Half a Wit

The Training of Mr. Humphrey

   Thu, May 7, 2009 - 5:44 PM
We have an elderly cat named Humphrey. He's mute, badly arthritic, with skin allergies and a broken tooth, and we are keeping him mobile and alive by virtue of steroid medication that will definitely blow his liver and kidneys sooner or later. It's a matter of time. But he's cuddly and happy and still gets around.

In June, I will be leaving the house for several months away. And I've been agonizing over what to do with him. When I took him camping with me over spring break, he was fine for a few days, then got deathly ill from travel stress, requiring a hideously expensive trip to a vet to fix him up again. Nobody who might rent the house wants to cat-sit. He's a bit fragile for travel, and I just can't bring myself to put him down just because he's old and I'm leaving. It doesn't seem right. And all the vets I asked just gave me the same stark set of choices I already knew. The more I mentally tried to brace myself for that final trip to the vet, the more cuddly Humphrey became. Lately, he's taken to proving his viability by humping his arthritic way up the stairs in the morning and leaping as high as he is able onto my bed in the morning to wake me up for a cuddle and to coax me awake for his breakfast--which he has never been allowed before, and which he should not be doing in his condition. I allow it, because I know that this is all the time we have together.

Finally, I talked to a friend of mine, who is an animal trainer. She is the wisest woman I know when it comes to animals, and I trust her because she is utterly unsentimental. She's the anti dog-whisperer. She teaches people to respect and communicate with animals on their own terms, not to project their romantic fantasies all over them. When I asked her how to make a decision to put an animal down if it wasn't quite ready to die, she said "It all depends on how you feel about it after the fact." Then she asked if I still enjoyed Humphrey's company--which nobody had bothered to ask. Definitely so. Then she asked, when I took him camping before, how did I prepare him? Well, I didn't. I just took him with me and we went. This was part of the problem. Cats are territorial creatures, she said. They are happy in their own spaces. And I'd taken him out of his home into a strange place without warning. He did his best, and then he freaked. So the solution was, I should take him with me. But first, I should make the van into his house.

So she told me how to train a cat.

First--make him desire the van. Make him skip a meal, or at least delay it. Give him boring food in the house, but delicious treats in the van, randomly. And only allow him to be in there for very short periods. Make him want it, but don't give him everything he wants. Let him savor it just enough, and take it away again. And don't let him know when it will happen again.

Next, make him trust the van. Keep him inside for longer intervals, and let him out as soon as he cries. If he learns that you will let him go when he's frightened, he will trust you, and let you take him further, deeper into the experience.

Next, take him for short drives--increase the risk. Bring him back to safety when he is truly upset.

Finally, make the van his home--with all his things and toys in it, and everything he associates with safety and comfort. He will let you take him anywhere. And he will trust you utterly, because you have brought him to this point, far from home and way beyond his limitations.

There's a metaphor in here somewhere. I leave it to you to decide how much it applies to human relationships.


add a comment
Thu, May 7, 2009 - 5:55 PM
Humphrey is mute? Did he pare down from paragraphs to sentences to words then nothing?

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Metaphor to be had? Well, it's not really metaphoric but when I am old, cuddly, happy and all fuckered up, please take me for van rides.
Thu, May 7, 2009 - 6:14 PM
Meow! Hooray for Mr.Humphrey and his House on Wheels!
Thu, May 7, 2009 - 6:44 PM
No, he's actually mute. He has no meow--the most he can come out with is an angry rasp when he's piqued.

And geez groucho. May as well hop on now. Why wait? ;-)
Thu, May 7, 2009 - 6:50 PM
Sweet solution! I just lost my 20 year old cat last December. They Do know when time is getting short & are the dearer for it.
Fri, May 8, 2009 - 7:15 AM
Good luck on this endeavor Shannon. Sounds like it just might work.
Give Humphrey a hug for me.
Fri, May 8, 2009 - 8:45 AM
I hope this works! Given the right preparations he will probably be happy wherever you are.
Fri, May 8, 2009 - 11:30 AM
"Lately, he's taken to proving his viability..."

This wrenched my guts into kooky yet completely unfunny balloon-animal shapes.

