The Communicators

I once read that a cat will have the intelligence of a two to three year old child. I believe that. Both learn quickly and the first things they learn are those that are good for them. To guess what they are trying to talk about you can rule out politics, world affairs, and religion. In other words, it’s generally going to be me, me, me. I had two experiences the other day that were based on two little girls trying to entertain themselves.

Our great grand-daughter, Quetzal, will be 2 ½ years old this month. She has been using just one word at a time like “Mama” or “Dada” but recently decided to start putting several words together. However, instead of going from words to sentences she jumped from words to paragraphs. I admire her ambition but her vocabulary hasn’t grown fast enough to support it. Yesterday, I answered the phone and all I heard was a little girl speaking gibberish. I picked out the words “book” and maybe “school”. She stopped to take a breath and I jumped in with “Is this Quetzal?” She took off again with one of her excited word storms. I wasn’t picking up much but interrupted with “are you playing with your dog?” In a stroke of genius I had decided that I could identify her through her dog. She was chattering again so I interrupted again with my brilliant “what is your dog’s name?” Well, that really energized her and I was able to pick out the word “dog” but didn’t hear any name. About this time I’m starting to hear a more mature voice in the background. “Where’s your Mama” I said. “In the kitchen” she answered very distinctly. “Let me talk to her”, I say. In a few seconds I recognize Michelle’s voice as she says “hello”. “Your kid just called me” I said. Michelle recognized my voice and laughed. “I was busy in the kitchen and she got bored and said she was going to call somebody. I guess she wasn’t kidding” says Michelle. We talked a few minutes and hung up. I don’t see well enough to use a cell phone but Pat can do all that stuff. I asked her how a little girl who can’t read can call people on the phone. Pat explained that Quetzal had learned to turn on the phone and bring up the “Contacts” list by watching her parents. You can scroll through the list and by touching a name can bring up a profile page for that individual. If the owner of the phone has been diligent in putting together the profile, it will contain a picture of the individual. Quetzal recognizes all of us from the many Skype calls we have made so she just thumbs through the pictures until she finds someone she wants to talk to. Quetzal and her Grandpa Russ are pretty tight and I guess she was driving him nuts with her phone calls at work and any time of day. Michelle had to remove his picture from the phone so he could have some peace.

Isabella or Izzie the cat is our next communicator. I can certainly attest to the fact that cats are as smart as toddlers. They generally communicate in more subtle ways than kids and you have to be alert to their body language, the twitching of the ears and tail and their overall demeanor.

Izzie has decided that she is ready to talk. Like Quetzal, she’s not expanding from words to sentences. She’s jumping straight from words to paragraphs. She used to express herself with just one meow but now she cuts loose with a string of them and tells the whole story. It goes “meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, and meow”. And, it’s just like listening to Quetzal in that I don’t understand a word she is saying.

The other day after I got the phone call from Quetzal, Izzie tried her new vocabulary on me. I should tell you how this incident developed. Pat was working in the kitchen and Izzie came in and sat down next to the sliding glass door to the patio. Izzie meowed once to say that she wanted to go outside. Being an “inside” cat and not to worldly regarding coyotes and fast-moving traffic we don’t let her out by herself. We have to put the harness on her and attach the leash and then be prepared to follow her as she explores. Pat was busy so she just told Izzie to “wait a minute”. Izzie gave her another “meow” and got the same response from Pat. Well, Izzie blew her top. Her ears went back, her eyes narrowed, and she read the riot act to Pat. It’s coming out like a machine gun…meow, meow, meow, meow, and meow. Then she got all stiff-legged and stomped out of the kitchen.

Meanwhile, I’m in at the computer, blissfully ignorant of what has transpired between Pat and Izzie. Izzie comes in and jumps up on the desk, walks up and turns to face me and cuts loose with some sad story and the words are coming a mile-a-minute, just like with Quetzal, only they are in “Cat” language and I don’t understand that any better than “Baby” talk. Meow, meow, meow, meow, and meow. I can see that she is terribly upset so reach my hand up to stroke her back. She dodges my hand and jumps down from the desk and huffily stomps toward the door. As she reaches the door she looks back over her shoulder at me which is always a signal that I should follow her. So, I get up out of my chair and take off after her. She leads me down the hall, looking over her shoulder a couple of times to make sure I’m following and then goes into the kitchen and over to the door to the patio. About this time Pat bursts out laughing and says “I wouldn’t do what she wanted so she chewed me out and stomped over to you and told on me. Then, she convinced you to get up and follow her to the door so you could take her out. You talk about a spoiled brat!”

