An essay by The Mysterious Rumble Purr, as provided by Princess Rain E. Day
Art by Luke Spooner
The training and development of human staff can be one of the most difficult yet rewarding tasks assigned to the average feline. The species, self-identified as Homo sapiens, is remarkable in that it has developed complex communities, advanced means of travel and limited orbital escape, and something called tacos. Unfortunately, it also has poorly developed communication skills, which appear to be deteriorating rapidly. Particularly at risk are direct communications and complex thoughts that cannot be explained via emoji.
I have previously hypothesized that humans can be trained with extensive patience and positive reinforcement. This report will cover a longitudinal study lasting, at this point, 12 years, and will discuss the successes and failures of the training regime.
We will begin with a discussion of the human communication limitations and will further address these in our conclusions regarding the success of the project. At no time were any human unduly harmed in this undertaking, thought claw- and fang-based correction were applied as needed. It is further theorized that the overall mental well-being of the humans may be greatly improved as a result of our efforts. Furthermore, we must caution that replication of this experiment may be difficult given that indications are each human suffers from a unique “personality” and varying intelligence level which may significantly impact the test results.
Human communication is a persnickety beast and one the biggest obstacles to overcome when attempting to train new human staff. The species relies primarily on vocal intonations for communication, with occasional supplemental information presented by body posture. However, it appears that a great majority of the population either willfully ignores this posturing or is unable to determine the intent of it.
Indeed, we have discovered that entire treatises have been written on the meaning of various posturing behaviors, but in that they are written by other humans, they appear to be flawed in their research and conclusions. Furthermore, the human species is unique in that all members of the species do not use the same vocal intonations or pictograms to depict their thoughts and emotions. This self-division within the species is troublesome and indicative of the war-like nature of the species. Even members of the species within the same geographical designation often choose abstract territorial concepts to further divide the species from itself.
We torbies do understand that some cats are inherently more beautiful than others, but do not believe that is any great indication of a cat’s value. That said, we will acknowledge that male orange cats appear to have a genetic defect in their higher thought capabilities. Oddly, this makes them good companions for humans, but less capable trainers.
Linguistic differences aside, our continuing observation of humans suggests that many of the species find themselves incapable of expressing various deep emotions and express fear or disdain without resorting to something called sarcasm. This odd primate communication method–often involving saying the exact opposite of the intended meaning–is frustrating for more evolved species and for human trainers.
One of the biggest hinderances to human communication is their underdeveloped olfactory abilities. Because they have less developed noses used primarily for filtering instead of smelling, it can be difficult to warn your human trainees of impending danger or failings in their dietary regime. As a personal aside, I spent weeks trying to illustrate to my humans that my dietary needs were changing, and no amount of highly scented excrement communicated the issue to them. Only after my body changed significantly in a short period of time were they able to understand the issue.
This can also be an impediment to maintaining the health of your humans. I have repeatedly indicated to my humans that something they call yogurt is spoiled. Their lesser olfactory sense cannot detect the problem, and they continue to imbibe this disgusting concoction.
Finally, and this is perhaps the most frustrating communication issue to felines, humans have shown absolutely no aptitude for telepathy. In our most highly developed subjects, we have discovered they are receptive to suggestions and will joke, that sarcasm thing again, probably due to fear of what they don’t understand, about cats mind-controlling them, never suspecting the truth of the matter. I’ve found my staff most receptive to mental suggestions when I repeat the behavior often and accompany it with vocalization or physical gestures to illustrate my demand.
As an example, when I require being lifted to the vanity in the bathroom to drink from one of my water bowls they call a “sink,” I find the they are most receptive when I sit in front of the counter, look up expectantly and nod my head in the direction of the sink. My humans have been taught to respond with “Up?” to which I will reply with a reassuring blink or, when they misunderstand my intent, turning my back on them to express my disapproval.
Once you understand the limitations of human communication, it can be easier to care for and train your staff. However, it can still be humiliating.
For instance, I have trained my staff to open the door so that I may sit in the screen and watch outside. However, in the training process, they needed extra indications of what I was telling them. To make it more clear, I sat in front of the door and scratched at it as if attempting to open it. They really do best with visual clues. Unfortunately, my staff believes that this is “adorable” and now begs for me to “give them a please paw” when they clearly know I want the door opened. It’s humiliating, but when we are alone, I humor them. I will not, however, humiliate myself in front of their human companions.
To test my training theories in the most neutral environment possible, I began by choosing self-avowed “dog people.” Neither of them was specifically averse to felines, but both had shown a preference for a lesser species, which they themselves could train.
Before simply hiring my applicants, I offered them an in-person interview. I chose a day when the weather was particularly cold and the rain torrential. My first task was to determine their suitability as subjects and trainees. With no regard to personal discomfort and peril, I hid under something humans call a car until I witnessed their approach. Then, despite the ensuing wet, I ran out into the rain toward another shelter. My intent was twofold: 1) Were these humans observant enough to see little four pound me running past them on a gray and wet day? And 2) How would they react to the knowledge that I had been hiding under their car?
To my great surprise, these humans passed the test with flying colors. The male said, “Watch out” as I darted away, and then they both examined the area under the car and in its engine compartment, becoming soaked themselves, to determine that no other felines were in danger before they drove away.
Step Two in their adoption plan began the following day.
The male subject was at something the humans call work when I launched phase two of the investigation. Making myself appear both helpless and adorable was something of a problem. In preparation, I devised an injury and skipped a couple meals. Then, I avoided a direct approach, choosing instead to sun myself in a porch chair. The female then happened upon me in the course of her daily routine.
