Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Can a Japanese cat and a Korean dog get along? An experiment

Everyone knows that, with a few special exceptions, cats and dogs generally don't get along. It is almost equally well-known that, when it comes to matters of history, sports, and politics, Koreans and Japanese tend to fight like - well, like cats and dogs. But what happens when a cat from Japan and a dog from Korea are compelled to live in close proximity to each other for several months?

We are finding that out in our home right now. The background: last May, Unni's younger sister gave birth to her third child - a healthy boy. Koreans believe it is unhealthy for a baby to be around any pets during the first year of its life, so they needed someone to take their family dog Kongi after the baby was born. Unni's nieces refused to allow Kongi to be sent to any of their other relatives who live far to the south, and they would only consent (after much kicking, screaming and crying) to allow Kongi to stay with Unni and me in Seoul.
You can take my puppy when you pry her from my cold, dead hands!
Considering that I spent most of my 20s yearning for a dog of my own, I should have been thrilled at this turn of events. The problem is that I now have a rather timid and emotionally fragile kitty, Greta, whom I took in off the streets of Kyoto as a kitten and later brought with me to Seoul.

Greta is the sort of cat who can be very affectionate with people she knows well and trusts, but she is extremely wary of strangers in the house and scampers away at the slightest movement or noise. She seems curious about other animals - she always stares at the TV with fascination whenever any animal show is on - but she hasn't been face-to-face with another animal in years and I'm not sure she's ever met a dog before. She is nearly four years old now, smallish (weighing in at just 3 kilograms), and fiercely defensive of her play tower. Also, although I've tried to teach her to be an open-minded and cosmopolitan kitty, for the first four months of her life she was raised by a family of very old-fashioned Japanese kitties, and it seems that she picked up some unfortunate prejudices about Koreans.

Greta, before and after being told that we're moving to Korea
Kongi is a sweet little four-year-old poodle whose body, when shorn of its glorious curly beige fur, appears skinny as a starved urchin's. She dislikes her dogfood but loves all kinds of fruit, and if she had her 'druthers she would play fetch continuously for 22 hours every day. She had a rough start in life; although the details are hazy, it seems she went through several homes in rapid succession before arriving at Unni's sister's home. She is understandably a bit insecure and tends to erupt in vicious barking any time she perceives a threat to her loved ones or her favorite toys. At 4.5 kilograms she has a slight weight advantage over Greta.

It was with some irony that I, a lifelong dog lover, found myself as seemingly the sole voice of reason arguing against accepting this dog into our house. I pointed out that dogs require much more attention than cats and that both Unni and I are out of the house for most of the day. I was particularly concerned because of Unni's somewhat excessive aversion to pet-related filth (she was appalled the first time Greta wandered into the bathroom without putting on the bathroom slippers, and she apparently believes that most common colds are caused by exposure to cat hair) and the likelihood that Kongi, if left alone all day, might destroy her apartment. However there seemed to be no other alternative and, as the baby's due date approached, my misgivings gave way to a rather foolish optimism that perhaps having a dog around might prove to be a good experience for Greta.

Thus we decided to give it a try for a month or so. For the first few days I kept Greta in my bedroom with the door shut, to establish that as "Greta's space," while Kongi got settled in the living room. After several days we opened the door, keeping a low wire fence in place, to give them a chance to see and smell each other through the bars.

Greta was clearly very irked by Kongi's presence and refused to go anywhere near the barrier. Kongi rather quickly overcame her initial trepidation and parked herself by the gate, staring under the bed where she knew Greta was hiding.

Internally, Kongi's loneliness and inherently friendly nature were at war with her strong nationalism and historical antipathy towards Japan. She would stand at the fence whining piteously and rattling the gate like a restless convict, begging for Greta to come out and play. But whenever Greta came into view, creeping out from under the bed to use her potty or eat some food, Kongi would instinctively burst into a volley of barks and snarls, apparently overwhelmed by a flood of memories of Japan's historical crimes triggered by the sight of the imperialist kitty.

