Conversations with a Cat
Copyright © 2008 Dorian Scott Cole
I know that the cat doesn't actually like me. He just likes conversation. Cats are invariably of two types. The loving ones that rub against your leg and want to sit in your lap and be stroked all day. The independent ones that want to do as they please all day, and when they want a little attention - stress on little - they appear before you and meow. You are here to serve them. The only time the independent ones jump in your lap, or get in your face, is when you pick up a book or type on a computer - anything that says your attention may be dangerously diverted from your primary task of serving them.
If you want a cat to meow, just close a door. I have studied this behavior. They don't necessarily want on the other side of the door. If you let them on the other side of the door, then they sit there and meow incessantly until you let them back on the other side. We often cite "curiosity" and "investigation" as cat motives for this behavior, but this is not really accurate.
I close doors for privacy: bathroom, bedroom, other rooms where I don't want the cat, like the garage. When I close the door, the cat immediately starts to meow. I know the cat doesn't like me enough to want to be with me, so what does he really want?
I have learned from careful observation what cats want when they sit at a closed door and meow. They want the door to just stay open. One side or the other is irrelevant. The closed off room is like a tabby taboo. He wants it because he can't have it. After all, cats own their domain, and their slaves, and carefully mark and defend their territory. I mean, who wouldn't jealously refuse entry to a kingdom where you are fed, watered, groomed, petted, played with, cleaned up after, never asked to lift a finger, and in all ways treated like a king? A closed door can't be tolerated. A closed door means that the lowly inhabitants must own something instead of the cat. Ownership by others is taboo in the cat world.
I'm not actually all that fond of cats either, and I refuse to back down on who actually owns the house. A man's home is his wife's castle. But I come to an understanding with animals. For example, I have an understanding with alligators: I don't eat them, and they don't eat me. I'm living proof that understandings with animals are 100% effective. No alligators have crawled out of the swamp and lunched on me. But of course I don't invade their territory either - that might be interpreted as predatory, or viewed as an invitation to a meal. You know, you just don't threaten a lion or put temptation in front of a thief. You have to use common sense.
So considering the reality of the situation with our long chain of cats, who have had every reason to believe that they owned the house, and perception is a good as reality, early on I came to a very effective understanding with our cats. I tolerate them and they tolerate me.
This was not an easy negotiation. After the family had worn out a couple of cats, I finally laid down the law. "No more cats." Of course, with kids, "No" is a "definite maybe" - a challenge. What they want is all that is really important, and a "No" just means they have to work harder, pleading and negotiating, to get what they want.
Finally the incessant begging and crying wore me down and I lost all reason and spouted unreachable specifications for another cat, confident they could never find one like my description. I would permit another cat if it didn't leave fur all over the curtains (short hair), didn't wee wee everywhere to mark its territory (neutered early), didn't scratch the wear layers off of the furniture and me (no claws), and wasn't an all around pain.
I was correct in my assumption that filling that bill was impossible. Unfortunately I left the door open. They are master negotiators. "It" showed up one day when I wasn't watching for any new four legged critters. What could I say? "Send it back?" Take candy from a baby? They had the winning hand - "It" had arrived, and they were in love with it, and they lobbied with all the strength of having fullfilled my bill of expectations for a cat. They had located a purebred. It was a something mixed with a something, mixed with a something. A real hybrid with papers. If it had been a dog, it would have been called a "mongrel." But in the pure-bred cat world, it was called a new breed show cat.
The compromising began (I was licked - fold the cards). "It" was a hybrid - all bad cat qualities had been bred out of the cat. It was "de-catted." Forget the short hair - it came with long hair. You can't change such things; they just are. Spraying - maybe - we made an appointment with the vet, hopefully in time. Sometimes that works. Claws? They would keep them cut or put little balls on them. I accurately forecast that the latter would never happen.
Well, one out of three is a great victory when you have a family. I think there was one victory... I don't know I didn't do a recount. When you have a family, you learn to count the little victories, the small things that you can change, and add them to your thankful prayers each night. Or, you could cry over the two... or three... losses. Your choice.
