By Lauren Merryfield
For two years I have been one of eight who has served as a volunteer facilitator for a pet-loss support group held at the Seattle-King County Humane Society. Our coordinator was being given special recognition at the annual meeting, as she stepped down from over nine years of dedicated service. I wanted to be there for and with her!
Beyond that, I had read in their newsletter of the opening of a brand new cat room which I HAD to visit! It is similar to one my husband and I visited last year where we found Mikey, our youngest kitty. To a cat person, and to cats, I believe, it is the closest thing to Cat Heaven currently known to us.
Several cats are selected for preadoption, spending their time with each other in an area far superior to a caged confinement. Besides having each other around and all the potential ownees, (notice that I didn’t say owners) to pet them and play with them, their food, water, litter boxes, climbing and resting areas were all there to be shared. What a neat way to prepare these kitties for their new homes!
Sliding the glass door to the left and stepping in, there I was among seven or eight cats—a plush black one fit right under my fingers. Then my husband, Jim, showed me a large, long, tabby kitty. A feisty one in a basket, and a white cat with pink ears (sounds like a description of a bunny to me.) But when I touched it, it was all cat!
As we were making our way toward the door, a young dark tabby thought it might be a good time to wander out. Sorry, kitty. We headed him the other direction and sneaked out. Yeah right! That young cat knew what we were up to. He’d try again later with someone else—perhaps go home with someone!
Oh yes! The annual meeting and dinner! We hurried to our places and were so proud when our friend received her award—a beautifully-framed copy of “Rainbow Bridge,” which is special to our pet-loss support group.
I thought I had heard a couple soft meows coming from somewhere near us, but spaced it off as something that cat people like me do—hoping there might be cats nearby.
The theme for this year’s annual meeting was cats—given the new cat room and more emphasis given to feline rescue. After all, the Humane Society staff wanted us all to know that they indeed were not “dogcentric.” Our keynote speaker was Ann Gordon who has trained cats for films and television, including “Homeward Bound.” Training cats? I didn’t think those two words could be arranged in the same sentence! Not only did she explain how cats can be trained she brought her cat, Raider, to show us just how it was done. So I wasn’t hearing things after all—there really was a cat in the room with us—and a beaver, too, we later learned.
We were shown how the promise of a reward could be given by using a clicker to reinforce improved behavior, and when the desired behavior occurred, the primary reward, food, of course, was given, only when accompanied by a buzzer sound. Cats are trained to respond to certain sound stimuli so that multiple trainers can be successful—most of the time.
Raider responded to sit and stay commands (no, she really wasn’t a dog) and waving and finally putting her paw around a glass as if she might carry it with her. It took several reminders for us not to applaud or laugh loudly since Raider worked best in a quiet environment.
Being owned by cats who may or may not come when I call them, one cat who relentlessly tries to get out even after nearly losing his tail in a cat-fight, and one who quite reluctantly stops clawing the couch when we clap our hands—cats can be trained? Well, there it was!
Cats having their own minds as they do, even Raider occasionally did her own thing. It was explained to us that several cats are used for anything from a short commercial to a full-length movie since cats cannot be depended on for doing what they’re told even after being well-trained. More than one Sasha in “Homeward Bound?” More than one Morris? It’s true. One cat may run; another lie curled in someone’s lap—two different cats!
Certainly it was amazing to learn just how trainable cats can be, but fear not, if you have cats that would never make it in the movies, you’re not alone. Enter Jaspur and Mikey—training me!
Lauren has written about cats since she was in grade-school. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and has contributed human and animal-interest articles to several publications.