Understandably, Kongi's schizophrenic behavior failed to melt Greta's icy contempt for her species and nation. Confronted with such hostile rhetoric and slanderous historical allusions, Greta would scamper to the top of her kitty tower and glare down in condescension upon the inferior creature, her tail flared out to maximum poof.

After several days of this we got impatient and started trying to force them together by sitting down together with the animals held tightly in our arms and slowly moving them towards each other, but after a brief sniff this usually resulted in Greta hissing and Kongi barking savagely until I allowed Greta to run off and glare at Kongi from the safety of her room.

Do you feel lucky, punk?
Then, through the magic of the internet, I found out about Feliway cat pheremone diffusers, which are supposed to help ease cats' anxiety by making them believe that they've scent-marked everything in the house. They don't sell them in Korea or even ship them here, but I had my mom send some from the US. The first time I plugged in the diffuser, I tragically underestimated the effects of higher voltage Korean electrical outlets on US appliances, causing a serious meltdown:

I wouldn't have let it go this far, except the instructions assured me that "New diffusers may smell slightly when first plugged-in, just as an electrical heater might when dust has collected on it."

Luckily mom had sent two pheremone vials, and the the diffuser itself was not seriously damaged, so after borrowing a transformer from a friend I gave it another try. The pheremones actually did seem to calm Greta down quite a bit, though of course they have no effect on Kongi. Now, as long as the gate is in place, Greta is content to lounge on the bed even when Kongi is staring at her from the doorway.

When we are away during the day, we leave the door open but the gate in place, so they can see each other but not touch. Once I get home from work it is impossible to keep them separate and pay equal attention to both, so I usually open the gate and let Kongi into Greta's space until Unni gets home. As soon as I let Kongi in Greta scampers up her tower again, but after several weeks she is gaining courage. She will sometimes climb down and give Kongi a few swipes of her paw before retreating back up her tower again. I can even get them to sit quietly at opposite ends of the bed, as long as I am between them and they know they will not be allowed to fight.

Over time, their automatic fighting instinct seems to be waning. They still fight whenever they get close, but they never come in direct physical contact and the fighting seems to be getting less vicious. Their fights consist of hisses and paw swipes from Greta, barks and lunges from Kongi.

When they fight like this, my mother instinct is to protect my precious baby from the big scary doggie. But by this point I know she is capable of defending herself, and the only way they will ever learn to accept each other is if I let them slug it out. So when they start going at it I just have to stand by and watch, heart in my throat, until eventually one of them backs away.

Greta and Kongi discussing a questionable call in
the final game of the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

Initially we agreed to take Kongi only for one month, just to give Unni's sister some time to rest after her surgery. It's been over two months now and no one is talking about sending Kongi back. Unni seems to have progressed light-years in her acceptance of a less-than-spotless home. She has come to accept that she cannot be there to wipe Kongi's butt after every BM (although she tried at first), and she ignores whatever dirt Kongi may track in from the bathroom or the veranda. We resolved the problem of dogs not having shoes to take off at the door by arranging to wipe Kongi's feet with wet tissues after she comes in from her walk.

I've been enjoying having a dog to play with; when I'm walking with Kongi people completely forget that I'm a foreigner, and kids who would have crossed the street to avoid me before now run up to me and ask all sorts of questions about my dog.

Greta and Kongi continue to watch each other from a safe distance. Every once in a while their Cold War breaks out into a brief round of fighting, but no bodily harm has been inflicted on either side. I can't help but see the parallels between their relationship and the entrenched Japan-Korea rivalry, which makes me even more determined to forge some sort of detente between the two; if a Japanese cat and a Korean dog can learn to co-exist peacefully, then maybe there is hope for their human counterparts. On the other hand, given the slow pace of their progress to date, this view may be hopelessly optimistic.

To be continued???

1 comment:

  1. This is hysterical. I think that half of their posturing is actually friendly. My cats sometimes break into this hissy spat and I start yelling that they need to quit fighting and then realize that it wasn't fighting—something else entirely in the cat world of love. It took years to become obviously and frequently affectionate with humans—it takes a little longer with each other and who knows what it will take with a dog but sooner or later you will catch them nose to nose or napping together. Love the photos—REALLY love the cat tower. Isn't life grand in all its weirdness? Hang in there.