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.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Best Friends, Kanab, Utah: Visiting Dribbles

I am a sucker for an affectionate cat. As the days pass, I migrate from cat house to cat house, seeking out my favorite felines. As I mentioned before, my fondness for Dribbles was only handicapped by his very messy backside, but the caregivers have clued me into a work-around. If I visit the Kitty Motel after lunch, when the staff is washing up the backsides of the Incontinents, I can swaddle his freshly laundered bottom and thoroughly enjoy the sweet smelling, well maintained upper half of this loving cat. Oh Dribbles! xxxooo

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Best Friends, Kanab, Utah: A Symphony of Remembrance

All day the sun bleaches the canyon. But as the moon rises, it coaxes burnt sienna and red umber from the cliffs. Shadows and twilight’s blues awaken the textures of the canyon. An evening breeze sweeps up the hillside and across Angel’s Rest, inviting hundreds of chimes to release their song.

Each chime was hung in remembrance of a pet’s passing. As the wind changes course, the symphony spreads across the cemetery. It curls around the juniper trees, then catches a chime, one here, another one further off, and then a whole stand of slender pipes that sway against each other like the dance of a hundred souls.

Out of concern for the wildlife, flowers are forbidden. Instead, the gravesites are festooned with frayed collars and pretty stones.

This is a place where a person can sit and cry and feel joy and revel in their memories or just not think at all, absorbing each musical note as a legacy of the loves and lives held safely here at Angel’s Rest.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Best Friends, Kanab, Utah: Reconsidering Incontinence

There are several ‘suites’ at Best Friends dedicated to incontinent cats. Surprisingly, I found many of these leaky cats the most captivating in the sanctuary.

Zander had me in fits of giggles as he climbed all over my shoulders and arms, shellacking my hair with his copious drool. He balanced his bulky body by winding his back legs around my arms and grasping tightly, while he explored my face with his own.

Dribbles is another shoulder riding cat, however his particular bowel dysfunction persuaded me to decline that level of intimacy (I’m a pretty earthy girl, but…) However, this charming tuxedo won me over with his abundant head butting, rubbing his whiskers and mouth against my cheeks and chin.

Dilly is much less approachable, but this young cat earned my respect through her strength and determination. Paralyzed, she drags her stiff hind legs behind her, but manages to scale any cat tree with claw and muscle—just using her front paws. As she thrusts her torso over the edge of the platform, a large splat of urine flies to the floor, but Dilly ignores this, settling into a bit of displacement grooming.

Entering the lobby of another cat building, I am enthralled by the enthusiastic greeting I receive there. Scooter, a handsome black cat who lost both of his hind legs to a car accident, literally scoots on two front paws, sliding his hinny on the smooth, slick floor, as he hurries to be the first to bask in the attention of any visitors that open the door. He purrs and rubs against me in triumph.

His buddy, a fluffy, gray cat is slowed in his scooting by the two immobile hind legs he drags behind him, but manages to arrive quickly and commandeer one of my hands for his own portion of stroking and rubbing.

Some cats have higher thresholds for touch than others. Given the time, I love to engage a cat in affection until it walks away, polite, but finished.

I don’t think Scooter has such a threshold, it seemed that I could have spent the entire day praising and petting him and he never would have tired of the attention.

Another pair of favorites, Cashew and Pella have been adopted and will be going home in a few weeks. Both born without eyes, this brother and sister seem to have an intuitive ability to seek out and find any welcoming laps. As soon as I sit, the five year old blind siblings come running and deftly leap onto my thighs. Cashew settles there, while Pessa climbs up higher wanting to be held like a human infant when it is being burped. Both are highly inquisitive, captivated by the Peek-A-Prize toy, batting at the numerous balls and tiny pillows that they can reach between the holes. I have never seen other cats react so enthusiastically to the Peek-a-prize when there weren't treats in it.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Best Friends Sanctuary, Kanab, Utah: Cleaning Up

“The turn over here is pretty high.” One Best Friends caregiver confides. “I think people come here and find out that they don’t love animals as much as they think they do.”

