Monday, August 22, 2011

Fitting In

There are two kinds of ‘fitting in’. One is physical, the other is communal. The former is easier to illustrate, so I’ve included pictures of that aspect in this article. The text, however, concerns the latter definition.

Many people think of cats as loners. It’s a reason so many are allowed to wander outside and unhindered, eventually becoming lost and uncared for. It’s thought that they are naturally independent and do well alone. In the wild, some species of cats (such as lions) band together, while others associate in family groups (eg. tigers) and some travel by themselves (eg. leopards).

I don’t believe domesticated cats are naturally loners. They are social animals. It’s true, as I’ve written in these articles, that some prefer not to accompany other cats. Josie is a good example. But that doesn’t mean that she isn’t social; she likes humans more than she does cats. Any visitor to my house can testify to that.

But when one or more cats live together, they form a society, whether they want to or not, just as humans in a town are a community; some may prefer not to be part of it, but they are nonetheless, simply by virtue of living where they do. So it is with cats. And with the formation of that society comes the problem of fitting in.

Tungsten had no trouble fitting in. She was my first cat, so all other cats had to conform to her demands. Tungsten taught me that social animals don’t necessarily follow the strongest. The orange one commands through force of personality. This was clear when the one cat who would not bend to her personality tried to usurp her authority. Wixie, a foster cat, wanted to be the queen of our little kingdom, but instead was adopted with her friend, Mystery (who had been content to live by Tungsten’s rules.) That episode ended gladly for all concerned, but demonstrated that Tungsten, tiny and relatively weak, does not reign through physical power.

I wondered then if all social animals were like that: wolves in their packs, horses in their herds, lions in their prides. Advanced intelligence must surely bring recognition of the benefits of that advancement. A whale that can physically defeat all comers is good; better yet is a whale that can show the others in the pod where food is plentiful. Bodily strength and moral courage are important, but sheer character seems to mean a lot, too.

The other cats in the house acknowledge the orange one’s strong will and dominant spirit, despite being bigger than she. Josie, who came second to our group, did not take Tungsten’s initial dislike of her sitting down. As I’ve mentioned before, there were fights, there was bloodletting. As with Wixie later on, I think Tungsten received the worse of the punishment. And yet, Tungsten emerged the top-cat. Josie, my easy-going pacifist, my gentle Chubs, was pleased to have a nice home, uncrowded and comfortable. That was enough for her. Let someone else be the queen. Except at the food-bowl. Even Tungsten bows to Josie’s wishes there. But that’s another story.

Renn was afraid of everything when he first came to live with me as a foster-cat. It’s no surprise, then, that he willingly acknowledged Tungsten’s supremacy. The orange one didn’t like my big boy’s arrival, but she accepted it quite quickly because he didn’t resist her tremendous will. Now, the two of them are as close to being friends as any of my cats are.

Finally, Tucker. The roly poly one is having a tough time fitting in. It’s not that he is troublesome or rebellious. He doesn’t challenge Tungsten, nor does he fight. He is a timid sausage of a cat who just wants to be liked. When he first came, as passive as he is, he at first asserted himself with Renn. My big boy gave in and took fourth place in the hierarchy. The interesting thing is that this situation did not last.

Renn has since re-taken third place and whereas Tucker used to hiss and swipe at the big boy, now Renn does that. Tucker still tries to grab and pounce from time to time, but these are nothing more than desperate attempts at play. Watching the two boys on neighbouring perches by the bedroom window is a lesson in cat dynamics. The rare times that they are there together, Tucker is as far as he can be from Renn without falling off the platform, looking away, like a peasant confronted by his angry lord. Renn, for his part, whines and growls at Tucker. Just this weekend, however, I noticed that my big boy had allowed Tucker to sit and peer out the window with him. It was a unique event.

I feel sorry for the roly poly one. He wants to be friends, he wants a chum to play with. He asks for attention from me quite often and I feel bad if I don’t give him some, because he is unliked by the other cats. He and Josie do chase each other - playfully - from time to time, but that’s infrequent.

Why hasn’t Tucker been able to fit in? What is it about him that the others don’t like? Is he too eager? Too shy? Too tubular? Too flat of face? Sometimes in a group there will be outsiders who want in, but who can’t find a door. I will keep encouraging the others to give Tucker a chance, and in the meanwhile make sure he knows he’s fitting in with me. After all, if someone wants a friend, he should have one, even if he’s from a different species.

