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A Way With Animals

Monday, October 13, 2008

I like shooting photos of both animals and people with a telephoto lens. You get the good stuff when they're not aware of being photographed. Liam has had very little contact with cats, but I can see that his training as regards dogs, birds, frogs, turtles, tadpoles, crayfish and insects, to name just a few of the creatures he regularly encounters, has prepared him well for a life among animals.

From the time he was a toddler, I've put birds' eggs and tiny hatchlings, toads and insects in Liam's hands, assuring him that if he's gentle, everything will be OK. Liam's inclined toward cautiousness in everything, and handling animals, especially ones with claws, gives him the heebie-jeebies. Recognizing this tendency in him (in marked contrast to Phoebe, who will pick up a praying mantis or hold a lapful of squirming, pooping baby bluebirds while I change a nest), I've sought to acclimate him and soothe his fears by exposing him to as many small animals as I can. We've watched him learn dog language and the right ways of approaching dogs as he's grown up with Chet Baker, and he can't pass Chet without leaning down to kiss him on the cheek and get a little face-washing for his efforts. He's still cautious around animals, and that's a good thing, but he's no longer afraid; he has developed a remarkable empathy for them.

I was so struck by the beauty of little brown Bear that I shot dozens of frames of him. When my attention wandered to a buckeye butterfly, Bear walked off, and Liam followed at a respectful distance. When I turned around, they were interacting, and I watched with my heart swelling as Liam gently suggested that they play with his new toy dinosaur.
Everything in Liam's body language--the curled hands held close to his body, the quiet, compact pose, his stillness--tells Bear he's not going to force anything. He puts the dinosaur out for consideration.Bear sniffs the toy, then allows Liam to gently scratch his neck.
Bear flops down--a cat's invitation to play, or hang out for awhile.Liam offers the toy.

Bear bats it with his paws. Liam giggles.
Bear's owners were watching with me, and they remarked that Bear rarely tolerates kids, much less plays with them. Many cats and dogs feel that way about children, who are often inclined toward rambunctiousness. It was lovely to see that Bear was willing to give gentle Liam the benefit of the doubt, because every once in awhile, a cat meets a child he can hang out with.

Thanks for all your thoughtful comments on the last post. Although I wasn't exactly surprised that people feel strongly about cats--they are woven so thoroughly into many of our lives--I was bemused to find that the dog vs. cat camps are just as lively as the Beatles vs. Stones factions of my earlier years. I can't resist reprinting a bit of an email from my writer friend KM in Massachusetts. She doesn't want to join the public fray, but sends me priceless reactions to my posts. Because she makes me quack out loud, I've twisted her arm to let me quote her:
"Yes, that was one beautiful cat.

"And you are right to alert the masses to the damage done to the ecology of any rural area by already well-fed felines. My friend had a cat who daily brought home birds, voles, mice, you name it. SO not necessary, and shouldn't have been adding competition for food sources to those who have no bowls of kibble waiting at home.

"Every now and then, our two citified, indoor-only cats surprise me with a gift when I come downstairs in the morning --and trust me, having these creatures who every so often bag a mouse from within my house is a fine, fine thing. They definitely earn their keep, by keeping the indoor small mammal population down to two domesticated felines.

"Also, as someone whose life dictates nearly weekly trips to places where dogs would be difficult to have, it's quite lovely to be able to leave our cats happily behind. I used to horrify folks by explaining, when asked if my husband and I would ever have kids, that I'd surely opt in when they invented babies that could be left at home for the weekend with a bowl of food and a box of sand.

" I have teen-aged boys. I guess I got pretty much what I wanted! But it's boxes of Lucky Charms and gallons of milk, rather than litter and cat chow."

Thought you'd enjoy KM's take on the scene. Thanks for all your thoughts.


Liam needs to learn the scritchy motion for attracting cats.

When meeting a new cat hold your had out at about the height of their head. Hold it palm down, fingers curled, and move them in and out as though you were scratching something. A cat that has been socialized will usually come over and put there head under there for scratching. I find this a pretty good way to sort out the friendly cats from the rest. It helps that the choice is the cat's.

Oh, Julie, I loved this.
Liam is a priceless child--so perfectly captured here.

My daughter was always labeled "shy" in school--to the point of it being almost seen so negatively they became concerned there was something "wrong" with her. Not the boisterous child like so many running and screaming across the playground--the one who would watch, and cautiously approach, very sensitive to never force things.
When she did her student teaching, her evaluation remarked that she had been the only one to be able to connect with a certain troubled child in her classroom--perceived as being approachable and very kind-spirited.
She's working on her PhD now--that watching, sensitive spirit can really take you places!

What a wonderful future I see for Liam, too!


