Preview of Coming Attractions

Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.

Friday, December 29, 2006

I just want cats

I am being swallowed by a book. Over a year ago, I attended the author’s workshop about writing sentences, constructing them with powerful words, evocative images, varying rhythms. When I told someone in my creative writing class that I was taking a workshop called “How to write a sentence”, he laughed at me (ignorant) “What is that, like, a grammar class?” But it was so much more. Janet Fitch. I had LOVED her White Oleander, loved it before I knew that Oprah did. And her workshop transformed the way I write.

She agonizes over every word. It is a miracle that she produced another book. But this book is agony to read. “Paint it Black”. The book’s violence and darkness yanks me, page by page, into depression. So why read it? Because I love this woman, this writer and her incredible mastery of storytelling. Its like a premenstrual catharsis. But once I finish it, I don’t want to visit the inner dialogue of human strife again. I just want cats. They keep me light. Keep me gentle and easy.

Little Bit came and snuggled with me as I read, distracting me. Her exquisite face close enough to examine every detail. Bitter chocolate with the lights off and then the most startling blue, like the frosted eye liner of a 7th grade girl. Tracing the slight ski-slope bump of her nose, I am inclined to forgive the imperfections of my own nose, so charmed am I by hers.

The tapering of her coloring after her ears to café au lait with milk chocolate shavings. A delight to touch, smell and admire.

My period is coming, drawing a blanket over my emotions, making me crave a solitude that admits only my cats. With them, I can be alone with my thoughts, yet not lonely at all. Is it any wonder that women and cats are a perfect pairing?

In Between Time

This is the in between time. I have been waiting and planning so long that I am desparate for the heave of real life. Launch my businesss, network with the cat world—more, all of the classes and learning I have planned for the year. Tellington Touch, Feline-ality, Bereavement Facilitator Certification and a Pet Loss specialty, Clicker Training, going deeper and deeper into my understanding of cat behavior through interviews, seminars and more reading.

Everyone gave me my old standby for Christmas—women’s contemporary literature. I used to revel in it. Eating those books like candy. But I pick one up and I am just itching to return to my cat books. Last night on Animal Planet they were showing Jane Goodall’s Talk with the Animals. A poignant reminder of how much more I have to learn to communicate with cats—I want to push beyond understanding them to the Goodall level of interaction.

But we are cramped in this apartment, children crawling all over everything, their stuff swamping the place. I am organizing, planning, coordinating furniture, movers, contractors. Drafting plans so that every room in the house has something to offer the cats, without overwhelming my husband. A refined home where he can invite his collegues, but at the same time, a cat’s home.

Soon. Within two weeks. The wait will be over.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Nashville Cat Scene

The upper middle class folk of Middle Tennessee take their pets seriously.

With two stores just 20 minutes apart that are devoted to all things feline, one would think that Feline Affirmative Action has made great strides in this area. Both stores sell cat food, litter, toys, as well as a host of cat nick-nacks. (here is a photo of the Christmas tree we decorated with ornaments from both shops!)
Both stores offer shelter cats for adoption.

The Feline Fetish is the smaller and newer of the two, located in Franklin. The owner, Stephanie, boosts that they have adopted out 83 cats since they opened in April of 2006. She hosts three cats at a time. “I like to pick the ‘hard cases’ from Williamson County Animal Control. Cats that have been abused or have little chance of being adopted straight from the shelter. I rehabilitate them at the store until they are ready to go home with someone.” With great affection, she strokes ‘Tortie’, “Of course, she isn’t a true tortie because of the white on her chest and paws. But that’s her name. She was abused and just terrified of everything. But look at her now. Every time a big man walks in the store and she strolls up to him for a pat, I feel fantastic.”

While I was visiting, a woman entered the store. She seemed taken with Tortie, stroking her and asking questions about adopting. My daughter, Allegra, was playing with another cat, bouncing the laser point around the store, while a silver tabby, Gracey dashed after it. “That one looks fun.” I sized the lady up, thinking that Tortie would be a much better match for her. Gracey has a bit of petting aggression and definitely needs to be played with. I wasn’t sure that this woman was up for meeting Gracey’s needs. Tortie seemed a better match to me.

