Feral Cat Series: A Tornado and A Contest

Back in my February article about our former feral cat Bootsie, I wrote about teaching her practical skills as well as pure tricks. The practical skills included training her to enter a crate and allow me to close the door, and stand on a scale so I can weigh her. The tricks included “twirl” and “shake.” Since then, I’ve been teaching her to go to the basement on command. I’ve also started teaching her to “high-five.”

Going to the basement on command will be one of Bootsie’s practical skills. On May 5 the city siren sounded, warning us of a tornado. My husband called to me that we should head to the basement. He headed to our spare room, where he loaded our three current foster kittens into a carrier. I began looking for our cats. Rainy, being my shadow cat, was easy enough to find and load into a crate and deposit in the basement. Next, I found Cinder in the living room where she’d retreated into a cubby in our cat tower. Cinder doesn’t like to be picked up, so she dug her claws in to prevent her extraction. I hauled her out anyway and put her into another carrier that I also carried into our basement.

Our docile toy poodle would be a piece of cake, so we turned our attention to Bootsie. A former feral. Who doesn’t let us pick her up. Ever. Andy instructed me to head downstairs and to call her from there. His plan was to ‘herd’ her towards the basement door as I called to her. Unfortunately, even after four years of living with us, Bootsie’s first instinct is not to trust people. And so she ran from my husband and past the basement door, through the kitchen, down the hall, and into our bedroom. He chased her out of the bedroom and she returned to the dining room. This could go on all evening. But to continue to chase her at that point would have only scared her more, and so Andy picked up our dog and joined me in the basement. In the hope of luring Bootsie to me, I turned on dance music and pulled out cat toys, which is a morning routine of mine that attracts all my cats to the basement. Bootsie wasn’t fooled. Andy then offered to wrestle Bootsie into a crate. While I obviously didn’t want Bootsie upstairs if a tornado hit, I also felt hesitant to risk losing our bond with her, and so I said no. Instead I headed upstairs where I grabbed a can of sardines from the cupboard. After opening the can, I held the sardines under Bootsie’s nose, again with the hope I could lure her to the basement. She declined, and remained on the bench in front of the bay window, where she would have a great view of the storm. I reluctantly placed the sardines at the top of the stairs and returned to the basement.

That evening, two tornadoes did touch down in Lincoln. Neither came anywhere near our house, but the whole experience awakened me to the importance of being able to get Bootsie into the basement in the event of severe weather.

It’s one thing to know what I wanted to train Bootsie to do. It’s another thing to actually train her. What was the best strategy for teaching Bootsie to go into the basement on command? I’ve successfully trained her to eat her meals in a crate. When she’s inside her crate eating, Bootsie will let me close the door and transport her. Since the tornado scare, I’ve started teaching Bootsie to also go to the basement for food. The dilemma is, as I noted earlier, our pets probably sense our stress. She might not go into the crate or the basement when there’s a siren going off and Andy and I have been rushing our other pets into the basement. The trick then will be to teach her to retreat to a safe place, but without giving away any urgency that I feel. Easier said than done.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t call our cats to “come” or try to put Bootsie into her crate, honestly, it didn’t occur to me. Clearly, besides the training, our family needs to do practice tornado drills.

On April 18, Jackson Galaxy announced the second annual Cat Pawsitive National High-Five Day Contest. The contest called for participants to share a video of their cat giving a high-five. The first-place winner will meet Jackson Galaxy and Lil BUB and win $5,000 for their favorite shelter. I had already been teaching our three cats to do a secret paw shake that included a high-five, which I was doing for an assignment for Julie Polsun’s online cat school, and so I decided to enter.

As all three cats are at different stages in their learning, I wanted to include all of them in the video entry. Rainy is extremely food motivated and smart, and is therefore the easiest of our cats to train, and therefore it was a given that I’d be able to get good video of her doing a high-five for the contest. She even alternates which paw she uses for the high-five. Cinder is also pretty good at the secret paw shake and has no problems with high-fives, and therefore I wasn’t worried about her either. Then there’s Bootsie. Because she’s a former feral, many things still make her nervous, and so I have to take baby steps with her. I began by teaching her to let me touch her paw. After that, I was able to teach her to let me shake her paw. From there, we proceded to her holding out her paw when I hold out my hand. The first time she touched her paw to my hand, you can’t imagine my elation! Yet Bootsie is still a work-in-progress. If I hold my hand even as high as her eyes, she becomes nervous and doesn’t perform. In addition, Bootsie is reluctant to show off her talents when there’s anyone else in the room. Therefore, when the time came to get video of her doing a high-five for the Cat Pawsitive contest, Bootsie mostly sat and stared at me. We finally had to give up getting any new footage, but fortunately we had an old video that showed Bootsie doing her version of a high-five.

According to Jackson Galaxy, “Shy cats in stressful shelter environments are often looked over, and difficult to adopt to loving families. By engaging these cats in my Cat Pawsitive training, teaching new behaviors like the high-five, they become less scared and stressed and more adoptable.”

Even though Bootsie is still learning to give me a high-five, I wanted her included in my video contest entry. Each of our cats came to use in a different way: Rainy as a stray, Cinder as a shelter cat, and Bootsie as a former feral. I thought they all deserved a spot in the video, despite their different ability levels. Or more simply put, Bootsie has come a long way and I want her to have her moment in the spotlight.

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