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 http://www.thecatbehaviorist.com/ . 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.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Caring for Carnivores: Feline Conservation Center



Flashback: Feline Conservation Center, Rosamund, CA August 2006

Pulling yellow fat from purple horse muscle, slicing, chopping until the blister at the base of my index finger bursts. Half frozen, the meat holds its blood, but makes my hands numb. This is strange work for a vegetarian. A poignant reminder that my beloved felines are dedicated carnivores.

A cigarette droops from the young zookeeper’s lips. She takes a long drag, then tips her ash in the trashcan, drops the cigarette on the kitchen’s cement floor, squashes it, picks it up with bloody fingers and deposits it in the can. Melanie is pretty and jovial, but just as at the cat shows, the smoking baffles me. Like smoking in church—a sacrilegious act.

The whole kitchen smells like menstruation. And then the wind blows the wrong way and that is overcome by the powerful aroma of scat and decaying meat from the dumpsters.

Most of the people around me are volunteers—none of them studied zoology. Kim owns a Chem Dry carpet cleaning company. Lisa is an electrical engineering student. Jeff, a pear-shaped small animal vet. Roger, a self proclaimed “Building Maintenance Technician” (this said with a zealous mix of discomfort and pride.) Roger loves the bigger cats—the jaguars, leopards, lynxs. His banter with them alternates between sappy falsettos of affection and bursts of foul language.

As I wait for feeding time outside, sweat pools behind my ears. The desert heat thaws my hands. We will feed all the cats at twilight.

What struck me most today is that these cats are cuddly and lovable as cubs, but they are transformed by adolescence and the onset of their sexual drive, so that they become dangerous to humans. Even the smaller cats. When we enter their cages to clean, we don’t turn our backs on the cats, we mutter sweet-nothings mixed with stern warnings to behave. An occasional adult cat will exude affection, like Angora the Siberian lynx, utterly charming in her rapture at being stroked and scratched. But the zookeepers are even wary of the tiny adult sandcats, yet they romp and cuddle with the enormous 6 month old Chinese leopards, holding these cats on their laps, ruffling and rumpling them like kittens, though the occasional ‘leap, lunge and swat’ warns of things to come. In a couple of months, humans won’t be able to enter the cage to clean unless the leopards are locked in their boxes.

How will they get these ornery adults into their boxes? Clicker training. One of the zookeepers, Marie, uses clicker training with the leopards, lions, tigers, cougars and even the brutish jaguars.

In spite of drinking copious quantities of water, the heat and mild dehydration conspire into a pounding headache. This volunteer work is very physical. Perhaps too physical for me. Raking, scooping poop, disposing of chunks of uneaten, stinking meat covered with ants. Hardly glamorous, the reward of being close to these cats draws the volunteers.

I feel conflicted about this place, “The Feline Conservation Center”. A not-for-profit breeding facility, that the founder refers to it as a “Noah’s Ark” for small cats. The pens are truly not as nice as the outdoor enclosure I am planning for my pampered housecats. In the wild, these cats have a natural territorial range of 3.5 miles or much, much more. At the center, they pace in cages not much larger than my bedroom. Bored. Over 80 cats.

The exhibit pens are better with moving water features, but most of the pens seem more like prisons. The ‘conservation’ breeding program supplies zoos around the world, including Estonia and the Czech Republic. One large leopard whose loud “sawing’ could be heard throughout the compound, was in quarantine preparing to return to Estonia. I asked the zookeeper, “What is the zoo in Estonia like?” The clipped response was, “How would I know?”

The memory that claimed my imagination was of the caged lion I encountered at the Budapest Zoo in 1989. Oozing eyes staining his face, no room to turn around in his little capsule of concrete and bars.

