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, March 31, 2007

Whiskas Remembers the Cats of Katrina

“What we really need now is dry cat food.” Robin, the volunteer coordinator for Animal Rescue New Orleans sounded overworked yet impassioned over the phone. “Thank you for remembering us—it often feels like the rest of the world has forgotten.”

Animal Rescue New Orleans was founded in response to the plight of animals in the post-Katrina catastrophe. And they are still working, servicing over 3,000 feral cat feeding stations, running TNR programs, as well as tending to the cats and dogs they are rehabilitating in their warehouse shelter.

So many of the cats that were left behind were not neutered or spayed—and in the ruble and chaos of the shattered neighborhoods, they have been reproducing. Some estimates put the figure at 50,000 feral cats in New Orleans.

“Whenever I spot a friendly cat, one that was left behind, I try to bring it in, rehab it and find it the home it deserves. But there are so many. We have 78 in the shelter at the moment. We just shipped out 55 to shelters in Arizona and Massachusetts—but our cages continue to fill up fast.”


Denise Truelove (what a great name!) started working on Whiskas cat food marketing just a couple of weeks ago. Doane foods, the manufacturer of Whiskas, was recently purchased by Mars (as in candy bars and much more), the whole company just relocated to the Nashville area. “We are in the midst of a lot of changes. Everyone is getting their bearings, but we want to help out with the Katrina cats. Whiskas loves cats.”

Denise and her collegue from sales, Chad, met me in the PetSmart parking lot in Franklin, TN to load up my van with cat food. Kindness and enthusiasm, warm hearts and good wishes. “Drive safely! Be sure to tell the cats of New Orleans that Whiskas remembers them!”

8 ½ hours of driving later, I was whizzing past the Superdome. That place must haunt the memory of everyone who watched the events of Katrina unfold (not to mention those who survived it.)

The skyline was soothing in its familiarity, like any other city, tall buildings standing stoic against the sky. I pulled off the highway towards the Garden District. I could have been in Boston or San Francisco, underpasses and overpasses dropping into urban brick and congested parking. Until I saw my first two FEMA trailers, decorated with plastic flowers, next to a home that had imploded.

It is March, 2007 and I have arrived in New Orleans to spend 2 weeks volunteering with Animal Rescue New Orleans.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tabby Time

Tennessee has transformed its palette from gray to green with breathtaking suddenness. Warm spring rain dances against my window, a perfect pairing with the drip-drop of piano keys that pour from my radio. I settle on the chaise, my restless self subdued, ready for the pleasures of cats and Coltrane.

Little Bit lands next to me, tipping her nose to mine in a friendly kiss. She has not forgotten our adventure together. As though her proximity to me prompts a silent alarm throughout the house, Henry and Helen come running. Resource Guarding. My tabbies are possessive. They bound onto the chaise and their presence ushers Little Bit from my arms. No hostilities are exchanged, the unlikely pair simply replace her.

Henry gazes at me, his big green eyes an irresistible invitation to affection. This is why I adopted him. He is the quintessential lap cat. He loves lap. He is the cat that will rouse from a deep sleep and respond any time I call, always ready for love. How can I refuse him anything—a cat like that? And yet, did I think this wouldn’t have consequences?

At the shelter, I never would have guessed that Henry would ascend to such kingly stature in my home. He is ever good-natured, but always the first to eat. Ben grooms him regularly, which Henry clearly enjoys as he is a glutton for all affection, but he never reciprocates. Little Bit and Gussie will also lavish his face and neck with fastidious attention as he blinks and purrs, though not as often as Ben.

Helen never grooms Henry—or any of the other cats (though she will occasionally give my hand a good loofah treatment with her tongue.) She and Henry seem to have an understanding of sorts, as though the two tabbies have agreed to share me, though his calm enchantment makes for a strange duet with Helen’s nervous jittering. Most nights, it is these two that sleep with me, while Gussie curls up in the crook of my husband’s knee, Little Bit beds down in the cat tree and Ben wraps himself around my daughter’s head.

Feline hierarchies are subtle and shifting, but it seems that Henry has established himself as a benevolent monarch. In Roger Tabour’s research with feral cats, he observed the colony cats treating a matriarch with deference. This seems to be the attitude of my kitty clan to Henry. He doesn’t rule with any sort of overt violence, though Ben and Henry do enjoy an occasional bout of kittenish wrestling (no one gets hurt, no hissing, howling or any of the signs of aggression, it is the same wrestling that Ben does with Gussie—and just like with Gussie, they will often relax after their games and fall asleep together, usually with Ben using Henry’s rump like a pillow.) It seems as though Henry has charmed them in much the same way that he charmed me, by being mild-mannered, affable and persistent in his pursuit of pleasure.

