No matter how hard I try to wake up before 7 a.m. and get a headstart on the new day, I invariably fall back on my old newsroom habits. My workplace attendance patterns were established at the late Berkeley Gazette, where the expectation was that an intern like myself would arrive some time between 9 and 10 a.m. and toil until the day’s work was done, whatever the hour.
So that makes a cat who wakes me up before 6 a.m. more than a little annoying. Even if he is one of my two favorite cats of all time.
If you read Bay Woof’s debut cat column last month, you will recall that our beloved cat Jack used to awaken me and my wife well before 6 a.m. on most days. Jack is not particularly food-obsessed, but he’s perhaps the most willful cat I have ever encountered — which is quite an accomplishment for such a willful species.
Just months after we liberated Jack from his well-appointed studio apartment at the East Bay SPCA, he started wreaking havoc on our biorhythms. Cold paws on warm, sleeping skin is a great way to get my attention, but not my affection. It only took a few months before I concluded that Jack’s behavior had to change. But how?
Judy, my dog-loving wife, has always enjoyed telling me, “You’re in charge of cats.” So I usually handle the morning feeding, and therefore I was the one whom Jack would choose to stand atop at 5:15 a.m., when he was ready to be fed.
In my experience, most creatures behave rationally. Pets, humans, and corporations engage in any behavior that is rewarded. If a puppy whines and someone feeds or pets it, it will continue to whine until it is no longer fed or petted. If NIMBYs whine and the news media amplifies their whining, they will turn up the volume until Bay Area housing becomes unaffordable. If a corporation gets rich while letting Donald Trump’s lackeys get their hands on the personal info of 50 million customers, it will probably keep doing that sort of thing until it’s stopped. But back to cats.
Jack had figured out that as long as he kept me from sleeping until I did his bidding, breakfast would be served whenever he desired it. As I pondered how we might curb this behavior, I kept grappling with the same question: How could I get Jack to stop focusing on me when he was hungry?
I decided to convince him that I was no longer “in charge of cats” — at least insofar as breakfast was concerned. So I got Jack a clock, and delegated to that device all decisions regarding feline feeding time.
I called it “the Cat Clock,” although actually it was just a cheap travel alarm from China. I set it to go off at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day, which were the hours at which I resolved to henceforth feed Jack and his very older brother, Curry.
Jack could walk across my face at 5:30 a.m. — which he did with impatient annoyance for the next few days — but I absolutely would not get up and reward his bad behavior. My message to Jack was simple; the Cat Clock was in charge of feeding time, and no amount of feline lobbying would result in him getting fed one minute ahead of schedule.
Within about three days, Jack and Curry could tell time.
Five-fifteen in the morning would come and go in silence. Suddenly we could sleep until 8 a.m. if we wanted to. By around 7:45, the two cats would come and hover near me. They knew it was almost 8 a.m., and they wanted to be close enough to me to make sure that I heard the Cat Clock when it went off.
It has now been about 13 years since I taught Jack to tell time, and by and large he has let us sleep since then. The travel alarm has been replaced by my tablet computer, but I now realize that is probably a mistake, since I use my tablet so regularly that Jack probably thinks of my device and me as a single organism. Still, every morning and evening when the tablet’s alarm goes off, I make a great point of genuflecting to the mighty Cat Clock. After all, it makes the rules and I am merely its humble servant.
But if the volume is turned down or the tablet is out of power, Jack and his sister, Katniss, start getting ornery by about 8:05. Within 10 or 15 minutes, I will have a cat in my lap.
Because they can tell time. And they make damn sure we know it.
Stephen Buel is publisher of Bay Woof. His Chinese zodiac is the dog.
Main article photo by: Stephen Buel