Filet and Mignon ~ Born in Phoenix Zoo ~ my 8 year love affair with my cats ~

Can you find the cat 'n mouse?


            In the late 80’s, I was elated to be hired as the chief telephone operator for the Phoenix Zoo. After a year, due to a five and a half day / night work schedule, as well as an incredibly nightmarish commute, I returned to part time teaching.

            It is quite an experience to work in a large zoo. Keepers tend to adopt “orphans” of the animal world, so I was quickly accepted into their circle and quickly an integral part of the Phoenix Zoo’s social network. Who needs the blandness of Facebook when, during lunch hour, one can help chain an elephant’s foot so her nails can be filed down? How about helping the pet patrol after work to assist in the trapping of stray or abandoned domestic animals regularly thrown over the walls by brainless people? The conversation, over hand made ice cream following the capture of an angry domestic cat which was terrorizing an adult rhinoceros was, well – it was priceless. 

            Zoos throughout the world have problems with animal dumping. Cats, especially pregnant ones, usually outnumber all other species thrown over the wall.  Dogs, turtles, all sizes of snakes, and domestic birds round out the top five kinds of throwaways.

            The much-honored veterinarian, Dr. Kathleen Orr, worked at the Phoenix Zoo for over twenty years.  I respected and adored that lady!

              Before she agreed to accept the job, her condition of employment was the assurance to have her way concerning the domestic throwaways unthinking people would toss over the fence. She insisted these animals be euthanized immediately after trapping. Her concern, of course, was the safety of exotic animals in her care.

            When a throwaway was trapped, I sent out a radio alert, so any employee who might consider adopting had to contact Dr. Orr immediately. Immediately meant within ten minutes of the alert.

            In February, we learned Walt Disney World would be purchasing a young, prime male zebra from us. Zoos sell superfluous animals to each other. Very few purchases are made from dealers or private individuals. According the official AAZPA and governmental guidelines, the animal in question must remain in quarantine for a set period of time, depending on the species. Our zebra was removed to the quarantine area for two months of isolation. His house and yard were near one of the outer perimeter walls, across a dirt road where I parked my car. With permission from Letitia, his keeper, I started the practice feeding him a carrot upon arrival and departure. I was also instructed to report any unusual behaviors to her.

            Zebra and I became “friends” as the animal would do anything for a succulent carrot!

            After six weeks, the time for his departure to live with Cousin Mickey loomed. At that time, the keeper became concerned, because the striped one suddenly refused to eat and was constantly trying to leap the high fence of his enclosure. And then, the impossible happened. When his keeper went in to hand feed him with his favorite vegetables in the morning before visitors arrived, he attacked her with his hoofs and bit her fingers and arms. Luckily, she escaped with relatively minor but painful injuries.

            The emergency crew, headed by Dr. Orr, raced to the area. The zoo locked down, and early visitors were told they could not enter. 

            The zebra attacked Dr. Orr, too. It remained almost out of control until quieted by an electric prod which calmed him, and she was unhurt. The keeper was in tears.

            At the switchboard, a call came in by radio, and I was asked to call Disney, inform them about the incident, and to tell them the zebra would be euthanized.

            Quickly, preparations were made, and the keeper and veterinarian, accompanied by several riflemen, approached the zebra. As they entered the enclosure, the zebra literally went crazy and, furiously bucking and neighing, made its way to the far end of the enclosure. Abruptly, a Siamese cat streaked out of his house. One keeper began tracking the cat, and the riflemen kept the escapee in their sights. Cautiously, the Leticia and Dr. Orr went into his house. They heard peculiar mewing and minute growling sounds coming from the manger. Upon hasty investigation, they discovered a tunnel going through the concrete to the dirt floor down to dirt crawl space. At the end of this tunnel were eight tiny black kittens in a bed of hay, about four weeks old. 

            Within minutes, the kittens were removed and placed into a large trapping case, which was moved several hundred feet away under the shelter of a huge bush. The cage has two sections. One houses the bait (kittens), the other has a spring latch.

Meanwhile, the keeper who followed the cat had seen her disappear into the depths of the bush. He set the trap and left. 

Then everyone retreated and watched. 

Within ten minutes, the zebra cautiously approached his house. Screeching nervously, he went inside, and sounds of chomping were heard. Apparently, because of the cats, he had been too agitated to eat. 

In the next half hour, the mother cat approached the cage, went in to care for her kittens, and was trapped.

The news was radioed to me. I was told to call Disney. Their head keeper was highly amused by the good news and mentioned he bet Dr. Orr couldn’t wait to kill the cat. 

The following year, I visited Disney World in Florida, and made my way to the head keeper’s office. He remembered our telephone conversations fondly, then drove me to visit my zebra. I was given a carrot to give the zebra as a treat. The keeper said, “Don’t be surprised if he has other things on his mind, Liz. He has become king of the hill here.” 