Does neutering a male provide him the opportunity to assume the role of ‘matriarch’ in a feline group? Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Roger Caras both relate stories of neutered males assuming the role of doting aunt, letting kittens nurse on them (to little avail of course), grooming the kittens, guarding them and fully participating in their rearing—much like the females of a clowder. Perhaps the reduced sexuality and aggression of a neutered male could also allow him to assume the role of matriarch (assuming that matriarchy is the common social culture of cat groups.) The key being that in the feline matriarchies that have been studied, the grandmother is deferred to without hint of violence or other threat from her. This will be interesting to look for in other social groupings of cats.

And where does Helen fit into this? Helen is the natural matriarch—judging by age alone. She is ten years old now. And female. But she is also the social pariah. The other cats dislike her, Henry is the cat most willing to tolerate her. For Helen, Henry is the only cat that doesn’t panic her. While reading Temple Grandin’s “Animals in Translation” (Temple is autistic and a well-respected scientist and behaviorist, in the book she explains the similiarities in world view between autistics and animals), I began to wonder if Helen isn’t some sort of feline autistic, her most striking symptoms including a dislike for being stroked and an inability to interpret feline social cues.

I discussed this with a behaviorist at the Clicker Expo and she suggested that this could have been a by-product of vaccinations, as many people believe that autism is caused by vaccinations. I’m not sure about the causes, but in Temple’s book, she described hating being touched, but inventing a machine she calls her ‘squeeze box’ which is essentially a box with inflatable padding that squeezes her when she entires it—applying pressure to her whole body in a way that is very soothing for her. I thought I would try this with Helen, rather than trying to pet her, or move my hands over her fur and skin, I would simply apply steady pressure. She LOVES it. She responds by purring and pressing back into my arm and hand. Then we stay like that motionless. Last night, while laying on my back, I sandwiched her between my hip and my arm, using that same steady, solid (but not restraining) pressure. She stayed there for most of the night. This is unprecedented with Helen who usually snaps when touched too much.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Clicker Expo 2007: Treasure

As it turned out, my cat, Little Bit, was not the only cat at the ClickerExpo. There were two others who made their appearance during the Small Animal Training session. One cat was being trained as part of the ‘Acro-Cats’ performing cat group. This black beauty showed off her talents at pushing a ball with her front paws and turning a light on and off.

As a novice, Little Bit was more interested in greeting the crowd than listening to anything I had to say. (She did charm everyone—especially those who were missing their own kitties—when she merrily jumped from lap to lap for a nuzzle and a cuddle.) But she was very unresponsive to any cuing--all of her actions were self-determined.

The highlight of the clicker expo was meeting Franz. Franz is a thirteen year old, gray, long haired tom cat from Amherst, New York. At twelve years old, he was the unfortunate victim of a bad divorce. The wife left and the husband tossed the cat onto the street (in the bitter cold of upstate New York) where he survived for some time on hand-outs from neighbors, before someone finally took enough of an interest to take him to a shelter. Miranda Workman, an animal behavior specialist in the area, agreed to foster him. When she brought him to her animal care facility, he was terribly depressed and withdrawn. He didn’t want to be touched and spent most of his time in hiding.

Miranda decided to keep him and let him live out his days in peace at her facility, as it seemed that he was unadoptable. Time passed and he remained utterly withdrawn, until one day...

Miranda was working with one of her client’s cats, a young Abyssinian. The Aby was distinctly uninterested in being clicker trained and was having a lot of difficulty focusing. During the training sessions, Franz observed from his customary hiding place. Then during the third training session with the Aby, Franz bounded out of his hiding place and up onto the table with the Aby, responding to the cue to sit and then reached for the treat. From then on, he insisted on being clicker trained. Most cats can only engage for about five minutes of training. Not Franz—he rarely ever wants to stop!

A year has passed since his first training session, and Franz is now very affectionate. He has become so confident (and such a clicker training addict) that he even volunteers regularly to assist with puppy training classes at Miranda’s facility. He will stay with the puppy class, training for the full hour, which is terrific for getting the puppies comfortable with cats (not to mention wowing all those dog people!)

Miranda brought Franz to show off his stuff at Clicker Expo, because she wanted everyone to see first hand that older cats are trainable—and what a rehabilitative effect clicker training can have on a depressed animal.

During one of Karen Pryor’s lectures, she played some video of one of her visits to a shelter. There she used target training (with clickers, treats and targets) as a way of engaging depressed cats in their shelter cages. The target training got all the cats up, curious and interactive, helping them present as more adoptable when potential adopters come to the shelter to choose a cat.

Aside from the small animal class, it often seems like the Clicker Expo is all about dogs, but the true emphasis is on operant conditioning, basically the idea that the whatever the consequence of a behavior, that consequence will shape the development of that behavior. And studies have shown repeatedly that operant conditioning is universal for all creatures with a brain stem (including humans, so it also applies to cats.)

In clicker training we use the clicker to mark a desired behavior (the click helps the animal remember what that behavior was) and then reinforce the behavior with a treat. That is operant conditioning using positive reinforcement.

But understanding clicker training is much more complex than just clicking. It extends to understanding how to use cues, timing, targeting, behavior chains and all the other tools that buzzed around the lectures and were demonstrated in the labs. It was an incredibly enriching experience with expert instructors.

