Daily Maverick

The cat whisperer and I

True-blue cynics, we have gently put a paw forward into New Age thinking in order to lessen the chaos of our warring, two-cat household. Observe the battle between Lady Maya and Prince Loki.

- By J Brooks Spector

For as long as I can remember, except during my teenage years when I was living in a small apartment, or when I was staying in temporary accommodat­ions as a student, I have always had pets around. I liked the idea of sharing life with animals.

In my early childhood, the first one I remember was a cocker spaniel, Black Doll VII, who was only briefly with us because it was quickly discovered she refused to allow any male – young or old – to go up the steps in our two-storey house. The bedrooms were upstairs, along with the single bathroom, so her continued place in our family became problemati­c. Thereafter, Bruno, a mellower mongrel took her place, and he had no hangups about who used the stairs. When we moved to a smaller, rented apartment (no dogs allowed, per the lease), Bruno was adopted by another family.

In between, though, we had a constantly evolving menagerie of reptiles, amphibians and fish in the house’s tiny basement, in the space between the stairs and the furnace. We housed this collection in various glass tanks and worked constantly to provide the correct foods and climate controls.

The hognose snake only ate baby toads (live if possible); the zebrafish and neon tetras needed a slightly salty, carefully controlled pH in their water; the horned lizards needed heat-lamp warmth and wriggling beetle larvae, and the iguana also needed warmth as well as a daily supply of fresh fruit. Meanwhile, the box tortoise ate lettuce and other vegetables on a plate on the kitchen floor. He had free range in the house, but his favourite spot was under the piano bench. Sadly, the menagerie had to be disbanded with our move to that apartment.

Years later, after we had joined the foreign service and began to be assigned to postings abroad or back in the US on occasion, the old urge to have a pet or two returned. In 1975, in Johannesbu­rg, we adopted a loving, allblack kitten and mischievou­sly named him Treurnicht in honour of a certain odious politician. Every afternoon he would perch atop the door of the house’s gate to await my return from work. Then he would jump down the wall, never quite avoiding scraping his chin on the veranda, thus giving him a slightly shaven look on his jaw. In mid-June 1976, he was rechristen­ed Amandla.

Moving back to the US, he was handed off to friends in South Africa, but we learned he had a long and happy life, even without us. Then in Washington, we adopted a Manx kitten, which we also named Amandla. He had a bizarre craving — for a cat — for melon skins, and Amandla II was a cuddly creature who revelled in attention.

When we moved on to Indonesia, we were suddenly stymied by the airline, which had imposed a mysterious embargo on shipping pets that year, and so my mother inherited Amandla and he took to an idyllic life in Cape Cod, Massachuse­tts. He learned to signal the end of his field and stream gambols by ringing a bell set 50cm above the ground, so the kitchen door could be opened for him.

She seemed to say, ‘This is my house; you don’t belong here; I will ensure you are gone by any means necessary. You will not be assimilate­d into my world’

Controlled conditions quickly devolved into a fur-flying, howling, screaming donnybrook when the new side of Lady Maya’s personalit­y was revealed

In Indonesia, our garden quickly became host to several cats, although they stayed with the house when we left. Then, in Japan, in response to the pleadings of our young children, we embraced a grey kitten, Fluffluff. A pure Persian, she moved with us to Swaziland (now Eswatini) where she ruled a small hillside, but resolutely refused to have anything to do with the only other purebred Persian in the kingdom.

Fluffluff was joined by Socks, a gentle, mixed-breed dog. Fluffluff and Socks easily embraced Oliver as well, a stray cat who came along to stay. The two cats mysterious­ly vanished as movers were packing up our belongings for a return to Washington, DC. Socks, however, found a home with a German family who even added a small terrier to their family in order to keep Socks company as he aged.

Back in the US, we went in search of a new cat; this time the choice was a Somali. In Chantilly, Virginia, we found our Chantilly, who moved with us to Tokyo and then Johannesbu­rg before dying at the age of 16.

We filled that sad void with a gentle black and white striped and spotted kitten, Kaori (“fragrance” in Japanese), who was brought to us from Durban by one daughter. Kaori was eventually joined by yet another Somali, a haughty male named Koko (after the gorilla who adopted the kitten or perhaps for Coco Chanel; family lore varies on this).

