Duke was a wonderful cat and an institution in our family. He was practically as old as I was; in cat years he was ancient. He was a Maine coon cat—huge, orange and furry!
We got Duke one spring around Mother's Day. He was an immensely cute kitten, and because Maine coon cats take time to mature he remained in kittenhood for three or four years.
Gradually he began to fill out and develop the massive frame and mass of fur for which his breed is so well known. Despite his size, he was an amazingly zany cat with whom you could play for hours with a simple piece of string and wax paper. It's quite a sight to see a 20-pound cat twitch his ears and crouch down to pounce and fling himself wholeheartedly at a piece of crumpled paper.
As an older kitten, Duke discovered that at full length he was just the right height to stand on his hind legs and wrap his long front legs around my 5-year-old waist. He waited along a short pathway of forest undergrowth that separated our yard from a field behind it. Hunkered down among the weeds and grass, he jumped up just as I came through, grabbed me around the waist, gave me a squeeze, then let go and scurried off at high speed. He never used his claws.
Duke was capable of heroic feats as well. He was only a year old when he disappeared for a week, unscrupulously taken, we now believe, by a neighbor who moved away at that time. We were all very sad at the loss of Duke, especially my mother.
One day as she sat on the sofa, facing our sliding glass door and patio, around the corner came a scraggly, wet, dirty fur ball, limping and hungry. Duke had returned! We never knew the distance he had traveled, but it was more than enough to wear down the pads of his paws.
Marmaduke (his "official" name) was with us for 19 years, and at about 16 or 17 he began to slow down. We didn't notice at first, but it slowly became more and more obvious.
He made a last hurrah, though, and was my best buddy when I went through a difficult, debilitating bout with the Epstein-Barr virus and chronic fatigue my last year of college, plus the following year. When I couldn't get off the couch all day, Duke would climb up and sleep beside me until I began to feel a bit better. He was always there with a tail to wrap around our legs and a cheerful chirp for which Maine coons are famous.
The stories could go on and on, but one spring, when he was 19 years old, we noticed Duke was struggling to eat and move around, and as several days went by, he wasn't getting any better. His time with us had come to an end. We will never have another cat exactly like Duke, but our experience with him added a special sweetness to our lives.
It's not an easy process to lose a pet, whether from accident, illness or old age. Today's high-tech society is far removed from the barnyards of yesteryear, and we seldom grow up around the cycle of life and death.
We grow more attached to our pets, sometimes because they are the only animals we know. There are no cows to be milked, no chickens to feed, no cattle or sheep to be raised for meat; so these cats, dogs, guinea pigs and other little critters become in our minds as close as friends.
Indeed, there are many stories of the heroism and devotion of a pet for its owner, even to the point of giving its life in some cases. These enduring traits provide a profound lesson from God's creation for our own character.
However, sometimes it is necessary to step back and assess the real reason God blessed us with these creatures. Obviously He gave some animals for our food (the kind listed as edible on His "clean" meats list) among other purposes. Other varieties He made for other reasons—either to populate the wild or to be domesticated.
These domesticated types provide our family pets. People keep them as companion animals now, but in the past, when society and culture was more rooted in farm life, they had other jobs.
Dogs were and still are trained as herders to assist shepherds or cattlemen with the sheep and cattle. Other breeds are more suited to guarding the family home or farm, and barking an alarm to their owners should an intrusion occur. In the far north, huskies and malamutes are known for their abilities as beasts of burden, pulling sleds and hauling people and goods.
Some animals were hunters, protecting the farm from overpopulation of rodents and other vermin. Both dogs and cats are primary examples, dispatching rats and mice in the barnyard. In Asia, Siamese cats were actually bred as guards in palaces. Maine coon cats, like our Duke, were bred to love the sea and lived on ships, keeping the rat population under control.
When God created animal and plant life, He gave mankind dominion or caretaker status over them (Genesis 1:26). This means that we should be kind, not cruel, in caring for the animals God entrusts to us (Proverbs 12:10). Animal tending helps us to turn our thoughts outward toward the needs of His creatures.
Human beings and animals are both physical creatures, but God reveals that an impassable chasm separates people from animals. People have a distinct level of consciousness and understanding within us that makes us human (1 Corinthians 2:11). And only human beings are described in the Bible as having the opportunity to receive eternal life as "sons of God" (see Hosea 1:10; John 1:12; Philippians 2:15; 1 John 3:2; Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:53).
Reflecting this distinction between people and animals, Ecclesiastes 3:21 asks, "Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?"
Of course, animals do have varying levels of abilities and instinct. Pigs are particularly smart and trainable—not to mention monkeys, horses and many other animals, especially domesticated ones, if you have the patience and skill to teach them. However, they are not offered the promise of eternal life. God simply did not make them for the same purpose as human beings.
Only human beings are made in God's own image with the potential to become part of His family. God has a magnificent plan for the future that accounts for every human life that has ever been or will ever be. Animals were made for other reasons, including companionship and to teach us great lessons of character. They are a part of the earthly creation, and each population, when in proper balance, keeps one aspect or other of the creation in order.
Our cat Duke gave us a chance to see dignity, devotion and loyalty in action, with an added dose of joy and humor. I discovered that when a pet dies, it is a good time to look back and give thanks for the many lessons we have learned and also to look forward to the new lessons and experiences we will have when we are able to have a new pet.
Though they will not be with us always, we can appreciate our creatures while they are with us for a while. To be a keeper of creation is a great blessing and an honored responsibility.