In the middle of April 2006, my boss and I strolled back from the Hyatt Regency in Baku, Azerbaijan. I was barely a month in the country, but we already established a lunchtime routine where we’d go have a sandwich and a cappuccino by the hotel pool, then walk back to work in the nearby Natavan Building. As the springtime sun heated up, we both noticed the number of stray cats starting to pick up. One stray in particular caught his attention, jumping around as if he’d been trained to do tricks.
“This one has a lot of energy,” he said. “You really should pick this one up.”
“I don’t know,” I responded. “I like cats, but I think he would tie me down. If I got assigned outside of Baku, I couldn’t take care of him.”
“Well, yes,” he responded, but then quickly added, “but women like it when you have a cat. It shows you can be responsible for kids.”
I thought about this. To be honest, it didn’t make much sense. Taking care of kids was worlds more work than taking care of a cat. I knew this because I brought worlds more work to my parents than any of the housecats I grew up with, even more the whole menagerie put together. But my boss was generally more successful than me, both in the fact that he was managing an environmental consulting office at a young age (he was definitely younger than I was) and in the fact that he was already a married father with twins. His wife also wasn’t by any means someone to sneer at, being both a generally attractive Italian expatriate and part of the management team at the UN High Commission for Refugees in Azerbaijan.
Still, I didn’t feel I could responsibly follow through on his spur-of-the-moment advice on improving my love-life. Since leaving university in 2003, I hadn’t managed to stay in any place longer than a year, going from Alaska to Kyrgyzstan, then back to Seattle and up to Alaska before finally returning to the “New Great Game” in yet another former Soviet country. My role as a supporting consultant for BP in Azerbaijan was clearly temporary. It made no sense to me to take on responsibility for a cat. So we left this one there outside the Natavan, certain that one of the secretaries that worked in one of the building’s other offices would surely pick him up before the end of the day.
Indeed, it seemed the next day that this was the case. That active stray cat wasn’t there by the walk for a good couple of days. Then on the third day, I was walking back from lunch by myself when I saw the cat again. This time he wasn’t so energetic. He appeared quite miserable with a badly running nose, and having seen another little cat’s body left mangled by another nearby walk, apparently beaten by someone whose alcoholism and inhumanity combined one evening in a very ugly way, I felt certain that if I didn’t pick this little guy up this time, I’d see him as a dead kitten the next time. I would be late to work, but it appeared that I needed to do this.
So I set up my little furry visitor in my bathroom, and put a box in the corner for him to do his business in before returning to work. I got a tin of oily fish from a shelf and some milk out of the fridge, figuring this would do him some good.
When I came back home, I found out that this was a terrible choice for a young cat. In addition to the sniffles, he contracted diarrhea and after a night of this diet was dehydrating. When I told my boss, he chided me in that way that only an Englishman can do to an American on my lack of experience in raising kittens, and took me out to buy my guest some Royal Canin dried cat food. The milk was dumped down the sink and replaced with water. He soon recovered.
In the meanwhile, I had a cat. Taking my cue from lyrics sung by a favorite Russian rock group, I began calling him Kot Kota, or Cat’s Cat. In my mind, as soon as he was housebroken and fixed, he would be the coolest house cat in the world, whether he actually improved my love-life or not. As I lived on the 17th floor of an apartment building thrown up in the post-Soviet Azerbaijan oil boom, he’d have to be an indoor cat. It was certain that if I let him out on the balcony too many times, he’d have an impromptu 17-floor lesson in flying, to which the landing part I was sure he would fail.
It took a couple weeks to housebreak him as I remember. I had gone out to drink with my boss for Cinco de Mayo at a little Mexican-style place, definitely something exotic for Baku, and had come home pretty drunk. When I woke up, Kot Kota was sitting on my chest and purring. I realized with terror that I had left the bathroom door open in my drunken stupor, and he could have made a mess anywhere in the house. Checking around, though, I found he hadn’t. It was a little victory.
I next had to get him neutered. If I didn’t do so within his first six months, he was certain to begin spraying the place in the hopelessly false hope of attracting a female. I didn’t want to have to keep him in the bathroom again, so I sought out a reliable veterinarian. My boss came to the rescue with a solution, recommending a vet that practiced near the U.S. Embassy.
I remember taking him there, first stuffing him into a satchel, which he definitely didn’t like, and then catching a taxi to the Embassy. By the time I got there, he had pushed the zipper open enough to poke his head out, and was howling murder as I took him inside the vet’s office in an adjacent building. He also didn’t like being anesthetized at all – he handled needles with pretty much the same grace that I do (read: none at all). Then, after the cutting was done, I remember taking him home. It seemed like I was carrying a dead cat.
I tried to rest him comfortably on the bed when we got home. He remained limp under the anesthesia, but clearly he was breathing. I waited patiently while watching over him. Finally, a few hours later he began to twitch as motor control was returning to him. Shortly after that, he was stumbling and staggering, and wondering what he did to deserve this. But I knew this was for the best. He wasn’t a street cat anymore.
In June, I had a few days to take a long weekend and fly up to St. Petersburg for the White Nights. This was the first test I had of how to handle owning a cat while going out of town, which I did by asking the maid (the office cleaner, who I hired as a housecleaner to stop in at my place twice a week) to ensure he was fed while I was out. While up in Russia’s cultural capital, I met for the first time the woman who would later become my wife, and after a few nights of enjoying the drawbridges, the reenactment of the Scarlet Sails love tale, and the fireworks over the Admiralty Building, I invited her to return with me to Azerbaijan to spend the summer. At first she hesitated, but finally decided to follow. As a result, she was soon introduced to Kot Kota.