The majority of the work here is cleaning. Poop scooping, litter box disinfecting, mopping, sweeping, dishes, laundry…an endless list of chores required to maintain hygiene and the physical needs of the animals.

In the “Incontinental Suite”, women wash the bottoms of cats who can’t attend to themselves. Little cats with neurological disorders, whose feet splay and tumble like toddlers on roller-skates, squirt streams of urine across freshly laundered bedding and newly scrubbed walls and floors. The fabrics are scooped up and deposited on the hilltop of soiled linens next to the continuously running washing machine.

Volunteers, many of them in their early teens, traipse through the buildings lavishing the cats with affection while the staff scurries to keep their charges clean, fed and appropriately medicated.

There are plenty of politics and stresses between staff members, human resources and other management. Like asking a large group of people from vastly different backgrounds , education and experience to parent a child by consensus, the low-level discord is inevitable. “The thing to remember is that Best Friends is a corporation.” One caregiver reminds me.

For all the challenges of working for a large corporation, there are benefits (health insurance for one!) “I had my own cat rescue for 10 years, as well as working a secretarial job. I LOVE it here. I get to spend all my time with the cats. I don’t have to fundraise, worry about money, or feel dread about what messages I’m going to find on my answering machine when I get home. I just get to take care of the cats all day.” Explains another caregiver who has been a Best Friends for over two years.

“I have never had less money, or a smaller place to live—but I’ve also never been happier.” Another employee beams as she unpacks hundreds of cans of cat food, stacking them on a shelf.

(This is Toshiba, the infamous paper towel shredder. One caregiver told me that even when the paper towels are carefully concealed in a bucket, staff have been know to arrive in the morning to find his entire suite covered in shredded paper towels. Toshiba will greet them sweetly as though he has no idea what has gone on here, but the fact that his fur is covered in paper towel fibers and scraps gives him away every time.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Best Friends, Kanab, Utah: The Haj

The red earth splendor of the canyon walls swoop toward the crisp blue sky. Tough scrubby plants of sage and chaparral push out of the parched clay earth. Nature’s own xeri-scaping imbues the entire sanctuary with beauty.

Tasteful and inconspicuous, amidst this desert rapture, buildings and the gentle influence of human landscaping contribute to my sense of uplift. All 30,000 acres of this canyon forms the Mecca for every animal lover. Home to over 1800 previously unwanted animals, over 400 human employees tend to them, accompanied by countless volunteers.

This is the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. The largest sanctuary dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of companion animals, including cats, dogs, horses, bunnies, parrots, pigs, goats and a few others.

I had planned this trip long before I had any inkling that my husband of ten years was planning to leave me. I arrived here fresh from the battleground of marriage dissolution, not having any idea how profoundly lucky I am.

I spent the day touring the enormous facility. Climbing into a shuttle with 11 other people for the general tour, we visited the cat community and doggie ‘subdivision’ briefly. Then I took a separate ‘pot-bellied’ pig tour, followed by a delicious, gourmet vegetarian lunch (just $4!) at Angel’s Village. After lunch, I enjoyed some mutual head-bobbing and squawking with the cockatoos and African grays of the bird house, and then, as I strolled down the graveled road the leads from the birds to the bunnies, looking out at the breathtaking vista, happiness welled up within me, ballooning and fanning out from my body so that it filled the entire cradle of this canyon. And I existed seamlessly in love.

The world is so much larger than my divorce, my ego (or even my husband’s ego.) My soul rejoices that at this moment, in this place, I inhabit a world where the love between humans and their animals companions has manifested in this cheerful, practical place.

After a brief visit with the bunnies, I returned to the cabin that I am renting from Best Friends for the next 12 days. Awaiting me in my room is K.C. The housekeeping staff has provided my ‘sleep over buddy’ with a litterbox, scratching post, food and water, a big bag full of cat toys and a cozy cat bed..

