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Refined mail-order bride fails to tame El Gato

The brown-paper package had his full name on it: "El Gato Washington." He watched with rapt attention as I opened it. "Now Gato," I said, "this is a quality woman. You have to treat her right." He agreed, or appeared to, as much as I could infer ...

The brown-paper package had his full name on it: "El Gato Washington." He watched with rapt attention as I opened it.

"Now Gato," I said, "this is a quality woman. You have to treat her right."

He agreed, or appeared to, as much as I could infer from wild cat behavior. We soon discovered the stuffed animal was quite well-made -- and rare. Tigers were a dime a dozen, but this was an ocelot, found only in a specialty toy catalogue and costing what was then big bucks: $23 in 1976.

She was about half his size but otherwise realistic, which he clearly appreciated. He grabbed her in his mouth and ran off to his room.

I gave them their privacy.

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El Gato had come into our lives eight years earlier after a family meeting about break-ins at our Chicago home. We considered a large dog, but thought it could be outwitted by a burglar with a steak. Cats were smarter, but little, so my brother and I suggested a lion or tiger.

"They're too big," my mother said in a clear-thinking moment. But she went down the list by size -- jaguar, leopard, cheetah -- until: "How about an ocelot?"

"What's an ocelot?" I asked.

"It's like a small jaguar."

"That's it. I want an ocelot."

And the next day, there in the Chicago Sun-Times was an ad: "Ocelot: $175."

We scraped it together. Days later, a nearly full-grown, declawed, defanged, neutered, 23-lb., somewhat housebroken, spotted and striped cat was ours. El Gato (already his name) came with a book, "An Ocelot in Your Home," with the warning in it: "Don't buy a cat from an importer or from a newspaper ad as there is the possibility someone is trying to 'dump' a wild animal."

Which is what we got. Yet soon enough, he became part of the family, teaching us Rule 1 of ocelot behavior: If they like you, they bite you (to show their affection). And if they don't like you, they bite you.

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That meant Gato had to be put into his room or on a leash whenever anyone came over, but otherwise had free run of the house. For fun, he'd clench his jaws into a straw broom that my brother or I would lift to the ceiling, with him hanging on for as long as we could hold him, demonstrating the damage he could do even without fangs. Proof as well are the scars I can show you today.

Neutering also failed to curb his instincts.

"Aaarrrrrroooww!" we heard arriving home one night, a sound different from his normal growls. He was in the kitchen with a roll of paper towels.

"Oh..." my mother said, and being an art teacher, she got to work sewing him a more suitable companion. Gato knew exactly what it was for.

That first Mrs. Gato lasted about a month, and we replaced it with a store-bought stuffed tiger, then another. (We found someone else in town with a pet ocelot, but it, too, was male.) Gato had been going through them on a regular basis when I ordered the toy ocelot.

It lasted an hour.

"That's it," I told him. "No more decent women for you" -- and back to the cheap tigers.

Gato lived 20 years (I'll tell about his escapes another time), never giving the illusion he was anything but wild. Yes, he was warm and wonderful to sleep with on a cold winter night, on good behavior for as much as a month. Then he'd bite me -- drawing blood -- and get banned from my room. In time, I'd relent ("Frieennnds?" his furry face seem to say) and let him back in, the cycle repeating.

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So today, do I believe people should keep wild animals?

We easily outlived Gato, so there was little chance of him being dumped on a sanctuary. At my current age I couldn't guarantee I'd live longer than the cat, or that I could handle one as I did when I was younger. And even if I do have ocelot experience, does that make me an expert? Almost all the big cat owners I've met seem to say, "Nobody knows how to take care of tigers (or lions, or cougars or ocelots) except me." Maybe they do, but they can't all be right.

All I know is Gato was wild when we got him and stayed so to the end. And he trained us well.

Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com .

Related Topics: FAMILY
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