In addition to learning about clicker training, I had the pleasure of meeting several people who are doing or supervising important work with cats. Particularly at University of North Texas where they are unlocking some training opportunities to overcome aggression in dogs and in cats—and the process works very quickly. Much of it is still in the research phase—but I assure you, I will be going to Texas to follow up in May (more about that then.)

(To learn more about clicker training, please visit )

Friday, March 23, 2007

Clicker Expo 2007: At the Hotel with Little Bit

Its been a long time since I have been alone with one cat. I had forgotten the sweet intimacy of that relationship. My cat Dorothy and I were very close. For ten years it was just the two of us—until my husband and I married and adopted more cats.

I brought Little Bit with me to Cleveland, because she responds so well to clicker training and she travels well. Stroking a cat releases dopamine in your brain, and I know that their presences quells my anxieties. I knew I would sleep better with her here. She has been such a snuggle kitty. It is wonderful to enjoy her charming personality without interruption. Between conference sessions, I return to my room and we practice our clicker training.

The lectures send me into a panic—I still have so much more to learn! Animal training is a whole new field for me. My focus has been on environmental enrichment and behavior modification (which usually means modifying the human’s behavior to improve the cat’s situation), working within the framework of a cat’s natural instincts and desires. But I see clicker training as an opportunity to move beyond that. The teachers are very clear that training animals to do cute tricks is really not the point (though it is a helpful way of establishing an open line of communication with the animal.) That communication is the point and all of the reinforcement forges a deeper bond with the animal.

Shaping is one of the key terms in clicker training. As it was demonstrated today, shaping is a play session where anything approximating the behavior or activity that is desired is rewarded with a click and a treat. The dogs in the demonstrations were puzzling out and experimenting with what actions triggered the click and treat. It was clearly fun for the dogs, they were excited and playful. Gradually, they honed in on the desired behavior and repeated it again and again. Only once they had unlocked the behavior and done it repeatedly was it given a name, ‘a cue’ to guide the dog to do it again when requested. A cue is differentiated from a command because there is no threat behind it, just the promise of reward.

It is very clear how to reinforce a behavior that you want, not so clear how to avoid behaviors you don’t want within this framework. Other than ignoring the behavior until the animal gives up, which, frankly, isn’t practical in many situations. (I’m not sure if this was said in jest, but one teacher suggested getting earplugs for the whole family because it can take up to ten days of ignoring it to get a dog to stop barking. Are you supposed to buy earplugs for all of your neighbors—or perhaps send them on a ten day, all expense paid vacation? Though to her credit, she also expressed that you need to give the dog better alternatives for getting your attention, as well as dealing with the root issue behind the barking.) When I broached the subject of dealing with feline aggression with a couple of the teachers, they basically dodged my question. I’m not sure if that is an issue of not having the time to explore the issue appropriately, lack of expertise about cats in particular or just that clicker training isn’t an effective tool in these situations.

I first learned about clicker training when I called on another behaviorist for a second opinion in a particularly challenging aggression case. The client’s young male Bengal persisted in aggressive behavior with the older female Abyssinian. All of the conventional approaches seemed to abate the behavior for a short while and then it would flair up again. My suspicion is that the young cat was very poorly socialized as a kitten. The breeder’s website boasted that the kittens were kept caged so that they would feel comfortable in confinement. This theory had clearly not worked as this young male was almost pathologically afraid of being confined and almost destroyed his mouth trying to bite his way out of a carrier.

The behaviorist was purportedly a Bengal expert and she suggested clicker training as a solution. When the young male would chase the female, the client should cue him to a ‘go to mat’ then click and treat him as a way of distracting him. When we probed her about how to prevent this from turning into an unfortunate behavior chain where the cat learns that his chasing behavior is a prompt for his person to call him and click and treat him, her response was that she had to catch him before he actually initiated the chase, whenever she thought he might be about to do it. Well, you can imagine how challenging that would be to stay on top of.

The client and I settled on clicking and treating the cats whenever they were in close proximity and no one was chasing or running. This helped to reinforce the positive behavior, but none the less did not completely resolve the situation. I have had incredible success in resolving aggression cases, but that was one case that is still unresolved and I am always searching for more tools and ideas for dealing with aggression. I have ordered a book from the clicker folks called “Click to Calm” for dealing with aggressive dogs. I am hoping that some of the knowledge there will translate to cats.

If you have any innovative approaches that you have used to resolve aggression issues, I would love to hear about it.

None the less, the concept of clicker training as a way of opening a dialogue with the animal really excites me. The teachers here are highly skilled at shaping animal behavior using positive reinforcement and there is a lot to learn. Most of it is dog focused and the classrooms are filled with dogs of every description.