Those are just precious photos of Liam and Bear. And kudos to you for teaching your children how to approach new dogs. I can't tell you how many times I have loose children come screeching up to my dogs, yelling "DOGGYDOGGYDOGGYDOGGY" and trying to lock them in half-nelson-type bear hugs, while their parents are totally unconcerned or uninterested. I usually chuck L (who adores children) out to meet the onslaught, in order to protect Z (who loves children who are throwing the ball for him, but would prefer not to be grabbed or tackled.) That way I have a second to teach the kids how to interact with the dogs appropriately before they get to Z.

Nina: Bawww. Thank you. He's so sweet it hurts. Glad to hear you have one, too.

rmharvey, My dad used to tell a story about standing around with a bunch of guys. An "old puss-cat," (in his words) walked up to them. Dad scratched his shoulder and the cat leapt up to it, then promptly sneezed in Dad's open mouth. Yeah! I still laugh out loud when I think of him telling that story.

Dog-geek, I'm heartened by the number of people who ask before allowing their children to approach Chet, who coach them on how to touch him. But there are those sudden neck grabbers and bashy head-patters out there, and it is worrisome. Baker's not afraid to give a little snarl when someone grabs him suddenly, which can be a good thing. He's got rights, too, and has never used his teeth.

That brought tears to my eyes.

His every move, his body language, his demeanor... They all speak to your teachings, Julie. He did everything right and earned his reward--a bit of feline play and affection.

Liam is a declaration of how well you've done in teaching him to interact with our nonhuman neighbors. Those are lessons a great many others should learn as well.

What a loving tribute to a young gentleman - Liam obviously has learned how to communicate with his whole body in a language animals understand. Cats are perceptive; they respond to how they are treated and to the intentions of people toward them. Bear recognized a gentle soul who would do no harm. I love the sharing of the dinosaur toy - what could be more generous?!

Thanks for a cat post. And yes, my two are indoor-only felines who enjoy watching and chattering at the birds that come to the feeder on our deck.

I am just catching up, and these last two posts are terrific. You've captured perfectly the dual nature of the domestic cat.

How's Chet holding up?

You know I am big on body language, and the photos in this post speak volumes, so much so that words were (practically) unnecessary. [I hate to tell a writer that she didn't need words, LOL!]

Whether by intuition or from your teaching, Liam gets small and keeps his distance, rather than looming large over Bear and appearing threatening. He offers contact and waits till he is invited to reach for the cat. Both species interacted well with each other and the two had a great conversation without speech. I only wish more kids knew how to approach cats (and dogs) like this.

I loved this post. Both Liam and Bear tugged at my heartstrings tonight.


That was a great story and pictures of Liam and Little Bear.

More and more these days there is a vague sensation that we are being watched. It's good to know that those eyes can also be benevolent!

Your friend's comments to you made me laugh out loud and also reminded me of my Mom's fat cat who was allowed in the city back yard on occasion. He would leave gifts on the doorstep that put my Mom into a fit. We thought it hilarious. However, I recall the horror when she fouond battered Blue Jay under her bed. LOL! Not funny then...

I love Liam. A gentle soul, just like my own daughter.

rmharvey describes a "head bump". The best sign of affection a cat gives.

Awww sweet Liam.
He is the kind of kid any neighborhood would be glad to have around.
What seems to be most off-putting for our dog and two cats are kids whose movements are too fast. Our dog thinks she should chase kids who move quickly, and our cats freak at sudden movements.
So Liam's stillness would calm both dog and cat.

I'm all misty too. Your children are kind souls.

Bear is one gorgeous cat! I love his color and his spirit shows in the photos. I adore cats, and I agree they are to be indoor companions.

My dearest Bear was a black cat who also looked like a bear cub. I took cat photos this weekend to post one day this week. You beat me to the cat post! :-O

a tad reminiscent of the Dr. Dolittle stories from childhood -- I hope those are still popular, or am I just showing my age? :-( Or has Dr. D. been replaced now by horse and dog "whisperers;" anyway, wonderful post.

I love Liam's posture in these photos. So sweet and kind and vulnerable. No wonder Bear liked him. :c)

This really was a wonderful scene to see unfold between Liam and Bear. What good instincts Liam has; his posture is so feline the two of them are echoes of each other in a few of your shots.
Great thoughts on our responsibilities to domestic animals in these comments! It's great to see all this knowledgeable and polite conversation going on. I've been trying to learn about how to approach and discipline dogs myself having realized we will someday own one. I've never owned a dog and I must admit I am often a bit intimidated by the bigger or louder ones. I don't know why; I never had a bad experience with dogs and once I am introduced to any dog things are just fine. Maybe I could use some lessons from Liam.

I miss my Shoomie.

I gave him double kisses for you tonight, Daddy.

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