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My kind of pet

Dogs are bred for so many things -- herding sheep, gently retrieving felled animals, carrying those little barrels of booze around in the Swiss Alps -- but cats are pretty much as they have always been, and breeds differ mainly in color. Many breeds don't even differ in color, sharing color schemes and markings with others. Cats all do the same kind of work. With the luxury of a St Bernard, the light touch of a retriever, the tenacity of a herd dog, they kill.

Some cats have specialties, and you can train your cat to value one sort of victim over another. My brother's cats devastate the vole population before they, ho-hum, turn their attention to birds. My father's barn cat focuses on rats, for each of which my father rewards him with a can of food. He doesn't just stack the rats up and let my dad run a tab, either. He delivers the goods and then stands there, all friendly like but just doing business, until he gets his can of food.

My kitten has a doggy good nature that sometimes obscures his catness. He lopes over to the door when I come home and purrs raggedly when I scoop him up and say hello. He's happy and friendy and curious, even with strangers, and he likes to be handled (mostly because I've handled him frequently since I brought him home). He even plays fetch. And not some perverted cat-person version of fetch, where you throw a ball, he runs and gets it, he plays with it, and then you have to walk over, take it away and throw it somewhere else. Real dog fetch, where he runs like crazy for the ball, trots back to you, and drops it at your feet. After about 20 minutes, he seems to remember he's actually a cat and loses interest and wanders off, sometimes pausing to attempt to rip open the ball's abdomen with his back claws. This playing is all well and good, but he remembers, if dimly, the object of the game.

It's hard to say what kind of killing my little one would grow up to prefer, but the toys tell some of the story. He goes bananas for the kitty fishing pole if it has a feathery bauble at the end of the line. He is merely transfixed for other objects, but for those faux birds, he leaps with such abandon that he sometimes slides across the floor when he hits the ground again. The toy is somewhat fragile, and when he succeeds in capturing the lure, I reel him in and release his jaw so I can retrieve the feathers. He waves me away with a paw, claws out, staring harshly up at me over his prize.

I got him a little furry mouse last week, one of several floor toys, with the idea that a variety of floor toys could keep him perky when I was hard for him to distract. The furry mouse was a huge hit -- too huge.

I broke it out at night, when I was tired and hoping for some quiet time to read before I went to sleep. I was sitting on my bed, and I tossed it across the room. The kitten zipped after it. After a brief struggle under a chair, he vanquished the furry mouse and then came trotting back to me, lighting elegantly on the bed.

I was happy to postpone my reading for a game of fetch. I reached for the mouse and got a dark look. I persisted. I reached toward his clenched jaw and took gentle hold of the end of the mouse. He backed away. I gave a little tug, and he growled. In my surprise, I tugged again, and this time I got the mouse and almost got a faceful of claws.

I tossed the mouse again. He ran, he tussled, and he returned to the bed. This seemed to indicate a desire to play fetch, but I never got near the mouse again that night. He ran back to me to growl and glare and then ran to another part of the room to rake his hind claws over the toy's belly, returning frequently to my bed to growl some more.

The next morning when I wandered into the bathroom, I saw a shadow or two in the tub and blearily noted that he must have left his toys there, as he sometimes does. When I looked in, I was startled to see what was left of the mouse. He'd ripped off all its fur and ripped the fur itself into chunks. The core of the mouse was firm plastic; he hadn't torn that. But it had scores of tooth marks on it. I cleaned up the mess, almost as anxious as if it had been the bloody remnants of a recently live rodent.

Cats concentrate near completely when they hunt. Their pupils fly open as they pounce, and their excitement is palpable. The violent death of the furry mouse was a little more excitement than I'd bargained for.

Just this afternoon, the kitten and I played a rousing game of Chase Each Other All Over the Apartment. We peeked at each other around doors and ran after each other. We stood up, waving our arms and staring menacingly. He flew around my ankles and on several occasions launched himself into the air as if to reach my face in a single leap from the floor. He came quite a bit closer than you might expect.

I love this game. I love how easily he switches between affection and play. I love how responsive he is when I decide it's too rough, and I let him know. I love that half the times I scoop him up to show him the monkey can win whenever she wants, I find that he's purring. A cat owner can never really know the satisfaction of a dog owner whose animal is orderly, attentive, and under full control, but when my kitten backs off on signal, I feel a shadow of that, a sense that my kitten wants to work with me and not just take me for all he can get.

For all I know, my kitten is playing me most subtly at those times -- watching, working, waiting to stage an endgame to his precise preferences. As well he should. He'll have to move carefully and with great disclipine if he wants his specialty to be the most dangerous game.

September 21, 2002