Copyright 1994, Sarah Hartwell

Normal cats eat simple food out of simple bowls. They eat specially formulated canned food with a side-order of kibble, served in plastic bowls (89p from the local pet store) on a wipe-clean plastic mat. On high days and holidays they might get some chopped chicken or pilchards in tomato sauce served on a chipped willow-plate. I don't have any normal cats.

During colder months, Sappho, acts like one of those normal cats people tell me about. Tinned cat food twice daily plus a spoonful of tunafish on Friday evening. Come summer, however, it's picnic season and she sits the wrong side of the cat-flap demanding that I place her bowl outdoors on the patio where other freeloading cats, not to mention a rather cocky blackbird, can help themselves to her dinner while she watches benevolently before requesting a refill.

By now, the local starlings have quit hunting for insects and switched to a food which, according to latest research 'nine out of ten owners say their starlings prefer'. The latest generation have trained themselves to wait patiently on the patio. A few less patient birds hop through the open kitchen door, but Affy the brave ginger hunter, launches her fat, furry form in their general direction. In the last few years she's caught three of them, though the first one was a bit iffy since it sort of plummeted onto the patio having died in mid-air.

When the can opener is out, Sappho dives through door and sits patiently outdoors in the firmly established feline picnic spot, giving the occasional little chirp of "garcon!" to remind me that she is anticipating a tasty outdoor meal presented in a wicker basket with a full set of picnic eatware and a check tablecloth. Unless, of course, it's raining in which case she'd like to picnic indoors with the kitchen door open to give her the illusion of outdoor dining.

During this time of year I throw leftover cat food out for hedgehogs and wild birds. Sappho derives great satisfaction from scavenging it, even though her own bowl is full of something that 'even the fussiest cat will love'. Food simply tastes better when eaten outdoors. It has a certain je ne sais quoi, a dash of freshly mown seasoning and can be consumed in the pleasant ambience of a back garden with suburban views overlooking ... well not overlooking anything in particular unless you are a dustbin spotter. The knowledge that it's been stolen from right under the beak of some impertinent jackdaw adds a certain something to the whole dining experience.

Does Sappho, whose background was a little unfortunate, like to play at being a scavenging feral during summer? I got intrigued enough to chat to some pet behaviourists at a cat show. Luckily said behaviourists know me and understand that they are dealing with a perfectly harmless nutcase whose cats are pretty well-adjusted considering those strange humans who share their living quarters and who, rather unreasonably, take up so much space in bed.

Already well aware that the Hartwell household contains a disproportionate number of zany cats, the answer was that Sappho's behaviour is "normal-ish" though once again, what passes for "normal" in this household might be considered downright weird elsewhere and the pet shrinks knew this. It's also normal-ish (and I'm sure they were laughing as they reassured me of this fact) for a cat owner to place her pet's food 'just so' in garden so that it's not too close to the buddleia, but far enough away from the Californian Lilac which has a tendency drop petals every day.

During summer, they told me, there is more prey and carrion available outdoors and Sappho's reaction is to move her eating habits outdoors. The scattered leftovers appealed to her need to hunt and forage since, in natural conditions (not that my cats would recognise a natural condition if I forced them to watch the Discovery channel for three days solid), food is more widely dispersed in a cat's territory during the warm months. With prey more widely available outdoors (not, I hope, a reference to the hordes of wild birds which eat the cat's leftovers and which make my garden look like a scene from a certain well-known Hitchcock movie), she naturally expected her bowl (this equating to a bottomless supply of pre-killed, skinned, boned and filleted prey in cat terms) to be outdoors too.

Oh dear. Should I start hiding her food around the house to enrich her indoor environment and simulate a wild situation? We'd already had one experience of that when Aphrodite hid some food (a blackbird with a death wish) behind the hi-fi unit. It took us 3 days to locate the source of the stench and several houseplants had already been condemned as 'guilty' by hubby. We decided to leave things as they were. She was happy, I was confused, the behaviourists were perplexed and had scraped around for an explanation and the cat-food was served on the lawn.