When I returned to the store for another visit, Stephanie said that the woman had returned and adopted Gracey. I hope it works out.

The Cat Shoppe in Nashville usually hosts about 15 cats amoung its merchandise. A couple of the more aggressive cats are in cat cages, many of the cats lounge in the windows, while others enjoy a cozy outdoor enclosure. This store has been around for a long time. I first learned about it in the dedication of one of Pam Johnson-Bennett’s books. (She is the cat behaviorist that I consider my guru—a Nashville resident.) I had been eager to visit for years, but the owner was preoccupied with customers and we didn’t have a chance to chat.

Nashville has its own free ‘pet magazine’, The Nashville Paw, edited by Heather Davis. She launched the magazine about a year ago and its reputation is so strong that Nissan asked her to do a special issue for its 5000 employees that were relocated to the Nashville Area. It is a very well done rag. I picked up a copy at the Feline Fetish and noted the invitation to their Christmas fundraiser. When I called to RSVP, Heather herself answered (I will never get over my inclination to expect that these people will have ‘people’ who answer their phones for them—and my astonishment at how accessible most people in the cat world really are—even the ‘celebrities’.)

The party was held at the crème de la crème of pet boarding facilities: The Farm at Natchez Trace. I brought my eight year old daughter, April, who shares my delight in the ‘Silent Auction’—she made sure that we weren’t out bid on any of the items we really wanted! We toured the facilities and I was pleased to see that the cats had the nicest accommodations that I had seen at any boarding facility (and they should at $38 a night!—though I maintain that the San Fransisco SPCA had even nicer quarters for most of their cats.) Each kitty had a five story apartment, an entire wall of which is glass looking out at the delightful wooded grounds. The litter boxes are on the bottom. Food and water on higher levels. Each apartment is probably about three feet wide and six feet high. So it isn’t expansive but the emphasis on height is a plus—what really makes them winners though, is the view. One wall of each apartment is wire mesh, allowing the cats to see and smell the common area. Each cat is allowed five 15 minute intervals to explore the common area and play with the attendants.

What particularly caught my eye was one apartment that was labeled ‘exclusively for I.C. Robinson. “Oh, that apartment is reserved just for Muriel Robinson’s cat.” The attendant informed me. “Who is Muriel Robinson?” “The Judge? Oh she’s a force majeure in these parts. She loves her cat.”

I have to meet this woman. She must be spending a small fortune to ensure that I.C. has his own private accommodations every time she leaves town. There must be a story there.

The cozy party gathered around the roaring fireplace in the Farm’s lobby. Musicians strummed and cooed and $3500 were raised to help local rescue groups. April was delighted with the modest bounty that we acquired at the auction. And Heather suggested that she might want me to write a column for the Nashville Paw.

Several days later, I had completed my moving and house buying duties for the day and had an extra hour and a half before picking up the girls from school. I decided to take a detour and ended up at the Williamson County Animal Control building. The scene was not what I had expected, four of the lovely ladies of WCAC greeted me from their gold tinsel bedecked counter. When I introduced myself as a cat behaviorist, new to area and interested in possibly being of service, they embraced me warmly. “We are all cat lovers. We all have cats at home.” We talked about the work at the shelter. It was pretty grim. Lots of euthanasia. “We have no trouble placing kittens, but no body wants the full grown cats. We had another lady here from California. She was sure that in California these beautiful, healthy cats would be adopted, she just couldn’t understand why no one here wants them, so she set up her own rescue.” (Another person for me to meet!) “People around here are okay about fixing their dogs, but no one thinks about the barn cats—just throw them some slop and water and leave em be.”

