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Tete-a-tete: When it comes to cat toys, sometimes there are strings attached

Things that are fun are not always completely safe, and that’s a difficult lesson to impart to a young’un. A child who’s been given, say, their first smartphone doesn’t necessarily understand why its use is limited or supervised. Young pets who’ve been given new toys understand this concept even less, as Boots has so vigorously demonstrated.

I accept that my family bears the brunt of the responsibility in this matter. We were so accustomed to having an older cat who had seen everything, done everything and just wanted hugs (Cleo was 22 when she passed away), we didn’t really consider the ramifications of introducing Boots, who is now about 3, to the wonderful world of toys.

When Dad brought home a stuffed mouse that dangles from a long elastic attached to a stick, it never occurred to us that she might be encountering such a toy for the first time.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Bootsie showed up in our yard as an older kitten and decided to adopt us. Her past is something of a mystery to us, but her hunting prowess indicates she spent significant time on her own in the woods – an environment that is decidedly lacking in kitty toys.

Boots was entranced by this artificial prey that appeared to move on its own, stalking it from under the bench in the living room and chasing it down until she caught it in her paws, refusing to let it go. Given how her outdoor time was extremely limited this winter, it’s no surprise that she wants to play with Jorge (yes, we named the mouse) all the time.

Unfortunately for Boots, this requires a willing human to manipulate her prey. Jorge and other toys that incorporate strings are kept in a container in the living room for her safety, as even a skilled predator can get tangled up if left unsupervised. Some components of these toys could also be ripped off by overzealous jaws and accidentally swallowed, so she’s not allowed to play with them unless one of us is guiding her playtime.

She will therefore position herself next to the container and stare at anyone who comes within eyeshot, trying to bend them to her will. If that doesn’t work because no one is near the living room, Boots will seek out whichever family member is closest and try to bring them over to her toys.

To give a common example, if I’m in the kitchen emptying the dishwasher, she’ll approach me, meowing, as though she wants me to pet her. When I reach down to do so, she turns and bolts out of the kitchen and into the living room in hopes I’ll follow her and play with her. If she doesn’t get results the first time, she’ll try a few more times before giving up.

Should these subtler attempts fail, Boots will stand in the living room and cry, broadcasting the unfairness of her circumstances to the entire household. If she still doesn’t get a response, she’ll find the nearest family member and personally give them an earful.

It bears mentioning that playing with Bootsie is not an easy task. She expects these toys to move like real prey – speeding around, doubling back, hiding behind the furniture.

I regret to say that I have been deemed subpar in recreational prey manipulation. When I respond to the kitty’s summons and follow her to her toys, she’s excited at first but then immediately loses interest because my movements are too sluggish for her tastes.

I put forth my best efforts, making Jorge dash and dodge and dive, and Boots just sits there, angrily hunched, glaring off into space and refusing to engage. It’s gotten to the point where when she attempts to recruit me for playtime, I remind her of how bitterly I’ve disappointed her in the past and tell her she’d probably prefer not playing at all.

Regrettably, Boots doesn’t seem to have a good long-term memory, and the string of disappointments continues.

Mom is the recreational prey manipulator of choice. She has the energy, stamina and creativity to make Jorge move realistically for several minutes, which is plenty of time for Boots to feel like she’s had a good hunt. Boots doesn’t always agree with that assessment, however, so sometimes Mom has to distract her with another toy in order to release Jorge from her grip.

Aside from Jorge and other toys with strings, Boots has numerous other playthings that can be safely left out for her. Dad has made sure of that. One of her favorites is what can only be described as a mouse patootie. It’s just the lower half of a mouse – tail, rump and hindquarters. I suppose it gives her a certain sense of accomplishment as a hunter.

She also enjoys playing with a bomb-shaped catnip toy that looks like it’s straight out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon and a catnip sack shaped like a wine bottle that Mom picked up at a winery. Mom tends to put these three toys away if Boots isn’t playing with them, as it makes for a rather morally questionable scene on the living room floor.

Despite this spoiling, Bootsie’s favorites continue to be the toys with strings. Unlike a child who will eventually understand their parents’ reasons for limiting or supervising their smartphone use or even a dog who can be taught to obey certain commands in certain situations, she will never quite fathom why we’re so stingy with the toys she loves most.

And yet, when our independent feline curls up in my lap, demanding security and snuggling, I can almost believe she understands that our stinginess comes from a place of love and protection and that these toys are not the be-all end-all of kitty cat existence.

