Monday, June 30, 2008

Larceny: The Finest Spice

Cats have a definite preference when it comes to food. Stolen food tastes better. No matter what they are given, and no matter what is in the other cat's dish, the food in the other cat's dish is going to taste better than what's in their own. And the more the humans protest and try to keep them out of the other cat's dish, the better it will taste.

Somehow, they can tell when you're "gaming the system" by giving the wrong dishes to the wrong cat, or making false protests when they're "stealing" from the dish you really want them to eat from.

It's especially tricky when medications are being given or when there's a special food needed. No matter what measures you take, it seems, you're doomed to failure.

One cat needs a special food or medication, so you try to feed them while keeping the other cats away. "No way," says the cat, "I'm not eating. The other cats aren't here, that's weird, you're up to something, so I'm not eating."

It seems to help, in my experience, if you've made them "earn their meal." They're more willing to eat out of their own dish, and defend it to some degree rather than go steal from someone else (at least right away.) We have had two cats that we've trained to sit up for their dish. They'll at least eat the top off their own food before going elsewhere. The problem is, that once you start making them sit up for their dish, you've got to keep making them do it. If they learn that they don't have to, then they won't.

Another approach is to set down the food, and bide your time.

I manage to get the right drugs in the right cat by setting down the dishes, and waiting. Each will eat some of their own, then wander away from the dishes. Apparently paying no attention to the food at all. I'm doing a bit of moving around myself, also paying no attention to the cat food. Then, casually, almost as an afterthought, I'll put some drops in the dish that I know the right cat is going to head for when my back is turned, seeking the rich, fine flavor of larceny.

After a few moments of "distraction", I can be sure that when I turn around the drops will be gone, along with some of the "forbidden" food, with perhaps the sight of a completely innocent paw leaving around the corner.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Star Cat

orange tabby cat
Among my hobbies is astronomy. This is part of why we bought a house way out in the Sierra foothills. The altitude and distance from any cities gave me clear skies for my hobby. You could walk out in the back yard and see the Lagoon and Trifid nebulas just by looking up to the south at the right time of year. It was a great place to take a telescope out at night and enjoy the sights in the sky.

Of course, being way out in the boonies has a downside, too. We shared our yard with any number of animals. Skunks, rattlesnakes, bears, and mountain lions were all in the area and any of them would be enough to ruin a night's observing session. Still, I usually made sure I made plenty of noise when I set up and then again every so often to try to convince any critters around to keep their distance so that we wouldn't end up surprising each other.

One night I was out, seeing if the atmosphere had cleared enough from the effects of Mount Pinatubo's eruption to start observing galaxies again. The ash from the volcano had been in the upper atmosphere for over a year. It had enough of an effect on what I saw that I'd given up observing galaxies, except for the brightest ones, since a couple of weeks after the eruption. It was finicky work, particular since my telescope was of a quality that was only marginal for viewing dimmer galaxies in the first place.

I was trying to see if I could make out any distinguishing features in the fuzzy gray patch of a particular galaxy when I heard something moving nearby. I stopped looking through the scope and looked into the darkness around me to see if I could make anything out.


I made some sounds and listened. Still nothing. I went back to my scope.

Trying to see detail in something that is barely brighter than the background glow of the sky around it is hard work. There are a number of tricks, though. Among them is looking a bit to one side of the object itself. It's called "averted vision." The center of your field of view is best suited to seeing bright things in the daytime. Just a bit off the center of your field of view, however, is where you are most sensitive to minor variations in brightness, since this is where there is the density of rods on your retina. It takes time and patience. I stood stock still at the scope, with the telescope's drive motor keeping the galaxy in place, trying to see whether I could make out any spiral arms and dark lanes between them in the galaxy I had in the scope. It seemed like there might be something I could make out, but it was hard to be sure.

Suddenly something hit me in the back of the leg. I about jumped out of my skin. I trotted a few steps from the telescope, and fumbled for a red LED light in my pocket. I didn't hear anything, and couldn't see anything. I made some noise. Still nothing. I got the red LED light, and shined it back toward the scope. It didn't show much. It was better for reading maps than seeing anything around you. I kept trying to see with it, though, shining it in different directions.

Suddenly something pressed against the back of my legs.

Outside, I was stock still. Inside, I jumped up about eight feet. I realized that it felt familiar. I put a hand down, and felt a familiar furry back press up into my hand.

"Oh, Menelaus! It's just you!"

Menelaus was an orange tabby who had just joined us a few months before. Normally he slept through the night, but I guess having me out with my telescope was too much fun to miss.

I pet him for a while and talked to him. Then I went back to my telescope and made sure the galaxy was still being tracked by the scope before I spent some more time with him. Then I went back to observing. He pressed against the back of my legs again, and I pet him some more, then he trotted off, and I went back to observing.

While I was observing, I heard a sound in the darkness. Coming at me from one side, and approaching closer quickly, I heard a trilling sound.

"Tri-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill!" said Menelaus as he ran by in the dark.

Then, from another direction, "Tri-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill!"

