Saying Good-bye to Lady

It’s hard to say goodbye.

Liam and Sarah with Lady

Last Sunday, after coming home from Catnip Hill, we packed up Lady’s things and sent her off to a new, cat-friendly apartment with Liam and Sarah. Their place is on the third floor. There is talk of cat hutches suspended from windows like swallows’ nests and cat ladders running up and down the house. Lady’s oblivious to the care and concern going into her happiness–on all sides. By Sunday night, I was texting to see how she was doing, and I’m a little embarrassed by how much I look forward to every new picture from Sarah. I miss her.

Lady wasn’t easy, but I loved the way she found us when we were outside and flopped at our feet like a slippery fish, and the way she came (almost) every time we called. Watching Terry’s heart melt the night she bounded across several yards at the sound of his voice will be with me always.

It took Lady a long time to accept us. After living with Sly—who talked and purred constantly—Lady’s near silence always seemed tense. The night before Trouble came to Lady Sleepingstay, she finally allowed herself to fall asleep on the couch next to me, sometimes resting one paw on my leg. That was after six months. The next day, she purred audibly in my arms for a full fifteen minutes while Trouble galumphed around upstairs. She never fully relaxed while inside again.

True, she got used to Trouble. Just last week she stretched out on the kitchen floor and pretended to sleep while Trouble crept past, settled nearby, crept back again—then pounced at the floor just behind her. When nothing happened, he walked away, bored. Then the phone rang. The minute I started talking he charged straight at her again and was promptly whisked away to his tower. It was probably entrapment.

It’s a shame we never got to see Lady and Trouble curled up together like soul mates, but if they had hit it off, I would have a large, bow-legged, despondent tom on my hands right now. Instead, when Liam took Lady out to the car, Trouble was sitting cheerfully upright in the second-floor window, mewing down at us the whole time. When we let him out of his room, he headed straight for the basement to examine the corner where Lady’s litter box had been, then he cased the whole house before spreading out regally in the middle of the living room for a bath.

All summer, PathI’ve been “planting” a stone walk alongside our house. Lady assumed it was for her. It was a favorite place to sun, bring prey, and sleep under the ferns. When I added my one step a day, she always came by, sometimes slinking toward me, sometimes leaping out of the brush.

There’s no question the path is lonelier this week.

But I know she’s with her people. Holy Sheboygan! gave us a private concert last June, and Lady was in heaven—rubbing against band members while the music played, contemplating climbing into the bass. When they left, she watched out the front window, clearly expecting to be the next one loaded into the car.

She watched them packing the car through the front window again last Sunday, and we know she was relieved when they came back for her this time. Lady

Terry and I wish them safe travels, warm nights, and even lots of bunnies. Who knows? Maybe Trouble was sending good wishes, too.

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Catnip Hill: Kitty Hotel

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Big St. Germain Lake, Saint Germain, WI

Every August, we rent a cabin up north where we water ski, fish, dive into the deep center of the lake, then wake up sunburned to the high-pitched bickering of bald eagles and do it all over again. This year, that meant our two bickering house guests would have to share a room at a cat-boarding facility for an entire week. We’ve never boarded before, relying on a nearly endless stream of neighborhood kids to give Sly food, water, and love when we were gone. But Lady and Trouble don’t always behave–and we wanted our neighbors to still like us a little when we returned–so we decided Catnip Hill’s very reasonable prices were well worth the investment.

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Catnip Hill, catnip-hill.com

Christine, owner of Catnip Hill is a bona fide cat whisperer who assured me our two house guests would be fine once on neutral turf. Christine has been running Catnip Hill for over ten years, having picked up the idea while living in the United Kingdom where, as she put it, they don’t have a culture of handing keys over to neighbors when they go on holiday. Since so many U.S. boarding facilities are designed for dogs, she thought a cats-only boarding house might be well-received. Judging by how quickly her rooms fill up, she was right.

I was still worried. Lady and Trouble don’t play at fighting; they fight. And since we want to return the two cats to our two kids unscathed, we have abandoned our intensive program to help them make friends. They have been leading separate lives, like roommates with a line drawn down the center of the room.

But Christine has so much experience, that when she told us all would be well, we believed that not only would they make it through the week, but they would be returned to us grooming each other and sleeping in each other’s arms the way I’ve always dreamed it would be if only I owned two cats.