When I open the door, , KC stands amidst my pillows, stretches and jumps off the bed to greet me.
(K.C. at the bat--during one of our play sessions in my room at Best Friends.)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Angel's Gate, Long Island, New York: Sweet Evangeline

(Please see my April 2007 posts about the Cajun Cats for the back story on how I found Evangeline in Louisiana and how she was fortunate enough to get placed with Angel's Gate in New York upon learning that she had Feline Leukemia.)

Pulling up in front of Angel's Gate, the sanctuary seems like just another affluent, sprawling Long Island home. The only clue to its mission is the small dog ramp that rests on the front stairs. Susan Marino, the founder of Angel's Gate met me at the door. "Let's go around the back way." She suggested, pushing back a bevy of curious dogs.

She knew I was here to visit Evangeline and led me immediately to the Feline Leukemia cabin. "She has a bad cold. It started yesterday, so I was about to pull her from the cabin and put her in intensive care." Oh dear. I worried. Sweet Evangeline, the little tuxedo manx that had spent several nights curled up in my hotel room bed in New Orleans. I was grateful that Angel's Gate had been able to take her, since for so many cats Feline Leukemia is a death sentance.

But not at Angel's Gate, the nations first recognized animal hospice, dedicated to helping sick and injured animals finish out their lives with dignity. Two volunteers sat with the Feline Leukemia cats when we entered, lavishing these loving felines with attention. I recognized poor little Evangeline immediately. She looked miserable, with runny eyes and a disheveled coat--a stark contrast from the rest of the leukemia cats, whose bright spirits and good health were a delight. "With the Feline Leukemia cats, some of them die within the first month of arriving--but if they get through that, they usually live for years with very good quality of life. In Evangeline's case, some sanctuaries would just let her cold run its course, but not here. I treat every animal as though it were a human child, giving it the appropriate medications and keeping it as comfortable as possible, with much hope for healing." Susan Marino is a retired pediatric nurse and she puts all of her skills to use at the hospice.

We brought Evangeline to the intensive care unit. "I like using the nebulizer for upper resperatory infections, that way the saline helps clear out their nasal passages and lungs, plus the anti-biotic goes straight to their resperatory system. Its the same thing we used to do for the children in ICU." She places Evangeline in a small box after hooking up the sterile medical equipment. For ten minutes the manx breathes her medication and seems to perk up. After she finishes receiving her antibiotic, Susan administers some IV fluids. "Just like Anitra Frazier, I am a big believer in giving these cats fluids--even for a cold. It really helps them."

Usually, all the cats at Angel's Gate eat a raw food diet that is ground by a butcher especially for them, 50% organic chicken meat and 50 percent organic bones. To that Susan adds 10% grated organic vegetables, colostrum, and a high-protein blend called "Sea-Cure"--as well as other herbal and homeopathic remedies as needed for the cat's condition. However, when a cat is feeling as poorly as Evangeline, she will offer up a prescription diet. She settles Evangeline into her cozy kennel with an offering of wet canned food. After the nebulizer and the fluids, Evangeline has gained an appetite and she relishes her food.

After she eats, she dedicates herself to some grooming--she does look much better already. "I will keep her in the ICU until she is all better. Using the nebulizer two times a day, giving her fluids as needed. I'm sure she'll pull through."

And then it happens. For the first time since I have arrived, Evangeline looks at me invitingly. I reach out to pet her. As I stroke her, she begins to purr and knead at the faux sheepskin that covers the her cage floor. I believe that she remembers me as I whisper sweet nothings to her. "Look at you--a little cajun swamp cat getting Park Avenue nursing care. I am so glad for you Little Evangeline. I hope you are feeling better. Aren't you a lucky girl to be here. Susan is taking such good care of you."

It is hard to leave her again. Especially when she is feeling so poorly, but after half an hour of cuddling Evangeline and visiting with Susan, I know that Susan has alot of other animals to tend to. In other parts of the main house, I got to cuddle with the FIV cats in their special room, and visit a large bathroom that houses several diaper clad cats, as well as meeting the twitchy cats with neural disorders that hangout in the bird room. So many cast off kitties, eager for affection and attention.