Well, there you have it. Two young entities, still novices as communicators, but both thinking they are really laying down some words. I admire their efforts but can’t understand a thing they are saying.

Dave Thomas
March 30, 2014

 

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Izzie 10: Who’s The Boss?

We have a swing on our patio and Pat and I try to be out there every day for at least an hour. We swing and hold hands, look at the blue sky, watch the hummingbirds, and talk or don’t talk. It’s terrific way to enjoy the day. We also take our cat, Isabella, out with us so she can watch the birds, look for lizards, take a nap in the sun, or do whatever makes her feel good. Since she is an “inside” cat, we put a harness on her and a 5 foot leash. We also have a “reel” with 15 or 20 feet of line on it that we attach to the leash so she can check out the whole area without us having to move.

Sometime back, we decided that Izzie might enjoy swinging so we put her between us on the swing. She didn’t care for that and immediately jumped down. A day or two later, Pat and Izzie went out while I was busy in the house and when Pat put Izzie in the swing with her she stayed. I joined them later and sat in a chair near them. We stuck to this routine for a few days. Izzie shared the swing with Pat and when she got tired of swinging she would jump down and I would move to the swing. This went on for some days or weeks and we all got along. One day, Izzie had jumped down and I had moved to the swing and was talking to Pat. Izzie was over on the other side of the patio.

Izzie 2-4-2013

What are you doing in my swing? 

When she looked around and saw me sitting next to Pat she immediately came over and sat down right in front of me and looked me in the eye. I knew from her attitude and the way she was staring that she was trying to communicate with me. I said, “What do you want?” She kept staring so I said, “Do you want to swing?” I stood up and she immediately dashed around me and jumped in the swing. Pat and I both laughed about the way Izzie got what she wanted. Over the next few days this seemed to happen more often. I thought it was interesting that she was able to let us know what she wanted so I thought that as a reward I would surrender the swing whenever she asked for it.

This arrangement was working pretty well when, all of a sudden Izzie started getting possessive with her spot in the swing. As soon as she saw me sitting next to Pat she would come over and challenge me. Yes, she was no longer being nice about it, she came with an attitude! She really liked swinging but we didn’t know if she was trying to protect her spot in the swing or if she objected to me sitting next to Pat. They are pretty tightly bonded because Pat takes a comb and grooms her every day. She thinks Pat is her mother.

It may be that Izzie is just protecting her territory as yesterday morning she was upset with both of us. We were out on the patio and Pat and Izzie were in the swing and I was in a chair. Izzie saw a lizard on the other side of the patio. She jumped down from the swing and walked over to the other side and sat down to wait for it to show itself again. I moved over to the swing and when Izzie saw me sit down, she immediately came back and let me know that she wanted in the swing. Pat and I both laughed and I moved to the chair. I figured that if she is smart enough to tell me what she wants then she should be rewarded and enjoy the same benefits as the rest of the family.

My chair

We need to talk! 

Izzie enjoyed the swing for a few minutes and jumped down again. This time she had noticed a spot of sun on the patio floor and she laid down in it and started taking a bath. I had moved over to the swing again and when Izzie looked up from her bath and saw me, she jumped up and trotted back. Pat and I laughed again and I relinquished the swing.

Again, we were enjoying our time outdoors and as Pat and I talked, she would reach over occasionally and stroke Izzie’s back. Izzie had her eyes closed and was happy to be swinging and getting petted. As always, she only lasted a few minutes and jumped down .This time, she went to the other side of the patio and found a nice, shady spot and stretched out full length for a nap. I moved from the chair to the swing. Izzie raised her 4 of 4 Who’s The Boss?

head and looked back over her shoulder and saw me and jumped to her feet and headed for me. Pat and I were laughing again as Izzie, for the third time, reclaimed her spot in the swing. This time, things were different. Izzie stood there in the swing and faced me and her ears went back and her eyebrows came down and she was looking daggers at me! After a few moments of glaring at me, she turned to Pat with her ears still back and her eyes hooded and started chewing her out for letting me sit in the swing! “Meow, meow, meow, meow!” What a performance! We have created a monster!

Pat-Iz

It’s okay, now.

Dave Thomas
April 15, 2015

 

Izzie 2: Driving Miss Izzie

Pat wanted to walk for exercise. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know any ladies in the neighborhood that would like to go along with her and it gets pretty boring to walk by yourself. Thinking about it, she remembered when we lived in Texas; she sometimes shopped in the upscale community of Southlake, and often saw women pushing their dogs around in doggie strollers. It sounded like the perfect solution. She could take Izzie for a ride and they would both have a good time.