Their eyes watered with tears as they discussed their jobs. “I’ve loved animals all my life, I never thought that when I grew up I’d be killing them for a living.” One woman quipped bitterly. These kind women were shrouded in grief. “Do you have anyone you can talk to about your mourning for these animals?” I asked. “Not really, no one wants to hear about it, half the people hate us and the other half just don’ t want to know—or don’t care. Its hard, its really hard working here, but atleast we know we are able to help some of the animals.” One woman pointed to a cat displayed in the lobby. “I nursed him back to health, now I just hope someone will adopt him before…”

“But we do have good news! Williamson County is finally hiring a vet to work here. Its very exciting.” I was shocked, “You are animal control and you don’t have a vet on staff? Surely you have Vet Techs at least?” “Nope, nothing. Most of us here started as kennel attendants—we actually have an opening for a cat kennel attendant—if you are interested?” I thought about it for half a second—but I couldn’t. I’m not brave enough, I’m not tough enough. I have just spent the last three years on a journey to understand the soul of the cat. I couldn’t handle a job putting them to sleep simply because no one else values them.

So very soon, the wealthiest county in Tennessee will have a veterinarian on staff at its animal control. They will be able to offer spay/neuter clinics—and actually treat the medical needs of the animals that arrive at the shelter. “Until now, its mostly been guess work, just drawing on our experience, but I worry that we are putting animals to sleep because of minor infections—things that really don’t warrant euthanasia.”

I carried their grief with me. I thought of a woman who raised her hand at the Cat Writer’s Conference. She spoke about working at a shelter and the unbearable grief that filled her. How she learned to hate humans and their carelessness and the ongoing horror of one death after another of trusting pets that had been cast aside. “Someone needs to address the grief of shelter workers. Someone needs to help us.”

Kids and Cats United

On Christmas Eve, Allegra and Little Bit spent a solid hour burning off their three year old squirrels. Allegra would gather six ping pong balls, sit on a cushion and throw them, one at a time, across the room. Little Bit gave chase to every one as it scampered across the floor, and then look to Allegra when it came to a dead stop, cueing Allegra to throw another. When all six were dispensed, Ally gathered them all up and began again. Over and over and over again. Finally, they both tired of the game, Allegra moving on to something else, Little Bit curling up into a dead sleep.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Kids Vs. Cats

The thing about kids vs. cats: For most cat behavioral issues, all you need is some solid information to solve the problem. I just don’t find the same to be true with kids.

For example, I have decided that Little Bits penchant for drawer diving has gone beyond what is reasonable, safe and tolerable. One of these days, she will get hurt. The solution is three pronged (aside from just trying to keep the drawers closed and inaccessible). Keep an empty soda can with a few pennies inside ready to shake whenever I see Little Bit casing an open drawer. Work on clicker training the ‘come’ command to get her to come back out if she does get in. The third thing is the most important though. As I plan the cat’s environment in our new home, I want to provide Little Bit with lots of interesting caves and crevices to explore that are safe for her. Little Bit gets bored easily, she needs lots of play and action. Plenty of appropriate places to climb and explore will keep her from needing to investigate what is behind every drawer.

It just isn’t that simple with my kids. Or perhaps I am mistaken. When I think of Little Bit, I think of her intense need to use up energy. The kids have similar issues. These days one just doesn’t set kids loose on the world letting them explore at will (kind of like keeping one’s cats indoors.) Perhaps I should focus on creating opportunities for the kids to combine exploring with releasing energy.

I am told that clicker training works on kids too. Hmm….

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Formal Feline Introduction

Before we journey any further, you should know the cast of characters in my personal feline drama.

Helen: Born on the mean streets of downtown LA, our paths crossed when she was only two weeks old. Trapped with her little head wedged between the bars of a storm drain, her yowling caught my attention as I parked my car. She was filthy and nearly overcome with fleas. I pried her loose from the drain while she hissed and slashed at me, but the instant that I held her to my chest, she purred and blinked at me with beautiful blue eyes. My husband, Aaron, and I had only known each other for six months. My cat, Dorothy and I had moved in with him just two weeks after we met. I knew Aaron was a keeper, because he and Dorothy had bonded instantly. In the mornings, they would feed his fish together and enjoy a good chat (Dorothy was rather vocal.)

