Shortly after we got her, we were given a pair of gerbils along with their cage, water bottle, and so on. They were a pair of females who were promptly named Laverne and Shirley. They were industrious little things. You could drop some pieces of newspaper into their cage and they'd tear it all into neat little strips and build a beautiful little nest out of it in a short while.
Rags was fascinated by the gerbils. She sat watching them intently. She would jerk her head and twitch her whiskers with every move they made. We worried about whether she would attack them. The mesh on their cage was pretty small, there was no way Rags could get a paw in, but we still worried about her hooking them with her claws through the mesh.
She never made a move to attack them that we saw, even when we left the dining room and sat in the living room where we could watch her without appearing to watch her.
Day after day, Rags sat entranced by the gerbils. In the morning we would pull a newspaper out of the pile underneath the coffee table, take a section of it, then put it in the cage for Laverne and Shirley. We'd take out the old nest, and they'd have a day's activity ahead of them (if we left the old nest they'd build a new one and use the old one for their potty.)
Having the gerbils seemed to lighten Rags's mood after she was home alone all day. She was less sulky when we came home. We'd always check on the gerbils. They were never harmed.
In fact, it looked like Rags was getting playful. We kept finding the newspapers spread out from underneath the coffee table across the floor, and sometimes torn a bit. We figured she was working off her excitement from watching the gerbils by dashing around and playing rough while we were away.
One day, after stacking the papers back up under the coffee table and sitting down at the couch to read a book, I heard the sound of paper tearing. Then I heard more tearing, like the newspaper was being torn off in a strip. I looked under the table, and there was Rags with a section of newspaper under her paws, tearing off a strip with her mouth.
"What's this crazy cat doing?" I thought. I left her to it, figuring I'd clean up the mess later. She kept tearing. I figured she was rending the gerbils in effigy.
Later, my mother came in the room. She heard Rags tearing the paper. "What is she doing?" she asked.
"Killing newspapers," I said, "I guess."
My mother kept watching her. I hadn't checked in on Rags in a while. I was engrossed in a Doc Smith book from the Skylark of Space series.
"She's building a nest!" said my mother.
I put down my book and came to see. Sure enough, Rags was building a newspaper nest underneath the coffee table. She had been tearing off strips of paper, and arranging them in a circular pile. We watched her in amazement for a while. After another half hour or so, Rags had a loosely-built, but recognizable nest. It was a larger version of the nests Laverne and Shirley built.
"All this time she's been watching them, we thought she was hunting them," my mom said. "She's been learning from them."
Rags kept making her nests for as long as we had her. Her nests got better and better as she kept building them. She tore the strips finer, and arranged them so that they lay in nice interwoven bunches in a round pile, just like the gerbils' nests. We cleaned out her nest about once a week, and learned that if you wanted to read a newspaper you didn't lay it under the coffee table.
I have no idea if Rags thought she was a gerbil or not. She still liked to play with strings and such like a normal cat. But she could make the neatest newspaper nest you ever saw.