From the day we first saw him, Linus has been a scholar of human and feline behavior. We have no idea of his origins, but we think he was fairly young when he first appeared, and he had very quickly realized that if he were to survive in the coyote-ridden, freezing world he would need to learn a thing or two.
One of the first lessons was how to find food when the ground is covered with snow.
For this he turned to his first teacher, a cat named Sinbad who belongs to some neighbors. We had met Sinbad about a month before Linus. We assumed he was feral and began feeding him under a certain bush near the house and he always eagerly scarfed up what we offered, giving grateful head bunts and purrs in return. One day I noticed him coming towards the house from between our barn and run-in shed, looking behind himself every few strides. Then I saw what he was looking for: a small black-and-white cat who was tentatively following him. Sinbad coaxed the little cat to accompany him to the bush and sat down to wait. I immediately came out with two cans of food, but my approach terrified the little cat, who streaked away back past the barn. Sinbad watched him leave, stayed to eat a little, and then took off after him.
The next night, I happened to look out our mud room window and noticed a feline face peering back at me. It was Sinbad, who had never come up onto the porch before to ask for food. Of course I fed him; he was back again the next night at the same time. On the third night I was expecting him, but when I looked out I saw not Sinbad but Linus, looking hopeful but terrified. When I opened the door he disappeared under the porch, but as soon as I was back inside he hastily ate and then returned to his hiding place. We never saw Sinbad on the porch again, though he was around and about, but that became Linus’ feeding place for the next year. If Sinbad had not shown him where to go for help, I doubt Linus would have survived that horrible winter.
Once Linus came inside, Cookies took over as Learned Professor in Human Studies. While Linus was still in his introductory safe room, Cookies would sit or sleep by the door, and acted as go-between. The first lesson was The Humans Are OK, and he would let me rub and snuggle him while Linus watched. Cookies does a behavior we call “Please Paw” when he asks for treats wherein he lifts his left front paw and looks hopeful; once Linus was out of the safe room he would please paw too at treat time. Toys were another lesson; much like a mother cat teaching her kittens to hunt, Cookies would bat a toy around and then alley-oop it to Linus for a try. Pretty soon Linus was subduing catnip bananas like a pro. The
learning continues with Linus following Cookies into new, unexplored spaces, like baskets, coolers, and the laundry room. If treat time for cats has arrived, I haven’t hopped to it
and Cookies is snoozing somewhere, Linus will handle the reminder.
Since then, Linus has taken his human studies to the level of the true anthropologist. He follows me around watching what I do: what is this thing that sprays water that she steps inside? What is this box that makes noise that she puts our bowls into? What are these flat things she holds on her lap while talking to Small Human before he goes to sleep? What is this flat, glowing thing that she
touches in a rhythmic pattern? What are these little colored things that Small Human sticks together and that make a big noise when he dumps them out of the box, and how does she use her paws to put them back in the box?
The usage of human “paws” is a subject of great fascination. One day I was stretched out next to Cookies on the floor, rubbing his ears and face. Linus came over to see what we were doing. He watched me for a few seconds, and instead of pushing in with a head bunt for his share of the rubs, he lifted a front paw and began to touch Cookies on the head with it too. Cookies looked at us both like “WTH?” Linus and Cookies groom each other all the time, and sometimes Linus will use his front paws to hold Cookies’ head still while he licks him, but this time the paw motion was petting, not holding. I have not seen him do that since, on his own — in the moment it seemed like he was deliberately imitating what I was doing.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for Linus’ forthcoming documentary “Living With Humans,” to be aired on BBC2 early next year. I even saw a contract lying around that indicates Sir David Attenborough may be narrating it . . .