Again, I can almost believe that. Because the moment I try to stand up, Boots bounds off my lap and into the living room, ready for round two.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published April 5, 2018


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Tete-a-tete: A tale of unintentional cat ownership

“Never again.” It’s a phrase most us have uttered at least once in our lives. Never again will we eat a slice of cake that big, leave a project until the last minute, or put ourselves in a position where our hearts might be broken.

Resolute though we may be, sometimes we don’t have a choice in the matter. We say “never again,” and circumstances dictate otherwise.

For example, when Cleo, our 22-year-old feline, passed away in Dad’s arms last summer, our family decided that we would never again have a cat. Our resolve held until about a month ago, when 17-year-old Youngest Brother went outside to mow the lawn and was greeted by a sweet little kitty.

We live in a typical New Hampshire small town – we’re not exactly rural, but the trees are definitely more numerous than the people. Deer, wild turkeys, foxes and fishers all make regular appearances in our neighborhood, and it’s very rare to see stray domesticated animals. We’re familiar with our neighbors’ dogs and outdoor cats, and we had never encountered this cat before.

Youngest Brother, who had been begging Mom and Dad for one of his friend’s kittens, informed Mom that God obviously wanted him to have a cat – otherwise, why would we have this feline visitor? Mom was intrigued, but maintained a cautious skepticism.

While Youngest Brother and the cat were getting acquainted, Mom went into the garage to retrieve some gardening tools, only to discover that the kitty had been foraging for leftovers in our garbage. We had some canned cat food left over from Cleo, so Mom fixed up a plate for our furry interloper.

After a few days of this, Dad warned us that if we continued feeding the cat, she wouldn’t have a reason to go home to her owners and would continue to hang around our yard. He then looked out at the darkening sky and suggested we put Cleo’s old covered litter box under the picnic table so the kitty would have shelter if it rained.

In spite of the adorably fluffy companionship afforded by Jinx, our family hamster, the lack of a feline presence in our lives was, shall we say, palpable. This became quite apparent the day Dad called me into the living room and told me that Cleo was refusing to get off the piano. He gestured with a grin to the little wooden box containing her ashes, which he had placed on top of said musical instrument.

Yeah. We missed having a cat.

We hunted high and low for the kitty’s owner, checking ads on Craigslist, posting in our town’s Facebook group and calling local police, veterinary offices, and shelters to see if a cat fitting her description had been reported missing. As weeks passed without any leads and several summer rainstorms, we began to realize that, whether by taking her to a shelter or adopting her ourselves, we needed to take responsibility for Schmitty.

Yes, the cat had become known as Schmitty. Mom had suggested we call her Smitten, because we were all smitten with the kitty, and that was soon shortened to Smitty. Oldest Younger Brother came to visit and mischievously reinterpreted “Smitty” as “Schmitty,” and it stuck for the time being.

Schmitty, for her part, expressed her gratitude and her desire to be part of the family by leaving a dead chipmunk next to Mom’s van and trying to get inside the house every time someone opened a door.

Mom and Dad didn’t want Schmitty indoors, however, until the vet had given her a clean bill of health, an endeavor in which I was recruited to participate.

We were prepared for the worst. Cleo was terrible to take to the vet – she would get carsick, lose control of all her bodily functions and growl at every other animal in the waiting room. When her carrier was opened in the exam room, she would perch arthritically on the window ledge and glare angrily at the parking lot.

Schmitty, in contrast, was a cat owner’s dream. She let the vet examine her without any hissing and took all of her vaccinations like a pro. The vet informed us that Schmitty was 7-10 years old (much older than we had thought) and that she had been spayed a long time ago. It was likely that she was a family pet who ended up on her own due to her owners moving, passing away or being unable to care for her.

With that, Schmitty officially became a member of the family. She was initially very confused that she was allowed in the house, to the point where she was anxious about going outside for fear she wouldn’t be let back in, but she’s adjusting more and more each day.

Now that we’ve become better acquainted with her personality, we’ve given her a more appropriate name: Boots. This has nothing to do with the little white socks she has on all four paws; it’s a reference to her penchant for snuggling up to shoes – particularly 16-year-old Younger Sister’s knee-high boots. Youngest Brother has also since observed that she has big, sweet eyes like Puss in Boots from the “Shrek” movies.

Based on the dictionary definition, “never again” is a long time to go without something, be it a loving relationship with another person or larger-than-normal pieces of cake. Realistically, however, “never again” tends to be a much shorter time period than we think, especially when God Himself decides to intervene and send you a cat.

And as I watch Boots play with a catnip mouse that I thought would never again have an owner, I’m quite thankful for that.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Sept. 3, 2015


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