Carefully watched for a reason – Got the Jimmy Legs

Carefully watched for a reason

Elmer Penguin

Elmer imitates a penguin

The taming of the cat continues. We've now had the El-Word Kittens for over 2 months; 3 have been adopted, one sadly died, and 3 remain. They are getting big, as they are between 4 and 5 months old now. Their personalities have emerged, which will either make it harder or easier to part with them when the time comes. Of course with Elmer the tuxedo kitten, we'd have no problem unloading him. In fact, we thought we might have to put him out with the rest of the feral cats in the back yard. Until recently …

Elmer snarlElmer has been the hard case of the bunch. While each kitten had their own issues, he has constantly lagged behind the pack, with aggressive and injurious behavior to us handlers. While the other kittens were allowed to run around and play in their room, he had to remain in his cage for tedious lessons in NOT scratching and biting the hand that feeds him, and how humans are not actually here to torture and eat him. He wasn't getting it.

He hissed, he growled, he swatted when we came near. He knocked food out of my hand. It got so I couldn't get through a session without receiving a number of lacerations and puncture wounds (those little teeth are sharp!) It increasingly felt like one of those nuts who try to keep a wild animal (like a chimp or a beaver) as a pet; a time bomb waiting to go off. I didn't want to think about putting him out with the ferals, but it started feeling like a possible escape hatch.

I decided to give Elmer one week to turn it around. I wanted to give him one more chance using a new approach. I had been keeping him in a series of cages, but I now let him go in a small room. He was completely isolated from the other kittens and would see and interact only with me. He was very happy to be out of the cage, he loves to run around and even in the biggest cage he could only run so much. But this meant he could run away from me as well.

I thought I would try a simple conditioning exercise with him: I held some dry food in my hand, let him get the scent of it, then make him let me pet him before giving him a piece. It took him a while to get it, but soon he would let me run my hand over his head and back to receive a bit of kibble. Lucky for me he loves this dry food we get from Costco, he and the other kittens love it more than pretty much anything besides baby food.

After he mastered a basic petting, I got more elaborate, petting his tail, scratching his chin. He didn't always take kindly, occasionally swatting at me and running away. But he would always come back for that food. Somewhere during that week when he came up to let me pet him, he leaned into my other hand, rubbing his chin on it. This was a good sign, he was doing more than was asked. A couple days later he started purring while getting petted. Then I started experimenting with actually picking him up and holding him. to my surprise, he allowed it! Of course, as soon as the food ran out he was off to other things.

It's now been nearly 2 weeks and his progress continues but by bit. This morning I went in to feed him and he purred and let me hold him. I offered him a reward and he didn't want it; he just wanted me to pet him. Not only is this a big step for him, he's actually pushing past the other 2 kittens, who still regard us with suspicion. I've also been playing with him and he's very close to learning how to fetch his favorite toy mouse so I can throw it across the room. I can hardly believe this is the same cat that caused all these scratch marks (still healing) on my hands.

With a little more practice I think he will finally be ready to be put up for adoption. I wish I had thought of this approach earlier, and should I ever have to tame kittens again, you can be sure I will start with these methods). Elmer and the others are no longer tiny cute kittens, but small versions of their adult selves. I'm hoping we can find good homes for them soon, since 'Kitten' is such a commodity on the adoption circuit. But we've met so many good folks who have adopted cats of all ages from us, so sooner or late we will find the right ones. Of course sooner is preferred.


  1. The Changeling
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Hey, I'm impressed with your use of operant conditioning techniques! B.F. Skinner and Edward Thorndike would be proud of you.

  2. Sue
    Posted November 6, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Aw, he's a handsome fellow! Great work taming him 🙂