Games Cats Play

A few days ago my friend Arthur wrote on Facebook:

I have a new female feline-and-me ritual: I kiss her unexpectedly on the head and she screams for dear life. Kiss her on the head and she screams. Kiss her on the head and…Then she gets bored and walks away.

For some reason, this delights me deeply.

Dialogue with a (now dead) vet friend:

Me:  Cats have a sense of humor.

Him: Come on.  You’re anthropomorphizing.

Me: No, really.  You know when you wiggle your finger under the blanket like a mouse and they go crazy pouncing on it?

Him:  And?

Me: They’re putting you on.  They know it’s your finger.

Him: (gives me a sidelong look, somewhere between “I don’t buy it” and “You got me”)

OK, call it a sense of fun, but cats clown, and they know they’re being funny.  They also have excellent comic timing: they know when to walk away, how not to beat a joke to death.  They maintain a fine tension between ritual and boredom: they always like to play a game the same way—”works for me!”—but they do not like to play it very many times in a row.  In fact, and this is true of their athletic as well as their comedic games, when they have played once consummately, that’s enough.  They quit while they’re ahead.  They seem to have a sense of achievement—a drive to perfect their game—but you will never see a cat practice, practice, practice.  They go for peak experience. The trick is to get charged up enough to break free of the mundane.

I brandish a small sponge-rubber ball, light and high-bouncing.  Flighty hustles into the bathroom and hides behind the toilet.  I throw the ball into the bathroom, and it ricochets around the walls.  She doesn’t do much: this is just the way you build up energy.  She then runs out of the bathroom and crouches down by the couch, peering along it with one eye.  I am supposed to retrieve the ball and bounce it hard, just so.  As it rises above the edge of the couch, she hurls her whole body two or three feet off the ground and spikes the ball out of the air with both paws like an Olympic volleyball player.

If it was a good shot, she’s done.  She’s satisfied.  But if I bobble the bounce, or if her own timing is off, her disappointment is obvious.  She will keep repeating the sequence until she gets a good one, at which point my role is to scream with admiration.  And then she walks away.

I sometimes think that “games” of both sorts—comedic and athletic—must have been inspired by watching cats.  Soccer, tennis, volleyball, wrestling . . . one cat of mine named Mini independently reinvented them all. I called her repertoire “the Mini Olympics.” Buster Keaton stole his moves from Buster Kitten.

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We are Wii.

I know, this is a really tasteless takeoff on a long-ago CARE slogan that I vividly remember, paired with photos of sad-eyed, starving children:

(Toledo Blade – Mar 6, 1960)

I apologize.  Now imagine a scholarly article in the Journal of Feline Psychopathology (which I just made up) titled “Boredom and the Indoor Cat.” Living alone with cats, with not even human horseplay to divert them—or me—has made me acutely aware of the problem, and it’s a real problem:

They’re bored shit out of their minds.

Cats need to hunt.  It’s what they’re made for.  So are humans, actually; that’s why we can dig it.  This indoor life isn’t what we signed on for, either.  But we can hunt in the virtual or imaginative worlds—writing is hunting, for me, stalking invisible prey with a net of words that will make it visible if my throw is true—and, of course, we’re free.  We can walk out the door.  We can hunt on the stock exchange, in the courtroom, we can hunt pockets to pick or people to con or mug, pictures to take, new species to name, diseases to cure, walls to tag; we can even get in the 4WD and go hunt for real.  We can still find stimulation and challenge, with real, do-or-die stakes.

Indoor cats can’t.  Their lives are safe and stultifying.  When the rage for challenge comes over them they’ll do their best to animate some dumb toy, but you can see how frustrated they are that it doesn’t keep moving by itself.  Not having hands makes it hard to get something convincingly airborne, and to get it rustling under cover?  In your dreams.  What’s a cat to do?

Well, there’s that.  But what they mostly do is look to us for relief—as well they might, since we did this to them.  Unlike dogs, who think if they’re miserable it must be their fault, cats don’t have guilt.  They have expectations.   They don’t have enough information to blame us for getting them into this pickle, but they do blame us for not doing something about it.  Well?  their look says, a certain exasperated incredulity creeping into it when we don’t scramble to comply.

Entertain me!

For a cat, a human being is . . . an entertainment console.  An all-in-one virtual-reality videogame, vibro-massager, Bowflex cross-trainer, and snack machine.  Our wiggling fingers, which alone can produce a pretty fair mouse-in-the dead-leaves simulation under a bedspread, are further amenable to all sorts of attachments: feathered French ticklers, sidewinding strings, crumpled-paper balls, catnip mice.  We can make things fly, and put them back into motion when they stop.  With a gizmo like that, life in an upholstered prison cell ain’t half bad.

Except the damn thing itself comes to a stop for hours at a time!  Hours when it does nothing but stare at a fat chunk of paper or a flat light source!  Maybe that’s how it recharges its batteries?

I feel so guilty about holding these magnificent predators prisoner and failing to make it up to them in the style to which they know they’re entitled that I’m seriously thinking about . . . buying them some crickets.

Yes, crickets.  I don’t have the heart to buy live mice, like you would for a pet snake.  I couldn’t even bring myself to sacrifice the lizard I caught when we were living in Florida.  But crickets?  They’re alive, they move, their versions of pain and fear are sufficiently remote from us to be unimaginable, and if they got away, they’d sing to us from their hiding places.  What’s not to like?  The cats already get wildly excited when they have a silverfish or a fly to chase—they understand and are galvanized by the word “bug,” which I only use truthfully.  A cricket a day could keep the doldrums away.

You think nobody’s thought of this before? More than once?