Walk into any kid’s bedroom and you’re likely to spot a big box vomiting all manner of games, dolls, toys and balls, most of them abandoned since the day after Christmas. Same deal with cats. Big-hearted owners often lavish their kitties with stuffed animals, motorized mice, catnip balls, feather wands, lasers, spinners, wobblers and winders, all regarded with a yawn after a day or two. Dismayed parents are left to wail and wonder, why oh why won’t Fifi play with this mountain of toys? What can I do to entertain her?
Face it, felines are finicky, it’s what they do. It’s their job. And they bore easily. With some cats you have to twist yourself into knots while spinning plates and riding a unicycle to hold their attention. And even then they won’t applaud. It can be a never-ending challenge to keep them active, engaged and exercised — indoor cats even more so. And that’s the challenge we faced on our latest pet-sit on Vancouver Island.
Just before we arrived to care for Monsieur Pierre, his parents, Joanne and Neil, told us he’d had a close encounter with something scary out on the bluffs above the ocean where they live. He hadn’t come home from his afternoon walkabout one day and, as the day grew darker, the more worried they became. The area is wild and wind-swept, populated with bald eagles, feral cats and other threats big and small, such as the occasional cougar.
With flashlights in hand, they scoured the cliffs and the neighbourhood, calling his name. No response. Finally, around 7:30 that night, they saw him cowering at the window. When Joanne picked him up, she said he was shivering with fear. They suspected he may have been cornered and bullied by a gang of raccoons they had recently spotted. So we all agreed that, after they left on their holiday, we would attempt to turn the peripatetic Pierre into an indoor cat. And while that lasted precisely 2.5 days, we were able to keep him occupied, not with a mountain of toys, but with something much simpler and much cheaper: a piece of string.
I don’t know what the theory is about string, but cats go nuts over it, as if you’ve dangled a live fish in their face. Add a paper bag and you’ve upped the fun factor. There’s something about the sound and texture of the bag that thrills them. And when you slowly drag the string across it, well, it’s simply electrifying. Pierre played with it so much he punched a hole in the bag, which grew so big he was able to poke his head through it, emerging with a wild-eyed grin that echoed The Shining’s “Heeere’s Johnny!”.
One day I dropped a twist tie and he started stick-handling it across the hardwood floor like Bobby Orr, navigating around the scattered stuffed toys, feathers and balls. Another day we put down a shallow cardboard box and he took to running and jumping on it like a skater boy.
Yes, for those two days in lock down, Pierre was always game and a hoot to play with. But he was ultimately a free-range cat, had been since he was found as a kitten underneath a rock at French Creek (hence his name). Now incarcerated, he paced and pawed at the door as if he were a saber tooth tiger confined to a cage. He whined and yowled like he was caught in a leg-hold trap. He was climbing the walls, literally. He just couldn’t understand why, out of the blue, he’d been grounded.
So we took him outside on a harness, which offered its own brand of hilarity. The cinched, straightjacket snugness of the vest caused him to walk low to the ground, as if he were moving on floating stepping stones across a moat filled with crocks. He was finally outside, but he wasn’t happy. He didn’t like being leashed, and he didn’t like being followed around and hovered over like a toddler. He was a hip, happenin’ teenager and if his feline friends were to witness his humiliation he’d never live it down.
Finally, with Neil and Joanne’s permission, we set him free, but only during the morning. No dusk patrols, with its lurking threats, for him. Fortunately, it worked out. He always returned after a few hours, sated and feted. With his roaming and prowling out of his system, he was back to chasing the string, punching the bag, and slap-shooting the twist tie. Then, exhausted after about an hour of hard play, he’d slip into a deep slumber — on top of his mountain of toys.