The day we took them to the Kitty Hotel, the cats were not as optimistic. It was a forty-minute drive. Lady glared at us from her carrier the entire time while Trouble threw himself into a Houdini-like escape plan, which involved turning his mesh-and-fabric carrier inside out while he was still inside.

Still, as soon as we turned up the driveway and drove past the rolling fields surrounding Catnip Hill, we knew it was perfect. Inside, 20150809_084143each of the twelve rooms had a window, a chair, and three long perches. There was room enough for Terry and I to move freely as we unloaded cats and sacks. We put Lady’s favorite blanket on the highest perch so she’d feel comfortable, but she didn’t appreciate the kindness and let me know we were no longer on speaking terms. Meanwhile, Trouble was up and down the perches and chairs, checking out every corner. He kept jumping from the window to the door and back and didn’t even notice when we left.

20150809_084840 (2)For the first few days at the cabin, we watched our phone, waiting for Christine’s call…but it never came. When we picked the two of them up at the end of the week, not only were they both out of their carriers and enjoying the window sort of almost together from two different perches, they even interacted in cat “smalltalk.” It would be a stretch to say the conversation was pleasant. Still, no death threats were involved.

20150809_08454420150809_085152We packed them up and headed home, foolish enough to think the fact they were wailing in harmony was a good sign. What could be better after a week at a cat spa than a common enemy?

But once home, it took less time than the drive for Trouble to charge Lady and wind up locked in his room yet again.

Do you think Christine hires out?

Real Trouble

Having just put Trouble in his room again for stalking Lady (because we know how that will end), I’m concerned he’s emerging as the villain in this story and wanted to make clear that he’s actually a sweet and well-behaved cat.

In the beginning, we were worried because he has peed on things in the past to express unhappiness, but even though he has spent long hours locked in a small room alone and is obviously unhappy about sharing the house with another cat, we haven’t had any difficulties on that front. In addition, Trouble rarely scratches furniture, jumps on counters, bites, or bats. Even when he misbehaves, simply telling him “no” or blowing gently in his face is enough to get him to stop.

Early on, he discovered an empty basket in our front hall (empty because I was slow to20150702_135812 (2) move hats, mittens, and scarves to their new home) and decided to make this his time-out spot. The few times we’ve raised our voices to him, he has banished himself to this basket or gone up to his room on his own. When he does this, we just give him his space and let him rejoin us when he’s ready. Lady has never felt the need to go into Caitlin’s bedroom, so it is the one place in the house that is truly his own, and he seems happiest there, surrounded by his person’s things and his person’s smells.

Trouble is the kind of cat that makes the strongest argument for keeping cats indoors and allowing them to live a longer, disease-free life out of harm’s way. In the morning, his first 20150728_152613perch is in one of our front windows. They overlook a busy sidewalk and almost always have a nice breeze blowing through them. He’s very interested in Lady’s comings and goings, so he also spends a great deal of time at the back door, but mostly he moves around the house to different windows, perches, blankets, chairs, and other ideal nap spots throughout the day.

Before he and Lady got into an actual fight, he’d cuddle with us now and then, and even sleep in our bed. When he cuddles, he has an odd habit of kneading the open air in front of him with one paw. He also lifts one paw slightly when hungry, as though he has read the famous fable, and we are more likely to care for him and give him food if we think his paw is hurt.

But he hasn’t been cuddling at all since we started separating them and, of course, he spends every night shut into his own room. He hasn’t become hostile toward us in any way, but there’s no question he’s confused about why we don’t want him getting rid of that other cat. Never mind that she was here first.

Trouble is an easy companion. We’re just hoping he doesn’t try to get rid of us once Lady leaves!

Bad Blood

Things are not going well. According to the experts, we have been doing everything right, but things are not going well.

We took Lady for booster shots this morning. The Vet’s assistant told me her mother introduced a feral cat to a genuinely mean tom and by the end of six weeks they were cuddling like the stunt doubles on my home page. Tomorrow marks the end of week five, and we’ve still got haters in the house.

We have tried keeping them separate; we have tried putting them together. We have tried supervising interactions; we have tried walking away. We have rubbed them down with towels, swapped towels, and rubbed them again until they hate every towel in the house and Terry and I are the only ones getting used to their smell. We have given them treats together then used treats to lure them as far apart as possible–all while pumping sixty-dollar kitty pheromones through the house.