Apparently being the only cat at the Clicker Expo, Little Bit was invited to participate in the only session about clicker training small animals (rabbits, cats, mice etc.) That will take place on Sunday. In the meanwhile, we are working on a sitting (Hopefully eventually working up to stay-which is purportedly an easy cue for cats since the ability to wait and apparently do nothing is one of their natural gifts.) This is important, because at home Little Bit has become quite the escape artist. Everytime someone attempts to leave the house through the front door, she is there waiting to use all her powers of stealth to slip out the door. My solution to this issue is to build her outdoor enclosure (actually, my husband will be the primary contractor on this job--and her recent escape attempts are certainly motivating him to get started.) An outdoor enclosure will keep her safe and satisfy those desires so she doesn’t have to bolt for the front door.

I have already been using clicker training and the ‘come’ cue to retrieve her when she slips out. (I firmly believe that every cat should be trained to ‘come’ it is very handy in case of emergency or if the cat gets out!) But I am very excited about the prospect of training her to sit and stay, rather than hurrying out the door and blocking her exit with my feet. Today, in between sessions, we worked on shaping the sitting behavior. Every time I caught her sitting, I clicked and treated. She would hop around, rubbing me on the face, trying to figure out what would get me to treat her, the minute that little tushie got close to the floor, I clicked and treated her. She clearly loved this game. (I’ll share more about our progress as we develop the training plan.)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Training Cats: Clicker Expo 2007 Cleveland

My mother began training her cat to sit. Each night before bed, she would soak some freeze-dried chicken and use it to reinforce a sit. It was a lovely little ritual that lasted for a couple of months. Then one day, she called me to say, “I’m not training Misty anymore. I don’t like what it is doing to our relationship.”

“Umm, what’s it doing to your relationship?”

“Its destroying the equilibrium—its transforming her from my cat into a creature I am commanding—and I don’t like that. I just want her to be my friend. I don’t want to tell her what to do.”

Cats have no masters only friends. This is what many of us value about our cats. Perhaps most people that are attracted to cats (rather than dogs) are looking for the friendship of equals, rather than someone to boss around. We love it when a cat grants us its attention—or even better when it lavishes attention on us—it makes us feel deserving. This cat sees something in me. This cat has a relationship with me and chooses to headbutt me, knead at me, purr when I touch it. Is it unnatural to change that relationship into one of trainer and trainee?

I don’t know, but here I am at the Clicker Expo to learn all the ins and outs of Clicker training. Yes, it is very dog oriented. But Karen Pryor, the founder of clicker training, is actually a dolphin trainer—her positive reinforcement techniques are most popular with dogs, but they can be used on species as diverse as grasshoppers, fish, horses and, of course, cats.

In my experience, cat owners are resistant to suggestions of clicker training. They are happy to work with me on environmental changes and general behavior modification. But they don’t want to change the dynamic of the relationship by incorporating training. So why am I here? Because I am hopeful that there is a real place for clicker training in our complex relationships with cats. It is an effective, though labor intensive tool in a growing bag of tricks for coping with behavioral issues.

The conference officially starts tomorrow, but the clicker expo store was open this evening. Lots of very clever dog toys, problem solving toys that make great boredom busters. I bought some for our dogs. That is really the key—the explanation of why clicker training shouldn’t be discarded by cat lovers.

Just like our fenced in dogs, our indoor cats are bored—even our indoor/outdoor cats can be bored. These animals are predators who love to work. When I say this, most people laugh and assure me that their loungy cat does not like to work. But I counter that we all like to work. We don’t like being slaves, but we like accomplishing tasks. So do our pets.

For cats, clicker training is a game. Cats don’t respond to masters. But they love to have fun and they love to learn new skills. It is also a way to enhance their communication with us. One woman who had a lot of success clicker training her hand-raised kitten, explained that through the enhanced communication of their clicker training, her cat was able to communicate with her directly when he needed his litter box changed (rather than by pooping next to it, like many do.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Snip and Tip

Its all women and cats.

A few men are scattered about, lured by their girlfriends and wives into volunteering and they are working hard. But mostly, its women.

The early morning is a cacophony of women's chatter and the yowls of unhappy cats. "I brought ten this time--but there are still ten more to get." "I caught twelve--be good to him, this guy's my favorite." "Thank you so much, I can afford to feed 'em, but I can't afford to fix em."

Platters of food are brought to the volunteer area. Homebaked lasagna, cookies, doughnuts (its a sugar bonanza), even chocolate dipped strawberries... "And don't forget to try Dolores' oatmeal cake--you won't believe how good it is." This event unites women in hands on productivity. They have gathered today to spay and neuter feral cats, over 150 cats are expected. Cats that were trapped by concerned people from all over middle Tennessee and brought to this free clinic.

Dolores (of oatmeal cake fame) is a seasoned volunteer. "Three years ago at a family funeral, my 80 year old aunt was sharing her distress with the family. A darling little cat had appeared on her porch the previous spring. She began feeding it and a few days later, out popped three kittens, all girls. Then those kittens had kittens and by the time I heard about it, she had 27 cats on her place. That's how I got into Trap-Neuter-Return. Helping out my aunt."

An efficient assembly line fills the hall at the Lebanon Fairgrounds. Across the way, farmers and hobbiests are having a pygmy goat show. The combined smells of goats and cats who have lost control of their bowels waivers between earthy and nauseating.

