Excerpted from an autobiographical letter by Leslie Fish
(Fall, 1992. Edited by Mary Creasey)

Leslie Fish on Cat Breeding...

...About breeding cats for intelligence: it started off as a college Psychology project, and just sort of grew from there. A neighbor had a female "domestic shorthair" (i.e."alley") cat who got herself merrily knocked up by a purebred Siamese tom, and now had kittens to give away. I noticedthat two black kittens in the litter (fortunately a male and a female) had unusually long and deep skulls. I adopted the kittens, raised them, played games with them to stimulate their intelligence, tested them (found nice high kitty IQs, too, which got me a good grade for my Psy. term project), and finally bred them. After that I kept on testing, selecting and breeding subsequent generations of kittens for 1) intelligence, 2) disease-resistance, 3) elegant body-types -- in that order of priority. Well, it worked; I now have a line of "purebred" cats with reliably high intelligence, pretty good disease-resistance, and handsome looks. The experiment showed me some things about the nature of intelligence which the official psychologists still haven't figured out, much to my amusement.

First, increased skull and brain size/capacity doesn't automatically guarantee intelligence; they just set up favorable conditions for it. Second, increased intelligence requires a high-protein diet and lots of sensory stimulation from birth (pet, cuddle and play with kittens -- or any mammalian babies -- from the day they're born, and they turn out smart. Simple!). Third: intelligence is not made up of any one thing (such as memory or neural connections or "problem-solving capacity"), but is a complex of several things -- and a critter can have a large amount of one, and a small amount of another.

Leslie Fish with Deva, daughter of Smokey the Dog-Slayer, and grandmother of Leslie's current top breeding tom, Aussar.My cats, for instance, are on average about as smart as a six-year-old human child -- except for language. They don't have symbolism -- the idea that one thing can STAND FOR another; their "language" is all analog, made up of sounds, gestures, poses, smells, etc., all of which have direct meanings, not symbolic ones. "Purrrr", of course, shows happiness (or a desperate attempt to flatter a human out of whapping the cat for some feline crime). "Hisssss" shows anger, and "Screeeech" shows more. "Waaaooowaaaaooo", so often heard on back fences, shows horniness. I've noticed some 20 or so feline "words" (other researchers, according to a documentary I saw on NOVA) have identified 10 more. Add to that gestures (with ears, tail, paws or whiskers), poses and scents, and you'll find that cats have an analog but flexible vocabulary of up to a hundred "words". Problem is, as I've found out, they use their intelligence for their own furry-feline purposes, which are not neccessarily ours. My particular bloodline of critters have proved marvellously adept at stealing people-food...

So, onward. I have about five adult cats right now, and the gods know how many kittens (one of my breeding-queens was pregnant when I left; she could have had the litter by now). As to why filkers like cats, I suppose it's because cats have such famous independent personalities; therefore, people who likewise are "wierd" enough to develop a taste for something as intellectual and esoteric as (think about it) science-fiction folk-music would feel a kinship with the critters. Hobbies? Hmm. Since I have a tendency to turn my hobbies into real-time work, that's hard to say. I read sci-fi, of course (also fantasy, horror, occasional mysteries, adventure stuff and a lot of the independent comic-books). On music, besides filk, I like folk, rock, and the more folk/rock-oriented C&W. On rare occasions, given my not-so-copious spare time, I do tapestry and crocheting. I used to paint, draw and sculpt, but wasn't good enough at it to proceed seriously without more art-classes -- and besides, the muses of music, poetry and fiction-writing gobbled up my time and energy.


As seen by Leslie Fish

'Twas winter in Chicago, our household was having enough trouble keeping up with the heating-bills, and the last thing we needed was yet another litter of kittens to feed. We'd had enough trouble feeding and giving away the last batch, and with four adult cats in the house we felt no need for more.

Therefore when Marflegiggle, our youngest queen, started giving the characteristic caterwaul of kitty-in-heat, we were Not Amused. We decided to lock her up in the large bathroom -- complete with bed, food, water and cat-box, until the fever passed. We figured we could make do with hand-baths for a few days for the sake of the heating-bills and the public peace.

Alas, the door to the bathroom was not soundproof. Neither did it lock completely. The door was old, with various chunks knocked out around the edges, and far too many coats of paint. It wouldn't close far enough for the lock -- or even the latch -- to engage, but at least it could be wedged shut tight enough to keep a cat in. No way in hell could it keep the sound in, and Marflegiggle wailed romantically for hours on end. We managed to get used to it.

However, the top tomcat Mrrrp (that was his name for himself; we Humans called him Tom Jefferson, since he'd been born on the 4th of July) took this for a challenge. Always willing to help a girl in need, he took to lurking at all hours by the bathroom door.