But I wasn’t sure how he would respond to the arrival of a vermin invested kitten. I hid the kitten while I stuttered and stumbled over myself to win his favor—I shouldn’t have worried. He was delighted. Immediately, we set about cleaning her up. It took six rounds of sudsing and rinsing before the water ran clear. The flea comb wasn’t catching these crafty critters, so we ended up tweezing about 100 fleas from Helen’s little body. This trauma would haunt her skin for the next eight years. Even with several rounds of surgery to remove the scaling, she had persistent allergic dermatitis until changes in her diet finally resolved the problem.

I was completely smitten with this kitten. She was so beautiful and loving. But she would never overcome her fear of other cats. Shortly after she arrived we rescued another cat, Athena, whom we believe had recovered from distemper. She has severe mental handicaps and I suspect that her bizarre social cues confused Helen as she developed. Helen never developed appropriate cat etiquette. Now, in our household of five cats, she is the persistent pariah. Even when a cat approaches her in a friendly manner for a gentle nose sniff, she responds as though being attacked, hissing and bearing her teeth.

Her skin is terribly sensitive and though she loves to be loved, sometimes being touched is more than she can handle.

She is the only cat I ever had that went into heat. She matured early, at four months. Her writhing and calling took me completely by surprise. But the intensity of it ensured that she went to the vet for surgery the next day.

During my pregnancy with April, I was very sick. For four months, I could barely eat anything. I couldn’t read, watch TV or move around without throwing up. So I was confined to my bed, initially in a dreadful state of boredom. Helen was my constant companion, still very much a kitten, she was more open to affection during those months. We spent hours, upon hours communing. Dorothy was there too, but I particularly remember Helen staying by my side during those horrible months. I am forever grateful.

Ben: Ben is perhaps the most exquisite cat that has ever lived with me. He chose my daughter as his favorite, even while he was living with our neighbor. She had rescued him from the parking lot at the Ontario Airport Marriot in California. But his stay in her household of twenty cats was short lived. He was destined to be united with my daughter. (Their love story will appear in Cat Fancy magazine sometime in 2007.)

He is divinely handsome and endlessly amiable. He is the cat who greets our guests and wins over even the most reticent of non-cat people. He is as soft as a rabbit, charming and playful. He was gaining a bit of a middle aged paunch last year when we brought home Gussie.

Gussie: My daughter, April, needed to interview a cat rescue worker as part of a book report project for school. I contacted my friend, Jan from Happy Strays Rescue. During April’s interview with Jan, April fell head over heals for a 4 month old calico that Jan was offering for adoption. There was something special about Gussie, so we brought her home. Ben couldn’t have been more delighted with his young girlfriend (and personal trainer.) The two romped and frolicked through the house while the ounces fell away from Ben’s midline. Their mutual affection was enchanting, but the relationship was shortlived because a few months later, we brought home Elizabeth (referred to as Little Bit because my three year old daughter mispronounced her name so perfectly.) Gussie, who is a feline social butterfly, formed an instant attachment to her new best girlfriend, leaving Ben somewhat disgruntled as Little Bit took over his role in the energetic games that Gussie so loves. It took him months to learn to share her, and eventually, he learned to love Little Bit too.

Gussie is a bit skittish by day. Last summer, my husband took our daughters to Vermont for ten days, and it was clear that the constant commotion of my human children is a real hindrance to her trust of humans. She relaxed visibly and became more intensely affectionate with me. This ebbed upon their return. She is now 1 ½ years old and her personality is blooming. She grows more affectionate and loving by the day. Her petite frame, silk fur and playfulness helps her maintain the beloved role of household kitten.

Little Bit: When I was seven years old, my parents cat-sat a marvelous Siamese cat for the summer. Bussalie. Intelligent and regal, she had mastered the art of pooping in a human toilet. From that summer on, I had longed to live with another Siamese cat. Last January, while visiting a mobile adoption unit of the Pasadena Humane Society, I found ‘Little Bit’ (a mixed breed Siamese).