On the other hand, the Feline Conservation Center is purportedly keeping many of these species of cats from extinction. Jaguarondis—the weasel looking cats from South America—have 38 chromosomes, 2 more than the usual 36. They bring to mind Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s assertion in her book “The Tribe of the Tiger”, she calls the ‘Mongoose Tribe’ the evolutionary precursor of the cat, the hyena and the mongoose (as opposed to the fox tribe that evolved into the raccoon, dog and bear.) These Jaguarondis, known as the ‘prehistoric cat’, are intensely shy and delicate. Very sweet. It is a rare and wonderful experience to stroke thier tiny faces.

Then there is the Pallas Cat that looks so much like my cat Helen with her ears back. It is speculated that the Pallas Cat may have been cross-bred with the domestic cat to create the Persian cat centuries ago. Hunted for its beautiful coat, this Mongolian cat is on the verge of extinction. Its protective impulse is to freeze and assume an imagined ‘cloak of invisibility’ which makes it easy pickings for human predators. The Feline Conservation Center is the only group that has successfully bred these small cats in captivity.

Earlier in the day, I bought 30 feeder fish at PetSmart for $7. Such a large sacrifice of small lives in exchange for a few minutes of pleasure for the bored cats. The Fishing Cats wade in their pools, chattering with anticipation. They swipe at the orange fish, scooping them with their claws, into their mouths where the fish pop audibly. Even the Margays enjoy this sport. Sleek, beautiful small wild cats that remind me of Bengals—though they aren’t as keen to get wet as the Fishing Cats.





Blue shadows cool the surrounding desert as the cats stretch and pace. Mealtime is predictable if you've ever fed a house cat. The cats gather by their food dishes, vocal in thier anticipation of their evening meal. Its no wonder that the big cat noise is refered to as 'sawing'--it sounds exactly like a metal saw hacking at wood. Food is provided, the horse meat mixed with vitamins and a few thawed chicken necks. All raw. Heads bow over metal bowls. When the meal is done, careful grooming ensues and then relaxation while digesting. Their mannerisms are so familiar. It is easy to see the temptation to approach them like housecats, in so many ways they are identical: the gentle velvet of their noses, the cocking of their ears to investigate sounds, even the rough sandpaper tongues (I had read once that a tiger's tongue is so rough that if it licked you, it would peel the skin of your body. I know now that is patently false, so many of my comrades having enjoyed the sensation, intact.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Epiphany


Plagued by a search for meaning, the first two-thirds of Cats! confounded me. Who were these cats—these bedraggled and frankly rather ugly Cats! ? Their costuming and the sets were the first stumbling block—very Madonna circa Lucky Star (you know, fashionably tattered) and all sporting Leg Warmers. Yes, it was the 25th anniversary tour, but I would have thought in twenty-five years we would have enjoyed some costume updates.

The words were stirring, jocular and occasionally incomprehensible but they seemed to jar with the staging. And there was nothing catlike about most of the pseudo-modern jazz dancing. What was it all about? Was it actually about cats? At intermission, I overheard middle aged women espousing feline devotion with little girls wearing painted whiskers and flamboyant gay men who had seen the original Broadway production. The entire 2500 seat theatre was sold out to an audience that offered standing ovations and ‘Bravos’ at curtain call.

But what was it about? And then suddenly during Grisabella’s spin-tingling wail of “Touch me! It’s so easy to leave me! All alone with my memories of my days in the Sun!” the entire thing fell into place for me.

Who were these ugly, aging cats who gather in the ruins of a garbage dump to sing songs about their glory days by the hearth?

New Orleans. The stage looked like the ravages of New Orleans. And the cats were Katrina cats. The left over, unneutered cats that have been mating into third and fourth generations. Only the aging cats remember what it was to be a hearth cat—and then be left behind. That is who these singing cats represent. Thousands of untended cats. Rescuers say that there are so many colonies that they can only get to some of them once a week to provide fresh water and some food.