The scavenging was satisfying some deep down urge to hunt and prey in different parts of her territory with the added bonus that prey was attracted to the leftovers and Sappho could direct her energies towards catching the odd sparrow. In actuality, Sappho, scowled at the birds and occasionally swished her tail to scare them away - dislodging the cheeky sparrow which was plucking fur from her luxuriant tail. As far as she was concerned, her energies were best directed towards finding ever more comfy places to snooze.

But wait a minute - New Scientist magazine reported that well-fed wild birds make easier prey due to problems with take-off. Was our canny old cat fattening up a few sparrows for a rainy day? Not in our mixed -up household where the cats are a few links short of a food-chain. I'd already seen ex-feral Scrapper and a male blackbird competing over the same breadcrust.

But did Sappho actually mind sharing her garden smorgasbord with half of Chelmsford's avian population, three or four visiting hedgehogs, a limping squirrel and every slightly peckish cat for miles around? Once she'd eaten her fill, the fact that other animals were helping themselves was unimportant to her. What was important was the exact definition of leftovers. We may decide that yesterday's food left in the bowl is leftovers fit for bird food, but in Sappho's mind it was nicely aged like a fine cheese and had that gamey taste so sought after by pheasant fans. It was not actually leftovers until she had officially declared it to be leftovers.

And as for other cats getting their first, Bast forbid, all Sappho had to do was come indoors and whinge at me to provide another helping! All this scavenging was just her way of "supplementing" her diet by "hunting" - though with no teeth, gloriously lazy, deaf and getting on years she was obviously setting her sights low by hunting non-mobile food scraps.

In the winter it's colder and prey is scarce so that cats eat fewer, but larger, meals. In the case of strays, they find a reliable food source behind the local fish and chip shop. In Sappho's case, and the fact that he fish and chip shop is a fair old hike away, it means she eats from her dish indoors like a normal cat (if such a thing exists, and believe me I'm not sure it does since I've never met one). So, she is at lest normal(ish) and as long as I pander to her whims she isn't suffering from any neuroses. If I don't pander to her whims then I risk having a neurotic cat and becoming neurotic myself thanks to the power of guilt. You see, I've never quite got over the guilt trip laid on me by Tinker who died face down in his food bowl inbetween his main course and his dessert.

Aphrodite, however, is another kettle of fish (in her case tuna, served warm). For many years she seemed unable to recognise food unless it was served on the kitchen counter. This was our fault. Finding ourselves in surprise possession of a young half-wild ginger cat, age approx 5 months and IQ rated as abysmal, who didn't like eating with our other cats, we fed her on an out-of-the way and otherwise unused kitchen counter. It also had a nice view out of a rear-facing window with pleasant views of the dustbin.

For many years we tried to teach that ginger fluff-ball that there are right counters and wrong counters and that not everything placed on a counter is destined to be cat food, especially not freshly iced cakes, garlic bread or uncooked pasta with goat cheese and red pesto filling. Affy however had different ideas. She also had surprisingly wide tastes which could be summed up as 'if it's on a people plate, I like it'. But at least she didn't insist on carrying her dinner round the house with her.

Food-carrying was another of Sappho's little quirks. She had been snipped many years ago, but come the breeding season she went into food-carrying mode. Great gobbets of cat glop got carried from kitchen to living room, to the accompaniment of muffled squeaking, and dropped in the middle of the floor. Then a lot more squeaking as non-existent kittens are summoned to the "kill", at which point the nearest human has to kneel down and prod the food a few times before Sappho loses patience with us and eats it herself. Like any new mother, dear little Sappho was carrying food to her brood, except that there was no brood, only a couple of confused humans with cat food ingrained under their fingernails.

Bit enough of all this. I have some lamb's kidneys gently braising in the oven. Served in a cream sauce on a bed of kibble, they'll go down a treat. Maybe if I ask nicely, they'll let me lick the sauce off of one of the kidneys.


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