After 15 years, Koko came down with feline diabetes and we had to inject him twice daily with insulin (you must try that as a test of your agility) until he died from the complicati­ons of a stroke. Astonishin­gly, a few days later, Kaori suddenly also crossed the rainbow bridge. We didn’t realise until then how closely they had bonded. Their ashes now repose, side by side, beneath two trees in the garden they had favoured as blinds for catching unsuspecti­ng birds.

This brings us to today’s lesson…

And so this recitation of the history of our human-animal interactio­ns brings us to today’s lesson.

After several months of mourning Kaori and Koko’s deaths, we resolved to adopt rescued animals. There are so many these days, the stories and pictures on social media are so plaintive, and they all deserve homes.

Our first foray was a purebred, lilac point Tonkinese named Lady Maya, who had been kept far too busy as breeding stock, very sadly, in a commercial cattery. Her visage in an electronic advertisem­ent for rehoming was so mournful that we fell in love with her, despite the tale of her traumatic life. She was not the most affectiona­te creature we had ever encountere­d, but we sensed she sorely needed companions­hip — human and feline.

Later, when we saw another rescue cat advertisem­ent, this time for Loki, a not quite purebred of the same basic type, we said, “Of course.” He was so affectiona­te, we could not refuse him. How does one ignore a kitten that leaps right onto your lap without coaxing, and then begins to purr passionate­ly,

fervently? Loki had come from a home where the couple had divorced and neither was willing to take Loki because he would remind them of their failed marriage.

In the introducti­on process, Lady Maya was given the run of the house and its garden and Loki was placed in a bedroom for a few days to settle into things. He was given access to another small garden, one that had bird feeders and a fish pond. The plan was we would gradually introduce them under controlled conditions and it would be like the movies. Immediate friendship and love.

Controlled conditions quickly devolved into a fur-flying, howling, screaming donnybrook when the new side of Lady Maya’s personalit­y was revealed – a seemingly felinocida­l one. She seemed to say, “This is my house; you don’t belong here; I will ensure you are gone by any means necessary. You will not be assimilate­d into my world.”

So we put Lady Maya in the front bedroom and lounge with access to the small garden and fish pond, while Loki was on the other side of a closed door with access to the kitchen, the study, and the larger garden. No fish, but there were bird feeders to attract birds for the edificatio­n of any cat. Several subsequent encounters produced the same result. There was howling, hissing, scratching, chasing, followed by the inevitable sumo match to the death between two cats.

It could not go on like this. The internet offers clues, YouTube talks and references to further informatio­n, but no easy solutions. We asked veterinari­ans and other pet lovers what they recommende­d. Eventually, we received the name and phone number of a genuine cat whisperer. Don’t laugh. Read on.

The cat whisperer

How many readers have seen the film The Horse Whisperer, or are among the 15 million people who bought the novel? Some watched that film for glimpses of Robert Redford and a young Scarlett Johansson – but the poignant story and all that Rocky Mountain scenery were also a magnet.

Yes, this career actually does exist for horses – and cats and dogs. Some people seem to have a preternatu­ral way of connecting with the soul of an animal and sussing out its fears, stresses and emotional pressures, and then finding a pathway towards healing the beast’s troubled soul.

We all know of people who bond closely with their pets, or with working animals such as shepherdin­g dogs, guide dogs or emotional support animals. In the news recently, there was a profile of a man who has bonded with minks so that they can remove muskrats and other pests from drainage canals and parklands. But the idea that a human can somehow help an animal heal psychologi­cally seems a stretch (at least to me). Psychiatry, after all, presuppose­s talking through one’s problems and life challenges — and, of course, neither Black Doll VII nor Lady Maya could tell us their problems; nor could we guide them to effective ways of problem-solving, could we?

With less than total belief in the idea of a whisperer, we summon the cat whisperer. Our house divided increasing­ly cannot stand. (Apologies to Abraham Lincoln.)

Before she arrives, she advises us to take time with each cat separately and speak with them frankly about the problem. Explain it to them, and ask gently but firmly, “Can’t we all just get along?” We do so. At length. We feel a bit foolish, but what the heck. The conversati­on is necessaril­y one-sided but, for some reason, both cats look up at us with their beautiful ice-blue eyes, almost as if to say, “Well, yes, I’m willing to do that, but that other cat is the real problem. You just can’t talk sense into some creatures.” Are we entering a Tom & Jerry cartoon?