"All of the animals here are loved." Susan assures me. The entire place is immaculate and smells like cleaning solutions. "We clean constantly--I am a big believer in scrubbing things down. We don't take any short cuts. The comfort of the animals is our top priority."

Angel's Gate employs some full time staff, including two vet techs. They also depend on some wonderful volunteers and others who are serving out community service sentances. Money is always an issue. My dear, generous friend, Karen, is paying for Evangeline's expenses. But there are plenty of other cats, dogs, horses, geese and others that need support. "Right now I have several animals waiting for important surgeries, so we keep sending out the fundraising letters and making appeals on television and radio. It usually works out, but I can tell you, there are plenty of times when Vic(her husband) and I are living on pasta so the animals can have everything they need."

So what drives Susan to do all this work, day after day? "Its the animals." She says succinctly. "Responding to their needs is a spiritual experience. For me, it is always about the animals."

New York, New York: Chasing the Gentle Cat Groomer

Most pet groomers won’t even think about grooming a cat. Those that do often resort to a combination of force and restraints to subdue a cat—some also don Kevlar sleeves and even face masks as protection. They speak wearily of cat bites and other injuries. It is a tough business.

Enter Anitra Frazier. 30 years ago, she was working for a veterinarian who sent her out to make cat grooming house calls, armed with nothing more than a comb and a pair of dissecting shears. She knew nothing about scruffing cats or any other methods of restraint. She had never groomed dogs, so she didn’t apply dog grooming methods to her cat grooming. She proceeded to develop a completely unique and very gentle method of cat grooming, that incorporates the cat’s guardian as a soothing assistant and focuses on keeping the cat relaxed and comfortable.

Her famous bestselling book “The Natural Cat” is about to be released in its third edition. In the book she describes the techniques she uses. But most of the book is dedicated to feline nutrition, because as a groomer she discovered that the true key to a great coat is nutrition.

Anitra invited me to spend a couple of days observing her, so that I could gain a deeper understanding of her techniques. It is one thing to read about gentle cat grooming—and another thing entirely to witness her in action.

For two days I chased after her as we traversed Manhattan from top to bottom and even detoured in Brooklyn. She is a wonder. At seventy years old, she is fast and fit, and definitely a challenge to keep up with.

She doesn’t use electric clippers or any other methods of shaving a cat. “I never do a lion clip. The poor cats look ridiculous. Its embarrassing for them. Plus the shaving is terrifying for them—and often painful. No, my job is to show the cat that grooming is a pleasure. I will never hurt them. I speak to them, offering positive mental pictures.” She cooes her examples. “Now my dear, this is going to feel so good and you are going to look so beautiful. Isn’t it lovely to be clean? I’m going to take out this uncomfortable little matte—there you go, now doesn’t that feel better? Now I am going to do the same thing on the other side, and won’t that feel good?” Her specialty for long-haired cats is the very attractive Teddy Clip, their fur cut down to about ½ inch long with scissors.

She breaks every common rule of grooming, holding the cat close to her body, helping it feel safe and secure. She uses as little restraint as possible, often seeming not to control the cat at all, but cutting fur and combing whatever part of the body that the cat presents to her. Yet she is managing the cat, “Don’t ever let the cat escape, it is important that they learn that the groomer will let them go when the session is done.” Sometimes the session is done before the cat’s coat is finished. “I can always come back another time. This is why I charge by the hour rather than the job. It isn’t worth stressing the cat to finish the coat. Sometimes we get it all done. Sometimes just one half.”

As the cat tires of the grooming session, Anitra calls on the cat’s guardian and trusted companion to distract the cat with love talk and stroking to the head. This is incredibly effective and I watched as one cat after another responded to this calming contact, closing their eyes and acquiescing to more grooming.

“With some of these cats it took them a long time to understand how wonderful it is to be groomed. They had had a bad experience with another groomer—or some other trauma and it took a lot of time to develop trust. But then they learn the routine and some of them start to enjoy it.”

