The backyard cat whisperer

by Christopher Cokinos



I am on all fours in a gravel path in my yard, tapping the ground with one hand, holding a leash with the other.I am whispering insistently.The summer sun burns my neck.Seen from the road, through stalks of dead cheatgrass, my butt would appear to hover, a blue-jeans moon at noon.

“Shack-le-ton.Shack-le-ton!SHACK-le-ton.”

Is anyone watching? Near my index finger a grasshopper stays stock-still.But my cat, undaunted explorer, is chittering at a bird. I stand, lifting him toward the grasshopper. “Look,” I say- and he pounces.

Suddenly, Shackleton strains against his harness at the jumping, flying, clattering grasshopper, and I’m on the tail-end of the action, running full-speed, arm straight out, because now I’m only an extension of my saucy orange tabby.

On these summer grasshopper hunts, I am the pointer, the hunting dog, and I am the cat whisperer who has mastered intonations of his name – “Shack-ul-ton”- so that sometimes all I have to do is bend, point, whisper, and he instantly paws down one of these yellow-green sci-fi bugs. Then rips its head off. Then later makes very smelly caa-caa. Kathe will protest when she cleans out the cat box.

For years, I thought I had an allergy to cats. But after Shackleton arrived one snowy October afternoon- a stray kitten who purred in my cupped hands- my first reaction was love and, after we decided we’d try a harness-and-leash for this indoor cat, servitude.

Now Shackleton yelps and yelps when the sun is out, the air mild, the prey plentiful.Carpe diem, buddy, quit typing, he’s saying.“Awright, let’s go kill some bugs,” I’ll say as he offers his head, trilling, to the harness.

Out we go, ranging across an acre of the four that Kathe and I own, steering clear of the road, thistle and, in the early days, any passers-by. At the sound of a truck, I’d carry Shackleton behind the house, so no one could see me.We live in a neighborhood of ex-ranchers and horse owners, most of whom have a second car: a backhoe.The last thing I wanted people to see was me, walking a cat.It just seemed too metrosexual for semi-rural northern Utah.

Because Kathe and I are xeriscaping our property, eliminating invasives like Dyer’s woad and restoring both a dry upland and part of a riparian zone to native vegetation, folks on Hollow Road often see us digging, hauling, planting, cutting.This had earned us praise.Would walking a cat evoke a different reaction?I didn’t want to find out.

Eventually, though, I stopped running.I still occasionally put myself between the cat and The-Truck-with-a-Trailer-of-ATVs, but that’s for safety.I won’t run anymore.If someone stopped to ask, incredulous, why I was on all-fours pointing at something invisible while my cat was rolling around in the dirt, I’d discourse on not letting cats outdoors unsupervised because they kill songbirds.And, I’d say, fact is, this is ritual for me.And I don’t need a license to hunt grasshoppers.

So Shackleton and I partake of the ancient rite of killing. But we also stop and sniff: I inhale the scents of flowers we’ve planted; who knows what the cat can smell.Whatever it is (raccoon, stray cat, deer), it usually gets him mad. And we see things.Chickadees, milk snakes, moonlight on the red bark of dogwood. I see the hawk that sees Shackleton who does not see it.

Where the catmint grows, Shackleton chews, while I make sure he gets nothing of the toxic chokecherry. He goes so goofy and antsy- the little dude seems high- that I pluck a catmint leaf to stick by his nose, a distraction while I carry him indoors.

Sometimes he’ll wriggle so much I can’t bear to end our expedition.Sometimes we stop by the water’s edge and watch the river.Once, I squatted next to him in the dusk. “Look at that,” I said. “Shackleton, just look at that.” Mars tipped a nameless mountain like a beacon, and right by our six feet, the planet glowed in the current.

Not long ago, I donned my cowboy hat and a work shirt and tucked part of the leash in my jeans pocket.I twirled my cat’s harness and challenged people to guess. It was Halloween. No one got it. “I’m the cat whisperer!” I said gleefully.I smiled, sipped some wine.

I was voted Worst Costume. I didn’t mind.

Christopher Cokinos is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Utah’s Cache Valley, where he writes and also edits Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature & Science Writing at Utah State University. © High Country News