For the rest of the play, all the brittle, spiky hair spoke of dehydration. The description of Grisabella as having sand in her coat and a crooked eye spoke of cats so malnourished that they stop grooming and become aggitated and aggressive. Each note was a call, an invitation to go to New Orleans to touch these very real cats.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Jellicle Cats



As a teenager, I was precisely the sort of maudlin theatre-geek who ran around belting my woeful, emotive rendition of “Memory All alone in the moonlight, I can smile at the old days……” And though in the late eighties, I was privy to plenty of professional musical theatre extravaganzas, I have never actually attended a performance of Andre Lloyd Webber’s “Cats! The Musical”—but I am going tonight to witness its 25th anniversary tour passing through Nashville.

When I announced my intentions to my husband, he smirked, “Oh—is it the original cast?” He disrespectfully declined to attend and made me promise to stop prancing around the house (my delighted daughters in tow) crooning, “Jellicle songs for Jellicle cats, Jellicle songs for jellicle cats” at least until I could confirm whatever the hell “jellicle” means.

I hastened to remind him that at its heart the whole “Jellicle cat” phenomena is really T.S. Eliot, a poet with whom I shared a profound one-sided relationship in college.

He scoffed, but April was excited to accompany me, so I hastened to Wikipedia where I learned that according to T.S. Eliot a Jellicle cat is a dear little black and white cat. Although Andrew Lloyd extended its meaning to include all cats of any color or purrsuation. Thus we continued to annoy my spouse with our repetitive refrain.

I have long suspected that (no matter its faults) Cats! The Musical significantly contributed to the ascendancy of the cat as America’s most popular pet. Thus, I can no longer resist the allure of “MacAvity, MacAvity, there’s no one like MacAvity, he’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity….”

To be continued....

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Channeling My Inner Cat


Ostensibly, the bird feeders and the ensuing wildlife that gathers around our pear tree are for the benefit of the cats. But I find myself similarly entranced by the flittering motion, the bright colors and varied personalities of these little critters who feed on our seeds. The cats have three comfortable views of the tree. In the living room, they can recline on the chaise lounge or in a comfy cat basket filled with soft pillows both strategically placed next to the window. In the dining room, I placed a Queen Anne settee in front of the window (a cleverly disguised cat bed—defended against my husband’s aghast “More cat crap? When does it end?”) Upstairs, the window in my office looks down on the pear tree. The elaborate cat tree affords an alternate perspective (I am allowed a surplus of ‘cat crap’ in my private space).

Some lazy mornings, when the children are at their adorable best, all of us will pile into the oversized chaise, Aaron & I, the kids and most of the cats to watch the birds. If we’re lucky, Allegra and April form a naming cooperative, “That red one is Joey Jo-Jo” “No, Joey Jo-Jo James.” “That’s a cardinal.” “What is that? It looks like the cardinal but not so red?” “Maybe that’s his wife?” “Julie!”

Chester, the petite, scrawny tailed squirrel provokes our young Calico, Gussie, into the ‘Aka-ak-ak’ hunting call of the inexperienced cat. I have come to suspect that Chester is actually two squirrels, but my children insist that he is a singular entity. He (or they) is a breathtaking acrobat (though unfortunately very camera shy) who hangs by one hind leg, gently swaying upside-down as he munches on nuts pilfered from the bird feeders. I purposely didn’t buy ‘squirrel-proof’ feeders, knowing next to nothing about wild birds, my only concern was entertainment for my indoor cats. However, it seems that Chester is the affable sort who doesn’t mind sharing with his winged companions, as all species tend to dine together.