Dave Thomas
May 19, 2012

 

Izzie 8: Mis-Match

Over the years we had a couple of hummingbird feeders but hadn’t had much luck at attracting the birds. One of the many nice things about retirement is that you have time to try things for a second time if you had no success with them earlier. We had seen some hummingbirds checking out the flowers and bushes in our back yard. Pat was intrigued by them and decided to a buy a feeder and try it again. She went to Home Depot and looked at the units they had on display and asked questions of a lady working there. She received what we both thought was good and thoughtful advice. This lady suggested that Pat buy a feeder with a rim or perch around it so the hummingbirds could light and rest as they got their nectar. “After all”, she said, “the little birds get hot and tired, too”.

Pat bought a feeder and mixed up her first batch of nectar. Meanwhile, I found a couple of interesting web sites on the Internet and learned a few things about caring for the feeders, attracting birds, and other useful items. Pat hung up the feeder and we were in business.

The first three or four days were kind of slow. I guess it took the birds a little time to spot the feeder and spread the word. We had been sitting out on the patio a couple hours a day with our cat, Isabella, to keep her company. Izzie is an indoor cat and has never been outside on her own. To give her some outside time, which she really loves, we put a harness and leash on her and stay with her. We used to stake her out for 30 minutes to an hour at a time and check on her every 10 or 15 minutes to make sure she was okay and hadn’t tangled herself up. However, one day, Pat stepped out on the patio just as a big hawk came swooping over the fence to grab Izzie. If Pat hadn’t screamed and waved her arms we would be without a cat, now.

The feeder was attracting more visits each day. We found out quickly just how territorial and ornery these little birds are. If two of them show up at the same time, there is no sharing. Each tries to intimidate the other with aggressive moves and bluffing.

One morning Pat was working in the kitchen and heard a commotion at the patio door. Her view of the door was partially blocked by the cabinet so she moved over a little to see what was going on. There was Izzie standing on her hind legs and stretched out to full height with her front paws resting on the screen. On the other side of the screen and hovering nose-to-nose with Izzie was this cocky little humming bird. The point of this encounter seemed to be that the humming bird wanted to tease the cat. The little bird-brain had no idea that this cat dreamed of stalking birds and lizards and had actually backed down two dogs at once that thought they could invade her space. The bird was no piker either, showing no fear at all. He would buzz right up to Izzie’s nose and she would take a swing at him, striking the screen. I don’t know if the air currents generated by Izzie’s swing were pushing the bird back or if the bird’s extraordinary reflexes made it seem that way, but they seemed to be involved in a weird little boxing match. There was a lot of bobbing and weaving going on, with Izzie occasionally throwing an overhand right and the bird slipping it to perfection. They kept this going for a couple of minutes. It was a strange little dance performed by two strange little pugilists. When they got bored, they quit and went away. No harm, no foul, and nobody hurt!

Dave Thomas
September 16, 2014

 

Izzie-3 Problem Solving

9-Problem Solving

I have lived with cats all my life and enjoyed them. You feed them, water them, take care of them, and enjoy the affection you get from them. The problem though is that for most of your life you don’t have enough time to observe them. As a retired person, I’ve been learning things that I wish I had known all these years. Cats are thinkers but you have to quietly watch them for some time in order to pick up on the subtle things that are going on in their little heads.

When Izzie, the inside cat, and I first started going for walks, she checked out everything by smelling, looking, and listening and sometimes by touching with her paws and I’m certain that she committed every detail to memory. One event that convinced me of how observant she is and how she can asses a situation and solve a problem by breaking it down into step-by-step solutions is the “gate” story.

We walked across the backyard and made a right turn and went up the side of the house toward the front where the trash cans are kept. We got there and she stopped and sat back on her haunches. I noticed that she was staring at the top of the gate and continued to do so for a couple of minutes. It finally dawned on me that she was trying to figure out how to get over that gate. I knew that she understood the constraints of the leash and that she probably couldn’t make a direct frontal assault on the gate. After a bit, she looked to the left and saw the retaining wall. She walked over to it and stood on her hind legs and put her front feet on top of the wall. I saw her muscles flex as she pulled on it and tested it for stability and strength. When she was satisfied that it was okay she hopped up on top of it.