Anitra also provides holistic nursing for geriatric cats. We visited one cat that is suffering from kidney failure. Anitra visits three times a week to administer sub-cutaneous fluids. “I think that sub-cutaneous fluids are terribly underused. I offer fluids anytime a cat is going off its food, or its coat seems dry. Sometimes that little pick me up can really make a huge difference for the cat. It doesn’t have to be a lot of fluids just 100 cc’s can make all the difference sometimes. It is so easy for cats to become dehydrated. Especially on these dry food diets that everyone is so fond of.” She tsks. “I tell all my clients to get their cats on a raw food diet—ground organic beef, with calcium added and some shredded vegetables—that will make a huge difference in how much grooming they need—as well as their overall health. I also like to garnish the raw meat with a little bit of PetGuard wet food—for palatability. With cats its all about Taste, Texture and temperature. If they don’t like something, try warming it or adjusting what vegetables you ad. Some cats like the sweeter vegetables like a good baked squash—while I have known other cats that would kill for a bit of chopped asparagus in their dinner.”

This diet has an amazing effect on her client's coats. The Persians' fur was as light as air, silky puffs of fluff, making the groomer's job much easier.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Wolf Park, Battle Ground, Indiana: The Mouths of Wolves

Caesar Millan (the Dog Whisperer of National Geographic fame) is often the bane of my cat consultations. “I’m doing everything just the way Caesar Millan says, I’m using calm assertive energy and showing my cat that I am the leader of the pack.” His methods are deeply imbedded in the psyches of those that enjoy his show—and they are a source of much controversy in the dog training world, but simply put, they are all wrong for cats.

Because both dogs and cats are predators and can live companionably with humans, people sometimes treat cats like dogs. And yet they are completely different species. The Cat family evolved in the Old World (Europe and Africa primarily), while the canine and wolf families originated in the New World (North and South America). True, over thousands of years some cats migrated to the New World and some Wolves migrated to the Old World (primarily over the ice bridges of the Bering Straights, I am told.) In many ways they fill the same niche—but they are built entirely differently. A cats claws and teeth combine as formidable hunting tools allowing most kinds of cats to hunt alone, while most wolves need to hunt in packs for optimal survival (to bring down big prey.) Cats are not pack animals.

Because most people know so much more about dog behavior than cat behavior, sometimes it helps to contrast the two. But I don’t relate well to dogs or understand them, so I visited a Nashville area dog trainer to try to learn more about dog behavior. I asked her, “In my cat books, they say that one reason that discipline doesn’t work with a cat (unlike a dog), is that the cat is a solitary hunter—if a cat spoils its own hunt, the cat is the only one that loses. But with a pack animal—like dogs—the alpha male will discipline the dog that makes the mistakes. Is that true? Do they really do that? Also, cats are known for congregating for social purposes that include mating, but their interest in companionship is not based on survival—while a dog is dependent on the pack for survival and that is the basis of the distinct personality difference between the independent cat and the subservient dog—is that true?”

Unknowingly, I had stepped right into the middle of the great dog debate. There are (at least) two dog camps: the Positive Reinforcement school (using positive reinforcement to shape behavior, commonly referred to as ‘Clicker Training’) vs. the Dominance Theory of dog training (such as the famed Caesar Millan, who works to establish himself as the Alpha leader of the pack, using appropriate discipline etc..) My assumptions about dogs drew from the Dominance theory, while I was interviewing a clicker trainer. She kindly declined the interpretations of dog behavior that I had presented and instructed me, “If you really want to understand the roots of dog behavior, you should take a class at Wolf Park.”

Wolf Park! ( ) What a marvelous detour on my cat odyssey. Immediately I signed up for their ‘Weekend Wolf Intensive”—three days of education about wolf behavior and interaction with real, live wolves!

When I mentioned that I was going to Wolf Park to gain a better understanding of dogs, several people assured me that the two species were, in fact, unrelated and quite distinct: Lupus vs. Canine, but according to the ethologists at Wolf Park, this controversy may have been cleared up by DNA and other research. For starters, Wolves and domestic dogs have identical DNA, and they can mate and produce fertile young.