On weekday mornings, when I have survived the daily struggle of getting the girls appropriately dressed, fed, brushed, with bags packed and faces cleaned, dropping them at their respective schools, hopefully with a minimum of clich├ęd (‘she’s looking at me! She touched me!’) bickering from the back seat, I return to my silent home. The quiet up-turned faces of my cats greet me with an invitation to join them on the chaise. Together we can lose time, shedding ourselves in the dozy comfort of warm cats and flighty birds. I gaze out the window, 13 pounds of heat-radiating fur toasting my hip, another 10 blanket my feet, and a modest 6 grazes my elbow. Together we blink and watch and wait for nothing in perfect bliss.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Book Review: An Unlikely Cat Lady


Last night, as I lay on my purple love seat, covered by three purring cats, savoring the last pages of "An Unlikely Cat Lady", it occured to me that posting reviews of my favorite cat literature would offer you the same pinnacle of pleasure: reading about cats (holding printed paper in hand)while experiencing them--all at once.

In her book, Nina Malkin claims she is an unlikely cat lady and her publishers probably concurred because her writing is edgy and candid, peppered with evocative similies and sentiments that are guarenteed to offend--yet so accurate and honest that their unexpected familiarity makes you gasp and then chuckle. For instance, she describes one friendly stray as "floppy and amenable as a hooker on qualudes." Instantly, I knew this cat.

In many ways, her lack of concern about political correctness makes this book loaded with guilty pleasure. Her naked distain of one unneutered feral dubbed "Yeff Smeef" is unsettling (and perhaps unfair.) In her view, this sniveling, malevolent Uriaha Heap of a cat is the bane of her feral colony. And yet, he forms an interesting literary counterpoint to the near religious devotion with which she tends to the rest of the colony. "...the villanous Yeff Smeef pursuing Nancy from yard to yard, his lecherous proboscis inches from her prepubescent coochie--distresses me no end."

In fact, Nina Malkin is not an unlikely cat lady at all. She represents the next generation of cat ladies, not the blue-haired biddy in a billowing house coat, but a sharp-witted modern woman with a heaping dose of 'cattattraction" that is drawn cat by kitten into the world of Trap-Neuter-Return.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Vignettes

Queen Helen


Helen has been regressing. The move and our stay in the temporary apartment were not good for her. She gained a bit of weight and reverted to her skittish, nippy behavior.

But she is happy today (as we set up our new home), reclining on her heated throne where she can servey her Queendom at her leisure. So appreciative of her heated-window perch, she deigned to be cosseted and stroked for a full 30 minutes before becoming irritable.

As a cat ages past seven years, she needs external sources of heat to help stay comfortable. At nine years old, Helen is overdue for such pampering. And yes, Helen has a time-share arrangement with the other cats, who also enjoy an occasional nap in her spot.


Tara and Loco
Walking along Lake Avenue in Pasadena, past the posh shops, with a dearly beloved client who had become a friend, I spotted a homeless man ahead. Keeping the hulking, army surplus clad figure in my peripheral vision, I prepare to skirt a wide detour around him. But my companion, a petite, refined red-head has no such plans. Instead, her purposeful stride stops at his side and she reaches up to visit with a Tabby perched on his shoulder. “How’s Tara doing?” She asks the man. “She’s cool,” responds “Loco”. In his early twenties, with a scraggily beard, my entire perception of him changes, seeing that a cat has claimed him.

As we walk away, I marvel at how calm the cat seems. My friend is more dubious, “He keeps her on a leash, so I’m not sure how much choice she has in the relationship.” Still, the cat seems relatively healthy and mellow. My friend surprises me, the depths of her devotion to cats knows no bounds. She slipped him a twenty “for cat food.” “Usually, I give him a Petsmart gift certificate. I gave him a gift certificate for a nearby vet, hoping that he would get the cat checked and vaccinated. But I haven’t asked if he used it.”

(I know, I should have had my camera with me.)

Pierre-The Dog-Running Cat (move over Cesar!)
Occasionally a cat completely captures my imagination—I’m sure this is where pet psychics make most of their money: from clients who are dying to know the ins and outs of their pet’s back-story. Pierre, who presents like a well-mannered bouncer at a Chicago speak-easy, was found running the streets of said city with a pack of stray DOGs. And not some pack of pansy lap dogs—BIG dogs, German Shepard mixes and one enormous beast beyond identification. The leader of the pack. I imagine him like Cesar Millan (the famous dog whisperer) who can walk over 40 dogs off leash simply by the command of his presence.