I called to him and told him he was a cute boy. He ran by me, trilling all the way, about another half dozen times.

Then he walked up to one side of me, said "Prrt?" and sat down at one leg of the scope's base. I pet him for a short while, then he stayed there as I went back to observing one object after another. Every time I moved the scope from one part of the sky to another, he'd stand up, get some pets, then go back and lay down.

I realized that he made a pretty good indicator of whether there was anything else around, and it was nice to take a "cat break" every now and then during observing. Though I had to make sure to keep the cat hair off my optics.

A couple more times that night he ran off and went dashing by me, from one side to another, from random directions in the dark, trilling as he ran.

On later nights it became a routine for us. I'd set up the scope, he'd run around past me, dashing past and trilling as he ran. He'd come sit near me at other time, and be ready for pets whenever I was moving the scope or changing eyepieces. Occasionally he'd bump me in the calves if he felt I was giving the sky a bit too much attention.

A few times something else did wander across the yard. When this happened he'd press against my legs and make an unhappy sound. He'd stay with me while I clapped my hands and called out to scare it off. I could tell when it was gone when he'd relax again, going back to his spot at the base of the scope, or when he'd start to patrol around me and the telescope, making sure the coast was clear.

He became my constant companion at my observing sessions, and I started calling him my "star cat." The trilling and dashing in the dark never got old.

Menelaus himself has gotten a lot older, though. He's gone into retirement and become a house cat now. We spend a lot of time together, but when I'm out late in the dark with my telescope I still get a smile from the memories of him dashing around and trilling for me.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Biiig Toys!

black and white tux cat

One day I was doing some yard work, specifically, I was working on putting up a deer fence around our garden area on one side of our house. I started out by carrying some fence poles from one side of the house to the other. I saw our "little girl", Zyelena, watching me out the back window. She was a little black and white "tux cat", black all over with a white chin and belly, and white mittens.

At this time Zyelena was a still very skittish around me, particularly if I was handling something, the larger it was the more scared she would be. So I would try to be pretty circumspect whenever she was around to help her get over her skittishness.

She had a bit of concerned look on her face as I was hauling fence posts from one side of the house to the other. She was curious about what I was up to, but obviously thinking about running away and leaving the windowsill. I was careful not to look at her directly as I went by and following a path that didn't make it look like I was coming at her as much as possible. After a few times back and forth, it looked like she was settling in and getting more comfortable with keeping an eye on me.

After I'd finished moving the fence posts, I had the fencing wire to move. The fencing wire was in a in a roll, a column about four feet high and three feet thick. It was too heavy to pick up and carry, so I put it on its side and started to roll it.

As Zyelena saw me coming with the roll of fencing wire, I saw her sit up and look frightened. I was rolling it about as far from the window as I could, but going farther from the window would take me down a hill slope, and I didn't want to have to roll the wire down the slope, then roll it back up again. Nonetheless, I turned the roll a bit downslope to get a bit farther from the window. I glanced at Zyelena to see how she was taking things, and the roll of wire started to get away from me and roll down the hill.

I quickly ran down and got in front of the roll of wire, and stopped it. My motions had been pretty sudden, so I thought "Great, now I've frightened the cat and she'll probably avoid me all night tonight."

When I looked back up at the window, I saw that Zyelena was still there, sitting up tall. Her entire nature had changed, she was radiating intense curiousity. I saw a play of emotions across her face when she noticed me looking at her--a moment of fear, then she looked down at the roll of wire and I saw her look change to one of realization.

"Oh!" she seemed to say, "it's a game!"

Her entire body relaxed, and she threw me a number of benign looks as she settled back onto the window sill. I started to push the wire back up the hill, along the path toward where I was putting up the fence. As I got close to the house, it looked like she was playing vicariously as I shoved the wire uphill. Zyelena would often bat her paws in the air as she watched our other cats playing with their toys, she was doing something like this with me.

Suddenly her eyes got big, and she sat up again. Had I pushed too close to the house? Was I going to scare her off after all?

No, the look on her face seemed to say, "Oooh, Daddy plays with biiiig toys!"


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Royal Names for Royal Animals

The first cat I had that was really my own cat, as opposed to the "family" cat was a gray Persian mix with a white muzzle and white mittens that I got when I was 13. I've had a sense of the royal bearing of cats for as long as I can remember, so I felt he deserved a royal name.

The lady I got him from had similar ideas. My cat's mother was named Cleopatra. She was a large white Persian with flecks of black in her fur, she looked like she was covered in royal ermine. The lady also owned another Persian, named Julius Caesar. Julius wasn't around when Cleo was in heat, though, he'd gone walkabout for a week or two. Another cat showed up, though, a springy white shorthair that she gave the appropriate moniker of "Marc Anthony." He was my cat's father.

I considered naming my kitten Ptolemy, but he was such an energetic and domineering little kitten among the others of his litter that I decided he should be called "Alexander the Great."

Since then I've had cats with names like Phillip of Macedon, Menelaus of Sparta (pronounced men-uh-lay-us), and, a bit off the track, Yuri Gagarin.
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