At first he was content to sing duets with Marflegiggle, long motets from the feline versions of PYRAMUS AND THISBE, or possibly ROMEO AND JULIET, that went on for longer than the entire RING OF THE NIEBELUNG cycle. But eventually he grew frustrated with Art -- not to mention consistently ignored attempts to persuade the Humans -- and determined to work directly on the offending door.

First, Mrrrp tried to claw the door open at the side. No luck; it was wedged too tightly. Then he lay down on his back, hooked his claws into the space under the door, and tried to pry it open that way. Again, no luck. Then he put his nose up to the edge of the door and examined it minutely, looking for gaps between the edges, while Marflegiggle yowled encouragement. Mrrrp found one especially good gap in the wood, stuck his claws into it and tried to pry the door open from there. Marflegiggle, inspired, threw herself repeatedly at the door, trying to jar it open. Alas, even their combined efforts didn't work.

Mrrrp sat down and studied the edge of the door while Marfie wailed long tragic arias. From the twitching of his ears and whiskers, a keen observer might have guessed he was thinking hard. He poked his claws into the gap in the door-edge, thought for a moment more, then got up and padded away. Marfie did a long solo from DIE WALKUERE while the rest of us held our ears; thus, we didn't hear Mrrrp rummaging around in the wood-box.

Presently, Our Hero came trotting back. He was carrying in his mouth a piece of kindling almost as long as he was -- a big sharp splinter of pine, thick on one end and needle-pointed on the other. As I watched, Mrrrp carefully maneuvered the sharp end of the splinter into that narrow gap between the door-edge and the door-frame. He shoved it in as far as he could with his mouth, then went to the wide end of the wood-piece and shoved it forward with his chest until it was firmly wedged into the gap.

Then, if you please, he turned side-on to the butt of the splinter, facing the door-frame, and he butted at it with his broad furry head -- until he levered the door open.

I just sat there watching, drop-jawed, while Mrrrp ran in through the open door and pounced upon his amorous lady-love. What the hell, I figured, after performing a feat of calculation and invention like that, Mrrrp had earned it.

Besides, think of the brilliant kittens he'd make.

Sure enough, the kittens came along three months later. One of them was Smokey the Dog-Slayer, who's still the senior queen of my household. And yes, she's just as intelligent as her inventive sire -- and so are all her kittens and grand--kittens and great-grand-kittens...But that's a whole string of other stories.

As recounted by Leslie Fish, who had to clean up the mess.

It had been a bad summer for the cats ever since the gang of Illinois bluejays moved into the big Catalpa tree just outside the bedroom window. These were not your cute little east-coast jays, mind you, but big mean midwestern babies with voices like politicians and personalities to match -- the sort that would wear battered derbies and smoke stinky cigars if anybody made those commodities in their size. Their gang (flock is the wrong word) was big enough to pester dogs, harass cats and seriously mob kittens. They'd been bothering my cats all summer, the kitten didn't dare poke his little black nose outdoors, and in the hot weather this was real oppression. The cats were miserable, irritable, and just plain pissed off.

My senior tomcat, Mrrrp (he'd picked the name himself; he'd say that to announce himself whenever he walked into a room full of humans), was studying the problem. On that particular hot Sunday afternoon I was sprawled out on my bed under the window, goofing off, reading some good Sci-Fi, and Mrrrp was sprawled at the side of the bed, looking out the window at that Catalpa tree full of bluejays.

He'd been studying that gang of bluejays for a good hour when he visibly got an idea. His ears went up. Then his head went up. Then he jumped off the bed and went trotting through the apartment making a weird noise that I'd never heard him use before: a sort of "whrrEEE, whrEEE" like a siren. It was obviously some kind of Troops Assembly call, because every other cat in the house woke up and came running.

Mrrrp led the troops into the bedroom, and hopped up onto the bed. The other cats obediently followed him up onto the bed. I jumped off the bed, seeing that there was suddenly no room for humans, and something feline and devious was afoot (a-paw?). I watched as Mrrrp nudged and shouldered the other cats into place with the precision of a good general aligning troops for an ambush. In a few minutes all the other cats were arranged in a line on the bed, right under the window. Finally, Mrrrp nudged and growled and shoved the kitten up onto the window-ledge where the bluejays could see him. The bluejays saw, and started to squawk. The kitten crouched down and kept glancing nervously at Commander Mrrrp, who wouldn't let him get off that exposed position. The other cats licked their chops, crouched down, and waited.

Squawk by squawk, hopping up and down, flapping their wings, (much like a street-gang nerving themselves up for a rumble) the bluejay gang worked itself up for the attack. The kitten stayed put, crouched down, looking suitably scared. Finally the bluejay-gang got their nerve up to attack-pitch, and altogether they jumped out of the tree and came zooming at the window. The kitten jumped off the ledge and down onto the bed. I jumped for the doorway, made it through, slammed the door behind me and watched through the keyhole.

