Teaching English to Cats

Eventually, my cat Mama (see “Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad,” May 19, 2010) became bored. At first she loved the games we played, such as chasing after objects I pulled across the floor or the crawling red bug created by my classroom laser, until she figured out I was maneuvering everything (she began watching my hands carefully, and not the mysterious bug, for example), at which point she totally lost interest (“How humiliating—I’m being manipulated! Me!”). Today if that little red bug runs in front of her, she yawns to show she’s been there, done that. I’d heard that cats living alone get neurotic, so, after consultation with my cat expert Pam (see above cited post), I decided to acquire a companion for Mama. Thus I went to a cat rescue operation called Colony Cat, and took home a three year old beautiful (and large) all grey cat who’d been found wandering about Columbus. As I exited from Colony Cat with this very friendly animal, the owner asked me what I planned on naming him. “I’ll let Mama name him,” I told her, “and my guess is she’ll call him ‘Hiss.’”
That proved prophetic. It’s been over a month now and the two of them have not yet bonded (though things are better daily). Mama, territorial, a year younger, smaller but fierce, is the problem. The other gentle cat, whom I’ve named Barney, is a get-along-go-along sort of guy, but Mama treats him like a burglar-cat and is forever attacking him with no provocation other than she’s noticed he exists. Mama and I have had discussions about this, and she fully understands that I don’t approve of her attitude. That doesn’t mean she’s changed much (she is a cat), but now she only attacks poor Barney when she thinks I won’t notice.

When my first partner David (see “Milking Cows,” June 8, 2010) and I were together we acquired two kittens, and we embarked on a project to see how much English we would make them understand. The results were remarkable. They learned about 50 words before their untimely deaths from feline leukemia at age one, within a week of each other (a very sad time). If you yelled one of their names out loud, only that one kitten would jump; but if you said “CATS!” they both would look both worried and, of course, guilty.

I embarked on a similar experiment with Mama, and she’s a fast learner. She can pick up a new word in two days of repetition. Of course it has to be something she’s interested in. In the beginning she understood only two words: “Mama” and “No.” This is not to say she obeyed these words (repeating: she is a cat), but Mama at least knew what the big mammal wanted. Since then her vocabulary has growing mightily. “Food” she added to her repertory almost on first hearing the word in association with an activity that it turns out is very, very important to her (and, if I’m using the word “food” in casual conversation I must spell it out lest she jump to the assumption dinner is unexpectedly being served). When I arise in the morning I know that the food bowl has been emptied overnight, and I plan to get around to the refilling task before long, but Mama urgently believes it’s her top priority to move me from the bedroom/bathroom area and into the kitchen to immediately remedy this dire emergency. Alas, I’m in no such hurry (her chances of starving to death being small), but she frantically takes every opportunity to nudge me in the direction of the kitchen. If I merely happen to glance in that direction she takes off running at lightning speed, as if to confirm that my presence is needed there (much like Lassie directing the family to where Timmy has fallen down the well). When, to her annoyance, I finally do emerge into the rest of the house, she scurries to rub up against me and then again speed-runs into the kitchen, meowing loudly enough to make pictures vibrate. When I look at her innocently and ask “Food?” she almost faints with relief that my thick brain has finally comprehended the crisis. As I prepare the food, she not only rubs repeatedly up against me, but even leaps as high as she can to bounce off my upper legs in an airborne maneuver inspired by feline ecstasy.

Barney is another matter. The sweetest of large and friendly cats, he’s dumb as a chicken. Though I say it to him perhaps dozens of times a day, he hasn’t a clue what the word “Barney” means. (Mama, meanwhile, knows only too well that I’m referring to her hated enemy.) Barney has only one goal in life. It’s not food (though he eats), it’s not play (though he plays), it’s being petted. And it’s important to him! Now! His attitude, administered with great charm and affection is: stop what you’re doing, and pet me, pet me, pet me. This sounds like it would be wearying, but I succumb (at least for a moment) more often than I bat him off the keyboard of my computer (or my lap if on the toilet).