Now retired in the luxury of a loving home, this bruiser maintains his dog like ways, first at the door to greet guests and clearly in command of the three large dogs who share his home (no relation to his street gang).





Ben and Henry
My two beloved boys had been studiously avoiding each other ever since Henry arrived. Until one blustery afternoon, when they inadvertently (or so it seemed) ended up sleeping very near each other on the couch. The sight was too much to resist, so I knelt next to them, stroking each, hoping it would encourage their friendship. Without further prompting, Ben began grooming Henry. Henry responded with a full throated purr. To which Ben responded with more grooming. Henry (who is ever hungry for attention) nuzzled closer to Ben to further encourage this tenderness. And the grooming carried on for a full ½ hour!!

Since then the boys have been thoroughly bonded, Henry joining in all the kitty games as an excepted member of my feline tribe! Yeah Henry! And Thank You Ben!




Friday, January 05, 2007

Death Threat

The story on the radio was about cats, so of course I shushed the children and listened attentively. Cats vs. Birds. Cats, the predatory blight on the bird population. The lead into the story accused cats of killing millions of birds.

I know cats can kill birds. When Ben first began insinuating his way into our family, he would leave us offerings on the porch. I delighted at every garden blight—the moles and gophers, but the yellow down of finch or the innocent crest of tit mouse (not a mouse at all but a perfectly charming bird) filled me with shame and remorse. Once Ben was ours, I belled him and started to transition him to being an indoor cat. I spoke to my neighbor, Peggy, who had been his caregiver (along with about 20 other cats) about belling her cats. She looked at me incredulously, “But then I would be denying them the taste of bird!”

You know the issues. The back and forth—are cats destroying the bird population—or is it development and all the other mitigating factors. Reknown biologist Roger Tabour swears that it isn’t cats at all. That studies of the contents of hunting cats stomachs (outdoor cats killed by cars and other mishaps) demonstrate that the vast majority of the contents are rodents and garbage—not birds.

But the story on NPR was prefaced with certainty that cats were the culprits. The scientists putting together a new data study were open to the option that perhaps cats’ control of the rodent population actually provides more opportunities for birds to flourish—it’s a possibility since rodents are also an enemy of birds.

Then the story veered toward the dramatic. Another bird scientist had been advocating that hunters shoot any feral cats they see on sight. On the radio, he exclaimed to the interviewer that he had received numerous death threats. Real death threats left on his answering machine because of his position on this issue. He played one and it went something like this, “You are a cat murderer. A cat murderer and let me tell you, what goes around comes around. I officially declare open season on you.” The woman’s voice (and you knew it would be a woman) tore at my heart—her pain and her passion evocative of every road-side carcass of soft fur, mangled into meat by a swift moving car. But deliberate. To take aim and fire at the one who shares your bed at night, licks your tears, welcomes you home.

In the story, this woman was dismissed, cast aside with no more consideration than the boast that she is now in prison. And the story returned to the birds.

Who is this woman? Does anyone out there know more about her story? This hysterical voice on an answering machine. This hysterical voice and her agonizing commitment to Karma. Who is now in prison. Nameless prisoner—female vigilante for cats. If you know anything about her—will you post it here? In the comments? I want to know her back story.

Is she a convict now because of that voice message?

When they tossed around the term death threat, I expected someone who had purchased a gun and knew the guy’s address. Someone with a Columbine kind of determination. What I heard was a woman who day in and out traps and neuters and releases cats, who scrimps and saves every penny to feed other people’s cast offs. A woman who hand-raises kittens and spends every Saturday of her life at Petco or Petsmart hoping to find a good home for her charges. A woman who heard that this scientist was pushing for legislation that would make it legal to shoot outdoor cats on sight, because some people believe that they are a threat to the bird population. I heard a woman consumed by grief.