Sure enough, all the bluejays came storming in through the window -- straight into a small, closed room with only one way out. And then all the cats jumped up onto the window-ledge and blocked that one way out. The jays were trapped, and trapped good.

After that, it was a massacre. While at least one cat, and usually two, held the ledge and batted joyfully at any bluejay who came close, the other cats climbed hand-over-hand up the curtains to the curtain-rod at the top of the window. From there, they'd launch themselves into the air, swatting at bluejays on the way, land on the top of the bureau across the room, leap from there to the bed -- batting at low-flying jays in the process -- and then run up the curtain again. The air was full of flying cats, panicked bluejays, and a thick blizzard of blue feathers.

I wasn't about to intrude in that mess and get shot at by both sides, thank you. I just took my book and cigarettes, made myself a drink, went off to the living room and sat down to read my book in peace and comfort until the noise stopped -- which took about an hour. I'd spent years protesting the Vietnam War, but I knew better than to try to stop this one.

Well, when all was quiet on the bedroom front, I eased the door open and poked my nose in for a quick reconnaissance -- and what an eyeful I got. I've seen human battlefields that didn't look half as messy.

There was a light dusting of bluejay feathers on every horizontal surface. Among the feathers were strewn bluejay parts of every size and description. Bluejay guts festooned the mirror. The kitten was batting a bluejay head across the floor like a soccer player practicing for the finals. The other cats were lolling about the bed, cleaning their weaponry, purring like buzzsaws, looking smug and well fed.

What a cleanup job. I got the broom and dustpan and gently shooed the furry warriors out the door (the kitten went last, carrying his trophy in his mouth, intent on further playing -- and I wasn't about to stop him). It took me several hours of sweeping, mopping, scrubbing and laundry to get the room cleaned up, and I wasn't completely successful even then; weeks later, I was still finding bluejay bits in odd corners, behind books, and under furniture.

Somewhere during the long cleanup I happened to glance out the window at the Catalpa tree. Huddled in its branches sat maybe half a dozen bluejays -- all of them missing feathers, scratched up, looking very glum and subdued -- the few survivors of the ambush. I'm afraid I showed no sympathy for the vanquished; I just laughed like hell and tossed them some suggestions on where they could go.

I guess they took my advice, because next morning the tree was empty. The bedraggled survivors had taken themselves off to a safer neighborhood somewhere else.

And that afternoon, all the cats went out and played in the yard, merry as kittens, until dinnertime. Mrrrp spent most of the time sunning himself on the porch railing, posed like the Sphinx, looking utterly pleased with himself.

And every time he looked at the empty Catalpa tree, he purred and purred and purrrrred.

Mrrrp vs. the Scotties...
As reported by Leslie Fish

Well, there's the one about Mrrrp and the neighbor's Scotties...

This was back when we lived in Chicago (same apartment where the Bluejay Massacre took place), and into the house next door moved a lady with a fussy collection of glassware and two thoroughly-spoiled Scots Terriers. The neighbor let the dogs out in the back yard all day, where they'd happily spend their time trying to terrorize every dog, cat, human or drifting piece of paper that passed by. What they lacked in size they made up in volume, and they proved their enthusiasm by jumping up and down alternately at the fence; when one was on the ground the other was in the air, and then they'd trade places. This grew annoying in short order.

One day while I was out, Mrrrp decided to do something about those noisy dogs. I heard about it second hand, from two different sources.

The first I heard was, on the way home from work, when I stopped at the corner grocery to pick up some canned catfood. I was approaching the check-out counter with my arms loaded when I saw a lady, whom I vaguely recognized from somewhere around the neighborhood, leaning over the counter and yattering vigorously at the storekeeper about "that horrible black tomcat" who had, she swore, attacked and beaten up her dogs, then chased them into her house, trashed the place thoroughly, then ran out before she could hit him with her broom. The storekeeper nodded sympathetically as he rang up her order of dogfood, and glanced at me with no more than a raised eyebrow. I took the hint and turned around, neatly hiding my armload of catfood, and pretended to be terribly interested in breakfast cereal until the lady paid for her order and left. The storekeeper said nothing as he rang up my order, but I noted that he snickered a lot. I headed home, wondering if "that horrible black tomcat" just might have been one of my gang.

The next piece of the puzzle I learned from our out-front neighbor (remember, we lived in a "coach house" on the alley; the main house was in front), a classic drag-queen named Gary. He was quite a decent neighbor, though I had trouble looking at him for very long without giggling, and often invited me over for a bit of gossip and a glass or two of blackberry wine. I saw him waving frantically at me from a window as I passed the house, heading for my apartment, so as soon as I'd unloaded the catfood I headed over to Gary's place. He welcomed me in, handed me a cut-crystal glass of blackberry wine and promptly gave me an earful.

