You’d think with a retired animal trainer in the house that we would have the world’s best-behaved pet. Our pet is a cat. Think again. Cats, like the otters I worked with long ago, are highly resistant to doing anything on command. It’s got to be their idea. Unlike the sea lions, orcas, and dolphins Bucko trained, our various cats have had their own perspective on what to do and when.
For Bucko and me, that’s part of the fun of cat ownership – seeing what ideas they come up with next. Our current 10-year-old cat, Dumela, follows third in a chain of two other calico cats, Bandita and Masala, who preceded her one by one. Both lived to ripe old ages of 18-plus years and we expect house-closeted Dumela to be no different. And even halfway into her expected tenure with us, she still surprises us often.
Now that we are home more often than not, Dumela-watching has become a self-isolation hobby. Dumela knows our house intimately and has never been outside in her life, but she still finds new things to do inside. She’s discovered the time and location of every sunspot in the house to take her naps in during the day. On winter nights, when the heat is on, she’s discovered that there are nice warm places to sleep where the heat rises above the bookcases. And when we are doing a jigsaw puzzle, Dumela always joins us to watch.
In my former life, I completed my MA degree with a study of Asian otters in the zoo we worked at in California, Marine World Africa USA. My study was one of the earliest in the field of “behavioral enrichment,” a now burgeoning field of zoo biology where zookeepers and animal behaviorists develop ways to keep captive wild animals alert, involved, and content within the necessary confines of their enclosures. At Marine World, this involved an interactive exhibit where the public could trigger the controlled release of crickets that the otters loved to chase and eat like candy. So now, with time on my hands and Dumela nearby, I’ve been trying to “enrich” her life beyond her usual activities.
She already has two bowls of water that she likes to splash in, especially after going to the litter box. Is she cleaning the litter off her paws? That’s what it seems like. I’ve even increased her interest in the water bowls by adding ice cubes there, and sometimes other little objects that she can push around too. She’s always a great fan of “chase the red laser spot” and “catch the dangling feather.” We’ve added some new toys to her arsenal, but mostly she finds her own toys: that little top to a milk jug, a leaf on the floor, whatever. Sometimes, I let her have the otter fur that I have kept from my past work. Dumela acts like it’s real and attacks it with her teeth and hind claws. It seems fun and it keeps her busy until I remove it before she destroys it.
Lately, I’ve come up with a new enrichment game called “find the treats.” Before I leave the house, I make a show of putting a few cat treats in an open pill bottle, then I put it somewhere in the house, hopefully without her watching where it went. Sure enough, when I get home again, this bottle is tossed around somewhere else and empty.
Sometimes the outdoors take a hand in entertaining Dumela. She’s got neighbors walking dogs and pedestrians and bikers passing on the street to watch through the front windows, and squirrels and birds to occupy her in the back. Sometimes an anole manages to get in our house and sometimes it is more than a day before we can catch it and release it outside again, providing Dumela with hours of time staring at our bookcases, waiting for it to emerge.
But above all, it is Dumela who calls the shots in our house, not Bucko and not me. When she entices me to play the “red dot game” with the laser toy I usually comply. When she walks me to her bowl, I fill it up. When she jumps on the bed, Bucko brushes her. It really is Dumela “enriching” us and not vice versa. But after all, what are pets for if not to fill our lives with joy? Dumela is very good at that!
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.