One of the best and most challenging things about taking cats outside is their incredible alertness. We get used to our feline companions lounging and snoozing besides us at home, and forget that every bit of their little brains and bodies is actually rigged to form the perfect hunting machine. Aífe can spend hours being a blob beside my desk, but the second she’s out on the sidewalk, she transforms into a different creature – one to whom any smell, sound, or movement could signal a potential danger.
Walking with a cat, you realize that you and your pet have very different perceptions of the World Outside. Part of this is that, as a human, you will be able to make sense of things like words and traffic lights. But part of it is that your human and feline selves are equipped with very different sensory inputs. According to bestselling author/ veterinarian John Bradshaw, cats have olfactory powers similar to that of dogs, and so:
“their world, unlike ours, is not based on appearance. Smell is at least as important to cats as vision is, so even if they could imagine, they might well conjure what something smells like rather than what it looks like.”
Which explains why, when I see just a crappy old tarp, Aífe perceives something that inquires a thorough investigation. And why sometimes Aífe becomes terribly agitated, hissing and swatting at the air around her, even though I can’t see anything but a very peaceful, empty garden.
Here is a list of things you suddenly become super conscious of when you’ve got your cat on a leash:
- cigarette butts
- shit (dog or… otherwise)
- broken glass
- air vents
- basement windows
- patches where paving stones have come dislodged, exposing the soft, potentially pee-absorbing ground underneath
- clumps of leaves speckled with the dry pee of other critters
- traffic sounds
- construction sounds
- the first signs of rain
- grabby toddlers
- eager dogs
- other cats
- every single stranger
- funny looks from nearly every stranger
You have to notice these things, because the tiny fluffball who sleeps on your pillow will be hyper-aware of most of them, and will obliviously walk right through the rest of them.
So when Aífe and I go on any outing, even just around the block, I have to pay attention to:
- the normal things humans use to navigate, like streets and signs
- the icky/sharp detritus that Aífe might wander through on the streets
- any challenging creatures or weather or traffic that could be coming our way
- whether Aífe is visibly agitated by something, and whether or not that something is even a thing that my human brain can detect.
This can be a lot in a city. It’s actually far easier to get her to go for a walk out on a hiking trail, because there are far less things for her to react to. Yet even with the extra worrying they can require, outings with Aífe are almost always a delightful, centering experience for me. Such is the joy I take from being with my kitty; and from watching her getting over her considerable fears, and making use of her even more considerable curiosity.
Speaking of walking and curiousity, Rebecca Solnit has a good observation about the intersection of walking and curiosity in her awesome book, Wanderlust. She says that being a tourist is the main way we humans tend to experience the two things together these days:
“To satisfy curiosity you must be willing to seem naïve, to engage, to explore, to stare and be stared at, and people nowadays seem more willing or able to enter that state elsewhere than at home.”
I agree that these are the hallmarks of a good traveler. But such willingness is also the absolute necessity of a cat-schlepper. Our curious cats know that anything can happen the minute you leave your front door. And the tuned-in cat-schlepper takes this lesson on board; adventure can just as well be sought in your neighborhood as it can in other, faraway cities and wilds.
Unfortunately, we humans often forget that. We tend to routinize and tune-out as much of sensory input as possible, and lazily divide the world into distinct categories. There’s the mundane, which is wherever we live, and there is the exciting place, which is somewhere far away. We look longingly at NatGeo and cabinporn accounts on Instagram, and fail to take note of all the strange, surprising details in the creatures and crevices we walk past every day. Companies like REI, Merrell, Patagonia, Columbia use advertising with images of their gear being humped along by fit folks in far flung wildernesses – as that though that were the true definition of an adventure. When in fact, I use many of their items every day, even in the middle of a town, because there is always somewhere to schlep yourself to, and no matter where you go there will be weather and muck and the unexpected, and things that need carrying (like cats, for example).
I’m certainly not saying don’t dream big, don’t get out there and go on far flung quests. My last post was all about the dream of seeing the entire world with my cat, and becoming the preeminent cat-lady travel journalist. I would never dare to try and pull some Wizard of Oz bullshit, where, after glimpsing a sliver of what extraordinary Technicolor adventures exist in other lands, I try to tell sell you the idea that: “If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard.” (Her own backyard?! Her own backyard is where Aunty Em let that miserable hag neighbor take her Toto off to be destroyed. “There’s no place like home,” my ass.)
What I am saying is that life isn’t a choice between Oz or Kansas. At least, it shouldn’t be. There’s quite a lot of middle ground between winged monkeys and pig sties, or between the smelly downtown and the wildlife sanctuary. And it’s no good to waiting for that ‘some day’ when you can finally get the time and cash together to go on the big trip to get interested in the world around you. Many of us will never have the kind of fitness and fortune to execute our grandest daydreams, will struggle to get away for even a half-assed holiday. A chance conversation, a casual glance into a hedge – it doesn’t take much to get started on a small adventure, wherever you’re at, at this moment. There should be one waiting for you right now, just around the corner. And if you need a little help seeing the interesting little things lurking all around you, I suggest you seek the counsel of a friend with a particularly keen nose.