The Pharaoh Cats
by Rob Dinsmoor
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The bearded skinhead immersed himself in a dense crowd of people and appeared to apologize profusely as he pushed his way through them. I moved along the outside of the crowd, plotting his trajectory through them, caught sight of him, and continued to follow him. I began to take multiple photos on my cellphone.
He was heading for the parking area. Finally, I spotted one of the organizers wandering through the crowd with the armed guard. “Over here!” I called out, pointing to the parking lot.
Now the skinhead man spotted me, perhaps even recognized me, and picked up his pace. He got into a nondescript black station wagon, started it, and backed out of his space. The organizer and guard were now running toward him.
One of the parking volunteers answered his cellphone, looked at the van, and signaled the others to block the car. I joined a half dozen people who formed the human chain, which slowed the car down a little. And then the most astonishing thing happened. One of the lady organizers grabbed the back of the car, hoisted herself onto its roof, and spread her arms to grip the indentations for the doors. It reminded me vaguely of footage I had seen of people clinging desperately to buses and helicopters during the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam war. Was there a war going on that I didn’t know about?
The station wagon backed up and braked suddenly, which may have loosened the lady’s grip, then lurched forward and braked, then backed up and braked again, sending the woman flying backward, then accelerated noisily, and then shifted into drive, speeding forward. A couple of people in the human chain broke loose, but one held fast, even as the station wagon knocked her down and continued driving.
On the ground next to where the station wagon had been was a pile of flyers the size of a memo pad. I picked one up. It read:
Is Your Cat Making You Sick?
Cats can carry a dangerous and pernicious parasite called Toxoplasmosis gondii that can be spread through cat urine and feces. Infection can lead to unusual behavior and can cause harm to the fetus in pregnant women. If you think you or a loved one may have been infected, contact George at the Toxoplasmosis Gondii Action League.
It gave an e-mail address and phone number.
When the organizer showed up with the armed guard, I said, “I’ve got a bunch of pictures of him and his car!”
“Could you text us the photos? I’ll give you our hotline number.”
“Sure!” I said, and only then did it occur to me to ask: “What’s he done?”
He took me back to the administrative tent. The answer came to me in the form of several photos the organizer had posted on the Pharaoh Cat Relief Fund Facebook page with the caption, “Have you seen this man?” The page depicted the man holding up beaten and bloodied cats and dogs and grinning at the camera. “He’s a known animal abuser,” the organizer explained. “Maybe one of the worst.”
On the same page were comments from PCRF fans, suggesting all sorts of violent things that people ought to do to the skinhead man, such as “He ought to be chained to a wall!” I suddenly had the sick feeling that I knew what had happened to Truman.
With the help of the PCRF organizers, I posted my photos of the perp and the less-than-perfect pictures of his station wagon. I posted my own comments under the photos, identifying when and where they were taken.
When Denise, Fatima, and I arrived home, I immediately went on-line. I e-mailed “George,” whom I assumed to be our suspect. “What the hell have you done with Truman? If Truman has come to any harm, I’ll kill you.”
Next, I looked up Toxoplasmosis gondii, which was indeed a real parasite that could infect pregnant women and cause blindness in the fetus. A quick search brought up scientific references having to do with schizophrenia.
When I returned to my e-mail inbox, I saw that I had gotten an immediate response from George. It was accompanied by a photo of him posing with Truman, both smiling. The message read, “Truman is fine, as you can see, and will remain that way if I can help it. Please meet me at the World War Two Memorial at the Appleton Grass Rides at noon on Sunday, and I can explain everything. Please come alone or you may never see me or Truman again.”
* * *
I arrived at the obelisk at 11:30. Every few minutes a hiker or biker would pass by, but they never stopped. I heard a dog barking behind me and turned to see the bearded man walking beside Truman, who was running loose, unleashed. Truman immediately ran up to me and jumped up, licking my face. “I never expected to see you again!” I said to him and turned to George. “What the hell were you doing, taking him?”
“I did it for his own protection.”
“Based on the photos I saw on-line, I assumed he’d be hanging on a hook somewhere.”
“That’s the miracle of Photoshop. The folks at the Pharaoh Cat Rescue League want to vilify me.”
“You might have to explain that one to me.”
“How much time do you have?”
“To figure all this out, all the time in the world.”
I walked with him and my sister’s dog. George was a non-stop talker. “Have you ever heard of Toxoplasmosis gondii?” he asked, aiming his cigarette at me.
“Just what I read on the flyer and a couple of places on the Web.”
“I really read up on that particular parasite when my mother contracted it,” George said. “After she got a Pharaoh cat, she started acting all flaky and collecting Pharaoh cats by the dozens. It turns out that Toxo can affect the brain chemistry of the host, causing schizophrenia.
“And you know that archetypal lady who keeps dozens of cats in her house? Well, guess in what single host Toxoplasmosis gondii can reproduce?” When I shrugged, he told me: “Cats! Well, old ladies are particularly susceptible to infection because of their weakened immune systems.
“Some scientists think that the Toxoplasmosis gondii has somehow turned these ladies batty and made them crave the smell of cat urine. So, the ladies collect more and more cats, the Toxoplasmosis gondii gets new hosts, and the parasites perpetuate themselves by altering human behavior.”
Still trying to assimilate all this new-found information, I said, “But my sister isn’t that old, and she’s acting weird.”
“That’s because Toxoplasmosis gondii is particularly virulent in one particular breed of cats. Do you know what breed?”
“The Pharaoh cats?” I guessed.
“Exactly! Why else would they reproduce faster than any other breed of cat?” he asked. I could think of other possible reasons, but remained silent.