They hate each other.
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As Trouble gets more comfortable here, he has become more territorial. He spends a large part of his day rolling around like a kitten in catnip to mark every inch of the house with saliva–and he is constantly on guard. Lady can’t even come into the house without him giving chasing.20150701_192124 (2)

Soon, they’ll be sharing a room at Catnip Hill, where all the cats in all the pictures are happy and above average. We’ve never boarded before, but with Lady’s penchant for shredding and Trouble’s reputation for peeing, we don’t have much choice.

Our first instinct was to drop them off without a word about their behavior and drive fast enough to outrun our cellphone reception, but we decided the kitty hotel deserved a heads-up.

On the phone, the owner told me that she’s been at this for ten years and has only separated cats three times. She assured me she was well-equipped to help Lady and Trouble get along and that we would not get called back from vacation. She also gave us advice to step back and let them sort things out, “They’re just cats being cats.”

Listening to her calm, confident voice, I wanted to believe all would be well.

For one glorious week, we embraced her advice. We didn’t follow cats around the house or jump up from dinner when we heard growling. Most importantly, I got to tell Terry he was right all along, which made him very happy.

Then, a week ago, the annoying swats and growls turned into an all-out, rolling, caterwauling, giant-ball-of-fur fight three whole feet from the kitty pheromones! (Pfft!) and just like that, Trouble is locked in his room again unless Lady is out chasing bunnies.

In eight days they will be in a 5×6 room together for an entire week. We can’t imagine what it will be like, but we are hoping the Catnip Hill cat-whisperers can negotiate a lasting peace.

Meanwhile, Lady is free to inhabit as many bags and boxes as she likes untroubled..

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An Anxious Night

Lady didn’t come home at her usual time last night, even after we called–and she always comes running when we call. In fact, we’ve settled into a polite and respectful schedule.

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Sly, 1998-2014

After sixteen years of waking up to Sly knocking over glasses of water or whacking us on the head, the fact that Lady waits until we’re up and dressed before asking to go outside is a delight. She comes back several times during the day for a snack or short nap, then always comes home for good around dusk.

When we have to call her in, she usually comes running, throws herself at our feet, and does her signature belly-up wriggle. It’s hard to resist.

Last night, we called her name several times over the course of several hours with no luck.

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Terry decided to walk around the block. I did the same in and around the yard. She gets excited when she sees me outside and always comes to say hello before running off again. It’s a wild, unkempt yard, with sturdy ferns and overgrown brush, paradise for bunnies, chipmunks, chickadees, and Lady–but also for a neighborhood red-tailed hawk and the occasional owl or bald eagle.

Last night was gorgeous, with whole constellations of fireflies floating all around. Back when we called them lightning bugs, we caught them in jars to watch them light up in our hands. Sometimes we’d try to keep them forever by poking holes in the lid. Then we got older and wiser and threw grass and drops of water inside, knowing bugs needed more than air to survive. Of course, these stories always had sad endings, no matter how hard we tried.

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Trouble on Lady’s former favorite spot.

In the yard, I tried to tell myself that if anything happened to Lady, I could take comfort in the fact that her short life was fully lived. This is the logic the kids give me, knowing I live happily on the indoor-cat side of the fence. I understand what they’re saying, but Sly was genuinely happy. For that matter, Trouble seems to be adjusting to life outside the food chain as well.

We were about to give up when I heard a cat wail at the side of the house. Lady was ten feet up her favorite tree, and a familiar Siamese was running back to his yard.

She climbed down and flopped at my feet, out of breath. After making sure she wasn’t injured, I took her inside and texted Terry I had found her. I am older now than I was when I first took the lid off the jar and let the fireflies go–older, even, than when I stopped catching them altogether–but with every year, I have more questions and fewer answers. That was unexpected.

But I do know Lady was grateful for the safety of the house last night, and we were both grateful to have her safely tucked inside.

The Science Behind Why Herding Cats is Like…Well…Herding Cats

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Trouble jumps into our basket for mittens wheneveer he knows he’s done something wrong.

Lady and Trouble have spent their entire lives with my children, who don’t care much for the few worldy goods they own. There were no couches that couldn’t be shredded or shelves of heirloom china. Renters (my former self included) don’t think twice about how perfectly a cat’s claws fit into screens–or how much they cost to replace. So “training” has been an ongoing struggle.

