Pavlov’s Cat


Some twenty years or more ago, my brother came to visit us for a long weekend and he brought with him a few presents and his own agenda. When he presented us with a gift for our first wedding anninversary, I ought to have been suspicious but being the polite soul I am, when I opened it I thanked him as graciously as I could, given that he’d decided a desk bell was the perfect gift for an almost-newly-wed couple. That was where his agenda began.

In some ways it wasn’t so much a present for us as a device to torment our cat, Watson.

   “I’m going to train him,” my brother said confidently.

  “Good luck with that,” I said. Dubious is my middle name some times

“Like Pavlov’s dogs, only with your cat,” he continued. “I reckon cats aren’t much different from dogs…”

He’d also bought a bag of expensive cats treats that one friend described as being like cocaine for cats. His grand idea was to ring the bell and give Watson a treat and that over a short period of time the cat would come when the bell was rung. He hadn’t planned on measuring salivation but the cat appearing at the sound of the bell was his main goal and over the weekend, it worked beautifully. If Watson was in earshot of the bell, he’d be in and waiting for his cocaine  treat.

My brother left on Monday deeply satisfied that he’d trained my cat. I admit I had been surprised that Watson had fallen so readily into his plan but I guessed that was the power of those rather delicious treats. Not so.

Shortly after I had come back from saying goodbye to my brother at the station, the true events of the weekend came to light. I didn’t work on Mondays so I was upstairs sorting out laundry when I heard something downstairs. Now, I was alone in the house and no one had access to the house except me and my husband, himself at work by that point.

The bell was ringing.

A few minutes previously, I had heard the cat flap open and Watson had come in from whatever hunting expedition he’d been on. Now we used to keep Watson inside at night because at the time catskinners roamed the area catching cats to skin for the fur trade, but the cat flap had been one with a lock. The lock had taken Watson ten minutes to figure out and he’d let himself straight out so we had been forced to manually block it at night to stop him getting out. The flap remained open until about ten or eleven at night and opened around 6.30am. Normally, he was off out all day hunting and only came home for meals or if it rained. This was around ten o’clock, so he’d come home for other reasons and when I came downstairs, I saw why.

Watson was perched on the shelf where we’d left the bell and the bag of treats. He’d carefully opened the bag and had one paw resting on the bell and as I watched, he raised the paw carefully and struck the button to make the bell ring, then he put his head into the treats and ate one.

Ding-munch, Ding-munch.

I watched in growing understanding for about thirty seconds before Watson raised his head and still chewing, gave me a look of such unmistakeable contempt that had he been human, he would have made a gesture with either one finger or two depending on nationality. He hit the bell one last time and walked off, still chewing.

That was the last time anyone tried to train that cat.

(For more tales of the ginger fury, please read: )

Watson and the Flying Birdcage

Watson and the Flying Birdcage


Sometimes an animal touches your life in an unforgetable manner, and within your life their memory takes on the status of legend.

When people say, “I’m a dog person,” or “I’m a cat person” I tend to remain silent. I’m a people person. It doesn’t matter terribly much if the person is wearing human skin, or wearing fur, feathers, scales or shell.

If reincarnation is true, then Watson’s last two lives were probably those of an Anglo-Indian colonel and a  Royal Bengal Tiger and he wasn’t much impressed by his current body. It had limitations he wasn’t used to and it frustrated him enormously.

Arriving with us as a half-wild former stray, he was about five or six months old when the Cats’ Protection League decided we were suitable custodians, and he spent the first two days lurking under furniture, convinced the Fuzzy wuzzies were going to get him. His first interaction with me was to bite right through my hand when I attempted to move him from a bed I was trying to make. I think he was very surprised when he glanced back that my hand was not severed from my body.

After that I think he resigned himself to his new life. Initially we had to show him a lot of things we imagined were instinctive to cats, like climbing. We spent a drunken Sunday afternoon after church demonstrating the art of scrambling out of the walled yard at the back of our two-up, two-down in the back streets of Middlesbrough. He watched us intently for an hour and then had a go. He suddenly realised his current body has certain advantages over the one he was remembering, and effortlessly leaped to the top of the wall and stayed there, master of the back alley till sundown.

Our first Christmas presented a problem. Having only a motorbike meant that the journey from the north east of England to the home of my parents in East Anglia was going to be too long and cold and there’s nowhere on a Superdream for a cat basket. So we chose to take the train. As far as Watson was concerned, he really didn’t see why he had to be in a basket and he sulked with us the whole way, though he did choose to schmooze with anyone who came along and admired him perched in his basket on the table in the middle of the train. Us, he gave the cold shoulder to.

Arriving, we allowed him to explore my parent’s house just as soon as he felt like coming out from under the bed. Clearly this was an outpost of the Fuzzy wuzzies too, and he would leave such mundane matters to the troops(us). Emerging for some light tiffin, he sauntered down the stairs and his hunting instincts were alerted by a chirping sound. Damn, no gun. However, Watson had discovered that his current body needed no firearms to bag some rather impressive kills. He’d dragged in rats half his size before, so a mere budgie was not a concern.

The difficulty was the cage. Henry was suspended about six feet up, in his cage, from a bracket on the wall. Since I have seen Watson leap twelve or more feet in single jump, this wasn’t a problem.

The first we knew of this was a terrible crash, a yowling and a frantic(and triumphant) cheeping sound from Henry. As we made our way down the hall, Watson came streaking out of the living room and back up the stairs to his hideout. In the living room was a mess of bird seed, feathers and grit, but Henry was safe. The cage had separated from its base, as it fell , and much of it had clearly hit Watson. Henry was still on his perch, though the cage was upright and parted from the base, and he was clearly very pleased with himself.

The remainder of our visit Watson was very cautious. Every time he ventured outside and a bird flew overhead, he ducked, covering his head with paws, as if expecting it to come with cage descending. He did return to Henry’s room, sitting on the arm of a chair, calculating angles and velocity, but made no more moves. The following year, we returned, and the silent war of attrition continued, and he made no move. The third year we returned, this time complete with baby and a car, and he was ready. As soon as he was allowed from his basket, he headed straight down to the living room and stalked in.

We hadn’t had the heart to tell him that in the intervening year, his adversary Henry had passed on and had not been replaced. All his plotting was in vain.

By way of compensation, he went out the first night we were there and killed the robin my mum had been feeding. It was a hollow victory after so many years of planning.   

I loved that cat, you know.

© Vivienne Tuffnell 28.1.09