The cages are placed at one end of the hall, covered with fabric to help calm the cats and give them the sense of being tucked in a small cave rather than trapped in a cage.

One by one the cats are injected with an anesthetic through the cage (remember these cats are feral and most can't be handled.)

They lay in the cages as the anesthetic takes hold.

Then the cat is removed from the cage and injected with vaccines. This little guy was resisting the anesthetic. He can't move on to the next station until his paw completely relaxes.

Female cats are strapped to little boards and shaved for their spay surgery.

Males are taken to the neuter station. The neuters are fast and astoundingly simple. Everyone has a slightly different style but essentially, the testicle sacks are swabbed with disinfectant, sliced open and the testicles pop out. A knot is tied and vas-deference is pushed ack into the sack. 2x and they are done.

The females are operated on under sterile conditions. Most of the vets are able to do 3 to 4 spays an hour.

After surgery, the cats are hooked up to IV fluids as part of their recovery.

Then the cats are laid out for observation. As they wake up, they are returned to their cages, where they continue to be observed until it is time for them to be picked up and taken back to their homes. The snip and tip provides each caregiver with detailed instructions for aftercare.

Occasionally there are complications. That happened with little Oliver. (One of the cats from Walking Horse farm that I caught.) He bled alot and needed some extra veterinary attention. It was heartwrenching to see so much blood escaping from his little body. But the prompt care he received stopped the bleeding. As he awoke, he was relatively alert though confused. My other three cats did very well.

I caught four cats last night. Never managed to retrieve Pumpkin.

The veterinarians that have volunteered their time are all women today. "We do get male vets--but usually three out of every four that volunteer are women. What can I say women are just great--and they care!" Smiles Sara Felmlee gently patting the back of a busy surgeon. Sara's husband is one of the amazing men that volunteers consistantly. He says, "As a couple, this is our passion. Sara gives about 50 hours a week to this cause, we also give money. The great thing is that we know it is working. In the past nine years, we have spayed and neutered over 50,000 cats. Have you seen that pyramid? The one that shows how one cat can lead to thousands? Based on that, we figure that 50,000 cats is making a huge impact on the population. We look forward to the day that there is a scarcity of these animals and people learn to truly value them."

It is hard to imagine that there are still places in this country where euthanasia is preferred to spay/neuter. Two women at the Snip and Tip were sharing about how they were kicked out of Lincoln County Humane (near the Alabama border with Tennessee) because of their loud mouths. "I want us to do a program like this, but they wouldn't budge. They'd criticize us for catching cats and bringing them up here to be fixed. 'Cuz they just want to euthanize the poor things. So they fired us as volunteers and we went and started our own group."

At the end of the day, 152 cats were spayed and neutered at this Snip and Tip.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Happy Endings & New Beginnings:The Humane Association of Wilson County

Three days after Lily's surgery, she was frolicking merrily, as though nothing had happened, only now her brothers weren't chasing after her. All the young cats enjoyed playing with my daughter Allegra (who proves that small children can be great with cats.) Lily's sutures are healing nicely.

Finally the weekend has arrived and I have set seven traps for the rest of the cats, hoping to take all of them to the Wilson County Snip and Tip! Snip--for the snip, snip of spaying and neutering, tip--for the ear tipping that lets everyone know that these cats have been fixed. Catching the friendly cats was easy--I'm not sure how it happened, but Pumpkin managed to escape from the trap (perhaps sorcery? I couldn't figure out how he managed it.) He was gone like a flash and would not let me near him again. I can only hope that he will venture into one of the empty traps tonight--or perhaps give me a second chance in the morning. I also caught a very scrappy old tomcat that had been nosing around Lily before her spaying--that was a triumph because he is truly feral.

The Humane Association of Wilson County is a perfect example of the changes that have happened in the sheltering community during the past decade in Tennessee and many other parts of the country. Their numbers are very telling:

1996 4,697 animals brought in
927 adopted
124 returned to owner
1997 6,192 animals brought in
1,238 adopted
255 returned to owner
1998 5,707 animals brought in
1,161 adopted
235 returned to owner
1999 5,601 animals brought in
1,380 adopted
180 returned to owner
2000 4879 animals brought in
1255 adopted
64 returned to owner
2001 4,598 animals brought in
1,366 adopted
2002 5,713 animals brought in
1,799 adopted
2003 5,012 animal brought in
1,778 adopted
2004 2,355 animals brought in
1,645 adopted
2005 1,649 animals brought in
1,431 adopted

*For many reasons, not all animals that have entered the shelter have been adoptable. For example, some come to us severely injured, temperamentally unsound, and some are reclaimed by their owners. Therefore, an accurate adoption percentage can not be calculated simply by using these numbers alone.