Next, she looked at the closest trash can and put her front paws on it. As before, she looked around carefully and then hopped onto the trash can lid. She took another look at the top of the gate from her new vantage point and evidently decided she could do better. She looked over at the adjoining trash can, extended her front legs and placed her paws on the cover. She looked around carefully and then gingerly stepped across to the second can. Now, she sat back on her haunches and again stared at the top of the gate. All this time I had been holding the leash and she knew well what her limits were. You could almost see the wheels turning in her little brain as she assessed the situation. Suddenly she stood up,  placed her front paws on the horizontal brace at the top of the gate and made a mighty leap. Fortunately, I was ready, and caught her in mid-air just as she cleared the top. She wasn’t trying to get away. She only wanted to see what was on the other side. She held on to the top of the gate and I held onto her as we stood there for a couple of minutes and watched the cars go by on the street.

It’s interesting to note that the next day, having memorized the procedure; she just walked right up to the retaining wall and made the series of jumps that carried her to the top of the gate. I was impressed by the way she sized up the problem, broke it down into manageable steps, executed her plan, and then remembered it the next day.

Dave Thomas
December 2, 2013

Ms. Rambo and the Fox

1

Pat and I were sitting in the swing and talking about Ms. Rambo, a cat we had for several years. We have a lot of stories about her that we tell and re-tell and never get tired of.

The street we lived on was just a block long. It was a very steep hill ending at the top with a regular cul de sac type turn-around. We lived at the bottom of the hill and up at the top lived a family that had a white cat. Being all white, the cat stood out and you could spot her wherever she was in the neighborhood. One day the family moved out and just left the cat to fend for herself. We would see her up and down the block looking for food and taking care of herself. We heard stories from the neighbors of what a hunter she was and how independent and tough she was. We all felt sorry that she had been abandoned but she seemed to be surviving and doing okay.

The cat soon had a route established to cover the block in search of hand-outs. She was checking our back door so Pat started putting out food and water. Our house became a regular stop on the cat’s route and Pat enjoyed seeing her and always talked to her. This went on for a few months until the cat decided to change the game. It was raining one evening which is unusual for San Diego. I had just gone to bed and Pat was finishing up before she, too, headed upstairs. All of a sudden, Pat heard a squalling noise at the front door. It was that loud, eerie noise a cat makes when it has made a kill. Pat opened the door and there stood this wet cat with a rat in its mouth. The cat steps in and drops the rat at Pat’s feet and walks on into the living room. The rat is wounded but it jumps up and waddles off. Pat is yelling for me to get up and help catch the rat and she is checking to see what the cat is doing. The cat is calmly sitting in the middle of the living room and watching Pat go nuts and then watching me go nuts as I try to catch the rat. Fortunately, the rat is lame and I’m able to catch it and get rid of it. Pat and I look at the cat and talk about her and figure that she must have gotten tired of living in the rain and scrounging for food and trying to survive as a homeless person and decided to adopt us. She was smart enough to offer up the rat to pay her way in. 

After work the next evening we were trying to assess what we had. This cat was slim and wiry and built like a Siamese. When she vocalized a “kill”, it sounded like a Siamese. She was pure white but wasn’t an albino because her eyes were kind of a blue-green rather than pink. She’d been taking care of herself for months without the coyotes getting her so she was smart and tough. I tried to play with her and teased her and ended up with tooth and claw marks in my hand and arm so we understood that she would demand respect. Discussing what to name her, it was her fierce fighting ability and independence that caused us to think of the latest “tough guy” movie we had seen so we called her “Rambo”. Then, remembering she was a girl, we modified it to “Ms. Rambo”.

This little cat only weighed 7 or 8 pounds but she was extremely athletic. She liked to sleep on top of the refrigerator where nobody could bother her. Most of the time she would jump from the counter top but if there was anything in the way there she could jump from the floor! Pat had a big fruit bowl that she kept on top of the fridge and Rambo took it over for her naps. 

Ms. Rambo

One day we were afraid she might have a kidney infection. We couldn’t get in to see our regular Vet so we went to another. Once we were in the examining room we took her out of the carrier we had brought her in and placed her on the examining table. Pat and I were both petting her and talking to her so she was quiet. The Vet comes in and he’s a big dude, 6’3″ or 6’4″ tall. We explain the symptoms she’s displayed and the Vet says he will take her to the back and get a urine sample. Pat and I both volunteer to go with them. We tell him that she’s called Ms. Rambo for a reason and that other Vets put a muzzle and one of those straight jacket things on her when handling her. Well, the Vet draws himself up to his full height, looks down his nose at us and says “I think I can handle this little, tiny cat.” Pat and I look at each other and we’re both thinking “OK, Bud…we tried to warn you!” The Vet picked up Ms. Rambo and that’s when things got tough! She started screaming, biting, and clawing and the Vet looked like a man possessed. He and Rambo were everywhere. He finally got her tucked under one arm and went out the door with her. Pat and I about busted a gut, laughing, and were completely out of control for a while. Later, a technician brought Ms. Rambo back in and she was wearing a muzzle and one of those straight jackets and had a big towel wrapped around her, too. They finally got the message.