The cat lacked one other important thing. A brain. It had never been outside, had never eaten table food, had no personality of any kind, and had no idea which way was up. If you put the cat in a cabinet, I swear two days later he would still be laying there and would just look up at you with a blank stare when you opened the door. I don't remember his name, I just always referred to him as "the de-catted cat."
Like most cats, he could not be trained - not trained to the point of trust when you turn your back. Thankfully he never showed any interest in table food, or he just couldn't jump that high and couldn't figure out how to climb, so we didn't have a problem with him jumping on the table and eating dinner just before everyone sat down. But he had to come with at least one bad habit or he couldn't be called a "cat" at all. He decided that the kid's shower would be his litter box. I guess he had something against litter, since outside and earth weren't concepts that he knew. Every morning we would rise to find a nice deposit in the bathtub.
Cats seem to have this love/hate relationship with bathtubs and showers. The cat that preceded the de-catted cat would jump into the bathtub and for several minutes would just jump up and down like he was trying to capture specks on the walls. He would also race up and down the halls after nothing. We named him "Rampage." Our current cat, when we shower, stands outside the shower and wails mournfully like it was the end of world, until we reappear. Apparently he thinks we enter a dangerous world through that door and will be killed by the water. Each day we emerge unscathed, but he doesn't learn. Who can figure out the mind of a cat.
Well, we couldn't train the de-catted cat to stop using the shower for a litter box. The solution could be as simple as just keeping the bathroom door closed. But I never had much success training children either. Saying, "Keep the door closed," seemed to be heard as "Wah wah wah wah." It wasn't memorable. Not that they actually cared - my directive was just so much more gibberish in the incomprehensible torrent of instruction from adults that was always appraised as having little practical value in the life of a child.
Unable to get the kids to close the door, my wife and I had to devise a plan. Cats avoid water, and can smell water from far away, and no cat in his right mind will get in it. So one night we filled the bathtub full of water. At 1 am, "Splash!" The de-catted cat apparently didn't have much of a nose. He couldn't smell a tub full of water. We never had trouble with him using the bathtub for a litter box again.
He was the most uncoordinated cat I have ever seen. If we forgot and left the bedroom door open, at night he would bound into the room, dive for the window ledge, and use the glass as a backstop - a budding ballerina.
Most cats, if you drop them, land on their feet. Apparently all instinct was bred out of him. He would land on his side. And he wouldn't even look at you with that haughty, quizzical look, that most cats love to give, as if to say: "That was insulting. Why did you do that? Don't you know that I'm the king here? Don't you know I can wee wee on your pillow for revenge? Felt anything wet in your house slipper lately? Would you like me to hock up a furball tonight in your path to the bathroom?" Cats can only meow, but they can say so much with one look.
One morning we realized that the de-catted cat was missing. Later that morning we heard meowing from outside. We opened the door and there he was. We wondered how in the world he managed to get out of the house. Oh, well, cats do mysterious things. Who can know? Late that night we were musing about it, and finally put two and two together. We thought that no cat with any intelligence would jump two stories to the ground below our bedroom window, so we sleep with the windows open in the spring. No, he didn't jump out. Actually he leaped for the window ledge expecting the glass to stop him. Surprise! We wondered if he landed on his feet or on his side.
Most conversations with cats don't get much more intelligent than the daily run of their lives. But I often have a verbal conversation with our current cat. It goes like this.
"Meow," says the cat.
I have no idea what he wants. "Back at you," I reply. He is satisfied with a verbal response, so the conversation stops here 25% of the time. But our cat is a Siamese, and they love to talk, so 75% of the time the conversation continues.
"Meow," says the cat.
"That's what you always say," I reply.
"You just said that. Can't we have a different conversation this time?"
"I don't believe a word of it." If he actually wanted something, he would lead me to his food and water dishes, which he makes sure are always brimming.
"You're spoofing me. I know it. I can tell."
"I don't care. Talk to my wife - she's the one who takes care of you."
"Am I boring you?"
"Really? That's incredible!"
I really look forward to our conversations, and set the next appointment. "Same time tomorrow?"
"OK, so go away now and sleep over the heat register for the rest of the day."
"Do you always have to have the last word?"
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