These numbers don't tell the whole story though. Twelve years ago, a woman named Sara Felmlee moved to Tennessee, an animal lover, she wanted to get involved with her local shelter. But at that time, the Humane Association of Wilson County was a grim place. Almost as though the employees were determined to scare her off, they insisted that she observe the killings that could hardly be referred to with the hushed tones of 'euthanasia'. The discarded, unwanted shelter animals were suffering a brutal death. One kennel attendant would hold the fully conscious animal, splaying its front paws to expose the chest, while the other would use a heart spike to plunge a needle into the animals heart, injecting the poison. The animals screams of agony, release of the bowels, the horrors of one painful death after another, prompted Sara to get certified as a Euthanasia technician. This was not a fun job, but she felt that at least she was providing the animals with a gentle, loving and peaceful exit from this world. A vast improvement from the killings she had witnessed. But there came a day when the work was just too overwhelming, she had euthanized over 50 cats and dogs--many of them very young. Looking at the mountain of dead bodies, she turned to her husband that had been assisting her, "If the parents of all these animals had been spayed and neutered, we wouldn't have to do this."

When she approached the board about starting a Spay/Neuter clinic, she was flatly rejected. The members were sure that starting such a clinic would be the end of the Humane Association in their county. The biggest fear was that the veterinarians would turn on the shelter--because the shelter would be stealing their business.

Change is hard--and it takes a determined individual to make it happen. Sara demonstrates how big a difference one persona can make. She applied to the Community Foundation for a grant for a Spay/Neuter clinic, without discussing it any further with the board. Her project was awarded a $110,000 grant from the foundation. When she presented the completed plan--and the money! to the board, all but one member voted enthusiastically for the project. That was nine years ago--and the funds were used to purchase a mobile spay/neuter clinic. A vet and some techs were hired to opperate a free spay/neuter clinic for low-income pet owners. Once a month, they also offer the Snip and Tip--an absolutely free clinic for feral cats. This program has made an enormous difference in the lives of pets in the Middle Tennessee. Here's the link to learn more about their spay/neuter programs:

Sara wouldn't take no for an answer. And in fact, the spay/neuter clinic was not the end of the Humane Association of Wilson County--it was just the beginning of many fundamental changes that have attracted increased funding, better living situations for the animals and an overwhelming increase in the number of adoptions.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


About a dozen cats prowl the stables at Walking Horse Farm, only four of them have names. Lily (our silver tabby female), her identical brother Oliver, Moonpie and Pumpkin (all named by the tweenie girls that hang out at the stable). Lily and Oliver were abandoned by their mother at three weeks old. Candy, the riding instructor hand raised them. Moonpie and Pumpkin each materialized at different times, both as very young cats. The whole cuddly clan is under a year old. All of the older cats are truly feral.

Oliver cried for over 36 hours after I took his sister away. “It was a terrible noise and he just wouldn’t stop—not ‘til you brought his sister back.” Candy informed me. The two had never been apart before. He missed her and he was grieving.

I brought her back to the stable this morning, and we placed her in a dog kennel tucked inside a stable. Candy had placed fresh hay on the floor for the other cats to keep Lily company. It seems the perfect arrangement. They can’t disturb her sutures from the spay surgery, but she also won’t be alone.

Oliver wasn’t the only one crying over the last few days. I assumed the silver tabby was lonely and scared—but I overlooked the possibility that she was missing her brother, as I was so focused on protecting her from him.

In the stable, the other young cats cluster around her cage. I look forward to the time just a few weeks from now when they will all live together in peace. Then her brothers can truly be her protectors.

For the moment, she seems quite happy to be home.

While visiting the Nashville Cat Clinic last week, Dr. Marc Waldrop told me about a cat he had been treating for grief. In a two cat household, one of the cats had passed away. The remaining cat howled for days, stopped eating and began to die. The vet tried all sorts of medical interventions, prescribed play in the hopes of raising the cat’s serotonin levels, treated the cat with anti-depressants. “Nothing was working, the cat’s heart was literally failing. She was dying of a broken heart.” Dr.Waldrop explained. “Then the owner asked if it might help if she got the cat a stuffed animal. I didn’t think it would help, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt anything.”

The woman brought home a life sized cat stuffed animal and her real cat took to it immediately, grooming it and dragging it around the house by its scruff. The two became inseparable. “Whenever she would bring the cat to board, she would ask if we had room for ‘Buddy’ too. We joked, hey, ‘Buddy’ doesn’t eat much and never poops—I don’t think it will be a problem.” The cat’s heart healed and it went on to live for a few more years—always with her Buddy.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


The vet verified that the silver tabby's kittenish 6 month old body was in heat. "It was just a matter of luck that she wasn't pregnant yet." This complicates the surgery, because all of her little reproductive parts are engorged with blood. (Its no wonder she was so affectionate last night.)

The Beesley Humane Society in Murfreesboro, TN is not a shelter, they function as a not-for-profit spay/neuter clinic. Spaying is just $35 and neutering is $25. They fix cats and dogs for the public, rescue groups, ferals--pretty much anyone who asks. However, it can take weeks before an appointment is available. I explained the situation with the silver tabby and they were so kind. They squeezed her in at the end of the day.

