Sunday, November 24, 2013

To Herd a Cat

By Danita Cahill

As a writer, I love words. As a menagerie manager, I also love animals. So, it only makes sense that I would appreciate sayings about animals, as well as the history behind those sayings.

Let’s take the saying, “Get your goat” for instance. It’s my understanding this phrase originated from the world of thoroughbred horse racing. In the olden days, owners or trainers routinely provided each of their prized thoroughbred race horses with its own goat. The goat would offer companionship for the hot-blooded horse, and act as a calming influence. When owners and trainers traveled with their horses to the racetracks, the goats went along, too, helping keep the horses mellow and quiet in strange surroundings.

Rivaling horse owners, who, of course, wanted their own horses to win the race, made it a habit of telling other owners, “I’ll get your goat.” They knew if they took a horse’s goat away the horse would flip out with worry, and would not keep its head in the race, thus giving the rival an edge.

Interesting, no?

Lately, I’ve found my mind often wandering to the saying, “Herding cats.” This saying is usually mentioned in a negative, sarcastic or derogatory manner. At a writing meeting I recently attended, one of my colleagues made the comment that she found organizing a bunch of writers to do specific tasks was like herding cats.

But the reason my mind has lately mulled over this particular saying is not because I’m a writer. And it’s not because the phrase was mentioned at that particular meeting.

No, it’s because I see “herding cats” in a literal sense on a daily basis.

I don’t know where this saying came from, but I am fairly certain the first person to utter the phrase owned both a Border collie and several kittens, as is the case at our house.

Border collies, as you probably know, are herd dogs. Working dogs. Dogs very serious about performing that work. If their owners don’t assign them a job – such as herding cattle or sheep – Border collies assign themselves a job. 

Our Border Collie, Zip, “helps” me daily. When I go out to feed our horse and alpacas, Zip races ahead to the fence and “holds” the animals in place while I fetch their feed.

The animals are used to Zip’s slinking motions and alert stance. They completely ignore her.
Inside the house, the only animals Zip has to “help” with are a lazy Labrador retriever, an ancient cat, two caged Guinea pigs, and three lively kittens. Zip takes her work as seriously inside as she does out. Since the kittens are the most active of the animals allowed in the house, Zip concentrates her efforts on them.

But even a hard-working, serious-minded Border collie like our girl, Zip, can’t make cats stay in formation or force them to go in the direction she deems appropriate.

I’ve included a visual to illustrate this point. In this photograph, Sophie, the kitten, was following me as I was trying to snap a picture. Zip thought she was responsible for herding the cat where she wanted it to go.

I went ahead and let Zip think that. After all, why burst her Border collie bubble?
After watching Zip’s ceaseless efforts to “work” the kittens, I’ve come to a conclusion: The inventor of the saying must have had a good, hearty laugh before first uttering, “It’s just like herding cats.”

If you liked this blog post, you might also enjoy my book Kids are a Crack Up: Humorous Stories from the Mouths of Babes. It’s available as an eBook from
Windtree Press
Barnes and Noble


Maggie Jaimeson said...

I love this post and especially the pic of your border collie herding a kitten. I love cats too, but I never imagined a dog being helpful in keeping them all together.

Danita Cahill said...

Thanks Maggie! The dog isn't actually helpful at keeping the cats together. She just thinks she is. ; )