Monday, August 8, 2011

World Cat Day

Today is World Cat Day. Apparently, this is the third one - the third annual World Cat Day, not the third one this year. I’m not sure what one is supposed to do during this day or its purpose. When one has cats, every day seems to be Cat Day; one doesn’t expect children to be ignored except during the International Year of the Child. However, it is probably meant to heighten awareness of cats and their care, including neutering and spaying - always a good idea. And it gives me a chance to put up more pictures of my cats, and that's a good thing, too. (You may notice that most of the photographs depict my cats sleeping or resting. I think that their reluctance, nay, refusal, to contribute to the household revenues sometimes borders on impudence.)

Tucker tired out from snoozing.

Josie sleeping off a long night's rest.

Renn trying to get comfortable while Tucker sleeps some more.

Getting in some shut-eye before bed.

Josie tolerating Renn's presence. Or not aware of it.

Tucker being Tucker.

Friday, August 5, 2011

My Orange Heart

It was four years ago this month that Tungsten came to live with me. She’s been my constant companion since then. We’ve seen each other every day and she’s slept at least a part of every night on my bed - summers tend to have her seek cooler resorts. How does one calculate the effect an animal under those conditions has on a person?

To be honest, it seems hard to believe that I ever lived without her. I know I did, but those days are farther away than four years. Imagine walking about the house, not worrying about where I stepped; fixing myself a sandwich without seeing an orange shape sitting, waiting for a piece of food; going to bed without feeling fur in my face or up my nose. I have a good imagination, but even it barely extends so far as to encompass such fantastic scenes.

Tungsten’s arrival was the first time that I had another living being depend on me full-time and regularly for its subsistence. Common decency demanded that I provide more than mere sustenance: comfort, even luxury, was intimated - at least by Tungsten. I was hoping for a little companion who, as the term suggests, would keep me company. What I ended up with is a friend.

It seems rather silly that an animal can be a human’s friend. But she fulfills all the qualifications. We talk to each other; it’s true that I can’t have very deep philosophical conversations with her, but how many times do human friends have them? She tells me her troubles and I tell her mine. In truth, Tungsten knows when I am feeling discouraged and reacts; she will purr and jump on my shoulders - where she feels most connected with me - and meow. When she is feeling frightened after a nightmare or anxious because she’s woken and seems to be alone, I let her know that she’s safe and secure.

Early on in our association, I began arranging my life to suit my cat. I didn’t move to a different province or get a new job, but I would worry about being home at a certain time, or not being home at all for an evening. When I returned from being out, Tungsten would meet me at the door, glad that I was home. It made me feel guilty for being away at all, but pleased that someone was there to miss me. Now, she’s more complacent.

She is not a cat to follow a person about all the time. I have Renn for that when I’m downstairs and Tucker when I’m upstairs. Tungsten knows I’m not going to leave permanently (at least not of my own volition) and is aware of my routine. When I leave for work, she is usually curled up for a snooze and often barely acknowledges my departure. Sometimes, she’ll deign to raise her head, though it’s usually because I am rubbing it, and that feels good. She has her worries, but my abandoning her is not one of them.

We are used to each other, we know each other. We know each other’s moods and schedules. I am aware that when she drinks water from the tap but doesn’t get off the bathroom counter, she’s not done. She will eat more soft-food the second time I put the bowl in front of her than the first, and more the fourth time than the third. She realizes that I will no longer get up at five o’clock in the morning to run water for her. (Yes, there are concessions I will not make for her, few though they may be.) Now, she waits until I get up, though there is also now a shallow bowl of water in the bathroom basin for her to drink out of - surreptitiously, for she doesn’t like me knowing she does that sort of thing.

I know her meows and cries, each one different, each one telling me something. She knows my tones of voice. She knows when she can keep asking and when the answer is definitely ‘no’.

I thought that I’d damaged her world when I first brought Josie to live with us. Those two fought and, though the orange one eventually came out as top-cat, I think my Chubs had the better of the combat. Tungsten had lived with other cats before and had been near the bottom of the hierarchy. She probably had bad memories, not of where she lived, but of the situation. But I’ve been lucky in that all the permanent cats in the house have deferred to her seniority. She may not like Tucker, for instance, but she tolerates his presence, because he knows she is in charge.

My world has changed fundamentally in the last four years, but so has Tungsten’s. We’ve gone from living solitary lives - mine alone in my apartment, hers among many strange cats - to having lives that depend on us, and on whom we depend. It’s rather a startling alteration, one of the biggest for either of us in our adulthoods. Who would have thought so much could come from such a tiny cat?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Let Us Speak of Scary Things

Nature can be beautiful. Many humans fantasize about ‘going back to nature’ and living a simpler life close to the environment. But though most of these daydreams picture living in woods or on a mountain or by a lake, they usually include a warm and dry house of some sort; if food is taken from nature, then modern and manufactured tools are used to hunt, gather or grow it; illumination is supplied by generators or, more simply, lamps or candles which are nonetheless man-made. In other words, even if a person wants to go back to nature, he usually takes some items of civilization with him.

