Get over yourselves, dogs. Teton residents love their cats, too.
Brenda Sherwin says Mouth likes to be upside down. The cat watches over Pet Place Plus, where he lives, providing comic relief for employees. PRICE CHAMBERS / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Jennifer Dorsey, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
March 6, 2013
Some cats look cute and cuddly. Hobie isn’t one of them.
Long and tall and weighing in at 17 or 18 pounds, Hobie resembles a mountain lion, owner Kyle Johnson says. But as tough as the tiger-striped cat appears on the outside, his owner says, he’s a big softy, willing to put up with just about anything.
On a February afternoon, Hobie demonstrated his patience, sitting motionless in the family’s den in Rangeview as Johnson set a pair of wings on his back and then balanced two toy blocks on his head.
“This is an exceptional cat,” Johnson said. “He’s very tolerant.”
With all respect to Hobie and his family, Jackson Hole has many exceptional cats, though they don’t seem to get the spotlight the way dogs do. Perhaps it’s because dogs are out in public with people so much, and their feline counterparts are not.
It’s unlikely you’ll see a cat’s head poking out from the window of a passing car. You won’t run into a cat keeping hikers and skiers company in the mountains or plunging into the Snake River to fetch a stick or sitting in front of Pearl Street Bagels waiting for its owner to finish breakfast. There’s no special park where cats can hang out with their own kind. Not that they’d want to.
Yet low-profile though it might be, species Felix catus — defined in the dictionary as “a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout and retractile claws” — has proliferated in Jackson Hole.
Friendly and convenient
In homes large and small around the valley, there are felines lounging on beds, sitting on laps, soaking up the sun on windowsills and swatting at dangly toys. They have names like Scout, Signor Pizzacato, Lewis, Comet, Macy, Rusty, Grace and Glory. They’re affectionate, amusing and amusable, and they’re more autonomous than dogs and a tad easier to care for, owners say.
“I like their independence,” said Game Creek resident John Spahr, owner of a three-legged cat named Snaggletooth, aka Snaggy. “They’re sort of their own beast.”
Johnson said his family will likely get a dog when his son, Zack, now 5, is old enough to take care of it, but there is a convenience factor to kitties.
“Dogs just seem to be more needy,” he said. “With a cat, you can leave for a few days and have someone come over and feed him.”
Fred Hancock raised and showed Shelties for 20 years and then decided it was time to “move into cats,” he said.
“They’re good friends and companions,” said Hancock, who shares his apartment at River Rock Assisted Living with two gray cats named Earl and Maggie. “It’s easier to clean a litter box than it is to clean poop out of the snow.”
The number of cats in Jackson Hole is unknown. Teton County’s animal control officer, Darren Rudd, estimates that only 1 percent of them are licensed, even though it’s required, and that the cat population at least equals the 10,000 dogs believed to be here.
“Ten thousand cats is a pretty conservative estimate,” he said.
Given feline fecundity, “I wouldn’t argue with that number,” said Corie Ryback of the Jackson/Teton County Animal Shelter. “Cats procreate like rabbits.”
Rudd speculated that one reason people don’t license their cats is they fear the collars that the tags hang on will get caught on fences or branches and strangle the animals. Ryback said breakaway collars solve the safety issues, “but cats can learn to take them off and run around naked.”
Indoor cats need a stimulating environment if they’re to stay put, Ryback said. “It’s hard to keep cats in if they want to go out.”
Big cat is king at pet store
Mouth, the resident cat at Pet Place Plus, has a stimulating environment … six days a week, at least.
The big black shorthair got his name because he’s vocal at times, especially Monday mornings, said Natasha Stevens, the store’s general manager.
“The store is closed on Sundays, so he’s like, ‘Where were you yesterday?’ ” she said.
Discovered wandering with his brother in Bondurant, Mouth spent time at the animal shelter before the pet supplies store adopted him two and a half years ago. He’s a working cat, brought on board for his mousing abilities.
“There’s a lot of pet food around, and particularly when the weather gets cooler, the rodents come in,” Stevens said. “Since he came, there have been no mice in sight at all.”
Mouth’s talents go beyond pest control, however.
“He helps us in many ways,” Stevenson said. “He’s an integral part of the store.”
Mouth is a greeter, hanging out on the counter, enjoying pats from customers. Contrary to the stereotype of the dog-hating cat, he’ll extend a friendly paw to canines that visit the store with their owners.
“People bring their dogs in to get used to being around a cat,” Stevens said. “Mouth doesn’t run away, so he doesn’t spark their urge to run.”
Mouth is also a sales assistant. When a customer was doubtful that a pet carrier was big enough for her cat, Mouth didn’t complain when an employee stuffed him inside to demonstrate the fit. Sold. He also wears a harness and leash, proof to any people who might wonder if that’s possible for a cat.
