December 28 was a slow day at Purradise when, flouting snow flurries, I ventured in. Several cats I had already written about in this column were still there, plus only one I had not met before. Two-and-a-half-year-old Christopher (since adopted)—a beautifully marked gray classic tabby, with a big bull’s eye on each flank—had no objections to being in the spotlight, so into the Nook we went for a private interview. The staff had no objection, either, as this gave them a chance to restore order to his condo. Just earlier, Christopher had splashed water about while “drowning” a toy in his water bowl as well as had thrown sand hither and yon in his zeal for “burying” a toy in his litter box—both manifestations of natural feline behavior toward actual prey, explained Erin, the shelter’s manager.
Christopher was already familiar with the small room, having spent the previous night in there so this muscular boy could stretch his legs. But now his first preference was to plop down on the floor to bask in his freedom while appraising me and my photographer. He soon let down his guard to bat at and gnaw on a toy mouse I tossed to him…but then turned out to have strong opinions about what else to play with.
The “Three Bears” story seemed to apply here: Christopher quickly lost interest in the tiny mouse and was downright perplexed my offer of an oversize fabric ball, but then happily leaped onto a large fleece in the middle of the room, in one motion circling his arms around all four toys that lay at its center: MINE! Once he had established dominance over his “prey,” he then settled into more typical Nook behavior of climbing a cat tree by the window to check out the bird feeder outside. It took about half an hour for him to finally come close enough to rub against my leg and accept a head scratch. (The staff had told me that, brought in as a stray, Christopher is wary of new situations, so this interview was more one of quiet mutual observation than interaction.) While we left, he sprawled possessively across a large, circular ball-in-track toy he had declined to actually play with while we were there.
This was a brief lesson in the importance of cats’ access to toys as well as to their having particular tastes in which toys attract them. Although the stuffed mice in no way resembled prey he may have seen outdoors, Christopher instinctively grabbed and gnawed at them, as well as snatched up a small ball of colorful metallic fluff, perhaps in some primal recognition that some insects have a metallic sheen. But that large ball?…what in nature of that shape or size would a cat ever eat? Other cats may be less discriminating, engaging happily with anything that can be batted, carried, or chewed. Some don’t seem to care for toys at all. But for the most part, toys help cats connect with one of their most basic survival instincts: the hard-wired need to chase and pounce on (and sometimes drown or bury!) their food. Even in the most secure and pampered home environment, toys tap into our pets’ genetic link with the greater cat kingdom, where whoever captures the most “toys” (that is, food) wins.
Toys may not seem necessary to domesticated cats’ physical survival, yet provide sustenance to their inner wildcat—at gut level helping them feel clever, courageous, and cared for. Indeed, as I left Purradise that day, I bought my own boys a little plush puppy from the shelter’s gift section (note: all profits support its “mother” shelter, the Berkshire Humane Society)…to replace a stuffed lion that, having been one of their favorites for years, had suffered
a final meltdown in their water bowl just the night before. It is already an active part of their “let’s pretend” menagerie.
This series follows the special human-feline bond at Purradise, the Berkshire Humane Society Cat Adoption Center at 301 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington, MA 01230 (413-717-4244), berkshirehumane.org. Open Wed., Fri., & Sat. 10–4 p.m.; Thurs. 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; and Sun. noon–4 p.m.
Iris Bass, coauthor of the Cat Lover’s Daily Companion, shares her Lee home with five shelter cats.