I was driving slowly up the dirt road to the cabin. I drove slowly because I had lost all four hubcaps off my old station wagon when they bounced off on that bad road. It was snowing hard and I heard a strange howling coming from out in the field. I stopped the car and rolled down the window. It sounded like it might be a cat, so I got out and walked in the direction of the sound.
Down in the weeds, all wet, there was an orange Persian. She had bloody scratches all over her body and her fur was matted so tight it was like there were big cockle burrs stuck to her skin instead of hair. I petted her head and she purred. She was a truly ugly sight. I felt really sorry for her but I was almost afraid to touch her. I thought she might have some disease I could carry on myself to my own cats.
I went back to my car and just sat there and looked at the snow falling. She wasn’t howling anymore. It was like she was waiting for me to come back. “Here I go again,” I thought, “following my heart. I guess I’ll never learn.”
I jumped out of the car, scooped her up, set her down in the front seat, and continued slowly along the rutted road. I kept glancing at the miserable little thing, and every time I looked over she was looking at me and she would make a silent meow.
When I brought her into the house, the other cats jumped up on the bed and just sat there, very still, staring at her silently. Nobody hissed or growled. The poor cat—I named her Topaz—Topaz lay down on the floor and put her head on her paws in shame.
I got a fire going in the wood stove and set her down near it. She was soaking wet. She rolled on her back, with all four paws up in the air. I think it felt so good to be warm she forgot about everything else. I never saw a more thankful-looking animal. She licked at herself once in awhile but with her fur matted that tight it was no use. Every once in awhile she looked over at me and gave a silent meow.
It turned out that she did not have any diseases and she was spayed. The vet said she was at least six years old, probably older, and she was so badly neglected it was really hard to tell. She got her shots and she was wormed, and I took her immediately to a groomer. Trying to comb her fur was completely out of the question. Except on her head and parts of her legs and tail she was matted tightly to the skin. The groomer had to shave her body down to the skin, but she left her legs, her tail, and her head fluffy, and she looked like a funny little orange lion.
Topaz was so happy to be clean. She followed me everywhere around the house and when I’d pick her up or pet her she would give the silent meow. Her eyes are round and gold and freckled with darker gold. She swishes her tail when she’s happy and she has a kind of bold, bossy attitude like she’s got an opinion on everything, and it’s usually an opinion of approval. The only thing she has ever been afraid of is the sight of somebody in cowboy boots (even me) or having her tail touched.
I started brushing her right away, with an ordinary cat brush from the grocery store with soft bristles. She liked having it go over her body gently, but any time the brush pulled her fur even a little, she reached out a paw with claws out, or bit me a little, and she would try to run away. I stopped holding her during brushing sessions, so she would feel free and she could enjoy it more. Cats do not like being held. When they groom each other it is a matter of free will, which is central to being a cat!
I also rewarded Topaz with a small food treat, which I placed on the floor with my hand, always in the same spot and always immediately following the brushing session. This is what animal behaviorists call operant conditioning. It just means that animals are tuned in to what humans call cause and effect. We, too, are conditioned to respond by association. For example, you would probably not be willing to go to work each day without receiving the reward of a paycheck. You may not get paid every day immediately after working, but as a mature adult you are able to delay gratification. An animal needs an immediate reward, though that reward can gradually be changed, from food to a special act of affection and approval, after the trust between the animal and the human becomes strong.
Topaz and I are still best friends, nine years later. We faced some hard times together, and she has been my teacher in many ways. Because of Topaz I learned much about communication between cats and people, about the meaning and importance of grooming, and about just how much our human understanding of our cats makes the difference between life and death for them.
Nanette Lockwood lives in Newport, Oregon, with her four Persians and a domestic longhair. She is a published author, and she has been training animals using operant conditioning and compassion (from horses to honeybees) for thirty years.