When the tiny tabby, just over two pounds, arrived from the shelter, we were warned that he was spicy and bitey. One of the smallest cats we ever hosted, but full of will and want. A silver brown tabby, with eyes turning gold. He was always leaping, bouncing and hopping. In the first days when we needed to keep him separate from our other older cats to start the gentle introductions between them, whenever we entered the room, he would greet us bounding towards us on his hind legs, front arms outstretched as if to grab us in a hug.
But Hopkins was bitey, yes, frenetic, yes, and we knew while this was cute the cuteness would not last longer than his tininess. To have a grown mid-sized predator on your hands without some calmness and kindness towards humans, who lack fur to protect them from enthused play, is a scenario that loses its humor quickly.
We named him Hopkins, in salute to Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem ‘Pied Beauty’, for if ever a tiny cat had speckles, dashes and spots, this one did. We had a guest at the time, a young man who was so skilled in animal handling that I wish he had decided to use those skills as his career. This man took on the handling of Hopkins, letting him play ferociously, wrestling his tiny savage self with firm hands, and actually demonstrating for our five-year old cat Watson, how to play with a kitten on overdrive.
We’ve raised a lot of kittens in our time, but we’d never seen a kitten so hyper as Hopkins. He had a royal presumption about him, a feeling of the feral, the untamable, even though he loved us and wanted to be close and cuddled, and liked to sleep in a padded box by my pillow. Indeed we wondered, was there any chance there was some splash of an exotic breed in this kitten that made him so much more so, than one normally expects?
Watson did not know what to do with this scrap of energy, and it took a lot of sessions of our young man demonstrating how to spin a kitten on the carpet and roll or flip him over with a quick hand. Watson showed signs of conflict in himself– he would cry when he saw the kitten bite a human hand like someone objecting “That’s not right!” He would make little essays and charges, then deflect or retreat as though afraid of hurting the miniature monster. Finally, one evening, Watson dashed in and bashed the kitten with a paw, claws hidden. After that, one bit at a time, he began to understand he could play with the mite and hit him, and even gently bite. It took weeks, though, and our friend had to continually encourage Watson with advice and example.
We lost our oldest cat Kitsune in this time period to a cancer of the throat, and again, our young friend demonstrated his skills as an animal handler during that difficult time. But our friend soon responded to a call from his home, headed back through a dip in the COVID numbers, and we missed his kind presence. Hopkins showed the loss, he kept looking for his friend, checking by the door to no avail.
In the meantime Hopkins grew. From just under three pounds he stretched and bulked to six, then eight, then ten. We tried to keep him exercised and much handled, something that you want to do with any young animal who will be a companion. He was profoundly affectionate, attentive, but still rough. It concerned us, but we hoped he’d mellow in time as he reached his adulthood. But when would that be, and how big was he going to be?
I should also mention that this was a young cat who, if you played with him using wand toys, showed a truly daunting ferocity, a dedication and even savagery in his behavior, such that I was concerned that if Watson played too, someone would get hurt, and I was very careful when I put the toy away that I used some sleight of hand, because what if Hopkins seriously objected?
About six months into his life with us, we received news from our daughter that there were two newly captured feral kittens in desperate need of a home. They came from a feral colony near her place, the same colony that had given her a rather problematic but character-ful black cat of her own, all too fittingly named Ravage. It took us no time at all to say yes. The little guys arrived in October, weighing perhaps four pounds each, black with greeny gold eyes. Jinx and Jasper.
Our planned careful introduction of Watson and Hopkins (who now weighed over ten pounds at about seven months) to the little guys was not as slow as we’d planned because there was a jail break and the next thing we knew we had a malestrom of cats playing, playing and playing, all over the place. Curiously, it was Watson who made all the noises, sounding like a querulous baby, as if trying to say “I don’t know how to play, be nice to me. don’t bite so sharp. don’t hit so hard,” while the little black kittens and Hopkins were dashing and rolling, play biting and batting all over the house.
What we discovered, was that like some miracle, Hopkins’ roughness melted. He’d needed kittens to tame him. Now he played and rumpused and rioted, but he did no harm. He became far gentler with us. He had always distinguished between my husband and myself and been softer with me, but now we saw him, despite his huge enthusiasm, being even more careful yet, with his new kittens.
Is this the cure for some overly energetic and predatory young cats? Find them some kittens to teach them kindness? I don’t know if this would work for all. But in our household over many decades of living with cats, we have seen the falling in love between young fixed male cats and tiny kittens, and it is a marvel when this magic happens. Seeing a young powerful cat contemplating his kittens with a loopy tender affection is wonderful.
I could string you a sequence of names of the cats we’ve had who have done this while we watched, and our hearts melted. Hopkins is now over thirteen pounds of cat at approximately eleven months, and we are grateful for his transformation!