But when I say he’s “dumb as a chicken,” consider his reaction to the cat doors. When I decided to get a cat, I had three installed in various doors so the cats could get to the litter box in the basement, and (after some internal debate, did I really want to sleep with a cat?) to the master bedroom. Mama figured them out in two days, and even though getting through them efficiently means leading with your head pushing against the top-hinged swinging plastic door, in the midst of her “feed me” frenzy she can run at full speed from my bathroom to the kitchen, and I suspect this velocity hurts her head. But, sadly, poor Barney, who’s been here a whole month, can take five minutes to make it from one side of the door to the other. Here is my re-creation of his thought pattern on contemplating the puzzle of the cat door:

“Golly, I must go to the other side. Something to do with this little swingy thing. And I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten through it before. Hmm. How did I do it?” He bats at it with his paw, and it swings open and immediately shut. “Wow! It opened—ahhh, it shut again. Damn. Now what?” He bats again with the same result and same looped thought process. This can go on for some time. Finally it occurs to him to stick his paw through the door and not withdraw it. “Good! It didn’t close. Now I can go through!” At which point he withdraws the paw in his excitement, the door closes, and he’s newly bamboozled. This is painful to observe, and it drives Mama into the other room, too disgusted to watch. But Barney’s getting better; last night at 4 a.m. it only took him two minutes to get through the bedroom cat door so he could then (loudly) do battle with the basement cat door on his way to the litter box.

Mama initially slept with me most nights, savoring in the warmth from my body (Pam says that all cats are “heat whores”). But when Barney arrived, as soon as I’d settle in bed and begin to read (I’m a late night reader, typically up until after 1 a.m.) he’d hop on the bed and explain to me the urgent need for a petting, after which he’d cuddle on top of my feet and fall asleep. When Mama first discovered he’d preempted what she thinks of as “her bed,” she stormed off in a huff, and I didn’t see her until she came bursting through the cat door the next morning with an urgent message about a food famine. The next night, however, she followed me into the bedroom and settled on top of my feet as soon as I started to read and, feeling smug, before her rival could get there. She was most annoyed when Barney, completely unaware of Mama’s displeasure, climbed into the bed and onto my chest and requested an immediate petting. I hushed her snarls, and eventually they both fell asleep in what has since become a three mammal bed.

Turning over at night, with two cats sprawled on top of various body parts, has become a delicate chore, and getting up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom is a ritual that must be performed as carefully as a Kabuki drama. Neither cat moves at all if I don’t make a sound as I exit the bed and pad into the bathroom. But if I make the mistake of doing something different, for example committing the sacrilege of turning on a light (!), Mama is up in a flash. Never mind that it’s four in the morning, THE BIG MAMMAL HAS ARISEN AND IT’S TIME TO HERD HIM INTO THE KITCHEN! Thus starts the mewing, the running through the cat door, the rubbing of the ankles, and the pitiful “I’m starving” eyes. If I’m hardhearted enough to ignore all of this and return to bed, Mama exits, sulking, slowly through the cat door in a dark mood relieved only by hearing me get up for real much, much later. At that point her famine relief message resurfaces and she’s energized anew.

So, teacher that I am, I’m still experimenting with feline communication. Mama is my star pupil, and is doing so well I’m thinking about throwing in a Japanese or Spanish phrase just to see if she can translate that into Basic Cat. As for Barney, well . . . stayed tuned.
Related Posts:
“Dog Meat,” December 27, 2009
"Parakeets and Me," February 5, 2010
“Bears,” February 23, 2010
"Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad," May 19, 2010
"Milking Cows," June 8, 2010
"The Purring Heart," November 23, 2010
"The Dogs In My Life," April 18, 2011
"My Parents and Dummy," May 13, 2011
"Two Cat Stories: Mama and Barney in the Wild," July 9, 2011
"Zoo Stories," August 30, 2011
“Mama Cat Saves My Life,” October 23, 2011
"Stepping on Cats," February 8, 2012
“Snowbirding, My iPhone 5, and the Coming Crazy Cat Trip,” December 5, 2012
"Barney Cat and the Big Mammal Nightmare," January 7, 2013
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


  1. Those are two very lucky cats! And you are one very lucky big mammal! This was a fun read.


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