Peggy Elliott playing with her cat
Peggy Elliott plays with Sheriff

It's A Cat's Life

by Peggy Elliott


From the Editor: Having just enjoyed a little story that talks about mice, you now have an opportunity to consider cats. The following story is reprinted from Remember to Feed the Kittens, the sixteenth in the NFB's Kernel Book series of paperbacks intended to educate the public about blindness. Peggy Elliott tackles the job from a slightly different perspective. The article begins with President Maurer's introduction.


Doug and Peggy Elliott are both blind and live in Grinnell, Iowa. When they invited a tiny blind kitten to join them and their two sighted older cats awhile ago, they told Kernel Book readers about little Sheriff and her insistence on being left alone to explore and do for herself. Now Peggy, who also serves as Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind, brings us up to date on the growing blind cat, Sheriff.

Although it's hard to say for sure what Sheriff's adventures tell us about blindness, there is no question what they tell us about the Elliott household: it's a great place to be a cat! And perhaps it only stands to reason that a blind cat would try to make the same adaptations to cat life as a blind human does to human living. In any case, for cat lovers it is a delightful story. Here is what Peggy has to say:

Our little blind kitten has grown into a nine-pound teenager, tomboy, and endless source of amusement and pleasure. When we last reported about Sheriff, she was a newcomer to our house, recently retrieved from the vet who had cured all her outside-kitty parasites and given us soothing ointment for her infected eyes. Soothing is all we could do; Sheriff cannot see.

This has never bothered Sheriff. She's constantly busy. Most cats play with an object for a while and then lose it. Sheriff picks favorite toys and keeps them around for weeks. The most recent one is a mouse with a bell on its tail. She'll smack it, chase it down, capture it, and smack again. When the game is over for a time, she'll leave it.

The thing about her, though, is that she remembers where. Later you'll see her carrying it in her mouth to a new hockey area or hear the bell jingling in another room. Now we think one of the older cats has finally stolen and hidden the mouse. But Sheriff always finds another toy.

Cellophane packages are another favorite, and Wednesday grocery day with all the fresh sacks on the floor is a highlight of the week for Sheriff. She hasn't done this for awhile, but she used to find a sack, put her front paws and shoulders in, lie down, and push herself and the sack forward while making a prrt prrt prrt sound for all the world like a little feline motorboat. When the sack would hit the cabinets and stop, she would go to find another and repeat the process.

Toys are an important part of Sheriff's day. Of course anything she plays with has to make or create sound. I think it's fair to say her very favorite toys are Doug and me.

When she was tiny, Sheriff spent hours climbing up and down the ladders on our ladderbacked kitchen chairs. When she would reach the top, she would balance there, all four feet on the top rung, very pleased with herself and sometimes bold enough to bat at a passing human toy.

She's too big now to do this climbing act; she'd just knock the chair over if she tried. So she's modified the game. Now she puts her back feet on the seat of an empty chair and her front paws on the top rung. She positions herself there when a human toy is going to pass and then bats out at you, swatting accurately at Doug or me as we pass.

It's amazing what Sheriff can find that fits the sound-making toy bill. One of us got a small electrical appliance, a tape recorder or something, that came packed in Styrofoam peanuts. We already knew about Sheriff's love of peanuts. They make nice scratching sounds as they move across a surface.

This particular box with the peanuts got set under the bed in our bedroom and forgotten. Little Sheriff is always looking at her world and the details of her world with her paws. She goes places and finds stuff the two older cats never do. One day she found the box.

The first we knew about Sheriff's discovery was when she arrived on the bed with a peanut and began hitting it around, chasing it, pouncing, hitting, all while two humans were trying to get a little sleep.

One of us took the peanut away and put it under a pillow as a temporary fix. Sheriff followed the sound of the peanut and looked with her paws on and then around and then under the pillow. The peanut was too far under for her to find.

A little dejected (we thought) Sheriff hopped off the bed and, after a little time had passed, began batting another Styrofoam peanut around the floor. I can't even begin to tell you how annoying the sound of a Styrofoam peanut and a joyful cat can be in the middle of the night. This went on for days.

I don't know how many times she kept us awake playing on the floor and how many times we got bounced by her frisking on the bed and how many Styrofoam peanuts we confiscated before we found the forgotten box.

And the little creep was clever enough to get the next one only after a pause so that we weren't sure what the distance was from her supply to the torture chamber that the bedroom had become while she had access to the endless supply. It's gone now, and we're careful to throw all peanuts away the minute they come in the house. She loves them as toys, but we like our sleep more.

It is constantly interesting to watch Sheriff exploring her environment. We got a new couch and love seat a few weeks ago, and Sheriff was immediately there, feeling, jumping, using her paws to see the outlines.

She's the first cat of our three that found that the backs are wide and padded enough to accommodate a sprawled, sleeping cat comfortably. She's appropriated the love seat as hers, and I've never seen either older cat up there.

When she was still a kitten, Sheriff showed us that she has a clear map of the world around her in her mind. We had a recliner set at right angles to a couch, with a coffee table in front of the couch. Sheriff would get on Doug's knee in the recliner, reach out with her paw to find the edge of the coffee table, hop to the table, and then hop to the couch.