We arrived at the enclosure and entered it. There, on a knoll, surrounded by three adoring females, was King Zebra.

He totally ignored me. 

Much to the keeper’s amusement, I ate the carrot.


            The complexities of English are reflected in any dictionary, and cannot be disregarded. For instance, dog has anywhere from nine to eleven standard English definitions, depending on one’s reference source. Consider this sentence: My brother, the dog, keeps dogging me to replace the dogs for our fireplace. Welcome to the confusing world of heteronyms and its bypaths of homonyms, homographs,, capitonyms, et al. [ More information is available on the following website: ]  

            The good news is the popularity of puns being an integral part of spoken and written English. The bad news is the difficulty of learning spoken English. 

Without going into the technicalities, the host of multiple definitions for so many individual English words makes learning our spoken language so very difficult for non-native adults. It is an almost impossible task to overcome. Young children, who grow up speaking more than one language, can, if they choose, keep learning new languages throughout their lives.

            So, to get to the meat of this matter, didn’t I mean Filet Mignon in the title?

            Of course not! First of all, zebras are herbivores. Cats are carnivores. So, now, I suppose, you want me to let the cat out of the bag.

            After my call to Disney, I called Dr. Orr and asked what would happen to the kittens. She said, “Cat heaven.” 

“Well, gee, Doc, I’ve been catless since just before I moved to Arizona. I do think I’d like two sisters.” 

“You’re on. Alert the staff about the latest orphan adoptions, “ she said gruffly, “and tell them the line forms to the right.”

I sent out an abandoned animal alert to the staff, and within minutes, the eight kittens and mother cat were all spoken for. 

Because they were only four weeks old, the keeper took the family of nine to her home and watched over them for the next two weeks. The kittens were all female. She kept the mother cat for herself. 

Finally, the day of transfer arrived. After work was over at 5 pm, I went to the vet complex, and walked into the middle of total chaos. A small, black kitten, mewing weakly, was lying in the dirt in front of an electric cart. It was my cat. Several minutes earlier, when my two refugees were being transferred, one had gotten away and ran in front of the cart’s wheels.

Dr. Orr, attracted by the commotion, arrived just as I did. “Oh, heavens! She’s trying to use up her nine lives.” She chuckled. “We’ll put her down. Cheer up, you have one cat left, Liz.” 

As she examined her, I pleaded, “If it isn’t bad, can you fix her?” 

Dr. Orr snorted. “Well, she’s not really hurt badly. Looks like it’s a minor injury. You’ll have to assist in the surgery, though. I need someone to do the anesthesia, because my assistant went home, and I won’t permit overtime …” she paused dramatically, “for a cat, for heaven’s sake.”

I readily agreed, and Dr. Orr carried the weakly mewing animal into the O.R. Quickly we prepared for surgery. With some trepidation, I watched, as the veterinarian shaved, cleaned, and examined her now unconscious patient. “Oh, this is not anything. She filleted herself.” She grinned at me.

“Well,” replied I, “if she’s filleted, then her name will be Filet. And if she’s Filet, then the other one will be Mignon.” 

We all broke into jovial laughter. At a flashing moment in time, Filet, Mignon, and I began a wonderful nine year adventure.

Just before I put the kittens in a carrier in my car, after 6 pm, Dr. Orr told me the stitches would have to be removed in ten days. “Two questions, Liz. One, can you do it?. And will these animals be permitted outside?”

“Well, I’ve removed stitches from my kids, myself, husband, dogs, birds, snakes, and turtles in the past. Sure, I’ll be fine. And, yes, they are going to be indoor animals.”

Dr. Orr smiled approvingly. “Good! Make sure you have them spayed.” Then she walked off, humming. 

Filet recovered without any complications, and I removed her stitches without incident ten days after her arrival.

The two sisters shared their black color, petite Siamese size, love of steak and shrimp, but little else. Both animals adored my granddaughter, Rachel, and would allow themselves to be cuddled, petted, and talked to.

Surprisingly, they would growl if people or animals approached too close to the house. I must say they were good watch cats. Dr. Orr said she surmised the growling was an action which had upset the zebra. “Of course, finding a mother cat hissing and scratching in the hay kept him from eating,” she commented.

Mignon was chunkier, had rough fur, a crook in her relatively skinny tail, and blue Siamese eyes. She meowed in a deep bass. When visitors came, Mignon disappeared and could seldom be coaxed out of her cave in the closet or under the bed to meet the visitor. Change didn’t sit too well with her. She was the first cat I ever knew who seemed to have OCD.

Filet’s body was sleek and slim. Her tail was long and silky, and eloquently expressed her emotions. Her eyes were an amber hazel tone. She meowed in a high pitched whizz. The beta sister, unlike the Queen, adored visitors and would set up petting / crooning / purring sessions lasting for hours. It was a purrfect arrangement for her.

