a plexiglass window in the top for light and so you could look inside without opening it.  It was large enough to hold a litter box (and cat), with a few extra inches on all sides, and it fit nicely under my work bench in the garage.  I mounted the open side to the shared wall with the family room and put a cat door in the family room wall, next to the couch where no one but the cat would see it.  Worked like a charm!


Aileen is our first child.  We planned that there would be more to come, so we experimented with her so that each child would be progressively improved over the one before.  NEVER give engineers multiples of anything (including children) or they will study, experiment, classify, sort, group and modify – until order and understanding is achieved, then it’s time to try again, but in a different way.  So, as the due date for this first child approached in December of 1992, we researched different ways to introduce her to our dog Echo and cat Bentley.   When we brought our bundle of joy home, we achieved adequate results with the introductions and Aileen and Echo became best friends quickly - I’ll tell you some of those stories in a future blog.  Bentley was interested, but apprehensive.  The initial meeting involved sniffing and mild curiosity from the cat, but it was short-lived, and Bentley soon slinked away in bored, stealthy cat fashion.  We were smugly pleased that our introduction plan was successful. 

Several weeks later we placed Aileen in the wicker bassinette, the same one that my father had slept in in 1922 and that has held all Hamilton children and grandchildren (now great-grandchildren) since, and we retired to the family room to watch Seinfeld.  We switched-on the baby monitor.  Halfway through the program we heard some light crying, but our current experiment was to teach the baby to cry-it-out by herself.  The crying intensified to become an infant wail.  Kristen sprung into action, with me close behind. 

Bentley was in the bassinette biting Aileen on the head.  We soon learned that he did not like it when she cried, and that lasted for his entire life even as Aileen progressed into elementary school.  His bites were his attempt at comforting her, but he was not successful.  In fact, we soon learned that there was a linear relationship between the strength of his head bites and the strength of her crying:

Subsequent offspring were protected from this situation.

So Long Old Friend 

In June of 1996 we moved to a larger home 2½ miles to the west, so that we would have room for a growing family. Our son Ricky was born in August joining his older sisters Aileen 3½  and Sean 15 months.  Our dog (#2), Echo, was a 6 year-old Belgian Sheepdog and Bentley had become a slightly flabby tabby.  One big happy family.

By the next summer, Bentley was having some urinary issues and was beginning to lose weight.  Within the following year he had become an old cat.  He still loved to curl-up with Kristen, but he was slow to come when called and he had designated a corner of the dining room carpet as his “call for help” litter box.  When he peed in the corner he was telling us that he was not feeling well, and that was beginning to occur regularly.

One afternoon I popped-in for lunch, but Kristen and the kids were out, probably at the neighborhood pool.  I had noticed when I drove in that the Herald News was still on the front porch, so I walked through the house to the front door, opened it and stepped-out to retrieve the paper.  As I did, Bentley slithered between my legs and began a leisurely stroll across the porch to the front walk.  “Bentley,” he continued his deliberate, steady pace.  “Bentley!” he turned onto the driveway.  I began to follow, “Bentley!!”  The phone rang.  Sometimes Bentley would sniff the flowers by the mailbox and as I turned back to the house that appeared to be where he was headed.  I stepped in the door to answer the phone and he was almost to the flowers.  “No, I don’t need vinyl siding on my brick home!”  I turned back to the street and he was gone.  We searched, and called, and cried- but he never came back.  At least he had a collar with a name tag.  Three days later I found his collar in a corner of the family room behind an arm chair.  Right where he had left it…

He was the first.  He was the best.  We still miss him.

Love your pets,