"You've simply *got* to keep the cats inside for a few days," quoth he. "The next-door neighbor's just *hysterical* over your big tomcat." Remembering the scene at the grocery, I innocently asked why.

"Oh, I saw the whole thing," said Gary, with a delicate shudder. "Those nasty Scotties were out in her back yard, making a hellish racket as usual, and I saw your tomcat jump right over the fence -- cleared it as neatly as an Olympic jumping-horse, he did -- and land just *smack* on the head of the Scotty who was up in the air at the time. When they both hit the ground, the cat was on top and raking away with all four feet. The dog-fur simply *flew*, my dear! And the dog was howling in a very different key."

What, I asked, did the other dog do?

"Oh, he ran around both of them, barking ferociously, until he finally made up his mind -- or got up his courage -- to charge at the cat. *That* was his mistake, I can tell you. The tomcat *leaped* off the first dog and came down on the second, and began raking him even more, ah, forcefully than the first. You should have *seen* the fur fly -- literally fly."

Did the dogs gang up on the cat, I worried.

"They did try, I'll give them credit for that, but the attempt didn't last long. The cat simply went into Kung Fu mode, lashing out at one, then the other, then the other, then the other -- *wonderfully* balletic, and most *astoundingly* fast. Bruce Lee would have been utterly *green* with envy."

How long, I wondered, did that keep up?

"Not more than a minute, I'd say. Both dogs came to the same conclusion at the same time, broke from the clinch, and ran for the far end of the yard. I must say, dear, that your tomcat was not at *all* magnanimous in victory. He chased after them. In fact, he chased them all around the back yard at *least* three times, getting in a few good swats at their tails, and they were absolutely *shrieking* with terror. Ah, that must have been what made the lady open her back door, more's the pity."

Why a pity, I queried.

"Well, the dogs saw their chance and took it. They *streaked* for the doorway, never minding that their mistress was blocking it, and...well, I really can't say exactly how it happened, but they knocked her *right* off her feet and onto her, ah, fundament -- which is probably why she wasn't able to stop the cat."

Stop him from what, I asked.

"My dear, that doughty feline warrior of yours ran into the house after them. He soared right over the prostrate lady...uhm, no, now that I recall, he *did* land on her in mid-leap, and jumped off again. I couldn't see what happened after that, except that the lady managed to get to her feet and ran back into the house, screaming. After that, all I could make out were crashings and screechings and howlings up and down the house for the next ten minutes or so -- ah, long enough to smoke a More Menthol all the way down -- and then I saw the cat come running out the back door, down the steps and across the yard, with the lady -- looking *much* the worse for wear, I must say -- chasing after him with a broom."

Did she hit him, I demanded.

"Oh no, dear: she never had a chance, outpaced from the first. He came leaping over the fence again and ran around to the other side of your house, where I lost track of him. All I can tell you is that he was *certainly* undamaged, and looked, I swear, dear, most *awfully* pleased with himself."

That, I commented, I could well imagine.

"The lady herself wasn't anywhere *near* as graceful under pressure, I must say. Such language! And from someone who makes such effort to keep an elegant household, too. Oh, not that I've ever been inside to see, of course -- to judge from the looks she gives me when we pass on the street, she wouldn't let me across her doorstep -- but one can tell *so* much from views through the windows. If you'll look out here, you'll see that her hallway window is filled with shelves simply loaded end to end with her glassware collection... Oh dear, it isn't there anymore..."

And indeed the indicated window was quite, quite empty.

At that point a recent memory surfaced, something I hadn't thought of at the time, but which now took on new significance.

I recalled that nobody had barked at me when I came home from the grocery store.

Pondering that, I took my leave and strolled across the tiny courtyard separating Gary's house from mine. As I passed the neighbor's yard I cast a look over the fence.

The Scotties were out there, all right: huddled under the back stairs with only their noses poking out, quite still and utterly silent.

Just as an experiment, too quietly for any human inside the house to hear, I said "Meow", in my best equivalent of Mrrrp's voice.

The two noses jerked back into the shadows under the stairs.

I managed to refrain from laughing as I went into my apartment in the coach-house, but I made a point of looking for Mrrrp.

He was stretched out on the sofa, purring softly, licking one of his forepaws, looking perfectly innocent. Not a hair was out of place.

I did allow myself a chuckle as I opened a can of the catfood.

For all the rest of the time I lived there, the Scotties were blessedly silent. On the rare occasions when they ventured a cautious yip at me, I found that a mutter of "Rrrowr" was enough to make them run under the back stairs and make no further sound.

And peace and tranquility ruled in the neighborhood.