“So, Toxoplasmosis gondii propagates not only by making the little old ladies keep scores of them — thus accelerating the spread from host to host — but also by making the Pharaoh cats breed prodigiously.”
“You’re giving these parasites a lot of credit for intelligence.”
“It doesn’t have to be intelligence. It could be just natural selection and evolution at work. What Toxo is really good at is altering the brain chemistry of the host. Did you know that the ancient Egyptians revered cats, which is why they’re prominent in their hieroglyphics? And did you know that the church had cats put to death in the Middle Ages?”
I nodded, though I really hadn’t heard any such thing.
“They thought that they were carrying evil spirits, putting hexes on people. And in fact they were, in a sense.”
“Smart boy!” he said, cackling away.
“That’s all very interesting,” I said, “but it still doesn’t answer my question. Why did you take Truman?”
“As I said, it was for his own protection. You see, dogs that live with Pharaoh cats, especially multiple Pharaoh cats, don’t have the greatest life expectancy. Things happen to them. Freak accidents.”
At that point, I started laughing. “Are you suggesting that the Pharaoh cats are killing dogs?”
“Not directly, no,” George said. “Don’t forget that Toxo changes brain chemistry. Studies have shown that mice infected with Toxo tend to be risk-takers. It may be Toxo’s way of ensuring that the mice are reckless and their primary hosts — cats — are well fed. Well, the same thing may happen in dogs. So, the dog becomes infected with Toxo and suddenly he doesn’t have a care in the world. Whereas he might have been shy of cars before, now he runs out into traffic. I’ve talked to a lot of former Pharaoh cat owners and many of them have stories about that.”
“So, about those pictures on the Rescue Fund’s website. Why would they post fake pictures of you torturing animals?”
He pulled out a business card that read “Toxoplasmosis Action League.”
“I actually started this association after what happened to my mother, and I found hundreds of people with similar stories. Now I’m collecting as much data as I can about people who rescue Pharaoh cats. That’s why I was taking pictures at your sister’s house and at the Pharaoh Cat festival in the park. The Rescue Fund doesn’t like me collecting data on its members, so they’re trying to discredit me and get me on the run.”
He watched my expression as we continued to walk. “You think I’m utterly nuts, don’t you?” he asked.
I laughed and said, “Probably, but I don’t necessarily doubt anything you’ve said. I was just thinking, if my sister’s craziness is caused by a parasite, could it be cured?”
* * *
Dr. Hector’s office was the next town over, a dying factory town. His waiting room was full of people with what looked like serious injuries: neck braces, back braces, and limping. When I got in to see him, a sort of aging hippie with glasses, I told him, “George recommended you,” as if I were one of his clients seeking out opiates. I told him the story of my sister the cat lady. He stared at me intently.
I expected him to recommend a psychiatrist — for me, not her — but he just nodded and said, “What I’m going to prescribe for you is actually an antimalarial drug called ELQ-300. It is also effective against parasites like Toxo. There are other drugs out there that can prevent infection, but this is the only one that treats an active infection.”
“What if she won’t take it?” I asked.
“That is a common problem. Here’s what I tell my clients: Find a really fancy bottle of herbal supplements. Throw out the supplements and put these pills in their place.”
“I’m also prescribing another drug, co-trimoxazole, for both you and her. You should start taking it immediately, and she can take hers after the full course of ELQ-300. You can try the herbal supplement trick again, but by that time, she might be lucid enough for you to explain the situation. Any questions?”
“Yeah. Does it work on dogs?”
* * *
With Truman resting with his head in my lap, I was watching a news report about a Pharaoh cat parade and festival in Georgia. On the parade floats were live Pharaoh cats as well as giant papier-mâché Pharaoh cats and mock-ups of cats in Egyptian hieroglyphics. “All the proceeds, of course, go to the Egyptian Cat Rescue Foundation,” the announcer was saying.
I changed the channel and a news program was talking about the mounting tragedy of all the refugees who were on their way to Turkey by foot. “In the midst of it all, tens of thousands of cats have been displaced,” the well-dressed blonde announcer was saying. “People are encouraged to donate to the Pharaoh Cat Relief Fund.” Strangely absent was any mention of how to help the refugees themselves.
Denise was back at work, having fully regained her usual mental faculties. I had “found” Truman in the state park, I had told her and, if that sounded far-fetched, she didn’t complain. She fawned all over him, crying.
I let my contact with George lapse. He had tried to get me involved with his crusade against Toxo, but I declined. My sister was fine. What was there to worry about?
I flipped the channel again to discover that there was talk about taking down the Statue of Liberty. There was an artist’s rendering of a giant Pharaoh Cat statue standing guard over New York Harbor. Some politician was hollering away about how the Statue of Liberty must be protected from the corrosive salt air by moving it to the Arizona desert, and I noted that he was wearing a Pharaoh Cat button on his lapel.
One of Denise’s Pharaoh cats walked across the living room floor as if he owned it and plopped down in front of the TV. I don’t know if Denise ever bothered to name any of them, because they were genetically identical and, except for tiny scars and different genitalia, they were virtually impossible to tell apart.
I generally liked cats and occasionally patted one or scratched its head, because it really wasn’t the cat’s fault that it was a breeding ground for Toxo, but my heart really wasn’t in it. Denise had multiple litter boxes downstairs and, whenever she emptied them, she wore a mask and gloves and disposed of the litter in biohazard bags.
Denise couldn’t bring herself to get rid of the cats, and she couldn’t conscionably give them away and potentially infect other people. She didn’t get any more and decided to let the existing ones grow old and die on their own.
Of course, cats have been known to live for twenty years...
Copyright © 2017 by Rob Dinsmoor