A woman who spilled her rage over the phone and then was cast off, silenced, imprisoned.

There must have been more to this story—some real threat, some tangible threat to end up in prison. Something more than ‘What comes around goes Around—I declare open season on you.”

This story did not help the status of cats. It did not mention all the cat activists that advocate keeping cats indoors. It did not mention numerous studies that provide opposing viewpoints. It did not mention the individual feline lives at stake in this human drama.

I am left unsettled. This story is a pinpoint on the map that connects the status of women with the status of cats. A story so unsettling that it is easily dismissed. Wicked Women and Their Wicked Cats. It is the undercurrent that has followed us for centuries from being burned alive together on the stake to the present day—the subtle innuendo of a radio news story.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Nashville Paw

There are so many ways to give service to cats—to aid in the plight of animals, increase awareness etc. Heather Davis has certainly found her niche as editor and publisher of the Nashville Paw (www.NashvillePAW.com) The articles are meaty and informative, challenging and interesting—not to mention well written, the format and design are professional and engaging. I was thrilled when I picked up my first copy at a local pet supply store. I sent her writing samples—very eager to be involved. We lunched yesterday. She’s tired—carrying a mostly one woman show, pouring her own resources into it.

We are told repeatedly that the pet industry is a multi billion dollar industry—and yet I see so many brave, dedicated souls that scrimp and save and give their life’s blood to the cause of animal rescue and rights. Heather said they almost didn’t pull together the finances for the sixth issue—they didn’t make enough ad sales, fortunately some donations saved the day. Of course, Heather has also been helping to fund the endeavor from her personal finances (much like Lorie, my friend and editor of the Southern California Pet Gazette.)

I worry that the Nashville Paw will fold. Why is that important? Because the Paw is a unifier, a communication tool that links all aspects of the pet world: the business people, the rescuers and activists, the veterinary and behavioral professional and the public—all of them, the pet loving and merely pet curious. It provides the opportunity to deepen everyone’s understanding of their animals. And learning to understand animals has been such a profound transformation in my life, everyone deserves at least the chance to move beyond casual affection to experiencing the soul of another species—that only comes through understanding.

On a more practical level—it also provides an excellent resource guide. The listings at the back of the magazine can help pet owners who need a pet sitter, a trainer, a behaviorist, a vet—not to mention local rescue groups. Just knowing where to look to find these resources can help pet owners overcome the many challenges of sharing one’s home with animals.

So, I discussed it with my husband and decided to postpone launching my business for a month. I committed 20 hours a week to the Nashville Paw for the next month—to sell advertising. My commitment is short term—just to bridge the gap until she finds the permanent person. I don’t want to turn into an ad rep person, I want to focus growing my cat behaviorist practice, my writing, as well as developing other cat education projects, but this is important. I think that Nashville Paw needs to stay viable. In many ways, Tennessee is a bit behind the curve with regard to animal issues. Animal Control is criminally under-funded to the point that they simply can’t respond to most animal cruelty reports. There is little awareness about the importance of spay/neuter, feral cats are mistreated, dogs are tethered. There is a strange dichotomy between the upper middle class that can support the pet stores, the luxury boarding facilities, animal masseuses (and dare I say, cat behaviorists—after all, this is where Pam Johnson Bennett made her name) and the rest of the population that is dramatically under-educated about these issues. The Paw offers free information and a focal point for communication between groups.

Plus, in all honesty, it is the only local print publication that makes sense for ME to advertise in—so if it goes belly up—there goes the easiest way to get the word out about MY OWN business.

I tossed my first pitch tonight—going for the big sale, the back cover of the February issue to the company that is installing the whole house HEPA filter in our new home. The owner is very proud to have saved many animal lives, helping improve the home air-quality and designing allergy relief programs for pet owners who find themselves reacting to pets. The Nashville Paw is a perfect match. I”ll let you know if he buys the ad space!