She is spending her first post-surgery night in our bathroom. When I brought her dinner, she lept onto my shoulder, rubbing and purring. Can cats express gratitude? In the scientific community, this is not considered a feline emotion. Maybe it was just her residual hormones in action, but I felt deeply appreciated.

Intact cats are so controlled by their fertility that relieving them of it does feel somehow heroic. There is a clear sense of elation involved in all the variations of Trap-Neuter-Return. Usually, feral cats will bolt out of their cages and run for thier lives to avoid being near you (when they are returned to their home after being fixed.) It is such a treat to interact with this young, well-socialized barn cat.

I don't understand all the mysteries of feline sexuality--what parts are pleasure what parts are pain. But I do know that millions of unwanted cats are euthanized every year. I know that spaying helps prevent cancer in female cats, and that the bodies of unspayed females are often ravaged by the endless cycles of kittens. Unneutered toms are by far the highest risk group for FIV (the feline version of AIDS) because it is spread through deep bite wounds incurred during sexually motivated fights.

Spaying and neutering cats is an act of kindness. I look forward to the weeks ahead--after all of the Walking Horse Farm cats are fixed--it will be fascinating to watch their interactions and contrast them with the behavior I observed on Monday.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Silver Tabby in Heat

Just a quick update. I made all the arrangements and went to the stable this afternoon to collect the little silver tabby. Her brothers were pursuing her all over the barn. It was easy to whisk her up and into the carrier. She seemed relieved.

She is spending the night in my downstairs bathroom. Tommorow she will be spayed.

The rest of the barn cats will wait for a major feral spay/neuter event on March 18, when I will bring them to the Wilson County Humane Snip and Tip clinic.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Another View of Cat Sexuality: Walking Horse Farm

Watching another set of barn cats at my daughter’s riding stable, the Walking Horse Farm, the experience is proving that it isn’t wise to generalize.

These cats are young, around 6 to 8 months and just coming into sexual maturity. The fumbling, testosterone riddled adolescent males are harassing one female—their sister. She isn’t acting like a cat in heat—quite the contrary, she is fighting them off at every turn.

They approach her one at a time, sniffing and biting at her scruff. She roles onto her back in a defensive posture, hissing and growling, kicking with her claws out. Eventually one male will give up and another will take a turn bullying her.

At Harlinsdale Farm, Bill Harlin observed that the three resident Toms will kill the male kittens. As horrible as that sounds, it may be nature’s effective way of curbing sibling incest (something that happens with indoor litters that aren’t neutered soon enough. The results are not pretty.)

Getting these boys fixed would turn them into their sister’s allies, relieving everyone of this relentless pursuit. Getting her fixed would stop an onslaught of roaming Toms that catch her scent as she comes into heat.

“Would you like it if I took the barn cats in to be fixed?” I approach the riding instructor quietly.

Relief floods her face. “You would do that? Really?” Followed by an outpouring of gratitude and explanations about why she is unable to do it herself. “They really aren’t my cats. I feed them, but they just show up here and I can’t afford to take them to the vet. I tried taking one before but the bill was outrageous after all the tests and everything they wanted to do. I’m just scraping by doing all that for the horses. I can’t take on the cats too.”

I explained about the Wilson County Humane Society that does free feral spay/neutering, and some local low cost spay neuter programs. I will do some research to determine the right program for this situation and come back for the cats.

That poor little silver tabby haunts me. I have to take care of her immediately.

***Note: Why start Trap-Neuter-Return on these cats and not the cats at Harlinsdale Farm? I don’t think that the timing is right for the owner to be receptive yet. But it is certainly on my mind.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The World of the Fertile Feline

The Pink Palace Persian Cattery
Perhaps it’s the scream, or maybe the infamous barbs on a male cat’s penis, but we tend to thing of cat sexuality as violent, something akin to rape. I was astounded to learn that this is not entirely accurate. I have spent my life with spayed and neutered cats. Only once did I wait long enough to see a young cat go into heat, calling, rubbing, rolling and trilling in a frenzy—I whisked her off to the vet and that was the end of that. For all behavior problems, my first question is: “Is the cat fixed?” (If its not, then I insist that we start with that.) I don’t have experience with fertile cats—but I have heard the late night screaming, the fighting and all of the violence that I always associated with feline fertility.

In my studies, I learned that the sounds may be misleading. In fact, it is almost impossible to rape a female cat. She is simply equipped with too many weapons. Yes, Toms will fight over her, but she may spurn the victor—or she may decide to copulate with all the gathered Tom cats. (Thus a single litter with many fathers.) However, the decision of when and with whom she mates it up to her discretion (and her hormones—of course.)

This week I visited a Persian cattery to view a mating. The Tom and Queen were tossed into a comfortable confinement. The event was surprisingly tender. It was only his third time, being so young and inexperienced, the breeder said it could take a couple of days before he would actually enter her. I watched for two hours as the cats engaged in elaborate foreplay. He massaged her back with his paws during sporadic rutting—no claws, just paw pads. He sniffed and licked as she rolled around, then she crouched still with her tail high in the air and he would climb all over her, squeaking as she trilled.

