Another trained cat bends to my iron will

By Bill Hall

The prevailing myth is that cats aren't smart enough or cooperative enough to learn tricks. The reverse is true. You can't avoid teaching tricks to cats -- or to practically any other critter.

It depends on what you call a trick. If you are talking about a standard dog trick like jumping through a flaming hoop, maybe. But if you are talking about a trick like the one that little mutt does on the television sitcom "Frasier," sitting still and staring endlessly at someone, then you are mistaken. Everyone has his price, even a cat. I know cats who will do virtually anything for tuna fish. So sometimes it is hard not to teach a cat or dog that trick from "Frazier," even when you are trying not to. Half the dogs in America spend half their lives sitting and staring at human beings -- trying to look pitiful enough to get a handout from the table.

That's obviously what they've done with Eddy, the "Frazier" dog. There's even a word for what a dog is doing when it sits and watches you eat. It's called "groaking." We have all been groaked at one time or another. I have had dogs groak me until I wanted to croak them.

The principal difference between training dogs and cats is how much longer it normally takes to train a cat. Perhaps a dog is smarter, able to pick up tricks faster. Or more likely, a dog is more eager to prostitute itself for food than most animals. Once a dog finally figures out what you are trying to get it to do, it will immediately comply, so long as there is a handout associated with it.

I'm not so sure about cats. They either are slower to get the message or, more likely, slower to capitulate and do the stupid thing you ask them to do. Cats seems to go through a struggle between pride and loving tuna fish. The fish doesn't always win.

On the other hand, I have seen cats teach themselves tricks if there was some reward in it. One time a cat was chewing on some wadded paper on the bed where my wife lay reading. My wife picked up the paper and threw it toward the waste basket. The cat ran after it and was soon back on the bed, gnawing on it. My wife threw it again. The cat decided that was fun and was soon bringing the paper directly to my wife -- fetching, like a dog with a stick -- so she could throw it again. Let the games begin.

But nothing will train a cat to do useless things any faster than tuna fish. We have never believed in feeding pets from the table. But the longer we live in our seasoned years without real kids around, the more we seem to treat these ugly, hairy little things like children. It's some sick nurturing impulse that carries over long past the normal parental years.

Perhaps it comes from a time when the generations of families tended more to live together, when tribes shared the same cave and everyone of all ages helped look after the little ones. Even old people need little ones around. In our cave, the little ones have hair all over their bodies and walk on all fours.

I guess it was kind of a misplaced nurturing impulse that led me one day three months ago to share just one little piece of tuna fish with Alfie. I discreetly dropped it on the floor. I did it just once. You would think you couldn't teach a cat, of all the independent creatures, a trick on the first try.

But I haven't had a meal since without Alfie sitting and staring at me like Eddy on "Frazier."

Unlike a dog, there is no slobbering, no whining, no twitching each time you lift a morsel to your lips. Alfie just sits there, motionless, staring, always staring.

Mostly, of course, it is the eyes. I don't know how they do it but cats and dogs have learned to imitate the starving children they see in war zones on television. They have sensed how that gets to person.

Mostly I have remained strong. But once in a while it bothers me, especially if it is tuna fish. I know how he loves tuna fish. He loves tuna fish the way I love chocolate chip cookies. How can I know what it feels like to watch someone eat chocolate chip cookies without giving me one and not share tuna fish with Alfie? So I do share, more and more it seems.

It took him three months but he finally taught me the trick.



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