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Reporter responds to those upset by Christmas cat tale

December 26, 2008 |  5:25 pm

Bess_the_christmas_day_catThe Dec. 25 story of Bess the cat hit feline lovers in wildly different ways.

More than 50 readers said they were touched by the tale. But almost 40 others were quite angry -- angry enough that reporter Kim Murphy was moved to write a note to those who were upset (see below).

Reader Donn Walker of St. Louis was one who sent praise: "I want you to know how enormously touched I was by your story today about Bess. As a longtime cat lover -- with a beautiful feline who looks just like Bess -- your story just grabbed me by the throat, and the heart, and still hasn't let go. I'm so happy you found her before it was too late. I wish you -- but more importantly, Bess -- much health and happiness in the coming year."

On the other hand, reader Leslie McMichael of North Hollywood was expecting something else: "I read with great anticipation the article about Kim Murphy's cat, Bess. Christmas morning, a feel-good story about pets sounds good. What I got was a heart-wrenching story of why some people should not be pet owners. The London Rescue had it right not to give Ms. Murphy a cat. Ms. Murphy told of escapades of her other cats and their predicaments, but she never thought to look in the window seat for Bess or eveywhere and anywhere and never give up? What does it say about how Bess felt, that she could not call out for help or even try to escape, too trusting or not enough trust of her family?"

And so it went, from this sentiment: "I'm sure everyone is writing to you saying how wonderful your piece was, and how they cried unabashedly at the ending. .. count me in as one more" (from Stephanie Daniels in Signal Mountain, TN) to this: "I'm perplexed as to why The Times would publish this terrible story on Christmas Day. Is this your idea of uplifting? At what point do all these cat 'accidents' become a pattern of negligence?" (from Ari Solomon of Los Angeles).

First, the answer to the two biggest questions from unhappy readers:

How could she miss the cat meowing all those weeks? Said Murphy in her note: "This cat NEVER meowed. Not once. We sat on that window seat every single day of her disappearance, and never heard ONE SOUND until the night she was discovered." 

And why did the story run on Christmas Day? This was "a good choice for anyone who believes in unexpected blessings," as editors on the National desk said when they pitched it.

As reporter Murphy put it in her e-mail to upset readers, "I have gotten many wonderful e-mails from people about my story of Bess, and a whole lot from readers who were shocked at what happened to Bess, and my lousy record of pet ownership. Let me start by saying that none of these reactions came as a surprise to me. As a lifelong cat lover (I find I am someone who likes animals better than people in  many ways), there is no way I would have put all that in the story without knowing how many people (such as myself) would react."

"I am sending this out in an attempt to explain what happened, and why I wrote the story as I did. Many of you will dismiss this as a sorry attempt to make excuses. Well, it is."

Here's the rest of the note the reporter sent to readers who called her irresponsible and worse:

"I can tell you that none of the horrors that have gone through your mind can match those that have inhabited mine. Why didn't Bess meow? I've gone through it a million times. Did she leap in there while someone was getting a blanket out and then get hit on the head as the door was closing? Did she run quickly out of oxygen and go into a semi-comatose state? Did one of the children at the barbecue accidentally close her in a door or step on her, and then hide her in the cabinet because they were afraid to admit what happened? (I can tell you that while I described these as "blowout" parties in the story, they were not, as many of you seem to imagine, alcohol-fueled orgies. They were big dinner parties, with lots of laughter and kids and Van Morrison on the iPod, the kind of events where the cats usually get cuddled and played with and which one would hardly expect would be a menacing event.

"Why didn't I look in the window seat? I went on every possible lost-cat website, and every one of them told you to search your own house and outbuildings immediately. We looked under beds, in closets, in the kitchen cabinets, and called her name all over the house. We open the window seat perhaps twice a year. It just never occurred to me that she could possibly be in there, particularly since she had been seen the night of the barbecue. I was simply SURE she had escaped the house, because of the open window in the guest room, and I knew those coyotes were in the woods very nearby.

"As far as my history with cats, I have no appetite for making excuses, other than to tell you that I have always been a loving and careful steward of my cats. Amanda's foray hiding behind the dryer happened at the home of my friend while I was gone on vacation, and of course she was none the worse for her period of seclusion. Mario was locked out on the balcony by my husband, after I had already gone down to the car. We had an iron-clad rule in the house not to leave the balcony door open when the cats were roaming free in the house, and my husband violated that rule one evening when I was at the office, thinking Peter was asleep in my daughter's room. We got screens the next day -- miserably, lamely, a day too late. Marie was closed in the dryer by my idiot Russian housekeeper, again while I was at work (she, too, was OK despite it). Katya was allowed to go outside and did escape our yard and got hit by a bus, and I am single-handedly responsible for this. I shouldn't have let her go outside. I let her and Kolya out in our garden in London because they literally begged at the door, and seemed gloriously happy when they were let out, miserable when they were not. Nonetheless, I made a decision after that to never again let my cats go outside.

"I included the litany of cat tragedies in my story about Bess as a means of full disclosure. If I was going to write about what happened to Bess -- which happened in my house, to my cat, and which ultimately, like all of it, was MY FAULT -- then I needed to face up to what had happened in the past. I didn't include it to minimize the tragedies that had befallen our cats in the past, every one of which brought unending tears to my family -- I can't even tell you how many -- though I wrote about it in a glossed-over way for purposes of this Christmas story. I needed to include evidence of our family's past sins, I think, to show just how big a miracle happened to us. We deserved the grace of Bess' survival less than anyone I know. And yet it happened. I am humbled and awed and deeply, deeply thankful."

-- Kim

PHOTOGRAPH: Reporter Kim Murphy's photo of Bess at home in Bainbridge Island, Wash.

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