I had to tell you a little bit about Ms. Rambo so you could get the full flavor of this next incident.

I wasn’t home from work, yet. Pat was just getting there and as she rounded the corner, she saw several groups of neighbors standing out in front of their homes. They were looking up the hill, and talking excitedly to one another. We lived in the first house from the corner, at the bottom of the hill, so Pat pulled into our driveway and got out of the car. She yelled at our next door neighbors who were standing out on their drive and asked what was going on. They said that several neighbors had been out in their front yards doing yard work or doing things with their kids and they saw our cat, Ms. Rambo, coming down the hill. Apparently she had been hunting up at the top of the hill and was going from yard to yard as she returned to our house. A few minutes after seeing Rambo, they saw the  neighborhood fox coming down the hill and it seemed to be following Rambo’s scent. The neighbors all thought that would be the end of Ms. Rambo. Sure enough, all of a sudden there was a terrible commotion! There were cat screams, snarls, hisses, and growls. Then, it all changed to a kind of yelping noise and suddenly, here comes the fox up the middle of the street and he is running for his life! Now, everyone can see what is happening. Ms. Rambo is astride the fox’s back with claws dug in and is riding him like a jockey! Go, Rambo, go! The neighbors say it’s the funniest thing they have ever seen. That fox is running for his life and Ms. Rambo is raking him at every jump! This is how legends are born.

This was not Ms. Rambo’s only wild ride nor her last wild and crazy exploit! More later.

Dave Thomas
October 26, 2014

 

Izzie-5: Communicating

Izzie-5 Communicating

Communicating with a cat is much like communicating with a toddler. You have to keep it simple and say things they can understand based on what they have learned to this point. Short, simple words should be used and you should use the same word each time to describe an item or action in order to aid retention. The cat (or kid) will respond by doing something or doing nothing.

We all know that cats say “meow”. That’s the simplest thing they can do that we dumb humans can understand. Beyond that, it gets complicated and we have to really pay attention. I remember being told as a child that cats and other animals won’t look you in the eye because they think that if anything locks eyeballs with them it plans to eat them. I’ve found that it’s not true. Izzie looks me right in the eye to tell me stuff. For instance, if we are in the living room watching TV and Izzie is curled up on the floor she may decide to do something. She’ll get up and start walking across the floor. When she gets past the coffee table and there is a direct line of sight between us, she will stop and turn her head and stare me right in the eye. If I don’t notice her (or pretend not to notice her) she will face forward and resume walking to wherever she was going. However, if I get up and walk toward her there are two possibilities. If she stands still and continues to look up at me then I’m supposed to pick her up and give her a hug. But, if she resumes walking then I am supposed to follow her (see Izzie-7, Escort Service).

No response can actually be a response. A cat’s ears are always moving as it’s their nature to follow every sound. So, for instance, if Izzie and I are outside, and I say “Okay, Izzie, it’s time to go inside” and she just sits there, staring in the other direction, and her ears are perfectly still, I know she is making a conscious effort to make no response to my wish. If she wants to comply she gets up and heads for the door. I guess you could call this a binary response…she either jumps up or not.

Pat and Izzie play two games that Pat refers to as “Chase” and “Hide and Seek” and they can happen at any time during the day or evening. If Pat wants to play, she’ll signal Izzie by walking up to her and “growling” and stomping her feet and yelling “where’s that cat?” Izzie will jump to her feet and race across the room and down the hall with Pat running after her (see Izzie-6 and Izzie-6a, Chase and Hide and Seek and Games.) If Izzie wants to start a game she has several ways of signaling. To make noise, Izzie extends her claws and hooks them in the carpet. Then, she jerks her paw back and causes a popping noise. When she races down the hall, popping her claws at every step, it sounds like a herd of wild horses. Another way she’ll get your attention is to stand in one spot and pop her claws and then, all of a sudden, jump straight up in the air, do a 180 degree turn, and come down ready to be chased. If none of that stuff works, she’ll go pop her claws in the end of the couch because that’s forbidden and she knows that will gain some attention.

Of course purring is a major cat trait. Isabella purrs most of the time though if you manage to aggravate her, her ears go back until the color of them blends into the color of her head and then she is not only mad but looks weird too.

So far, we’ve got the meow, the look, no response, popping her claws, the run, the jump, purring, and ears back. Izzie and I are both still learning this communication thing. In a few months she may be reading at a 3rd grade level. I don’t know where I’ll be.

Dave Thomas
May 18, 2012