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Dark Horse Cat

Well, it’s been just over two weeks; I’m still not quite done with the aforementioned Nine Lives essay (almost! almost!), and meanwhile things have moved so fast with me and the pets that it’s going to take me three entries here just to catch up to the present, including the crazy thing that happened just this morning. (Edit: essay now available here.)

But first: the cats. So although I had urgent reasons to prioritize the dog, going forward with buttons I kept the cats in mind as well. As I wrote in (the forthcoming) Nine Lives:

Gracie has the widest range of distinct vocalizations I’ve ever heard from a pet — probably fifty distinct types of meows and trills at a minimum — and over the eight years of her life I’ve figured out … maybe twelve of them. She has a specific tone that she uses to talk about a rainstorm, for example, although I still don’t know exactly what she’s saying about the rain. Is she just informing me that it’s happening? Is she complaining that it’s loud? (She doesn’t talk about quiet misty sprinkles, and I’ve figured out from other interactions that she has painfully sensitive hearing.) Or is it something else that I haven’t even thought of?

The other three-quarters of the time that Gracie is monologuing I haven’t got the vaguest idea what she’s on about.

My hope was, and is, that with a large variety of buttons to choose from, Gracie will eventually see the benefit. She is extremely clever — has figured out how to open drawers and sliding doors — and I have every confidence that she is capable of understanding and using buttons; the only question is whether she will be motivated to do so.

The counterargument is that, with her large repertoire of sounds and clear body language, she already communicates a lot of things pretty well. For example, she has a distinctive meow that I call “Prepare to be boarded”: it means she wants to be held, and if you don’t pick her up she will launch herself at your chest and you’d better be ready to catch her. When she’s in the mood for pets and lap cuddles, she definitely lets you know, with both voice and full-body language.

She’s also more blasé about food than any other cat in my experience. Most cats of my acquaintance (including our other current cat Rikki) go a little bit nuts at mealtime, with the milling around and yelling at top volume. Not Gracie. Sometimes she sort of slowly gets up from her nap and saunters in a few minutes later. Sometimes she has to be nudged, because the other cat(s) have finished and are more than ready to take her portion too. If she’s really interested, she’ll wander into the kitchen while it’s being dished up, go to the spot where she gets fed, and lie down quietly waiting. (Mealtime is just about the only scenario in which she doesn’t have something to say.) I’ve tested her with various treats — she has mild preferences, but overall food is just NBD to her. Same with catnip: she’s mildly interested, but sometimes she just wanders off from it. She used to be a playing machine, but now at eight and a half, she’s pretty take-it-or-leave it there too.

The one thing Gracie really, really wants is to go outside … and all of my cats have been indoor-only, for safety reasons. The immediate area around our house is, except for a wide variety of poisonous plants, fairly safe during the daytime. (At night there are often skunks, possums, and other critters with which she would doubtless tangle.)

But the problem is that there’s no way to keep cats enclosed, and beyond our little shared yard is a great deal of danger. We live at the end of a dead-end street, so there’s not a lot of car traffic until you get a block or more away, but there are lots of dogs and sometimes other cats — Mexicans commonly let all their pets freely roam the streets. And because of that, it’s also not uncommon for people to put out meat laced with rat poison, specifically to kill off dogs and cats who come onto their property. (The second year we were living here, there was an emaciated stray cat who started coming over the wall into the garden of the house we were renting. We didn’t take him in, because he was not compatible with our existing pets, but I named him Oliver and fed him in the garden for several months. Until one day he just stopped showing up. Our then-gardener Candido asked around the neighborhood for us, and reported back that he’d been poisoned. At various other times over the years, there have been rashes of dog-poisoning reported in the expat community, so I just have to assume it’s a constant threat.)

So of all the early buttons I’d picked with the dog in mind, OUTSIDE was the only one I thought Gracie would particularly care about … and it was verboten. If I’d gone in with just the cats I would have done things differently, but having an eager puppy learner meant different priorities. With Gracie, I’m more playing the long game — maybe one day during a storm she’ll come tell me something about OUTSIDE WATER.

