two years of tortitude

On this day two years ago I brought home a wee three-month-old kitten who quickly turned my flat into a home. The first night, she slept on the armchair in my bedroom; the second, at the foot of the bed. The third night she slept by my pillow and that has been her spot ever since.

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I adopted a tortoiseshell kitten. I hadn’t even heard of ‘tortitude’, though I quickly learned that Willow has tortitude in full measure.

desk bed sillies 2016-10-09

On her bed next to my desk.

The term ‘tortoiseshell’ refers to the unique blend of black, brown, orange, and cream-colored fur. Like calico, tortoiseshell coloring is somewhat rare because it requires the red-coloring gene to be present in both X chromosomes. Because both calicos and tortoiseshells require two X chromosomes, nearly all calicos and tortoiseshells are female. (The occasional male calico or tortoiseshell is often the result of a mutation and is sterile.) The difference between calico and tortoiseshell is that calico cats have large patches of solid orange, white, and black, whereas tortoiseshell cats have little white coloring and the colors are mixed together. Although tortoiseshell cats can be nearly any breed, there seems to be a consensus among cat owners that tortoiseshells have such distinct personalities that these traits are generally referred to as ‘tortitude’.

What does tortitude look like?

These multi-colored cats are sometimes referred to as the ‘red heads’ of the cat world. Alternately called ‘divas’ or ‘princesses’, these cats certainly have minds of their own and are not afraid to make their wishes known.

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Some of the characteristics of tortitude are:

  • High-energy
  • Bold and curious
  • Affectionate
  • Possessive
  • Talkative
  • Unpredictable
  • Sensitive
  • Demanding
  • Companionable

(Of course, the academic in me will point out that there is very little scientific evidence to support the idea of tortitude, and that it’s likely that discussions of tortitude are the result of widespread confirmation bias. Take this as you will.)

Continue reading

Catification: Climbing Wall

climbing wall_2016-02-19Raise your hand if you’ve heard the term, ‘Catification’. No? Catification is a term coined by Jackson Galaxy (of My Cat From Hell fame) that means making a feline-friendly environment in your home.

For instance, since Willow literally spends more time in my (our) flat than I do, she ought to have some ‘say’ in the decor. This flat is her home, too.

One of my first catification projects was to build a climbing wall for her. Only one wall of my flat was suitable for it, and she would have to share with my research bookcases. My goal for catification is that it meets both Willow’s and my needs.

Benefits of having a climbing wall for your cat(s):

  • It expands your cat’s territory vertically, thus maximizing space.
  • Higher territory gives your cat(s) a place to escape from other pets, small children, or vacuum cleaners.
  • Destructive cats are bored cats: a climbing wall adds interest to your home for your cat.
  • Climbing the tree and jumping between (or across) levels keeps her fit and healthy.
  • The tree and sisal rope provide plenty of places for your cat to scratch her claws.
  • It looks nicer than a pre-built carpeted cat tree.
  • You can integrate your own furniture, such as bookshelves, so that the wall serves a double purpose.

The climbing wall is made up of a few shelves, a tree, and a branch. The mirrors are cosmetic. In the end, this climbing wall cost less to put together than it would have been to buy a short, pre-built, carpeted cat tree.

Wait — a real tree?

Willow’s climbing wall features not only one, but two real trees. I had originally planned to wrap a length of PVC pipe with sisal rope, but when I mentioned the cost of buying enough sisal rope to do so to my parents, they offered to bring Willow a tree from their tree farm in South Carolina.

Fun fact: Climbing trees is not instinctual for cats. I had to teach Willow how to climb the tree! Once she grasped the concept, she was climbing like a pro. Now she races up the tree in a flash.

The tree is not itself affixed to the ceiling or floor. Each end is capped with a bit of PVC pipe attached to a thin board, and it is the board that is attached to the ceiling. Friction and tension keep the bottom of the tree in place. The ends of the PVC pipe are wrapped with sisal rope.

In addition to the tree, Willow also has a ‘lounging shelf’, which is pictured above. This shelf is different from the others because it is covered from carpet squares I chose from the carpet samples at Home Depot. The lounging shelf is one of her favorite places in the flat. She sometimes slept in the basket until she grew too big for it; then it became a useful place to hold her toys.

After about a year, I started thinking of ways to modify the climbing wall and make it more interesting again. When visiting my sister for Thanksgiving, she showed me a branch that had fallen off the big ash trees in their garden during an ice storm. She had kept it because she thought I might like it for Willow’s wall. I did!

The current version of the climbing wall features more tree than shelves, which makes getting to the high shelves more of a challenge for my clever and energetic cat. Because the ash tree is very hard and the bark isn’t very deep, I wrapped parts of it with sisal rope to provide more grip. I also used the sisal rope to attach the branches to hooks I put in the wall, and the base of the tree is in a dark-stained, wooden bucket full of rocks.

We also use the wall when we play with Go Cat’s Da Bird toy: I’ll make the ‘bird’ fly up to the high shelves and flit away just as she catches up to it. When she has her nightly ‘crazy time’, she literally runs up the walls! Willow sometimes leaps from one high shelf to the other, nimbly slipping through the space between the top right branch and the wall to land on her lounging shelf. She also leaps from the sofa onto the middle of the right branch. Soon I will need to wrap more sisal rope around it as she wears away the bark with her climbing.

If you have the room for it, I recommend getting a branch or two of real trees for your cat(s). Willow has never scratched any of my furniture because she has plenty of her ‘furniture’ to scratch instead. Cats scratch to mark their territory, sharpen their claws, and to stretch their backs, and they’re likely to prefer scratching something natural like tree bark over fabric. Although both of my trees came from family sources, you could ask a local tree and lawn service if they have any particularly large branches you could use. That’s what I was going to do before my sister offered the branch that fell off of her tree.

