Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What Cat Haters Don't Know About Cats

Cats are interested in their environment. The late John Hollander once wrote, “The problem with cats is that they are always watching you.” It’s almost as though they are here on this earth to study and compile a scientific report on the people and things around them. When she was young, our cat Sadie Pearl used to follow me around the house observing every detail of what I was doing. Although her vision was quite poor, she liked to go outdoors sit quietly on the front steps taking in the sounds of the birds and the aromas of the trees and growing plants. Even now, on a snowy morning in January, she wants to go outside just for a minute to see what’s going on; she feels the 10-degree cold on her nose and comes right back in. Presto, now gone alas, was especially interested in whatever food we were eating. If I had some soup or a cracker, he always wanted to sample it. He became especially fond of peanut butter, which we sometimes used to give him pills.

Cats choose the games and toys that amuse them and learn the tricks they want to learn. Rowan, now seven, is bored with the many toys we have bought him over the years but he will be enthralled by a stray piece of plastic or cardboard from an unwrapped package. He also likes to play “Funny Monster,” a game that little kids enjoy too. I pretend to be the funny monster and go after him stomping my feet and growling “WHERE is that cat?” He runs away at top speed and hides, waiting for me to come and find him so he can run again. Cats that perform in movies are trained to do tricks; other cats can learn them too. When Sadie was a kitten, I taught her several of these but she didn’t enjoy doing them. I think she thought they were dumb. We still have one routine from that period, though. When she is going upstairs, I sit on a middle step and say, “Give us a kiss.” She walks along the landing and bumps her forehead against mine the way lions do in nature films. Presto invented a way of letting us know when he wanted to be let in from outside. He would jump up to a little window beside the front door so we could see him from the living room. I tried to teach Sadie how to do this but she wasn’t interested.

Cats are creatures of the emotions and they choose their own friends. Although they have a reputation for being standoffish loners, cats can form powerful bonds with people they care about; but they don’t like just anyone. A former housekeeper of ours once complained that Sadie was unfriendly. I thought, but didn’t say, “She just doesn’t like you.” They don’t call them queens for nothing! When I’m sick the cats immediately notice the change in the routine. They cuddle up against me in bed as if they were trying to give me some of their energy. When I was a child we had Pussywillow, a wonderful female cat that my mother and I adored. She was a great companion but a terrible traveler and invariably escaped from whatever box she was in, creating havoc in the car. Having given up on that approach, my parents left her at the vet while we went on a month-long vacation. We arrived home to find that she had starved herself to death; she thought we had abandoned her.

Cats show generosity toward their friends but they express it in individual ways. Keepers of cats are familiar with the gifts of dead creatures that are sometimes left on the doorstep. The hotel cat where we stay in the Bonaire once presented us with the corpse of a large rat, an impressive feat for an older lady cat. Rowan expresses affection by licking. If I have a few drops of water on my hand, he likes to clean them off for me. He and Sadie Pearl have a relationship that should be called d├ętente rather than friendship but occasionally he will show good will by licking her ears and the top of her head. It’s not clear whether she appreciates this or not.