Another piece of interesting evidence is a 50 year research project done in Russia that quickly simulated the same results that probably took many thousands of years to occur naturally. In the experiments with Silver foxes, the foxes were divided and bred exclusively for their sociability to humans. Through the generations of foxes that became increasingly friendly and well adapted to human companionship, the animals underwent a physical transformation that was NOT being selected for: their tails curled, their ears flopped and their coats became spotted. Similar experiments in rats and rabbits (selected for their friendliness with humans) produced similar physical traits.

Based on these and other evidence, the currently accepted conclusion is that our modern domestic dog is a descendent of the wolf. As humans settled into an agrarian lifestyle, they created garbage dumps, during times of scarce prey, wolves would scavenge those dumps. The wolves that habituated most easily to humans would have had a higher success rate, thus surviving to breed pups that also adapted well to humans.

The difference between dogs and wolves? Dogs have adapted so well to humans—and humans to dogs, that some researchers see the evolution of humans and dogs as linked. Dogs see humans as part of their pack. While Wolves see humans as distinct and different from themselves. According to the staff at Wolf Park, “We learned that we were much safer when we accentuated our differences, rather than trying to integrate into the pack. I think the wolves here think of us like highly productive pets, who provide food—and are marvelous groomers, but we exist outside of the pack structure. The advantage being that we exist outside of the constant awareness and struggle for place in the pack heirarcy. Simply put, our skin is too fragile to be tested regularly.”

The boisterous wolves pounce on each other, growling and rolling. It seems that consciousness of their ranking pervades their every waking minute. But their hierarchies are changeable and function differently in different packs.

Although there are behaviors that are consistent from pack to pack, each pack is made of individual personalities that coalesce to create a specific culture—much like we see in different cat communities. The culture of the pack may be determined by the personality of the Alpha male. At Wolf Park, the staff speak loathingly about the days when Renki was the Alpha. “He was such a bully, the pack was in constant conflict.” Finally, he was overthrown when the rest of the pack of six ganged up on him. Tristan emerged as the Alpha male, much to everyone’s joy, because Tristan doesn’t rule by brute force. “Some wolves just have that personality. Something about the way they carry themselves commands respect—they don’t have to prove their strength daily. Just like some human leaders, the pack just follows.”

The wolves contact with each other is overwhelmingly oral. And it strikes me that this is a strong distinction between cats and dogs. Cats engage in a nose to nose sniff in greeting, then perhaps a head butt or cheek rub and a good whiff of each other’s tushies, but wolves engage in mouth to mouth, well lathered greetings involving tongues and teeth. As I observed them at the park, it seemed that they were constantly in each others mouths.

In fact, they were also very intimate with my mouth. We were instructed to let the wolves kiss us, as this is a friendly way to interact with them. When we entered their pen, I positioned myself next to a large log. Kailani (the alpha female by virtue of being the only female in this pack) leapt onto the log and extended her long nose to sniff me. I avoided direct eye contact (very rude with cats and wolves), but offered her my face to sniff. Immediately her tongue was working its way all over my mouth, wet nose probing too. It was very gratifying, but I drew away as she became more excitable. Later, she approached me again, as I sat on a different log. This time her greeting was so enthusiastic that she nibbled on my lower lip before I pulled away. Her kisses left my lips lightly damp and very salty because of the dog treats she had just eaten.

Not being overly fond of being licked, it was clear that this is another reason I relate better to cats than dogs. A level of oral contact that I (frankly) consider highly excessive is a natural part of canine/lupus communication—and a very important one too. Yes, its true, cats engage in mutual grooming—and in fact, I even enjoy the exfoliated effect of a bit of cat grooming on my hand—but I don’t like being slobbered on.