“It’s always a positive,” Stevenson said of the gear. “He associates the leash with going outside.”
Store employees joke that Mouth doesn’t know he’s not a dog, and it’s not just the leash. He sits on command, and while many cats detest riding in cars, he enjoys it, Stevenson said.
The Johnsons’ cat, Hobie — named for the kind of boat Kyle and his wife, Susan, sail — has canine qualities as well. Hobie doesn’t scratch or bite, even when their daughter, Cadence, 2 1/2, lies on top of him and pulls his whiskers. It’s a good-naturedness you’d expect from a golden retriever, not a cat.
“When Cady mauls him, he doesn’t run away,” her brother said.
Cady will sometimes curl up in the laundry basket with Hobie and her toys, books and blanket. Once while in there, she put the bathroom scale on top of him.
“He just sits there, taking it,” Kyle Johnson said. “He’s much more like a dog than many cats are. He will put up with just about anything.”
Spahr’s cat Snaggy also belies the notion that cats aren’t as friendly as dogs.
“He’s the only cat I’ve ever had that meets me at the door when I get home,” he said.
One of east Jackson resident Kristyne Rupert’s cats plays fetch, though the other prefers to lounge.
“Smokey chases a toy like a dog would a Frisbee,” Rupert said, “and she’ll bring it back. Denso is a lap cat.”
Shelter animals become beloved pets
Cats take a variety of routes into Jackson Hole homes. Rupert got hers from the Animal Adoption Center in Jackson, she said. Hancock adopted Earl and Maggie from a shelter when he was living in Illinois. When he moved to the valley six months ago to be near his daughter and her family, he had the cats flown in, knowing they’d be welcome at River Rock.
“I would never have moved here if it didn’t allow pets,” he said. “Earl is one of the friendliest cats in the world. No matter who comes in the room, he wants to have his tummy scratched. Maggie takes longer to bond with.”
Spahr found Snaggy through veterinarian Dan Forman at Spring Creek Animal Hospital.
“Dan called and said he had this cat that had been hit by a car and lost a leg and was looking for a home,” Spahr said.
Though Snaggy requires an intermediate step when jumping to high places, he otherwise gets around perfectly well on three legs.
Spahr and his daughter also have five dogs between them, and even they don’t faze the cat.
“Snaggy holds his own,” Spahr said. “The new puppy is learning that the cat controls the house.”
The Johnsons took Hobie from friends whose 4-year-old child didn’t get along with him.
At least Hobie’s original owners had the kindness to place him a good home. East Jackson cat Maxwell probably would have met a sad end 10 years ago if Renae Murray’s sister hadn’t spotted a pair of eyes shining in the car headlights as they heading over Teton Pass from Idaho. Murray pulled over and opened her door, and he climbed in.
“He was just a little baby kitten,” Murray said. “He was definitely hungry. He was chewing on my fingers.”
Murray doesn’t like to think about the possibility that Maxwell had siblings out there on that dark road. Who knows why a cat ends up on its own. Maybe an indifferent owner just wants to get rid of an unwanted pet. Perhaps because cats are independent and like to hunt, people stop looking for them when they go missing, thinking they will be OK on their own.
“People assume cats can take care of themselves, or if they don’t come home they’re gone,” Rybak said. “If a dog’s missing for two hours, someone starts looking, but people will wait three or four days before calling about a cat.”
Outdoors presents perils
Some of the strays that end up at area shelters obviously have been house pets. Among the dozen cats at the town/county shelter in February was Savannah, a calico-tortoise mix who has been declawed. She might have been lost and presumed dead, but it’s also possible she simply was turned loose.
“That’s really not fair to a house cat that’s used to being taken care of,” Ryback said.
The perils of homelessness go beyond freezing and starvation. Cars are one, as Snaggy’s missing limb demonstrates. So are coyotes. Spahr doesn’t let Snaggy go outside on his own.
“Coyotes love to eat cats,” he said.
Mountain lions, dogs, hawks and owls also can make short work of a cat, Ryback said. To folks who’ve watched cats stalk and slay songbirds, the idea of a raptor making a meal of the furry predators might seem like a case of turnabout is fair play. Still, it’s a grisly way for a cat to go.
Ryback recalls a time many years ago, she said, when a bunch of cats from homes at the base of Snow King went missing.
“Then someone saw an owl and put two and two together,” she said. “It’s basically like a bunny rabbit from what [owls] are seeing.”
Not every missing cat has been devoured or run over, and license tags increase the chances that it will be returned home, said Animal Control Officer Rudd.
“If they do get loose and someone picks them up, we have a way to get them back to the owner,” he said.
And chances are that most cat people in Jackson Hole would hope for that happy reunion — Hobie’s family, for example.
“We dote on him,” Johnson said. “He’s really part of the family.”