Reading and cats go together as naturally as vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup, or corn dogs and county fairs. What could be more perfect than reading an engaging book with a purring cat on your lap? A cat understands and appreciates the need for quiet contemplation and enjoys just being close. No throw-the-ball, no can-Heather-come-over-and-play, no honey-I-can't-find-clean-socks. Nothing except peace, quiet and warm companionship.
It's a pleasure known even to people in a few libraries -- those with cats, of course.
Documentary-maker Gary Roma understands the nature of cats -- he has two of his own -- and thinks there's something special about libraries. So he set out to create a work on library cats, starting with a list and ending up with a clever documentary called "Puss in Books," celebrating those fine felines who serve in the stacks.
"I came across a listing for the Library Cat Association," he said, in explaining his choice of subject. "I decided to take a road trip, working by myself, doing the videotaping.
"I found that librarians were eager and happy to talk about the cats. It was wonderful to hear the stories."
Roma found more than 100 library cats, although only a fraction of them made it into his documentary. Those who did make a strong case for an increase in their numbers. Roma's favorite is a handsome marmalade tabby in the Spencer, Iowa, public library with the wonderful name of Dewey Readmore Books.
"Dewey is a warm, loving cat," said Roma, which may explain why the fluffy cat gets more than his fair share of air time, along with a pair of cats named Baker and Taylor who are probably the most famous of all library cats.
Although both are gone now, Baker and Taylor were the pride of their Reno, Nev., library. Named after a book distributor, the pair were immortalized on posters, tote bags and other merchandise. They had a fan club and a song, and the library saw a constant parade of people who dropped by from quite a distance just to see the cats.
In "Puss in Books," librarian Jan Louch, who postponed her retirement until both the cats had passed on, says many patrons asked if they could check out one of the cats. "He's for reference only," she'd explain.
While Baker and Taylor were planned acquisitions, other cats were more of a surprise, as cats often are. Dewey, the Iowa cat, was found as a tiny kitten under a load of books in the return chute. His title now: director of marketing and public relations. Kinky, a Wisconsin tuxedo cat, is another library cat with a formal title: librarian in charge of rodent control. His colleagues say that since they haven't seen any mice he must be doing a good job.
Not everyone is in favor of library cats, though, and Roma talks to some who aren't, including a woman who's afraid of cats. Allergies are a problem, too. Librarians say compromises can sometimes be worked out, such as putting the cat in the back when patrons with cat problems visit. Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges to keeping cats in libraries isn't people at all, says Roma. It's motion-detector security systems.
Despite the problems, Roma thinks there will always be library cats. The Library Cat Association will be pushing for them, that's for sure.
"Considering that there are 15,000 public libraries (and only about 100 with cats), there seems to be much work to be done," Phyllis Lahti, the LCA's director, says on the documentary.
Roma's documentary is available on videotape for $19.95, plus $3 shipping and handling from Iron Frog Productions, 9 Townsend St., Waltham, MA 02453-6026. For more information on the Library Cat Association, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to P.O. Box 274, Moorhead, MN 56560. Subscriptions to The Library Cat Newsletter are $6 per year, with a sample issue available for $1.
PETS ON THE WEB
Is there a library cat in your town? Gary Roma's Web site (www.ironfrog.com) is arguably the best resource around for tracking down feline library dwellers. While he's a little generous in his definition of "library cat" -- six sculptures, including Patience and Fortitude, the New York Public Library lions, make the cut -- most of the cats listed are the genuine article, felis catus (domestic cat). The page allows you to click on a state and come up with a list of library cats, with related Web sites, e-mail addresses and pictures, if available. You can also read excepts of his library cat interviews, see cartoons from the video and read the words to the song "Baker and Taylor."
A dog-show trick for keeping dogs cool while walking on warm days is to drape a towel over them and keep the towel dripping wet by adding water at regular intervals. Some folks have even gone so far as to make terry-cloth jackets, which you can sometimes find for sale at dog shows. The jackets have a smarter look and better fit, but a towel works just fine. For the stay-at-home dog on a hot day, make sure plenty of water and shade is available. Better yet, keep your dog inside with the air conditioning. To keep water cool, freeze water in margarine containers and add the ice blocks to fresh dishes of water every morning. The melting ice will keep the water perfectly chilled.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have a question about my dog Pepper, a Dalmatian. I walk him daily on a path near our home. He is a real food scavenger and often tries to eat things he sees on the path that have been dropped. He has been obedience-trained, but he didn't catch on to the "leave it" command and he'll obey when he feels like it.
Also, he wants to mark every bush we pass, so I can't seem to get a pace going for exercise. Any suggestions? S.W., via e-mail
A: The "leave it" command is exactly what you need your dog to know for handling both problems. If he didn't catch on, you need to work on his understanding of this command.
Teach "leave it" with a physical correction. With your dog in a sit-stay and your hand in a fist, flat surface up, offer your dog a biscuit with the other. As he reaches for the biscuit, say "leave it," and bop him under the chin, enough to close his jaw but not lift him off his feet. Offer the biscuit again, repeating the "leave it" command, and if he hesitates or turns away, praise him. Few dogs need this demonstrated more than twice.
Once your dog understands, keep practicing and praising. With my toy-crazy retrievers, I show them a toy they'd love to wrap their chops around, telling them to "leave it." When they avert their noses and eyes for a few seconds, I praise them, then tell them "OK" and let them take the toy with more praise. I practice this with treats, too. They're asked to sit, and then every so often I practice "leave it" before giving them the "OK" and allowing them their goodie.
On leash, "leave it" works to avoid marking because a dog always sniffs, however briefly, before the leg-lift. Don't stop for leg-lifters. Use the "leave it" command, correct your dog for slowing down the way your obedience instructor showed you and keep walking. If you're consistent, he'll soon understand the rules and quit trying to hit every bush on the way.
Q: Why do cats wag their tails? -- L.K., via e-mail
A: You can tell a great deal of what your cat's thinking by watching his tail. Tail up and flipped forward over the back is the cat's way of saying, "Hi, how are you? Nice to see you. Isn't it time to get my dinner?" -- a relaxed and friendly greeting of affection and trust. A cat who's uncertain puffs out his tail, holds it low (perhaps even tucked under), and moves it from side to side. If a cat is stalking, his tail is held low and stiff, except for twitching at the end as if the force required to hold its body still is too much for the cat, who must release nervous energy from the end of his tail. (This "hunting twitch" may also be seen in play.)
The tail is one of the best physical indications of a cat's impending aggression. A cat who's becoming agitated whips his tail from side to side; often the tail is puffed out as well. A tail wag is not the friendly gesture in cats that it is in dogs, for sure. Give this kitty some space and time to cool down.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to WriteToGina(at)YourPetPlace.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600