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The Mystery of Spunky

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 
This is my latest blog entry. It concerns some interesting feline behavior at a cat shelter... Tell me what you think.

The entry (for those of you too lazy to click ):
I do volunteer work at a cat shelter called "Tenth Life". It's a no-kill shelter, which means that the only time a cat is euthanized is when it is sick and in pain and won't get better. There are more than four hundred cats living there, from tiny kittens to fragile seniors.

There are cats with one eye, cats with three legs, feral cats and friendly cats and everything in between. All of them are there for life, unless someone adopts them. The cats live in small rooms instead of cages--fifteen cats to a room, with chairs and cushions and a climbable, scratchable cat tree. Every day, a volunteer scoops the litter boxes, feeds and waters them, cleans the room, and cuddles the cats--or, anyway, the cats that want to be cuddled.

Spunky, a big tiger boy, is a cat who definitely does NOT want to be cuddled.

When you enter the room, Spunky stares at you. As long as you are there, he stares at you, with a very direct gaze. And if you get too close, he hisses--a sound like a stiff brush being scrubbed across a tile floor.

To a cat, staring is very rude. Eye contact is something to be avoided--something that says, to a cat, "I know you are here, I do not like your being here, and I want to confront you." If a cat catches itself looking another cat in the eye, and does not mean to confront the other cat, it will slowly blink--a gesture that says, "I don't mean you any harm; I want to live in peace," or even, "I trust you." If very embarassed and perhaps a little cowed by the other cat, the cat which has been staring will turn away and begin to wash itself nonchalantly--a sure sign of feline embarassment.

It is, then, Spunky's direct, challenging glare which really intrigues me.

At first, I thought Spunky might be a feral cat--too wild to trust humans. But there are many ferals at Tenth Life; and they do not act like Spunky does. They hide away, under the chairs and inside cat beds, or even under the blankets we put on the plastic chairs to provide a soft (and washable) place for the cats to sit. When you come too close, or have to change the blankets they are sitting on, the ferals will dash off like small furry meteors, making for the nearest hiding place.

Spunky, on the other hand, never hides. He is always sitting right on top of the cat tree, or on a window ledge; and his first reaction when you come too close is to hiss, not to dart away--though he does move off if you make it plain that you intend to clean the place he has claimed for his own; and that he will likely be sprayed with Windex or buried under a fresh blanket if he stays where he is.

Spunky's aggression puzzles me. Neither I nor, I trust, any of the other volunteers have ever mistreated him; and I do not subscribe to the "evil kitty" theory that many people who are not cat lovers would immediately suggest. In any case, I have never heard that Spunky has scratched anyone; and he has never scratched me. It seems that hissing is the extent of his angry behavior.

Spunky came to the Tenth Life from another shelter. This one was a small, one-person affair, being run by a man who, when he found himself too old to take care of the cats, donated a large sum of money to Tenth Life if they would build a new wing and house his cats in it. Spunky and many others in his room, as well as several rooms to either side of it, were moved to Tenth Life when the new wing was complete.

Spunky was named after the old man's first cat. Maybe there was a relationship there; and Spunky resents having moved from one shelter to another, where he can no longer see his favorite human? But, though cats in general detest change of all sorts--even change as trivial as a new piece of furniture or the moving of a scratching post or litter box--I would think that Spunky has been at Tenth Life quite long enough to adjust.

So why the anger? If he were frightened, wouldn't it make more sense to simply make himself scarce when humans were about? Or is he trying to prevent visitors and the occasional new volunteer from attempting to pet him, as they often do to the ferals before they know these cats do not want their touch? Does he have some sort of feline psychological problem? Does he have a past that makes him frightened and aggressive when it comes to humans? Is he a feline overlord, protecting his room against intruders? Only Spunky can tell us, and he isn't talking.

You see what I mean when I say "mystery": Every explanation I try to put to the situation seems to fall short; and the big tiger's direct gaze continues to puzzle me.
post #2 of 5
I really don't have any insight into Spunky's behavior. As you say, he may be protecting "his" room against intruders. Or he may realize that you aren't a cat so the rules of polite cat behavior don't apply. I know that I sometimes catch my Tiggy staring at me. He doesn't hiss, of course. Spunky sounds like an interesting guy. If you hang around with him enough he may become friendly.

All that said, I have to tell you that every time I read your posts I'm amazed at your understanding of cat behavior both in general and of the cats you are dealing with. I've read books about cat behavior but never knew that staring is rude, although I should have figured it out from watching my Eric. Now I make it a point not to stare into my cats' eyes and to blink when I look at them.

Good luck to you and to all the kitties at Tenth Life.
post #3 of 5
Thread Starter 
Yeah, there is that complication--do they realize you're humans, and behave differently with you; or do they just figure you're big and clumsy, but the same rules of behavior apply?

Cats are so puzzling sometimes. That's part of why I love them.
post #4 of 5
Has a veterinarian ever tested his eyesight? It is possible that it's bad, and he stares to be able to focus, plus the hissing is because he can't see well and is afraid of what he can't see that's approaching.
post #5 of 5
Thread Starter 
Hmmm... I'm going to have to see if he follows a dangly toy with his eyes... There are always cats around; so I can play with a nearby cat without actually interacting with (and scaring/angering) him. He isn't blind, though; like I said, he hisses when you come close.
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