“Is it always like this?” I asked.

“Lots of the time. But not with that fellow over there.” She points to another caged intact Tom. “The Queens won’t mate with him. He beats up on them—so they won’t have him.”

Of course, I wasn’t there for the scream. When the male cat enters her and his barbs engage, helping him stay in position, she will scream. Biologists debate whether the scream is one of pain or pleasure—but it was clear to me that with this pair, the courtship was solicitous, affectionate and accomplished in a prolonged state of arousal.
(P.S. I didn't take pictures because I had only just met the breeder and --in a clear demonstration of my urban, protestant background--I felt somehow awkward asking permission to photograph the event. Eventually I will though.)

Harlinsdale Farms
Driving past the grazing mares and their young, I could see several cats in the road, their heads bobbing against the bright intensity of the early morning sun. Their numbers swelled as other cats gathered, approaching in a low crouched trot. Then the realization struck them that in spite of my timing, I was not Bill Harlin (the owner of this horse farm and feeder of the cats)—all of the cats scattered as I exited my van.

This is the place I have been looking for. Dozens of cats populate the barns.
I gather my equipment and sequester myself away from the barn. Then I do my best impersonation of Roger Tabor. In his field studies of urban feral cats, he approached the colony much like a new cat that is trying to gain acceptance. He sat quietly on the fringes of the community. Passive. Eyes lowered. Blinking, not staring at the cats head on—but almost acting as though he was ignoring them. Gradually, the cats would learn to ignore him and go about their business regardless of his presence. This is my goal.

I sit quietly, far from the barn. Most of the cats emerge again, and squat near a pick up truck, watching for Bill Harlin.

They are also watching me.

Bill Harlin drives a Cadillac down the long drive—and all of the cats bob and weave, rubbing against each other and jogging towards the slow moving car. Occasionally, one cat will pounce on another, initiating a tussle, and then refocusing on the car.

Weathered by age, fresh air and sunshine, this horseman dotes on his barn cats. “I’m here every morning at 8:30—seven days a week.” He distributes dry cat food from a feed bucket and splats wet food directly from the cans onto the barn floor. “This here’s our queen. She’s round about 15 years old. She’s the Queen of the whole place.” She is the matriarch of the whole colony. This is already clear. “These two are her sires. Only three Toms on the whole place, except for the occasional one that passes through. You see that,” he chuckles, pointing out the large congregation of chocolate points, “A Siamese Tom passed through awhile back—completely changed the complexion of the cats.”

The Queen and her two ‘sires’ eat on top of some ploughing equipment, while the rest of the colony eats from the floor. I can’t help but recall Roger Tabor’s observation of the feeding etiquette of his feral colonies. With two colonies he discerned a distinct matriarch—the grandmother of the group. The matriarchs of his colonies didn’t reign by might or fright, rather the other cats treated the grandmothers with gentle deference. Staying back as a grandmother approached the food that caregivers provided, just waiting a few seconds for her to find her place before they began feeding. One such Queen was very petite and aging with a mild demeanor, in another colony, the aging Queen was clearly rather crabby.

These cats are all wary of me, but they seem to take no issue with Bill Harlin. “I don’t touch them, if I reach for them with my hands, they run away.” This said as several rub against his boot. “Except for that little one. The Queen hadn’t had a litter in four years when suddenly she showed up pregnant. Just one kitten in that litter—and not another since. For some reason, this one is the tamest of the bunch.”

“There’s another group of them in the stable.”

After feeding time, I sit in the barn for two hours, watching the cats and snapping pictures. I return the next day for an hour. I will be here often studying the dynamics of this group of feral, fertile, free-wheeling cats in the hopes that my observations will help deepen my understanding of the cat.

Already I am surprised by the relationship between the Queen and one of her ‘sires’, whom I call ‘Ginger’ (obvious, I know, but there are so many cats here that giving them obvious names will help me to differentiate them.) He remains at her side constantly during the couple of times I have been to the farm. She is braver than he, but his defensive body language speaks to me of guardianship, as though he is looking out for her. I realize there is always a danger of anthropomorphizing these cats—or seeking out patterns that I want to see. I am trying to interpret without bias, but there is no way for my knowledge and expectations to be completely neutral.

In the corner, by that ploughing equipment, is a kitty playground. Old fences and feedbags, a desk and farming equipment form cat trees and tunnels, beds and hideaways. A group of young cats plays and naps together there, scampering up the fences and pouncing out of hiding places. I try to imagine how to interpret that safely and with a better aesthetic for an outdoor enclosure.
On both days, my silent observation is a bit like a using an 'I spy' book with my children, working over pages of elaborate illustrations within which you try to find predetermined objects. A sort of puzzle for the eyes. In much the same way, as I look around the cavernous, cluttered barn, suddenly the outline of a cat will materialize against the camouflage—or just the tip of an ear or the refracted light from an eye.

In this endeavor, stillness will benefit me.