Friday, May 20, 2011

Strolling With Quint

Quint Outside in his New Stroller

Back in August of 2009, I wrote and thought about the possibility of taking Quint out for a walk. Because of the inherent dangers of city living, I keep my cats indoors at all times, so their interaction with the outside world is limited to looking out the window and sniffing our shoes when we come inside from one of our daily walks around the nearby Silver Lake Reservoir. Both of the cats seem to be content with that arrangement, though Quint will sometimes make a tentative attempt to go outside when Carol and I come in the front door. He doesn’t try to dash out into the yard, he just stands on the threshold, looks out, sniffs the air and thinks about taking a step outside. He backs up as we enter the house and doesn’t seem too disappointed that he has to stay inside, but I get the feeling that he’d like another day out with the neighbor’s two cats.

There are many, many dogs in Silver Lake and we see quite a few of them on our walks around the reservoir. There is a dog park at the south end where they can run free with their doggy friends; and there is a nice walking path, safely isolated form the traffic on the street, where their owners can take them for walks. I’ve only seen one cat in all the times we walk along the reservoir and I only saw that one in passing. The cat was in one of those expensive pet strollers. In the brief glimpse I had inside that stroller, the cat was laying down and looking out of the nylon screen at the front of an enclosed nylon tent-like structure which kept the cat from running away. I was a bit like one of those soft-sided pet carriers, but built into a stroller frame. It even had a canopy to keep the animal shaded. I decided right then that if those people could take their cat for a walk, there was no reason why I couldn’t try to do the same thing with Quint.

The first step on the road to pet mobility was figuring out what sort of vehicle to use. The pet stroller I had seen was interesting, but it had several inherent problems that eliminated it as an option for what I had in mind. All the pet strollers that I saw offered for sale were expensive (well over $200), had small wheels suitable only for smooth surfaces, and/or were made entirely of nylon cloth or some other fabric. In my view, they cost too much, couldn’t go where I wanted to go, and were too flimsy to be safe for the cat. If I’m going to push my cat around the neighborhood, I want him to be safe and comfortable. The cloth construction is too vulnerable to cat claws from the inside and dog teeth from the outside. What I needed was something that would keep the cat from running off in panic and also keep him safe from attacks from other animals. The only way to get what I needed was to design and build it myself.

I liked the stroller idea because the cat would be in front of me where I could keep an eye on him, but I didn’t have any idea how I would go about building a stroller that would fit within the parameters I had set for this vehicle: safe, comfortable, light, able to easily navigate bumpy ground and uneven sidewalks, good visibility for the cat, easy to push or pull, a design that is pleasing to the eye, and affordable. With those limits in mind I began looking for components that I could adapt to the purpose. I looked at some three-wheeled strollers but the ones I saw were quite expensive and larger than I wanted the vehicle to be. I finally decided that I would have to use a small wagon with pneumatic tires as the base and then attach a cage to the wagon bed or place a carrier in the wagon.

I explained to Carol what I was attempting to create and she expressed some enthusiasm for the project. I showed her pictures of the wagon I was thinking of using and she thought we ought to go look at one and see if it would work. After a bit of internet research, we set out on a wagon-shopping trip. The one I thought would work was supposed to be available at Target, but when we looked at one of the stores nearby, it was not in stock. We decided to try another Target store. There was no wagon in that one, either. I suggested Sears since there was one just up the street and so we went there next. Sears didn’t have the wagon I was looking for, either, but they did have a large selection of strollers in their baby department. One of them was just what I was looking for and was on sale for a price I was willing to pay. We bought the thing. It came in a big box and it was obvious that some assembly would be required. That was fine with me as that would allow me to remove, or not assemble, those parts that I wouldn’t need for my cat stroller.