My parents let me get a dog when I was 14. She was mine; I was hers. She died of cancer. I didn't get another dog for 19 years. Now, my dog is getting older, and I'm starting to remember the painful part of sharing my life with animals that don't live so long, relatively speaking. On a recent flight, I made the mistake of watching Marley and Me - just freaking don't, unless someone's threatening to skin you alive or something. I really struggle with the idea of euthanasia for animals. If the cultural standard is that it's completely ok for them, then why isn't it ok for humans, or at least such a gray area? And yeah, I get why the double standard exists - it's not like animals can tell you what they want - but I still feel uneasy about it.

The feeling of Home is a profound thing. When I travel, I like to play with the feeling-state of being not-Home, and then watch myself turn wherever I happen to be into Home over a period of days. I hope Humphrey makes Vanworld his Home, Shannon.
Fri, May 8, 2009 - 12:04 PM
Thanks everyone!

I was hoping people would pick up on the BD/SM parallels and cat-training, the whole thing about instilling trust by instilling desire, then withholding or gratifying only randomly, and pushing beyond a critter's boundaries. But clearly the heartbreaking cat story supercedes the kinky subtext.

>>I really struggle with the idea of euthanasia for animals. If the cultural standard is that it's completely ok for them, then why isn't it ok for humans, or at least such a gray area?

I'm struggling with it too. The friend I talked to has a lot of experience with it. I have none. In her view, it's a matter of the contract you have with the animal. If she's been with a critter a long time and can keep it comfortable, she'll spend a lot of time and money doing so. But she's been known to euthanize animals also who are assholes, and who can't or won't fit in with her and her household, and can't be placed elsewhere.

This is why I really do trust her. Her judgment comes from her relationship with the animal _and_ the practical realities of her own life, rather than beliefs or sentiments that we project onto animals.
Fri, May 8, 2009 - 3:33 PM
Now, if you'd titled the blog "The Training of Mr. Humphrey" ....
Fri, May 8, 2009 - 3:36 PM
Good point!

Fri, May 8, 2009 - 5:46 PM
It's called "comfort zone." I learned that from a motivational speaker on a job once.

Other than that: *weeping torrents* *and torrents*

Most of my karmic guilt is related to cats. Sometimes there are no good choices.

Even after leading cavalcades of kitty caravans across the country and 20 years of history.

This is why I am willing to do 111,111 prostrations. I owe some cats more auspicious rebirths, as I was unable to fulfill some earthly duties.

LOVE Humphrey--LOVE him. And BE with him when he must go.
Fri, May 8, 2009 - 9:45 PM
I do suspect that Mister Humphrey evoked his nearly-catlike powers and called the cat whisperer to educate you. The problem, you see, is that humans are so difficult to communicate with. But he is an old cat, and knows the ways of promoting the well-being and sanity of his relatively immortal companion.

On my lap there's an 18-year-old cat who I held in my hand on the day she was born. I give her warm water, twice a day, because her teeth are sensitive too. Sometimes I wonder why I cater to her every whim. And sometimes, I don't wonder.
Sun, May 10, 2009 - 10:52 AM
I'm on the third animal in three years with this process, and it will be several years before I consider owning another animal. I find myself even questioning the very idea of having pets. Who am I to determine whether some other living being should live or die, and yet I do, every minute of every day. Am I getting to be an old geezer or was this really a simpler process way back when? My heart/liver/spleen go out to you Shannon, I don't think there are any easy answers on when to die, or when to let something die. What I have observed, and wonder if others have observed otherwise, is that most living beings tenaciously cling to life, irregardless of "quality of life".
Sun, May 10, 2009 - 5:43 PM
(making cooing sounds in Humphrey's direction)
My aunt's cats, Judy the Burman and Saka the Russian Blue, made it to 17 and 22, respectively. Saka was remarkably like a skinny old man who loudly announced everything he was going to do: "Well, if y'all aren't going to do anything interesting, I'm going in the kitchen now... Guess I'll walk over to the food bowl now... Nothin' new there... Well, I'm going in here to take a nap now..." And both were affectionate cuddle monsters near the end. Sorry I'm not closer, I'd happily cat-sit, but it sounds like the old boy will enjoy this more.
Mon, May 11, 2009 - 7:49 AM
>>I was hoping people would pick up on the BD/SM parallels and cat-training<<

Umm...I did!
Mon, May 11, 2009 - 7:51 AM
Thank you, Kitty!!!!
Mon, October 5, 2009 - 7:57 AM
Answers to the name "Lucky"
"He's mute, badly arthritic, with skin allergies and a broken tooth ... and answers to the name "Lucky."

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Borrowed from an old dog joke.

Hang in there, little fella.