I also found the wolves constant angling for position exhausting to watch. Most cats exist in fluid hierarchies that operate more like time-share arrangements—though occasional personality clashes may cause discord in a particular home. With the canine family, each pack has an institutionalized structure, which may have its own quirks from pack to pack, but none the less, the hierarchy is obvious and crucial to their social organization--very different from cats.

The ranking of the pack became very clearly, very quickly. Tristan stayed out of most of the wrangling, benevolent Alpha that he is, though occasionally he might step in to break up a conflict. The wrestling and ritualized (not dangerous) aggression between the 2nd and 3rd in the hierarchy—particularly with regard to Rudy, the omega wolf, was persistent. It was clear that humans wouldn’t stand a chance (as pack members) in an environment of constant testing.

What I learned seemed to indicate that both the positive reinforcement folks and the dominance theory folks have some insight into the nature of the dog/wolf. There is no question that wolves organize themselves in dominance hierarchies, and that, according to the many years of experience at Wolf Park, positive reinforcement is crucial to shaping their behaviors to be compatible with their human handlers. With dogs, that same hierarchy has been adjusted to include humans, and watching the wolves, it seems that being a benevolent alpha (with calm, assertive energy, like Tristan) is essential to managing a dog, but that positive reinforcement is clearly the key to unlock many beneficial behaviors in the human/canine relationship.

Did I get answers to the questions I had originally posed to the dog trainer? Sort of.

No, the alpha wolf doesn’t ‘discipline’ a pack member that messes up the hunt. In fact, 9 out of ten attempts to bring down prey fail. In a given pack, some of the older wolves won’t even participate in the hunting, though they do get to partake of the meat. An Alpha male isn’t necessarily the best hunter, he may have other qualities that make him the leader.

One of the great benefits of visiting Wolf Park is observing the Wolf/Bison demonstration. Of course, a wolf’s preferred prey is an elk or deer, but Bison is another prey that have been integral to the wolves existence. We watched two wolves attempt to snag a calf from a herd of Bison. Mostly, we watched the young ‘punk’ Bison males chase off the wolves. A wolf is no match for the powerful Bison, clearly to take down such a prey takes the power of a pack.

In their hunt, wolves are very different from humans, who usually prize the strongest member of a herd. Wolves test and watch for the weakest animal in the herd, they work to separate that animal from the herd often chasing the herd for long distances before finding their kill. This aerobic form of hunting is very different from the cat, who is a stalker and pouncer and rarely does more than a sprint to take down its prey—alone.

So what about the question of discipline? Wolves do discipline each other down the hierarchy, insisting on submission from lower ranking members. With their pups, they are very tolerant until the pups mature, then the adults will assert themselves mostly using their mouths to correct annoying behaviors.

I collected some of fur that wolves had shed. “Take it home to your cats, their reaction will be a lot of fun.” In true dog form, the fur gave off a pungent odor. The fur enthralled ycats, who chewed on it and played with it and reacted as though it were catnip.

As my friend observed, she said, “I bet it’s the smell of carrion, the wolves roll around in all sorts of gross smelling stuff don’t they?”

'Yes, they do,' I thought as I reached down to pet my own smelly dogs whose unwashed frontier spirits stand in such distinct contrast to the old world gentility of my sweetly, self perfumed cats.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Indiana State Prison: A few more thoughts

Reading over my last post, I wanted to clarify a few things:

The prison population at Indiana State Prison is about 2,000 with 47 cats currently registered in the program. According to the staff, problems with cat safety are few and far between. It was clear to me that these cats are cherished by their people. The cats are pampered and well-tended, getting more attention than most housepets.

The inmates have been incredibly resourceful in providing a comfortable and safe environment for the cats. And their cats receive top priority in the men’s financial arrangements. As Bear put it, “There have been plenty of times when my locker was empty, because I had spent all the money I had on my cat. I can go without, but my cat never does and that kind of responsibility is the kind of challenge that makes you grow.”

From my interviews, it is clear that for all the problems and dangers of prison culture, at Indiana State Prison, the predominant culture is one that cherishes cats and the role that they play in the lives of the men that are incarcerated there.