Stroller Frame

When we got home, I opened the box and looked closely at what I had. The baby carrying part of the stroller was attached to the frame with screws. That made it very easy to remove. What was left was a nice sturdy little frame that appeared as if it would serve the purpose perfectly. Now I had to figure out how to create some sort of cage for the cat inside the frame of the stroller. There was a rectangular frame near the bottom of the stroller that had originally been intended to hang a basket which could hold all those things a baby night need while riding in the stroller. That frame looked to me to be just the right size to drop a cat carrier into with a minimum of alteration to the stroller frame. I wanted a carrier that had the maximum amount of visibility for the cat and that would also be large enough for him to move around inside of while we strolled. I borrowed a carrier from my neighbor that looked like it might work. That one was too big to fit into the frame, but otherwise had all the right features: visibility and safety. What I needed was a smaller version of that carrier. Off we went to the pet store to see what we could find.

We found a carrier just the right size and with a hinged wire mesh lid and a wire mesh front door which would provide the desired visibility, plus there were holes in the plastic sides that would let the cat see out and let air in. The outside dimensions of the carrier should allow it to fit into the frame, but we’d have to get it home to be sure. We bought it and, sure enough, it fit right into the space where it needed to go. Now I had to devise a way to support the carrier in that rectangular frame. I remembered that I still had some nylon strapping material leftover from another project that might work to make a cradle to hold the carrier inside the frame. I reused some of the screws I had removed when I took out the baby carrying material and created a strong and secure basket for the carrier to rest in. With an elastic strap over the top of the carrier and hooked onto the sides of the frame, I now had Version 1 of the cat stroller. Now all we had to do was get the cat accustomed to riding around in it.

I took the door off the front of the carrier and then raised the lid and tied it off so it wouldn’t close unexpectedly and scare Quint. We pushed the stroller into the living room and just let it sit there for a while. Both the cats found it interesting and examined it thoroughly. Carol put a small cat bed in the bottom of the carrier and I sprayed some catnip essence onto the little bed. We left it there in the living room for a couple of days. When Carol would play with Quint, she would play near and around the stroller at times and then move away. The plan was to gradually get the cats used to the presence of the strange machine and then introduce them to the idea that it might be fun to ride around in it. Carol worked very hard at making the cat stroller an object of interest to Quint. She showed him all the features of the carrier and explained to him what we were trying to do with him. He seemed to be quite interested in the plan. Eventually Carol got him to jump up into the carrier and then she would push him slowly around the house while he sat in the stroller with his head and shoulders above the carrier. As I watched them strolling through the house, I saw that closing the top of the carrier was going to greatly limit Quint’s ability to see what was going on around him. I needed to add a “Vista Dome” to the top of the carrier so that he could sit up and look around and, yet, still be protected and safe. I spent a couple of days thinking about just how to do that.

What I needed was a wire cage that would fit on top of the cat carrier to give Quint a little head room but still offer that safety and security we needed. I again went to the internet and began looking at small animal cages that were the right dimensions to create the space we needed. A hamster cage proved to be just the thing. It added enough height and could be hinged to the top of the carrier in such a way as to allow Quint to jump in, have the top put down, go for a ride, and then have the top lifted up to let him jump out when it was safe. We went back to the pet store where we found just the little cage we needed, and, lucky for us, it was on sale. When we returned home, I took the carrier down to my basement workshop. First I removed the existing hinged, wire mesh top from the carrier, then I devised a simple way to hinge the hamster cage to the top of the carrier. I took the assembly back up to the living room where the stroller frame was parked and set the carrier in place inside the frame. I had put the hinges on the wrong side of the cage, but it was an easy matter to go back to the shop and change the configuration so that the hamster cage would hinge open in the direction that would let Quint jump in and out of the carrier. Once that was done, it was Carol’s turn again.