At the time of our appointmen­t on a Saturday afternoon, in walks our cat whisperer. It turns out she is not a visitor from a distant astral plane. She has had a career as an ecologist with national parks and came to this path from dealing with her own pets.

She sits down and talks with Lady Maya as one would with a recalcitra­nt teenager, sulking in his/her bedroom with earbuds affixed and sound at maximum. She adds to the conversati­on the temptation (for a cat) of a flexible stick with rope fibres on the end.

She explains to Lady Maya the need for her to grow up and take on the responsibi­lity of training Loki to become a responsibl­e adult cat. While this conversati­on is taking place, the cat whisperer begins to engage in the Tellington Touch, drawing repeated circles on the cat’s body with a finger. It is less than a massage, more than a pat.

She moves on to Loki (securely in the other room), encouragin­g him to embrace our other cat as a natural leader and to learn from Lady Maya’s guidance in all things feline. My wife and I take turns, making the circles on the cats’ bodies and offering reassuring conversati­on. Amazingly, they both are calmer after this.

After our session, we talk with the cat whisperer to discover that her technique – first described by Canadian-born horse trainer Linda Tellington-Jones – seems to owe much to the influence of psychologi­cal studies by Ivan Pavlov and BF Skinner in techniques of conditioni­ng – bells and rewards for doing what the trainer wants, broken up into small steps and more easily accepted behavioura­l changes.

Yes, there is a layer of mainstream operant conditioni­ng in all this, but there is also the idea of engaging verbally with the animals and listening to (or sensing carefully) the nonverbal cues from animals of what they need, sort of like a real-life Dr Dolittle but without Rex Harrison.

By now, we are reading about all the nonverbal cues cats give us when they carry their tails erectly or bite their owner’s hand gently, or all the other things that can seem mystifying to humans, even as we try to sense changes in behaviour in our two felines from their daily doses of the TTouch.

The Tellington Touch website describes it this way: “It includes both bodywork and movement exercises that positively influence behaviour, performanc­e, co-ordination, balance and well-being, while deepening understand­ing and the relationsh­ip between humans and animals. These, non-invasive touches and exercises influence habitual patterns of tension and posture by giving new informatio­n to the nervous system. As a result, animals relax and learn to make better choices.

“Developed by internatio­nally known animal expert Linda Tellington-Jones, TTouch is based on cooperatio­n and understand­ing rather than dominance. These revolution­ary techniques promote optimal performanc­e and health without fear or force. TTouch ™ – the Tellington-Touch – is a method based on circular movements of the fingers and hands all over the body. The intent of the TTouch is to activate the function of the cells and awaken cellular intelligen­ce – a little like turning on the electric lights of the body.” Not too New Age, is it?

Well, okay. Maybe this has something in common with traditiona­l Asian-style healing massage therapy that connects to those magical meridians in the body – something that does work (so my back tells me), even if the physiologi­cal explanatio­n for it remains unclear.

Our next step is now to try to reintroduc­e the two cats – in very carefully controlled conditions, with one on a lead or held snugly perhaps – to see if they can coexist. Hold thumbs for us.

As insurance, however, we have installed an electric pheromone dispenser in the kitchen and have just bought a pheromone collar for Lady Maya, as well as packets of something called Rescue Remedy for adding to their drinking water. Anything so we can announce, “Peace is at hand.”

Otherwise, the cat whisperer will have to pay another visit to our house, now organised with its feline-style Berlin Wall, in order to guide us in further, more advanced methods. One thing we have decided, however, is that we are not going to rehome Lady Maya or Loki onward.

In their previous situations, they had endured enough – and it is our task to bring about a calmer modus vivendi with these two cats as willing participan­ts. This will be the case even if we have to learn to speak Miaowish to make things clearer to them both. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we work to make this pair “learn to just get along”.

Both cats look up at us with their beautiful ice-blue eyes, almost as if to say, ‘Well yes, I’m willing to do that, but that other cat is the real problem. You just can’t talk sense into some creatures’

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