After a while, we decided the coffee table was too much in that setting and removed it. For weeks thereafter Sheriff would get on Doug's knee, reach for the edge of the coffee table, reach farther, lean way out, wave around with her paw. She was convinced for a long time that she just wasn't reaching far enough since she knew there was a surface there. She's stopped doing it now, but she did it so many times we had to conclude that she really remembered the table.

Sheriff is not afraid to try new routes. In an area she is not sure about, she checks with a paw before stepping. But then she remembers the pattern for later. Our front stairs turn twice, and our back stairs turn once. At the top and bottom of both, one must pick angles to arrive at different locations.

Sheriff has taken to racing people up and down the stairs and winning. In the morning she waits at the top of the front stairs, usually used by the first person up. When one of us starts down, she leaps into motion, races ahead, and invariably beats us to the kitchen. She's running all the way.

We tied a string on a knob of my dresser as a cat toy. Neither older cat has to my knowledge so much as looked at the string. For about nine months the string formed part of Sheriff's morning ritual. She would flop down on the floor under the string and commence to swat, bite, kick, and roll in reaction to and activation of the string.

The game would last for ten to fifteen minutes a day, and she kept this up for about nine months. She's tired of that game now and doesn't do it anymore. But it's clear that she intentionally went to the string each morning, knowing where it was and how to play the game.

Once Sheriff got caught in a little dead-end hallway off the main upstairs hall. GirlKitty (one of the older cats) was standing at the mouth of the dead-end, growling at her. I stepped over GirlKitty and started downstairs.

Then it occurred to me that there was a reason why GirlKitty, the only Sheriff hater I know, was growling. She was penning Sheriff in the dead-end. I stopped about three steps down and reached through the widely-spaced rails into the dead-end. Sheriff was sitting right on the edge. I petted her and went on down a few more stairs. Then I heard Sheriff flop onto the stairs. She had figured out that, if I was there, she could be there too.

She didn't quite know the distances, but she did know that she had been trapped and that I had showed her, she thought, a way out. She hasn't taken that route since, but she was braver at trying than I probably would have been with the same information she had.

Speaking of how Sheriff thinks reminds me of the shrimp. We were having boiled shrimp one night, and we decided to put an empty bowl over the tails in the tail bowl as a protection against marauding cats. All three know they are not supposed to be on the table and steal food, but, well, you know cats.

If you leave an unusually juicy morsel unguarded, you have to take your chances. So we devised the tail bowl protector to save ourselves the trouble. First we heard the bowl being investigated and moved a bit, followed by a disappointed Bobby (the other older cat) leaving the table with his trademark "prrrt" as he jumps. Then the sounds were repeated followed by the more clumsy and non-verbal exit of GirlKitty. Then no sound for awhile.

Doug reached over to put a tail in the bowl and discovered little Sheriff industriously working on uncracking the puzzle. She had examined the container with the good smells very carefully with her front paws and had gotten one paw in between the lips of the two bowls. When Doug happened to reach over, Sheriff had the two bowls separated and was working her nose into the widening gap.

She had unlocked the puzzle neither older, sighted cat had had the patience or persistence to deconstruct and was about to graze upon the ambrosia easily withheld from both older cats. Though I don't specifically remember, I can guess that either Doug or I rewarded her persistence after we removed her from the table.

Then there are the dropped things in the kitchen. When a human is in the kitchen, Sheriff is usually there too, just in case. She wouldn't want to withhold an opportunity from a human to give her treats. To be fair, she usually hangs around one of us wherever we are. But back to the kitchen.

Anything you drop, from an ice cube to a spoon to a few kernels of frozen corn escaped from the bag, anything--if Sheriff is in the kitchen, she will probably find it more quickly than we do. The minute something hits the floor, she leaps into action, using her ears and her knowledge of the kitchen to run right to the dropped thing and kill it.

She seems to understand that these things are not usually subject to the game of cat hockey. It's just a mere matter of finding. And she likes to race to the dropped object, being the first to find it. She's even come tearing in from the dining room, around the refrigerator and into the end of the kitchen to find something.

Now that we know the game, it's a matter of pride to find the dropped thing before the cat does. But I would say that the score is about fifty-fifty, even though the human doing the dropping is usually closer when the drop occurs. Sheriff's good.

The most fun thing of all about Sheriff, though, is her intense conviction that she can communicate. Some of the communication, of course, deals with food. We recycle cans after washing them in the dishwasher and store them in the back hallway for the weekly city pick-up. When Sheriff was quite little, she dug an empty, dishwashed tuna can out of the recycling bin and carried it over to Doug's feet, dropping it there as a statement of desire.

Sheriff has never repeated that ploy since it didn't work. But when someone opens the refrigerator, you may find Sheriff there, standing on her back legs and touching the tuna can sitting on the second shelf at the left. She is always ready to let us know just where it is.

Sheriff also knows that her bell gives her away. Most of the time you can hear the bell merrily ringing as Sheriff trots along or rolls over during a nap. Sometimes you'd swear she's intentionally ringing the bell louder when she's happy and running around. But there are other times when the bell goes silent. Then you find a little cat nose or paw where it's not supposed to be.

As I say, Sheriff is certain she can communicate her wishes. She likes to snuggle down in bed against one of us for the night. She has a favorite place next to Doug, and she's sometimes ready for sleep before we are. Every now and then we'll be talking, and a sleepy paw will appear very gently on Doug's mouth. The message is clear.