Carol showed Quint the new addition to his stroller and explained to him how we hoped it would work for him. He seemed to understand. She got him to jump into the stroller with the top of the carrier open so he could jump out if he needed to and pushed him around the house. She did this twice-a-day for several days. She would have Quint hop up into the stroller where he happily rode while she pushed him around the living room, through the kitchen, into my office and back. One morning, she and Quint decided they were ready for their first trip out of the house. Quint hopped up into the carrier and Carol pushed him over to the front door. She slowly closed the little cage down over the carrier where Quint was sitting and fastened it in place with a bungee cord that was just the right length to hold the whole assembly in place. She maneuvered the stroller out the front door and down the single step to the sidewalk. She talked to Quint at each point where she thought he might panic. Together they made their way down the front walk to the street, turned right at the sidewalk along the street, down that sidewalk to our driveway, about halfway down the drive way and then all the way back along the same route to the front door. By that time, I had finished my morning shower, gotten dressed and nearly missed the entire performance. I saw them as they were coming back into the house. I made Carol take the stroller back outside so I could at least get a picture of Quint outside for the first time in his new vehicle. After that, we brought him back inside, opened the top of the carrier and let him jump out. Quint immediately went from room to room in the house making sure everything was just where he had left it. Once he had seen for himself that nothing in the house had changed, he walked over to the stroller and thoroughly scent-marked all the wheels by rubbing his chin glands all over each one. It was as if he was saying, “This is MY stroller!”

The next morning, Carol repeated the routine. This time I was there to help hold the door open and offer whatever encouragement I could. I also had my little video camera with me to document that second outdoor excursion. This time Carol and Quint went all the way to the bottom of the driveway before they turned around and rolled back to the house. Quint seemed to enjoy the experience; he kept his ears up and looked all around him as he traveled. When he got back in the house, he again checked to make sure that his indoor space was unchanged. Once reassured of that fact, he again scent-marked the stroller. That afternoon he was a bit more active around the house. In retrospect I think the two outdoor excursions in a row had made him a bit anxious and insecure, but at the time we just figured it was excitement with this new adventure.

On the third morning, Carol had a class she had to attend and so she assigned me the task of keeping up the routine. I wasn’t sure that this was a good idea, but I was willing to give it my best effort since it seemed like we were making progress acclimating Quint to this new activity. I’d never tried to get him to hop up into stroller before, so I didn’t really know how to go about it. I called him over to the stroller and tried to get him to jump in. Since I wasn’t Carol, who he was used to working with on this behavior, he was confused about what I was asking him to do. He would look at the carrier and even put his feet up on it, but he wouldn’t jump inside. I decided that I would gently help him and so I picked him up and kind of slid him into the stroller. He got the idea at that point and he tucked in his tail and sat down inside the carrier. I rolled him around a bit and then headed to the front door. When we got there, I put down the top and fastened it in place. I opened the front door, all-the-while explaining to Quint what we were doing, and maneuvered the stroller out to the sidewalk. So far, it seemed to going very well. One of the employees of the coffee shop down the street was getting out of her car as Quint and I approached the sidewalk. She noticed Quint in his vehicle. I told her that we were engaged in a grand experiment to see if it was possible to take one’s cat for a walk. She wished us luck and went on down the street to her job. Quint and I continued on the usual route down to the end of the driveway and then back up. I talked to Quint from time to time to reassure him that he was safe and to encourage him to relax and enjoy the experience. I got the feeling that he was a little overwhelmed by the whole thing but he didn’t seem to be too uncomfortable. As we got back up to the top of the driveway I pushed the stroller up past our house and into the neighbor’s driveway where we turned around to go back down. A man in jogging clothes walked by and said he thought what we were doing was pretty awesome. By this time, Quint was starting to look and act a little frantic. He appeared to be feeling trapped inside the carrier, which of course he was. I rolled him back into the house and let him jump out.

Three days in a row was just too much too soon for the little guy. For the next couple of days, he wouldn’t go anywhere near the stroller. We had moved forward just a little too quickly. We decided that we needed to step back the program to just riding around inside the house with the lid open for a while. Next we’ll try riding inside the house with the lid down. Then, once Quint is comfortable with that, we can try a very, very short trip outside again. We want him to feel that the carrier with its “vista dome” is there to keep him safe, not trap him, so we’ll go more slowly to build up his confidence. There’s plenty of time. I’m confident that the three of us will eventually succeed.

Hedge, of course, stands on the sidelines and watches everything we are doing with Quint. He is very curious. I suspect that he’ll be unable to resist the temptation once he sees how much fun Quint is having. We might have to build another stroller at some point so that Hedge can go along, too. Ha! A two cat-stroller family!! Wouldn’t that be a sight to see!

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