(Here is our story thus far: My ten-year-old daughter and I are left in charge of a couple thousand acres within an hour of San Francisco while our boss wanders off to study art in Paris. Included with the acreage is a write-off zoo of two hundred assorted horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, dogs, poultry, and nine undisciplined house cats. I take up the acoustic guitar and retain the services of a young female music educator, only to have Murray the Dolt, a special needs tabby, end my studies during the first and only lesson by peeing in our guitar cases.)
During one of my many attempts to stop smoking I decided that the cessation of tobacco use increases one’s body odor, until I realized that it actually enhanced my sense of smell. So it is with the keepers of house cats. No quantity of chlorophyll pellets or diligent maintenance is able to mask the fact that indoor cats crap in open-air latrines. Cat owners’ noses adjust to the environment and they don’t notice the smell.
So, imagine the stink of a 100-year-old farmhouse where nine cats have been left to define personal hygiene. I decided to create a cat-free zone in the ranch house, if for no other reason than to keep them off the table while my daughter Delta and I were trying to eat supper.
We erected kitty condos — nine wooden boxes attached at various heights to the wall of the enclosed back porch, then sewed nine denim-covered foam cushions and included a thimbleful of catnip in the stuffing of each. I installed a cat door to the outside, sliced open a 15-pound sack of high ticket cat food, then booted nine little spoiled brats out into the cruel, cruel world.
The relocation project was an almost overnight success. Employing a sorting scheme based on seniority, senility and agility, the cats assigned themselves berths in the room. Myra, the grand dame, rented a lower. Murray the Dolt roomed right above her. Orange the Magnificent, by far the toughest of the bunch, chose a nest high in the corner. Luna the Reticent went mid-level, with a view out the window. Plain Ol’ Kyle adjoined Luna. Vagrants filled in the spaces. We allowed entry into the house once per day, with supervision, to keep a count and prevent an unlikely return to the wild.
Rich folks use smoked turkey breasts as holiday currency. When in need of a quick gift, they whip out a Williams-Sonoma catalog. The ranch freezer was an El Dorado of smoked turkey breasts and the boss had told us to help ourselves, so one Sunday afternoon we thawed a couple and toasted them in a restaurant-quality Wolf range.
A general clamor arose on the back porch when the meat came out of the oven, a chorus of mewing and shuffling and yowling, with a parade of tail tips passing by the door’s leaded window.
When Delta opened the door to investigate the noise, nine cats flooded the room and rushed to the counter that held Williams-Sonoma’s finest. They sat in a semicircle and stared at the roasting pan as though their collective oomph could demagnetize the turkey flesh and cause it to fall on the floor.
That moment marked the birth of Gunter Grabbenbutt, small cat trainer. As I stood watching the transfixed cats, I recalled a frosty morning when I was milking my uncle’s cows accompanied by a barn cat who knew I would eventually tip a teat sideways and shoot a stream her way. During one of these milk fountains, a barn swallow dipped too closely to the floor, the cat abandoned the milk, leapt sideways, nabbed the bird, picked it up by the neck, and strolled away. That was when I realized that birds and fish were more closely connected to the traditional feline menu than milk. Few cats of any size have ever milked a cow.
It is not too difficult to teach nine cats to sit up if you possess a king’s ransom in turkey breasts. Grab a pinch of juicy meat between thumb and forefinger, bend over, present it to the cat you wish to train, push it toward the cats nose, say “Sit,” and the cat will automatically flop down on its haunches. With a flourish of both hands, pass the morsel about six inches above the cat’s face. The cat will sit up, unsheathe its claws, and bat at the piece of flesh. If you are not a fence builder, wear gloves. When the cat is sitting up in a stable manner, feed the tidbit. After twenty reps in a week’s time, the cat will sit down when asked and up when you wave your hands, even if occasionally you don’t feed the bait. They will, however, quit the show if you don’t come up with the goods twice in a row.
The act went so smoothly I considered taking it on the rodeo circuit. It required two months and the entire stash of turkey breasts to perfect it. Myra, the oldest, was hardest to train. By the time the boss returned from Paris, I could open the kitty condo door, stand in the kitchen, yell “Hoopla, Hoopla, Kitty, Kitty” in my best Bavarian accent, and nine cats would rush into the kitchen and arrange themselves on nine little painted stools. With a grand swoosh of both my hands, all nine would sit up at once about three out of four times.
My efforts backfired. The boss was so taken by the act that she fixed me up with a tiger striped tee-shirt, complete with stuffed tail, and it became another of my new age buckaroo duties to morph into Gunter Grabenbutt for visitors to her weekend art salons. Eventually both the cats and I tired of performing and I went back to tending hamburger-on-the-hoof in Idaho.
Six years later, I visited Marin County. Cats were back in the house. Standing in the kitchen. I yelled “Hoopla, Hoopla, Kitty, Kitty,” and the only remaining veteran of my original cast, Murray the Dolt, yawned, rolled off the couch, ambled over to my feet, sat on his haunches, and performed a perfect sit-up at the wave of my hand.
J.D. Smith lives in Athena.