My feline adoptees quickly established themselves into my life. Both sat in my lap, on my shoulder, or nestled in my hair as I sat and read, worked on the computer, or worked at my needlepoint. Filet adored my mouse and played with it to hear the beeping sounds emanating from the computer. Yes, my computer mouse, not a live one. 

Both cats assiduously defended our territory by catching insects, scorpions, occasional cockroaches, and grasshoppers. After Filet and Mignon played these creatures into submission, the insects and arthropods would be daintily dropped into my lap, on my dining room table where I was eating a meal, or on my bed pillow.

Within a short time, they established their evening routine – Filet on the right side of my queen size bed, and Mignon on the left. They quickly learned to charge into the bedroom when I said, “It’s bedtime, girls.” We had a few days of territorial jockeying for position, but both promptly learned I was the true Alpha Female in the household. 

Filet loved to play in the toilet water, splashing with her paws, and then daintily sipping when the mood was upon her. Mignon would hop into the tub as it was filling, splashing in the water until it was ankle deep. Both sisters would unravel the toilet paper for yards and yards, pulling it throughout the house. I finally outsmarted them by turning the roll so the paper was distributed from the underside. 

            It took them little time to adjust to my routine, moods, and rules. We bonded with each other and became what I used to call, “The Triumphant Threesome”.

            Although there were innumerable toys for Filet and Mignon to play with, their favorite recreations included working their way out of individual paper grocery bags, and happily unraveling any loose strings, cords, or wool. Their favorite game was chasing the red laser light throughout the house.

            When I went on short or long vacation trips, Rachel or her mom, or a friendly neighbor would cat sit. The two sisters mostly hid out during those times, ate very little, and became lethargic. It was reported to me how Mignon simply hidden and refused to show her face. I felt badly about the absences, and I never again stayed away longer than two weeks. 

When I returned, the sisters came pelting out of their hiding places and literally threw themselves at me. They clung to me, purring and mewing fiercely. The first two times, they were so agitated they screamed when I took the garbage out. At first, getting back to work was difficult with two crying cats inside the house. However, cats are very intelligent, and they quickly made the connection between my absences when I did not return, and the sound of the car indicating I would return. Thereafter, there were no dramatics when I drove out of the driveway. 

After several years, I realized if I were to ever get cats after these two passed on, it would have to be at a time in my life when I didn’t leave home for extended periods of time. I adore cats, but abandoning them for periods of time is a cruelty I hadn’t anticipated.

Our only situation involving serious stress was the bed incident. Looking back, the whole adventure still seems totally unreal to me.

As I mentioned, the three of us shared a queen size bed at night. The years went by and I wanted to simplify my life and make housework easier for myself. So I bought a twin bed. It was a struggle to dismantle the queen bed and to drag the mattress and box spring into the storage room. No one was around to help me, but I succeeded, and fell into bed that night, quite exhausted. A few minutes later, the cats came pelting in. While I was reading, there were no problems, but at lights out, they found they could not sleep in their accustomed places because there was no room. Mewing, crying, screaming, and scratching the bed clothes, they voiced their disapproval. I took them into the living room, and closed the door. Within minutes they were scratching and mewing. I opened the door, and they jumped onto the bed.

Grumbling, I pushed them out of the way and went to sleep. One took up residence on my head, and the other snuggled down between my knees. 

This went on the next night. I was planning a Saturday birding trip the next day.

Again, they jockeyed for position, and again I fell asleep. At one in the morning, I woke up on the floor. Filet and Mignon were sharing the top of the mattress: Mignon on the left. Filet on the right. I stood up to evict them, and they growled at me.

This was ridiculous. So I dismantled my twin bed and dragged it and the mattress and bedding into the spare room. Then I dragged the queen bed pieces back to my bedroom and used various tools to reassemble the bed. 

We slept in great comfort from four o’clock until ten the next morning. I did not go on my planned trip. 

            During the nine years the cats and I lived together, we solidified our bonds, and were indeed a happy family. They quickly forgave the bed incident.

            And then, tragedy struck. Filet abruptly began to exhibit signs of distress and pain. The local vet diagnosed her with a brain tumor, and I had to have her put down. What would Mignon do without her sister? What would I do without her?

            Mignon missed her for two days, and then threw herself into the role of queen. It was indeed a delightful time for both of us, and helped me to overcome my sad feelings about Mignon.

            Alas! A year later, almost to the day of Filet’s death, Mignon came down with the same symptoms. I carried her to the shelter at the end of the day, so she wouldn’t be distressed by the situation, and within fifteen minutes of arrival, she was dead. 

            I was shattered by the experience, and have not had a pet since. 

            Farewell, my dear little friends. It was glorious while it lasted.  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PS: Daughter Barbara sent this very touching note upon my loss, in the name of herself and her siblings. I was deeply touched. It is framed and still on my wall.



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