She was ill when we brought her home. The combination of her fevers and the stress of frequent vet visits caused her to be very docile. She slept in my arms or my daughter’s arms every night during her first month with us. Once she recovered fully, she sprang into action—rarely slowing down since. She is the quintessential cat for whom the phrase was coined “Curiousity killed the cat.” If there is an open drawer in the house, she must investigate what is behind it. Her investigations are tireless—she will climb to any height, crawl into any crevice. It is for her that I have to be sure our home environment is cat safe. She is the cat that loves playtime the most—she will fly through the air, twisting and turning after a toy. Her good natured antics are endlessly amusing to the whole family.

Henry: Henry is the latest addition to the family. I adopted him just two weeks before we left LA for Nashville. As crazy as it seems, I had to. In the same way that April’s cat, Ben, chose her. I feel that Henry choose me. I spent years hiding a private jealousy of April’s relationship with Ben. Through many intense and loving relationships with cats, I was never chosen by a cat, not until Henry chose me.

My friend, Sharon Clark, of the Paw’d Squad rescued Henry. He had been hanging out at a convalescent home in Alhambra, CA. The management was planning to exterminate all the cats on the property, one of the residents that had been feeding the cats called the Paw’d Squad. They came and trapped the cats. Henry is a large, green eyed Tabby. His affectionate nature quickly became apparent and Sharon added him to the population of their shelter. He lived there for a year and ½ with 80 to 100 other cats, keeping peace with all of them. Henry is a true pacifist. Unassuming and avoiding all conflict.

The first time I visited the Paw’d Squad, he planted himself squarely in my lap. The second time, I wondered if I would see him again. I sat in a pile of about 15 cats, when our eyes met. I knew it was him, so I called out his name. His face lit up, but then he looked cautiously behind him, as though to confirm that I wasn’t calling some other cat. I assured him that I was calling him. With weathered optimism he approached and found his way right back into the center of my lap, where he curled up, purring and gazing at my with an invocation for love.

I thought about him for weeks. Then I returned a third time, when I entered the shelter, I called his name and he came bounding in immediately from the other room. That is when I felt it unequivocally. This cat had chosen me. His headbutts and purring, his direct gaze and the sheer expressiveness of his whole body assured me that I was right. Henry and I belonged together.

My husband had already laid down the law. No more than four cats. Period. What would it take to convince him? I offered all sorts of intimate favors. But nothing was worth a fifth cat to him. Finally, I asked him, “What will it take?”

“Well, there is that motorcycle that picked me.”

A $15,000 motorcycle that I had absolutely forbad him to consider. We don’t have the kind of money to afford that sort of toy. But this was the bargain that I had asked for. “You can take it out of the house sale money.”

And so we spent $15,000 to bring home a neutered tomcat tabby, with tattered ears and a scarred nose from his pre-pacifist days on the street. And my husband got his dream motorcycle.

Henry was worth every penny. When I returned to the Paw’d Squad to ask him if he wanted to come home with me, he gave me and incredibly forceful headbutt on the chin. On several other occasions, he has displaced an uncanny ability to understand English as well. He is the most affectionate lap cat that I have ever had the privilege of loving.

When I asked my husband what it would take to bring home a sixth cat, he answered, "A maserati."

My Home

Life overwhelms me sometimes. How did I end up with these kids? And this husband? Like living with strangers, sometimes. And I take solice in my cats. Their soft paws, silky kindess. They comfort me. They are my home.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Moving Cats

There are people who feel that you shouldn’t move a cat because a cat’s attachment to place is stronger than its attachment to people. Most cat rescue people will tell you unequivocally that this is wrong—bring your cat when you move, because a housecat left behind will most likely have to fend for itself—and it needs its people. Moving pets interstate is certainly a challenge. Last Friday, I moved five cats, two large dogs, two small human children and a guppie from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tennessee and it was no picnic (although my cats behaved beautifully through out.)