He was still a cute kitten and very well-socialized to humans. I’m not sure that there was much I had done to bring this happy state about, his being well-socialized. Cats seem to either be amenable to human contact, or not, and it takes a lot of really messed-up behavior to change a sociable cat to an unsociable one. No matter what anyone can say about me, the one thing that they can’t say is that I’m a cruel man.
So, that summer became a happy period in my life up in the 17th floor apartment I rented in the so-called “Eyfel Towers”. My future wife would spend days playing with our cat, and I would come home at night and join in all the bliss. When we left the apartment to go traveling (never for more than a long weekend), we’d make arrangements with either the maid or one of my coworkers that lived nearby to have food and water put out for him. When I came back, we’d sweep up the inevitable messes Kot Kota made in our absence.
Eventually, my future wife had to return home to Belarus to take on her student loan obligations as a school teacher, and it became just the two of us again in the Baku flat, the cat and I. He’d still try to round corners at full speed on the hardwood floor with a cartoon-like slide, and would still go crazy with his cat toys, but for both of us it wasn’t the same.
Eventually, I started getting assignments to places like the Republic of Georgia and Qatar, which required me to be out of Baku for weeks at a time. My boss recommended a kenneling service, to which I reluctantly hired. I again had to hire them again for Christmas and New Year’s holidays as I was taking my vacation first back at my mother’s home in Seattle, and then with my future wife on the Trans-Siberian Railway shortly after spending New Years in Moscow. She told me she loved me for the first time on the train. I didn’t know how to respond, though I knew I loved her as well. I guess she remembered the good times with Kot Kota in our top-floor apartment.
Eventually, the work began to run out in Baku, and I was transferred temporarily to Qatar on the way to a new assignment in Albuquerque. This meant that I was leaving town. Even though I had seen little of him over the last part of 2006, I wasn’t about to leave Kot Kota behind in Baku. In order to facilitate his travel, I got him a European Union-style pet passport, which showed among other important information his immunization record in a little passport-book like document. I also got him a Sherpa bag, with the intention of carrying him in the cabin of the plane as much as I possibly could on the way to the United States. He was fully prepared for the trip (such as he could be) when I finally shipped my books off and collected my baggage for the airport.
Our flight from Azerbaijan to Dubai started out okay, but then the change in cabin pressure freaked Kot Kota out. I did my best to calm him down, but then when we got to the big sausage in the desert that was Dubai International Airport, I was obliged by airline regulations to make matters worse; I had to leave the international zone and check Kot Kota in with Qatar Airways. It was a short jump to Doha, but being without him made it seem hours long.
Finally, I got him to my company’s compound in the Beverly Hills district of this Arab capital. Safely on the ground, Kot Kota transitioned easily to being a cat in Qatar. He quickly befriended all the inhabitants of our residence, and would sleep with me in the room that once housed the servant’s quarters near the front door. I had to arrange a few more checkups for him before leaving, according to Qatar rules and regulations for pets traveling, these apparently in response to the bird flu epidemic. Everyone that checked him commented on how well-behaved he was. Kot Kota was, if anything, a charmer.
Going out of Qatar, airline regulations said that he had to fly in the cargo section, and so I got him a hard-case pet carrier for the segment that would take us through Bahrain to Istanbul. I would then take him in the cabin with his Sherpa bag for the trip from Istanbul to Seattle. Other than a jerk who violently objected to being seated next to a cat on the US part of the trip, he didn’t seem to have too much of a problem. However, when my mother met us at the airport, he seemed certain that he never wanted to fly again. He went to sleep in the back of the Jeep Grand Cherokee as we drove the three hours to Sequim. After we got there, Kot Kota effectively moved in with my mother, refusing to go anywhere else by any vehicle without foaming at the mouth.
That was more than eight years ago. My mother gladly took my cat in as I went to New Mexico, again both of us knowing that I wouldn’t be that able to take on a cat with my nomadic lifestyle. I was certain to be in the field for lengthy periods of time, at the very least. As it turned out, I was released from my work in Albuquerque six months later, just in time to take on a job that paid nearly twice as much in the Philippines. Kot Kota, nicknamed by my mother as “Beasty” because he would torment his roommates (an older tabby named Taz and my mother’s significant other’s dog named Sweety), found happiness with my mother as the youngest animal in her menagerie. He’d sometimes be seen literally riding Sweety on his back while Taz looked on in disdain. Although she insisted that he was still my cat, Kot Kota left my mother with endless crazy stories that she enjoyed telling.
Even though I didn’t have Kot Kota living with me anymore, I did eventually get married and had kids of my own. I really wanted that someday my son and daughter would travel to visit their Grammie in the states and meet Kot Kota, and perhaps like their mother before them snuggle up with him in bed one sunny morning. However, that wasn’t to be. Sometime after Sweety and Taz died from their old-age complications, Kot Kota developed what appeared to be severe Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) problems. His jaw locked closed. Apparently there was some pain involved with this, along with the fact that he couldn’t successfully eat. By the time it was diagnosed, there was little anyone could do.
According to an email my mother sent Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, Kot Kota’s vet paid a final house call. With my mom and Aunt Judy petting and soothing him, the doctor put him to sleep. By best estimates, he was maybe 9-1/2 years old.
Overall, he had been to six countries on three continents, and led a pretty happy life, always with people who loved him. He left everyone who met him charmed. I have to admit, in my personal sorrow over the loss of an old friend, that this was a pretty impressive life for a little cat born on the streets of Azerbaijan.