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Married with Horses: Pickles and Popcorn

A horsewoman's husband conducts experiments to find out what his cat will eat and discovers his pets have trained him well.

Pavlov would be proud of our progress.

Bumping around in the barn while preparing the horses' morning buckets consistently elicits more than drooling. It doesn't matter that I tiptoe out to the barn, ease the lids off the feed bins and slowly separate the stacked plastic pails.

Invariably, I let go of a pail's metal handle, which falls and bangs against the rim. Immediately, the pasture explodes with whinnies, nickers, hollers, gallops and bucks.

Similar events occur in the house, too (though not with the horses).

© Andy Myer
© Andy Myer

Any time the oven timer beeps and Macy is inside, she runs and sits by the cats' kibble bowl. I don't know how it began, but every time she does it, I feed her, which only reinforces the behavior.

This is mainly because the cats have me trained to feed them when they sit by the bowl. Where the oven timer entered the picture, I don't know. But the timer goes off, Macy comes running, and I offer her kibble.

Opening the pantry door has a similar effect. The door squeaks, Jack and Pickles come running, and I offer them treats, which only reinforces their behavior.

Strangely, every time I open the pantry, I mindlessly reach for the cat treats, even if I'm actually looking for dried thyme or peanut butter. As usual, I'm not sure who among us is actually being trained.

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Recently I entered the pantry and Jack and Pickles looked up at me as I stood, scanning the shelves for the cat treats. There were plenty of cat-treat-sized items: jelly beans, vitamins, split peas, but nothing particularly suitable for felines.

"Sorry, guys," I said, grabbing a rolled-shut bag of cheese puffs.

Jack and Pickles both perked up at the sound of the crinkling cellophane. Pickles actually stood up on his hind legs and sniffed at the air.

I ate all but a small piece of a cheese puff and tossed it towards the cats. Jack pounced, sniffed and gave me a confused look. Pickles nearly knocked Jack down getting to the piece of puff. He sniffed the puff, too, but skipped the confused look; all I heard was tiny crunching.

I tossed Pickles a small corner from a tortilla chip, which he pounced on and devoured. A piece of a whole wheat cracker met the same fate. Jack watched intently, though his face hadn't lost its confused expression.

I went to the fridge and pulled out some containers and bags. Pickles loved the cheddar cheese. He attacked and devoured the chunk of zucchini. He batted around and then wolfed down a bit of hanger steak as well as a small flap of lettuce.

Pickles spent about five minutes toying with a broccoli floret, bit it, spit it out and then batted it under the fridge. It seems he feels the same way I do about raw broccoli.

The "Pickles experiment" continued though the week. Jack was the control group, receiving the same items, but usually turning up his nose.

Fried eggs went over well with Pickles, as did scrambled eggs, bacon, turkey bacon, ground beef, roasted chicken (no surprise there) and soy sausage patties. Buttered toast was another favorite, and Pickles clearly preferred apricot jam to grape.

He also liked natural beef hot dogs as well as the bun, bits of cucumber and pieces of sweetened, rolled oats and rice from our breakfast cereal.

Pickles would seemingly eat anything; nothing was a surprise any longer. The treats tapered off.

It had been a day or two since he'd had anything other than cat kibble when we sat down to watch television with a giant bowl of home-popped popcorn (with butter, naturally). I had just set the bowl down on the ottoman when Pickles--more a stripy blur than a cat--leapt from the back of the couch and landed right in the popcorn bowl.

Popcorn pieces went everywhere and the bowl nearly overturned, but Pickles sat in the bowl crunching on the remaining handful of buttery popcorn. As I lifted him out of the bowl he was crunching, licking his lips and rumbling like heavy machinery.

"Snacks, pets and scratches--my favorite!" he purred.

I had created a little food monster. He was turning out just like me, and my timing couldn't have been better. Pickles had developed his appetite just in time for one of the year's greatest feasts.

Granted, preparing for our family's Thanksgiving meal was not made easier by the new, furry foodie. He was underfoot as I cooked the ham and stirred the soup, while I whipped potatoes and baked off the stuffing. If I stood still for more than a few seconds, Pickles would try to climb my leg to get to the food. And he was purring the entire time.

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