Before we allowed Lady outside, she clawed indiscriminately on leather, upholstery, and one antique cherry wood secretary. She would also look directly at us while knocking things to the floor, or hooking things with one claw to toss them. My house has been stripped bare of breakable things, just like the last time we had three-year-olds around.20150717_083046 Marking, so far, has been limited to claws and saliva (knock on wood, spit three times, throw salt over my shoulder). Now that the cats are both roaming freely, day and night, they seem more determined to scratch. This is why I found myself cross-legged on our deck this morning, patiently applying strips of tape to our screen door–sticky side out, a trick that has limited damage to the secretary.

To quote Caitlin, “Cats: helping disencumber humans of belongings for 5,300 years.”

Actually, humans and cats have hung out together for nearly 10,000 years, if not more. It’s no illusion they are difficult to train–some would say impossible. A great article from The Atlantic explains the reason “Why You Shouldn’t Trust Your Cat” is that they’re still wild. Ten thousand years of treats and squirt guns and tongue clicks that have brought mighty Orcas to their metaphorical knees have failed to domesticate the domestic cat.

On the flip side, cats have shown an incredible knack for training us. Adult cats never mew to each other when left to their own devices; this is an adaptation developed only for human companions. In fact, over a lifetime, each cat develops a launguage that is unique and specific to their particular human.20150712_184204

It gets better.

Purring doesn’t exist in the wild either. It’s now known to be something cats save only for humans, and was flat-out called manipulative in one Washington Post article:

Purring….seems to be what behavioral ecologists refer to as a manipulative signal, conveying a general request: “Please settle down next to me.”

All this has me feeling proud of the training we have accomplished. By going against advice to feed the cats together and only feeding Trouble far from Lady, we’ve stopped him haunting her doorway and significantly cut down confrontations. For her part, Lady comes in every night for dinner. In fact, we’ve seen her bounding excitedly across several backyards when we call.

It seems as long as we keep the food coming for Trouble and open the door whenever Lady mews, peace reigns over our household.

So slowly, in spite of the science, we’ve–I mean they’ve–been trained fairly well.

A Dangerous Life

I begin with an apology to the neighbor who called several times to complain about Lady driving her dogs crazy. She called last week because Lady had climbed into her car, so I walked down to introduce myself, a bag of squirt guns in hand to discourage Lady when needed. Turns out the neighbor was sane and mosty concerned about Lady’s safety.

We bonded, unexpectedly, over watching our adult children’s pets for the summer as two quart-sized Yorkies came yapping to the door (yes, they do go crazy), but I left20150411_153018-1 feeling unsettled. She made a strong case for keeping Lady indoors–one I am familiar with, which is why we tried so hard to keep her inside. This picture, which I’ve shared before, was taken the day we gave up and let her go outside.

Over the years, Vets and Humane Society workers have helped us memorize the dangers, quoting the lifespan of outdoor cats as 4-5 years. Outside, cats become part of a food chain that includes other cats, dogs, birds of prey and, sadly, humans who mean them harm. There are diseases, parasites, and the straightforward dangers like eating the wrong thing, or sudden storms–like the one Lady was caught in the other day, raindrops fat and heavy as hail.

There are other arguments for keeping cats indoors, but I’ll leave the debate about whether cats are a serious threat to the environment or a scapegoat diverting our attention from the rampant destruction of habitats alone, except to note that “Felis Catus” is officially listed as an invasive species.

So why do I find myself wondering if we should have allowed our family cat, Sly, outdoors during his time with us?

The answer is simple and unscientific: Joy.

Whether she is leaping from our deck into nearby trees or sleeping under a canopy of ferns, Lady throws herself into the outside with an abandon I long for–delighted with the world, never doubting it was made just for her. 20150627_112702It makes me feel guilty for every moment spent inside. It makes me long for the days I used to climb up the maple in front of our house and read for hours, or bike miles in one day, going “no hands,” the wind streaming across my face.

I had no knowlege of disease or parasites on those bike rides–or car accidents that could take the life of someone you love in less time than it took to breath their name. I hadn’t learned about how life could change on a sunny Tuesday over lunch, or while biking a riverfront trail with your brother. I could not imagine that other humans would ever mean to do me harm. I had no fear of birds of prey.

All of this protectiveness of our lives, our children, our pets.

I find myself grateful the decision has been made for me–that Lady refused to play nicely indoors and insisted she be allowed outside.

I find myself hoping she can teach me how to climb again.

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