The subtle sound that summons milk addicts

By Bill Hall

Once again, I have unwittingly taught a cat a trick. But I never realized it until I was away on vacation, living alone without cats.

Some years ago I developed the habit of finishing my evening bowl of cereal and letting any cats present lick the bowl when I was through.

It occurs to me as I write this that I have fallen to a low state in life in more ways than one. Where once I went out on the town and drank with the best and the worst of them, I now stay home at night sitting around with a wife and cats, never having so much as a nip of wine, pathetically substituting a bowl of cereal for a stiff drink. How old that makes me look.

On the other hand, I happen to like cereal. I always have. I eat it by the ton. I buy it in every flavor they offer, though rarely the ones with chocolate or with those dry, rubbery little marshmallow things. But I like cereal for the same reason I relished wine -- the variety of it. Wine drinking in the past and cereal eating in the present are something like cheese. It's something better enjoyed in all its variety.

Oh, I know there are people in the world who always have the same drink. There are people in the world who always eat cheddar cheese and nothing else. But most of us are disinclined toward such predictability. And who wants one cereal for life?

Sometimes I go crazy and mix them -- cereal salad. Sometimes I use yogurt or a dash of vanilla or brown sugar instead of white. Sometimes I add nuts or blueberries or dried cranberries. When I get to partying on cereal each night, I can get a little wild.

And I share. When I finish the cereal I put it on the floor and the cats finish the last few drops of milk.

That, of course, raises the sanitation issue of cat spit. But we have the water in our dishwasher set hot enough to melt the hide off a fat walrus. It shouldn't have any trouble with a little thing like cat spit.

Besides, if cats don't worry about cat spit, why should I be concerned? Look at what cats do: they lick themselves all over. I feel like a giant of sanitation by comparison.

So for some years now, I have shared the last few drops of milk and sugar with the cats. It pleases them and if nothing else, it sweetens their breath. Sometimes their breath smells like they have a licked a cat.

When you get into the habit of letting a cat polish off the last of the milk in your bowl, the cat also develops a habit. It is amazing what cats do in that situation. They do not come running for their share until you are right down to the bottom of the bowl, finishing up your lion's share of the treat and ready to give them the rest. You sit there, eating the cereal, the spoon clink clinking in the bowl. But nothing happens until you near the bottom. Then suddenly cats appear. How do they know when you're at that point?

Undoubtedly, the spoon makes a different sound when the bowl is empty. The sound of metal on porcelain is higher and sharper. The cats can tell the difference. So they don't have to hang around half the night waiting for some old goat to finish his evening cereal. They wait until the right sound signals them and then they come running.

But you have to admit, that's pretty subtle. So not only can cats be trained but you don't really have to signal them in broad-brush ways.

I recently spent a month in Italy studying in a language school and as I fell into a ritual from home, I got a little lonely. I was in my apartment almost every night doing homework when I would get as hungry as a student. So I would have a bowl of the weird Italian granola I found along with a splash of milk from an Italian cow. (The milk was a little richer than I was used to and it had a hint of oregano, but other than that, it was normal milk.)

Sometimes, as I finished, the change in sound that the spoon made hitting the porcelain would make me realize that, if I could put the bowl on the floor, no cat would come running. I was without cats. Knowing that, I felt as empty as the dish. I had trained not only the cats to love cereal time but myself to love the coming of the cats.



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