In another year I will change the wall up again. Best to keep Miss Adventure Paws on her toes!

Teach your cat to walk on a leash

When I adopted Willow, I had already decided that she would be an indoor-only cat. I had no yard or garden of my own to be Willow’s territory and my apartment complex is on a busy road near an even busier interstate highway. An indoor cat is a healthy cat, and cheaper with fewer vet bills to consider.

But my flat is also very small, and I knew that my indoor/outdoor cats of the past loved the fresh air, smells, bugs, and birds that they could watch while outside. I knew that if I started early enough (and Willow seemed both brave and clever enough for me to try) I could train her to walk on a leash.


Benefits of teaching your cat to walk on a leash:

  • Your cat gets the mental stimulation that comes from being outside.
  • Because the outside time is supervised, you know what your cat is or is not getting into; also, your cat won’t be able to kill songbirds in your area.
  • Your cat will know the smells and surroundings around your home. If she ever gets outside on her own, she will know where Home is.
  • Your neighbors will see you and your cat together. Again, if your cat gets outside on her own, your neighbors will know she belongs to you.
  • Vet visits are easier because you can let your cat out of the carrier and still have control of your pet.
  • Same thing when travelling: When making a pit stop, you can let the cat out of the carrier to stretch her legs without worrying about her escaping — just keep hold of that leash!
  • Your cat will enjoy herself and you will be happy knowing that she is happy!

Like any type of training you do with cats, or other animals, you need patience. Willow was about six months’ old when I trained her to wear a harness, and though she took to it quickly, I didn’t begin by wrestling her into the thing and dumping her outside. (Hint: That is NOT the way to teach your cat to walk on a lead.)

Here’s how I trained Willow to walk on a leash in six steps: Continue reading

St Gertrude’s Day

Happy St Gertrude’s Day! March 17th is also the feast day of St Gertrude of Nivelles, an abbess who lived in the seventh century in what is now Belgium.


Painting by Carolee Clark (2015).*

When I adopted Willow in mid-July 2015, the vet told me she was four months’ old, which means she was likely born in mid-March. By happy serendipity, Willow’s presumptive birthday falls near St Gertrude of Nivelles’s feast day, who is the patron saint of cats.

Granted, St Gertrude’s association with cats is a modern addition based on stories about how her cooking repelled mice and rats and of her friendliness to the abbey’s felines. As with most saints, she has several areas of expertise, including being the patron saint of gardeners, travelers, and those with mental illness. She shares a feast day with St Patrick because that is the day she died, having been told the day before that St Patrick would welcome her into heaven. (Her death was most likely the result of years of fasting and keeping vigils, essentially death by exhaustion and starvation. She was only 33 when she died. I find this terribly sad.)

And so Willow’s birthday is observed on St Gertrude’s Day. Today she is two! I was going to take her for an extra-long walk today but my injured foot interferes with that plan. Instead, I will give her lots of love and cuddles and playtime, and extra treats in her puzzle feeders.


* The best images of St Gertrude of Nivelles that I’ve found are paintings by Carolee Clark of ‘King of Mice’ studios: she painted St Gertrude in 2008, 20092012, 2013, 2014 (also a print on her Etsy store), and 2015. (Many of the results from a Google image search for St Gertrude are Clark’s work and it took me a bit of digging to find the images’ source. As a librarian-in-training, it frustrates me to see an artist’s work spread widely across the Internet without being attributed to them.)

meet Willow


At 3 months.

What do you call a small, brown and black and cream furry creature with four legs and a winding tail, who’s sassy, curious, and brave, who loves to play and cuddle, and is a bit too clever for her own good?

You would call her a Willow.

I adopted Willow in July 2015, shortly after I moved into a flat that allowed tenants to have pets. In fact, that was the primary reason I chose to move, and the flat I moved into was chosen both for its proximity to a park and its pet policy.

That summer I volunteered at the local animal shelter, though I admit it was partly with the ulterior motive of wanting to get to know the cats in the shelter before choosing one to adopt. The little tortoiseshell kitten caught my attention for how she purred even when different  volunteers held her. When I played with her in the visitation room, she boldly explored the little room, periodically scampering back to me for attention. I also had my eye on a male fluffy black kitten who was especially cuddly.

Over the weekend I resolved to adopt one of them. I stopped by Target on my way to the shelter, picking up a scratching post, litter bin and litter, and a bag of the type of food used at the shelter; and arrived at the shelter just minutes after it opened on Monday morning. The black kitten had just been adopted. His kennel-mate was keening loudly, missing his friend, so I took him, the tortie, and the tortie’s kennel-mate into one of the kitten playrooms. The three of them got on immediately. I took the opportunity to play with the tortie kitten again and her curiosity, openness, and playfulness won me over.


Above: At 6 months; Below: At 22 months.

It took about a week to name her. Her two-toned face and mottled coat combined with her penchant for mischief made me think of wood sprites and pixies. I wrote about fairies in medieval English literature for my PhD, and am also widely read in British folklore about fairies, so I tried out a range of names from selkie, to seelie, to Melior, and more. But I kept coming back to the name will o’ the wisp. The willow tree is also said to have magical properties, according to folklore. So that is her name: Willow, after both a type of fairy that plays tricks on humans and a magical tree.

Willow has since grown into her bat ears, but she is still friendly, playful, curious, clever, and sassy. She definitely has what is called tortitude in the cat world. Some of the things I will blog about are ways I keep her healthy and happy in a small, one-bedroom flat.