This is because along with being beautiful, nature can also be brutal, vicious and ruthless. Animals know this. The lives of those in the wilderness are spent either trying to find food or trying not to become food. Even when an abundant source of nutrition is found, it’s consumed while looking up every few seconds, wondering what that sound is, where that smell is coming from and what caused that movement in the bushes across the meadow. I’m surprised most animals don’t die of heart attacks or ulcers.

Cats strike me as leading lives punctuated by fear and worry. That’s not to say that my three cats (plus one) live in panic-rooms with doors barred, claws at the ready and a suitcase full of Fancy Feast ready for a fast escape. For the most part, they are relaxed and calm, snoozing or purring, gazing out the window at the scenery through half-closed eyes or playing with a toy with child-like enjoyment.

Yet each experiences a type of fear, or at least concern, even if it's not often.

Renn is perhaps the best example - though he is also an example of how a cat can grow to understand that he is safe. When he came to live with me, my big boy (he was a foster-cat then) was afraid of everything. A visitor would send him running under the bed. A loud noise from a car outside would have him hurtling to the top of the kitchen cabinets. And he was terrified of the roofers who were repairing the building across the walkway from my old apartment.

He began making progress even before we moved to the house, but since there, he has done very well. I’ve noticed that he is almost unaffected by noise now, being more interested than unnerved by it. When friends come by, he hurries to the bedroom when the door opens but emerges within a minute or two to enjoy attention, and even when strangers come by, he is out and investigating very soon after they depart.

Despite his increasing bravery, Renn still notices almost every sound (and in my house, there are many unexplained noises, all the time), changing his demeanour from relaxed to alert. This is fear, which can be combatted; my big boy is conquering his fears bit by bit and will live better for it.

Josie is a study in another kind of reaction. When engaged in even the most enjoyable activities, she will start, and look in the direction of a sound. With her nose in a pile of soft-food, she will stop and stare, alert, to see what she heard. She will quickly return to the matter at hand, but she is always ready to react. I have been petting her, stroking the back of her neck, which she loves, and, though she doesn’t stop purring, she will peer wide-eyed toward something that has caught her notice. I don’t know that my Chubs would do well trying to survive in the back alleys of the city or in the wilderness, but she probably wouldn’t be caught by surprise. This is wariness, rather than fear, and therefore is probably a part of her character that will never change.

Tucker, my roly poly foster-cat, is timidity itself. Any noise or sudden movement will send him scurrying away. He rarely hides, as Renn used to, but, if lying down, he will throw himself to his feet and stand ready to flee. His is a reaction that prepares him to run. Unlike Josie, Tucker won’t bother waiting to see what he’s running from. Renn’s fear was more conscious: he decided to run and hide; Tucker will take flight first and worry about whether he should have afterward. Once he understands that there is no danger, he returns, squeaking and trilling. I almost feel guilty, as if he’s thanking me for scaring away the peril, when in fact there was none.

Finally, Tungsten. My orange one’s position as top-cat in the household is based more on seniority and tenure than strength and domination - though her personality is nothing to trifle with. I’ve no idea what she had to endure before she was taken in by the Lethbridge PAW Society. She had been in good physical condition and though she seemed sad and lonely, she did not give the impression of being frightened. Yet she is the only one of my cats whom I’ve seen experience what I think are nightmares.

Tungsten was sleeping on my lap once and woke herself by crying out. Another time, she woke me at night by whimpering, then kicking with her rear legs. She was asleep, dreaming. Even her less violent dreams are anxious for her. She has woken at times and, not seeing me, called out. When I come to see what the fuss is about, she will flop down happily and purr. This is an occurrence which, thankfully, is less common than previous, and the nightmares are rare. But they happen.

She is not often frightened while awake. She rarely deigns to take notice of any event outside the house, watching through windows with condescension. The orange one knows her place is secure and that she needn’t fuss about noises, cats intruding on her lawn or visitors. Yet when she sleeps, something sometimes disturbs her, scares her. What is it? I’ll never know.

No pet-owner likes to see his animals experiencing fear or worry. Fortunately, its incidence is infrequent. When it’s a part of their characters, it’s simply a matter of showing them through routine action and words that they are safe and secure. My fear is that they won’t feel that way. But when all four are in their favourite spots, snoozing, resting or watching nothing in particular through sleepy eyes, I know that fright and worry are far away.