The Cat and the Bag

Like most cats, Buster loves paper bags. He likes plastic bags, too, but those are for licking. Paper bags are for pouncing on, climbing into and creating cat-forts.

Buster, in a calmer mood.

Buster is a rescue cat. He was mistreated before we got him, and although he’s been with us many years, he still fears having something grab him by the neck. He wears a collar, but that took 18 months of careful work. Despite that, he loves being a lap cat and is the most fearless foolhardy of our cats.

After I emptied the groceries from Trader Joe’s, I dropped the bag on the floor. Buster was in heaven–he crawled into it, he rattled around it, he jumped on top of it, slid down the length, and stuck his head through the handle. In the split second before it happened, I knew it had been a mistake to leave the bag handles intact.

Buster now had his head through the bag handle, and while there was plenty of

Buster loves watching bacon. Just in case you drop some.

room, he was wearing the bag, and for Buster that meant the bag had him by the neck. Old fears roared to life. Buster headed down the hall full-tilt, the bag in pursuit. I tried to grab the bag as he went by, but that made it worse–now I was lunging for him. At least in his imagination.

As he came by again my comforting voice was lost in the bag rattling and flapping. The sliding door screen simply popped off the track as he burst through the open door and started a frantic lap around the pool. I hoped he wasn’t going to fall in, it’s too cold to voluntarily jump in, even after a cat. The pool towels were still outside, so I grabbed one, and when Buster made his second lap of the pool, I dropped the towel over him and scooped him up. He was so terrified he wet himself, the towel, and me.

In a second, I had the bad off his head, and sat down with a wet, shivering, terrified cat. With the bag gone, Buster did what Buster does when someone is holding him and saying calming things to him–he began to purr. In a few minutes his heart rate settled down and he let me give him a sponge bath. Particularly because I kept the bag of cat treats in view, and rewarded him when we were done.

After the drama, I began to think about his reaction. At first I thought, “he knows that bag won’t attack him; he knows it’s not alive.” But then I realized that I do the same thing. Well, not with a bag, but with old memories that still scare me. Given a trigger to set off anger, fear, or shame, I run around emotionally, not capable of calming myself, not caring what I do as long as I try to outrun the painful emotion.

The solution, of course, is to stop running, sit with the emotion and notice that it no longer has a hold on me. It never did. All I needed to do was pull it over my head. But calm thinking and planning is not what happens when old triggers are pushed. Panic and frantic emotions take over. At that moment, we need a calmer, cooler head that can see the bigger picture to hold us, comfort us and assure us we are safe. And until we learn to do that for ourselves, we will be no smarter than Buster.

–Quinn McDonald learns something every day, even if it’s from Buster. She teaches what she knows through coaching or writing classes.

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19 thoughts on “The Cat and the Bag

  1. Good job catching a cat. Our cat Hazel has two speeds, “still visible” and “what was that?” She may have a third (higher) speed, but it can’t be detected by science. She takes a dim view of laps, and while I suppose she’s physically capable of purring…

    I’ve never seen Hazel panic, but I *can* tell you an outraged cat has a lot more sharp edges than just four.

  2. Quinn,
    Thank you for the story today. I have been running around with that paper bag attached to my neck with an issue that must find a place of clearness. The picture you painted showed me how important it is to put the bag down, tear it off and let it sit silently while I find the healing that can only come when the bag is removed. Wonderful metaphor for me in Buster’s story. Thanks

  3. Poor Buster! I have seen a similar situation unfold with one of my cats. Minou tried to open a parcel and the tape got caught on her bum. Poor little girl was so upset and it took a while for me to catch her and calm her down. I kept tape and any other thing that might frighten her put away safely. Molly, the current feline in residence, has similar fears, but has never had to contend with tape, handles or such. Her biggest fear is going to the vet which thankfully only happens once a year. Hope Buster has a calm, quiet, loving day!

  4. I love Buster, who looks exactly like my former foster cat Buzz except for the fake Groucho Marx moustache. What a testament to your patient care that he relaxed almost immediately and let you bathe him. He’s so lucky to have you. You understand his reflexes without ascribing human status to him–and learn from him without letting yourself off the hook to control your own freaky little episodes. No wonder you’re such a good coach.

    • Buster is my problem child. He will dare everything, climb anywhere, push whatever he wants off any surface. He wakes me up at 5 a.m. just because he can. But he’s the only one who will lie on my lap and snore contentedly. We deserve each other. I learn to give up and take control in different places. He purrs at the end of the episode. It’s a good match.

    • He’s 14 now, and we’ve had him for 12 years and the lesson of the bag eludes him entirely. The towel idea was pure luck. There wasn’t much outside to use. I did consider pushing him into the pool (he’s a good swimmer) but I was afraid of the cold water. For me, he would have been fine!

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