Moritz the Cat
Although my wife Kathy has always liked cats, she and the kids knew that cats were treated as enemies on our property and that we could not have them because they killed pigeons. Then on a trip to Europe, Rick Mardis and I visited the loft of Jann Traats in Holland. Now Jann Traats and Germaine Imbrecht were very much alike; men with a lot of common sense who truly lived in harmony with the land and their animals. As we stood in Jann’s back yard, I saw a cat jump up into his Sputnik trap. I got excited and pointed to where the cat had gone. He nonchalantly motioned that it was all right, it was no problem. Thus started a real education for me concerning cats and pigeons.
First of all, what has stayed in my mind the years since then is how Jann could handle pigeons. If he lost a widowhood cock on a race, he would replace him with a spare from a different loft and have the bird racing in no time. The ultimate of this occurred in one of his small lofts with 9 nest boxes. He put a dark blue youngster about 4 months old in the center nest box surrounded on all sides by mature widowhood cocks. I had never met anyone with a young bird able to hold his nest box in a loft with mature racing cocks.
Of course I commented on this and as he put his hand by the youngster, the bird slapped it away. It was truly hard to believe. But here comes the real kicker. When talking about the youngster holding the box like this, Jann finally made the statement “There is a problem. That youngster might turn out to be a hen and not a cock.” Now there you have a pigeon flyer with unbelievable handling skills.
Let’s get back to the cat. In another loft, a mother cat with her litter of kittens was in the bottom right hand nest box. When I asked how this was possible, Jann said “I have always had cats in my loft.” I asked, “Don’t they ever bother your pigeons?” He says, “In my entire life, two of them have.” “Well what did you do?” His answer was simple: “Dead”.
The cat episode changed my whole outlook on cats. If he could do it, I could too. So when I returned to Wisconsin, to the surprise of my family, we got a kitten. Understand that I lived on 8 acres of woods. Chipmunks were the biggest nuisance you can imagine for getting into things. In addition, every fall the field mice would move into a building somewhere. From that day on, we always had cats. They took care of the chipmunks and the field mice and to this day we have never had a pigeon casualty due to cats.
So how do you train a cat to be with pigeons? It takes patience, consistent training and I think the right type of cat to accomplish this. By way of background, here in Florida fruit rats abound. These are small rats that act more like a squirrel than a rat. They love fruit. Peaches and plums seem to be their favorites, and we’d better not forget figs. The rats have a rather long tail with rings like an armadillo. This enables them to climb straight up; also, going straight down a dowel rod is no problem. On top of that, they have no fear and are very docile. They don’t scurry away the way the Norwegian rats do in colder climates. I wouldn’t be surprised if people who enjoy this kind of critter would keep them as pets. But other than hawks, fruit rats are the biggest problem or nuisance that we fanciers have in Florida.
So last year I decided that my two dogs were not successful enough at keeping these critters out of my yard. I set out to get a cat. First of all, I went to someone who had over 10 kittens about the same size. I told him I wanted the friendliest kitten he had. I think it is important to get a kitten that is friendly and wants to please when you plan to train it. He had one that he said was kind of a nuisance and would get between his legs and almost trip him at times. I said, “That’s the one I want”.
Once Moritz the cat was acclimated to my back building and was being petted by everyone, we started the teaching process. To teach him to respect the birds, I put him in a show cage with 3 or 4 mature cock birds. That created a lot of flapping and confusion and scared him. A few minutes, and I took him out. I repeated that procedure over and over. If he showed any interest in the pigeons, he also was squirted in the face with water, but he was never left in the cage for any length of time.
Then I took him with me in the aisle of the loft to let him get used to the birds and the birds to him. I had a very protective hen on the nest, so I slowly introduced Moritz to her and let her slap him. Again, just short little excursions. I never overdid it. You will find that soon there is no problem putting your cat into a basket with birds. It really does not take a cat very long to get the idea.
Now the next crucial thing was training Moritz to hunt the right kind of prey and teaching him to kill rats. The first thing I did was shoot squirrels, since I figured squirrels were as close to a rat as I could get. I gave him a warm squirrel. He played with it, but really didn’t know what to do, so I had to take a knife and make a slit down the back. The reason for doing this is that a young cat or kitten cannot get through the hide of a squirrel. Soon Moritz figured out that a dead squirrel was food. At that point, if he saw me picking up my .22, he got excited and wanted to follow me.
So Moritz lived basically on a straight diet of squirrels. No canned cat food at any time! Then I introduced the first rat to him. (I put out the word to my friends that I needed a rat and then waited until one of them trapped a rat and brought it over to me in a plastic bag.) It was amazing when Moritz got his first whiff of a rat. He actually growled, something I had never heard before. From that day on, he was and still is an unbelievable rat hunter.
More about feeding Moritz. In the evening when the dogs are fed dry dog food, he snitches only a nugget or two; he goes into the night with a good appetite. The next morning, you can tell very quickly if his hunting expedition was successful. If his belly is full, he wants to be scratched and petted. He will be lazy and sleep the rest of the day. On the other hand, if he has not been successful during the night, he will brush up against me and be a downright pest until he is given a handful or two of dry dog food. He never gets any food from me except dry dog food, not exactly what he would like. So therefore his real meals have to be the abundant fruit rats of Florida.
Today if Moritz smells a rat someplace and cannot get at it, he will sit and meow for me to come help him. In my old loft I regularly lift him up above the ceiling and he will patrol all the rafters. In my new loft I have a plastic egg crate (drop through) ceiling Harold Belka built for me. I put Moritz up there one evening; he was very happy and did not want to come down. The next morning the drop-through ceiling had lived up to its name as he had dislodged one of the panels during his hunting excursion. The panel and the cat had fallen down into a section where one of my best cock birds was breeding with his hen. So that morning I had 2 of my best birds and the cat and the plastic ceiling panel all together in one loft. They spent the night together. The birds were just sitting there looking at Moritz and he was happy that I had come to rescue him.
Of course Moritz thinks he’s a “people” and he holds a position of importance. In the morning when half a dozen or so guys are sitting around my table, either inside or outside, he will be sleeping in one of the chairs. Someone comes, picks up the chair and slides him off in order to sit down. He slides off, but as soon as a person leaves, he hops back in the empty chair to resume his nap. This comical procedure continues all morning.
If Moritz sees me pick up the .22, he will be 3 or 4 feet behind me no matter where I go. If he ate well the night before he sleeps all day, but come evening, he follows me like a dog as I make my rounds through the pigeon lofts. Walking next to pigeons is no problem for him or the birds. If he is out of sight and I call him, he will come just like a dog. He is a very useful part of our animal kingdom and a lot of fun to have.
So if your wife likes cats, and you think you always had to hate them because of the birds, think again. As Moritz has shown us, a cat can be a very valuable addition to your menagerie.