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Stupid Cat Tricks

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Of magic kitty clickers, training and other fantasies of feline owners

By Will Harper

AS A GENERAL RULE, I am a lover of all domesticated, housebroken mammals (except for humans). But if pressed for a preference between dogs and cats, I would have to say that I am a feline-o-phile.

Like a woman approaching the big 3-0, dogs require commitment. A cat, meanwhile, is not going to whine for me to take it for a walk while I'm watching the Final Four, then make me suffer the indignity of following it around with a plastic bag.

With a cat, I just pour a bowl of Science Diet and watch it go. No assembly required.

This is why I am the proud "father" of the tabby tandem of Lulu and Owen. Both of them understand implicitly my need to be left undisturbed during my parlays on football Sunday.

Some women friends have told me they think it "sensitive" for a single man to have cats; some men find it, to put it politely, effeminate. I suspect the perception of cats as "feminine" has something to do with their aloofness. But replace the word "aloof" with "low maintenance," and you've got the perfect pet for a self-centered 30-year-old male with a fear of commitment.

Somehow, though, the culture has decided it is inherently more masculine to be able to throw a pet in the back of a pickup, take it to the beach and watch it try to mount others of its species in broad daylight.

But one thing I'll say for dogs: They are infinitely more trainable than cats.

The good people at Friskies, however, were determined to prove otherwise to me a couple of weeks ago. They were in town for the big cat show in San Mateo and invited me to meet a few of their stars.

"I don't think I've ever met a cat who is untrainable," professed trainer Debbie Silverman.

The press kit included do-it-yourself training instructions complete with a loud clicker, which is used to reinforce desired behaviors.

Of course, the idea of training my cats defeats the whole purpose of having a cat instead of a dog.

Nonetheless, the Friskies folks were offering to give me a private demonstration, and I must admit I wanted to meet screen stars (some of their cats have appeared on TV (Murphy Brown, Murder She Wrote) and in movies (Star Trek: Generations, Poetic Justice).

By the time I arrived at their hotel room on the third floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Burlingame, Harvey, an orange Maine Coon, is lounging on one of the queen beds, licking his paws.

The cats are exhausted from an earlier interview (a cat-and-pony show for the nearby ASPCA), explains trainer Karen Thomas, a handsome young woman with shoulder-length, tangle-free straight blonde hair.

For the first round of tricks, Thomas brings out a skittish orange shorthair named Boomer and props him on top of a walnut-finished table next to a fake laptop computer. The goal is to get Boomer to sit upright and press the keyboard keys with both paws.

But Boomer is in no mood for typing today. Karen presses the keys to show Boomer what to do, but Boomer just sniffs the keys she's touched, perhaps looking for his food reward. This goes on for about five minutes.

Meanwhile, Harvey, who has been locked in the bathroom temporarily to keep him from interrupting Boomer, is expressing his displeasure--loudly. His cries go silent for a minute and then there is a loud scratching sound. Actually, more like a digging noise. Yes, Harvey is making it clear that he needs to be in his sandbox right now . There is a brief silence and we all know the score: Harvey is laying a massive number on the restroom floor.

With Boomer not cooperating and Harvey preoccupied, Karen decides to bring out Hamlet, the white long-haired Fancy Feast cat with the flattened face, who has been doing this for more than three years.

On cue, Hamlet rings a service bell with his paw. Karen sounds the clicker and gives him a spoon with some wet food on it.

All seems to be going well, when Boomer starts hacking up a fur ball inside his travel case. It seems he may have earned way too much of his Friskies reward earlier in the day.

"Even movie stars have biological functions," Karen says with some embarrassment.

Then, while I'm looking at Boomer's puke, Hamlet for some mysterious reason falls off the side of the desk.

As I leave, the publicist assures me that this has never happened in all her time doing this for Friskies.

When I get back to the office, I pick up the training clicker and click it a few times, just for kicks. It seems to annoy everyone at the office, and I decide against trying to use the device on my own little Owen and Lulu. First of all, I don't need cat training. It goes against the grain of everything I respect about felinity. And Owen and Lulu already know how to poop on the bathroom floor and spit up fur balls anyway.

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From the April 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro.

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