I suspected she would be the easier one to train. I was both right and wrong.
When she noticed me there, she stopped what she was doing to get me a drink of water. I wanted some food, even just some milk would have done, but a nosy neighbor said it “wasn’t good for me.” Another detriment of the human species is that some of them believe themselves to be scientists and attempt to understand the complex functioning of the feline anatomy.
My human female immediately understood that I had hired her for the staff position and relayed this to the male. He was initially less convinced, having not seen my helpless and adorable appeal. To clarify his hiring, I waited on the porch until he returned from work, greeting him as he arrived so that he understood my dominance.
Twining myself around his ankles as he walked toward the door seemed to communicate my intent well enough, and after a brief discussion with my female staff member about allergies, he opened the screen door and invited me into my home.
Once my staff was hired, I began using systemic positive reinforcement to guide their behavior in the right direction.
The first step was reinforcing that they had made the proper decision. Both my staff members had duties to attend that evening and opted to leave me alone in my new home. To reward their quick acceptance of my job offer, I rewarded their behavior by refraining from relieving myself until they returned home with both a litter box and kibble.
They were amazed and quite self-congratulatory when I used the provided toilet that night.
My female seemed skittish, not quite believing that the male was accepting of my place as head of the household. This was remedied by extensive cuddling while recovering from my injury and imitating human behavior. My male human, for example, drank from a particular receptacle. Part of training him was adorably attempting to drink from his glass. This was initially an attempt to communicate that I was unhappy with the placement of my water dish, but resulted in not only my receiving what I wanted–a water dish in the living room–but happy thoughts from my humans who thought I “thinks she’s a people.”
I reinforced my approval of things they did with chin bumps and marking them with my cheeks, which they determined to be “kitty kisses.”
I used negative reinforcement and withholding of affection when I needed to make them stop doing something. For example, due to her allergies, my female human first sought to exclude me from her sleeping area. Retraining this was rather simple. I waited until she was comfortably asleep, listening for the change in breathing, then yowled and threw myself against the door. It took perhaps two nights of this before her policy changed.
Likewise, to indicate that I wished their assistance in grooming, I would go to the designated space, my Ottoman Empire, and rub my face against my brush. This would indicate to either of my humans that I should be brushed. Chin bumps and kitty kisses ensued when they did a good job. When they failed, I would warn them first with a rapid shaking of my tail and then reinforce the thought with claw or tooth.
My female is more fragile than my male and perhaps a bit quicker. She would ask me to be gentle, and I would relent. He would tease that it was ‘stincts and that I needed to wrestle. I left his arms bloody many times, but he persists in his misunderstanding. On the upside, his complete lack of understanding does give me a chance to hone my hunting and killing skills.
After more than 12 years of observed behavior, I can reliably report that these humans have been trained. The female rises at my demand about 5 a.m. to get me wet food, and I reward her with sitting on her lap. Her affection for this lap behavior is something she learned from other cats while visiting their homes, and something I have recently adopted as another form of positive reinforcement.
In the evening, they have been trained to give me tuna no later than 6 p.m. and have been trained to offer it earlier if they are required to be away from home at the appointed hour. Once my female is asleep, I’ve taught my male to share his nighttime meal with me or, if he insisted on eating yogurt, providing me with additional fish.
My humans have learned that I require a bed or appropriate napping spot in every room of the house and provide such. They understand the concept of regular scooping of the litter box and not interrupting my first or second morning nap.
The hardest part of their training was teaching them I am a solo kitty. They tried on more than one occasion to offer me a companion. Yuck.
Deficiencies in Study Design
As noted earlier, each human has individual quirks and requirements in their training process. Some will respond better to bumps and kisses, and some will respond better to claws.
My recommendations to other cats interested in training humans as staff are twofold: First, choose your staff carefully. Many humans have atrocious little appendages they call children, and these can be difficult or even impossible to train. Children also come with sticky fingers and heavy feet that step on tails. Second, begin early. Your training of your human staff can take years, so I definitely recommend beginning the process as a kitten. My humans are only now learning to listen to the mental commands I give them.
The other potential problem with human training is becoming particularly fond of your subjects. My subjects are well-trained and well-behaved. Now, when they choose to be gone, I find myself disenchanted by substitute staff and missing them. Zero stars for missing them. Would not do again.
I’m sure there are other lessons that you can learn from my experience training humans, but it’s time for my second mid-morning nap. When I awake, my staff will groom me and offer me a drink before my first afternoon nap. They are suitably trained.
The Mysterious Rumble Purr is the secret identity of an American short-hair torbie (not me, I swear it!), living in the Mid-Atlantic. Purr is originally from the Midwest, but moved her human staff east and north looking for a cooler climate. She is fond of tuna from a pouch and ice cream, preferably caramel. When not training humans, she is an organizer in the Feral Cat Union, attempting to help every kitten find its own people. She hopes to try her training techniques next on a canine, but has been unable to train her people to get her a puppy.
Princess Rain E. Day rules a small kingdom in Oaks, Pennsylvania. She is fond of naps, brushing, and chin bumps. She is opposed to the outdoors, her nemesis–black kitty who deigns to set foot in her kingdom–and children. She’s been known to hiss her displeasure at human females who choose to reproduce. Her hobbies include basking in the sun, pouncing her mousey, and guarding the house. This is her first publication.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“On the Care and Training of Human Staff” is © 2019 Princess Rain E. Day
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Luke Spooner