Whatever Works

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Clever, Curious, Caring Cat

Billie Holladay Skelley

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There are no ordinary cats.

One cold March morning, I discovered two adorable kittens snuggling together for warmth in a drain near our house. Covered in shiny, jet-black fur, they were small enough to fit in a teacup. When none of our neighbors claimed the animals or seemed to want them, I brought them home, and both kittens quickly became favored family pets.

We named them Boo and Scout after fictional characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. When they were older, I tried to teach them a skill for more successful cohabitation with our family. The truth, however, is that Boo and Scout ended up teaching me.

Both Boo and Scout were exceptionally sweet and cuddly, but it soon became apparent that they were very different representatives of their species. Scout ate anything we placed in front of him and enjoyed spending his days lounging on the couch in the family room. Boo had far more discriminating tastes and was very selective in what he would and would not eat. He was also more active and adventurous. From the moment he woke up, Boo wanted to be outside stalking the grounds. He loved exploring in the woods and often came home covered in mud and bugs. Scout, on the other hand, hardly ever wanted to venture outside. He disliked getting dirty.

Scout’s idea of adventure was to maneuver off the couch three or four times a day in search of his food bowl. Because of these differences in their activity levels and eating habits, Scout weighed twice as much as Boo within a couple of months.

Boo was also more observant and inquisitive than Scout, and he seemed to learn routines and skills very quickly. We came to regard him as a very smart cat. Scout, on the other hand, did not seem very interested in skills or routines. He just wanted to do what he wanted to do, and he’d watch with amusement as I tried to explain that he could not sit on the drapes or drink out of our cups. He always adopted an affable look that seemed to say, “You’re nice, but it’s not going to happen the way you want!”

Both cats were loving and loved, but because of their differences, we came to regard Boo as a feline superstar, while Scout seemed more like a sloth wannabe!

Despite their different personalities, Boo and Scout got along well. They shared food, toys, and a bed. Even though Boo had his daily outdoor adventures, he always returned home at night to sleep in the basement with Scout. Our basement is separated from the rest of the house by a heavy door, and this door created a problem. In the morning, I found it difficult to know when Boo was awake and ready to venture outside or when Scout was ready to test the softness of the couch.

Both cats would sit quietly behind the door until I happened to remember them or opened the door for some other reason. Similarly, Boo would wait at the back door of our house to be let outside until I remembered his desire or went to the back door to leave. I frequently felt bad when it looked like one or both cats had been waiting for some time.

Early on, Boo carefully watched us turn the doorknobs on these two doors, and he quickly figured out that it was necessary to turn the knobs to get the doors to open. We watched in amazement as he would stretch out his body and reach up with his paw repeatedly, trying to turn the doorknob. Unfortunately, he lacked the strength to move the knobs, but we were astounded that he figured out what needed to happen.

One day, while I was describing this “door problem” to our oldest son, he told me about a “cat bell” that trainers use to train cats. Cats, my son informed me, had been taught to ring these bells when they were hungry or wanted to go outside. I’d never heard of such a device, but the following week, my son sent me two cat bells. They were the size of half an orange and had a button on their rounded tops. When pressed, this button made a ringing sound. The idea seemed simple enough, and since we had a problem with the doors, I tried to solve it by teaching Boo and Scout to ring the bells when they wanted out. I assumed Boo would grasp the concept quickly, but I wasn’t sure if Scout would understand. I even joked that as soon as Scout realized the bell was not edible, he’d probably lose all interest!

For a couple of weeks, I worked with each cat. When I found one sitting in front of a closed door, I would gently press their paw on the bell and say, “So, you want to come out of the basement?” or “You want to go outside?” Then, I’d open the door and let them pass.

Much to my chagrin, Scout got the concept quickly. Within a week, he’d come up the basement stairs and ring the bell by the door to signal he was ready to be let out. When I heard the bell, I’d open the door, and Scout would scamper off to the couch.

Much to my surprise, Boo did not grasp the bell concept. He just didn’t get it. I think he regarded the bell as an unnatural, foreign object, and despite my best efforts, he wanted nothing to do with the device. Boo would go to the back door, sit beside the bell, and wait for the door to be opened. Although the bell was right beside him, he never pushed the button.

Fortunately, the two cats solved the door dilemma on their own.

Somehow, Boo communicated his need to Scout, or Scout simply understood what Boo needed. Boo began to rub noses with Scout when he was ready to go outside. Scout would then get up off the couch, go to the back door, and ring the bell for Boo. When I heard the ring, I learned to go to the back door and open it. Boo would then go outside, and Scout would return to the couch!

I had planned to teach the cats, but they ended up teaching me.

Scout showed me that appearances can be deceiving, and one’s preconceived notions about another’s interests and abilities are often not accurate. Boo taught me that even if you’re smart, talented, and successful, there are still times when you need help from family and friends, and you should not be too proud to take it.

— Billie Holladay Skelley —

Reprinted by permission of Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC 2022. In order to protect the rights of the copyright holder, no portion of this publication may be reproduced without prior written consent. All rights reserved.

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