I’d pretty much discounted Rikki in all of this, because (aside from mealtimes) he’s never been vocally communicative and frankly … he’s not the brightest star in the firmament. Like, he follows Gracie around on her escapades, but on his own he’s no kind of problem solver.

But the little dude was a dark horse after all. While Gracie either ignored the buttons, or at most watched others use them from afar, Rikki was almost immediately intensely interested. I mean, initially he was testing out the hextiles as a scratching pad, but even after I discouraged that, he kept coming over to check them out. Two days in, he was clearly understanding that something important was happening there, even if he couldn’t quite work out what, or how to participate. He started vocalizing more — like a lot more, all throughout the day, which I did not expect. Most of the time he would specifically go over to the buttons in order to yell at me.

Tashi is in one of his favorite spots, draped over the back of my recliner, which puts his head at my shoulder height. The little voidblob-with-eyes-and-tail between the subwoofer and the button tiles is Rikki, in what is now one of his favorite spots.

So, okay, I start modeling the buttons specifically for Rikki. Every couple of days I’d bring out the feather pole, which he loves, modeling PLAY all the time. Later, when I added FOOD, I’d model FOOD at every meal. I also did the best I could with his rare accidental presses, although most of the buttons were not very useful in that regard. SKRITCHES is not really Rikki’s thing most of the time — he’s more of an ‘I will bump you with my head so you know I like you but please don’t try to pet me’ guy. LATER, on its own, left me helpless. For KONG I showed him an empty kong, which of course was not at all interesting to him. (Full kong might have been, but that would open up a whole can of worms I did not want.) When he hit FOOD by accident, I actually brought over his regular food and let him lick some off my finger.

One day about three weeks AB (after buttons), I was working at my computer and I heard PLAY from the living room. This was happening several dozen times a day now, so it took me a few seconds to put together that it couldn’t have been Tashi, because Tashi was locked in the office with Jak.

I leapt up and ran to see who was doing what, and Rikki was sitting there right behind the PLAY button, pretty as you please, as though he were waiting for me. As soon as I showed up, he started yelling. Of course I whipped out the feather pole and started playing with him right away. I was delighted, sure that the light had dawned at last. We were on our way!

… But no. It must have been an accidental press, because afterward he was still just as clueless as before. All the sitting by the buttons and yelling his little head off, no increase in button presses.

So I do more research about cat button users in particular. It turns out almost all of them need ‘target training’ before they can press the buttons — basically a cycle of operant-conditioning behavior shaping that teaches them, in tiny increments, how to put a paw flat on the button and press down.

It makes sense, when I think about it. The way dogs naturally use their paws to manipulate things is by a sort of downward digging motion — one that, when applied to a button, easily activates it. Similarly, bumping things with their nose is a natural behavior that also adapts well to buttons. Tashi used both right away; though he soon switched to simply stepping onto buttons rather than digging at them, he still uses paws and nose pretty equally.

But cats don’t bump anything with their noses, and the way they manipulate things with their paws is more of a hooking motion, coming in from the side to pull something in front of them closer … or they’re trying to bury it like poop, which means coming from the front up. Only if they’re going after something in the air is the motion more up-to-down, though it’s still a hook. Plus, they’re usually very careful about where they put their feet; their natural tendency is actually to deliberately avoid stepping on the buttons.

So, okay. I start preparing to target train Rikki, because by now (about the time I wrote my last post) we’re six weeks AB and he’s still yelling his little head off. And because unlike Gracie, his vocal repertoire is very narrow, my only clues are contextual — which again only takes us so far.

In retrospect, what I failed to appreciate about Rikki is that — despite not being the sharpest pencil in the drawer — he is a creature of intense appetites. He is wildly food-motivated, he loves catnip, and apparently, he would really like to be able to request playtime, though unlike his big sister he hasn’t figured out how to say that so that we can understand.

And that catches us up on cats as of October 20th, when my new buttons and tiles arrived at long last.

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