So, are cats more attached to place than people? Roger Caras writes about the theory that cats have a sensory perception of the earth’s magnetic fields. When he introduces a new cat to his home, he keeps it isolated in a cage for three days, while it gets its ‘magnetic field bearings’, then when he releases it onto his farm. The cats seem to locked into the location of thier new home.

The magnetic field perception would explain the amazing stories of cats that find their way back to their home from incredible distances. If the cat is navigating magnetic fields, honing in on the longitude and latitude that it identifies as home, that would explain its ability to traverse unfamiliar terrain over hundreds of miles to return its original home. But, is the cat traveling to return to a place, or is it hoping that it will find its people there? The anecdotes about this are unconclusive, but there are certainly many instances where the cat was clearly in search of a beloved human.

Clearly, this is not a skill to experiment with—many cats get lost, never to find their way home. But researchers have recently conducted studies of bats and concluded that some bats do have an internal magnetic compass that helps them find their way home over many, many miles, even when they have been purposely disoriented. Perhaps some cats share this ability?

On the flight from Nashville, all five cats rode in the cabin with us (my husband, two daughters and a babysitter.) Most of them bedded down in silence after a good dose of Rescue Remedy, though they were clearly distressed—perhaps by the isolation in cages, the strange smells, the noises and presence of so many strangers so tightly packed together. But I did wonder, if cats are able to experience the earth’s magnetic fields—what would it feel like for them to fly? Moving so swiftly across that pull.

There is no question in my mind though—my cats are far more attached to me than to location of our home. They are clearly feeling insecure in the new location, all of them more actively seeking affection and reassurance than usual. I have been keeping the litter boxes immaculate, fresh food flowing and lots of attention. I brought their favorite toys, beds and food in our luggage to help the new place feel familiar.

Being accustomed to a home with hardwood floors, they love the Wall to Wall carpet in our temporary apartment, rolling around on it and stretching out for a snooze as though the whole place were one big cat bed. An open window is an invitation to press their noses against the screens and breathe in all the exciting new smells of Tennessee. They shift as the breeze changes, raising their little nostrils to the wind.

As each day passes, they grow more relaxed, bolder, they establish their favorite sleeping and grooming spots. I would have thought that the queen-sized bed that came with the apartment wouldn’t allow for as much feline company at night (we are used to a king-sized bed), but the cats are not deterred and snuggle in piles with us all night—rather than spreading out as was their custom in LA.

I had planned on sharing all of the logistical details of moving our little zoo across country, but it was boring and irritating enough in person, to share the entire minutia would be too tedious. Suffice to say, the American Airlines personnel were odious. We were dressed down, pushed around, looked over and then they would sloooow down. Their eyes blazing with petty power, “I can make you wait. And I will.” One particularly petulant clerk would stare my husband in the eyes, shuffle papers, then stare at him again while she contemplated untold bureaucracies, determining whether or not the batteries on the guppy’s portable fish tank would be meet airline safety standards.

The most comical moment was certainly when I had to remove each cat, one by one from its carrier, while the carrier was x-rayed, and the cat and I traversed the metal detector. Then I returned the cat to the carrier and went back for the next one. Five times in a row. Naturally, the TSA officer monitoring the metal detector had a severe case of Ailurophobia. She would shudder visibly and leap back each time I passed.

The hero of the day (I promised him that I would mention him in my blog) was our Armenian airport shuttle driver that brought us to LAX from Pasadena. It took us two hours to check our large dog, Blake (too big to travel as checked baggage) into American Airlines Cargo. During that time, Harot Sassounian (of PrimeTime Shuttle) cheerfully attended to our other dog, Shyan, walking her, cleaning up after her and generally providing moral support in the face of American Airlines petty bureaucrats. Thank you Harot!!!

My darling little Calico, Gussie is busily grooming herself in the chair next to me, a clear invitation to bedtime. She will sleep curled into my waist, just as she did in Los Angeles, because in spite of any adjustments to the magnetic fields, she recognizes any bed that hosts my body as her preferred place to sleep—in cat terms, that would be home.

Weekly Cat Quote:
Most beds sleep up to six cats. Ten cats without the owner. ~Stephen Baker