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An old cat learns some new tricks

Franz, an elegant gray cat with bright green eyes, had a normal life with a family in the Parkside area of Buffalo until he was 12. When his owners divorced, the woman moved away and one day the man put the cat outside, locked the door and left.

Franz hid in a backyard shed and was fed by neighbors, but he tangled with a neighborhood dog and was injured. Finally, a neighbor caught him and brought the terrified and angry cat to Miranda K. Workman.

It took time, love and patience for Franz to heal and a small plastic and metal clicker to teach him a series of adorable simple tasks. Four years after he was abandoned, Franz has appeared at several national clicker-training conferences, showing off his ability to come when called, sit on command, stand on his back legs and even wave a front paw. Franz has also worked with dozens of youngsters in the SPCA's TLC program, which helps children ages 11 to 13 in the Buffalo Public Schools learn kindness, respect, caring, empathy and responsibility for both animals and people.

His progress from abandoned pet to star was guided by Workman, Purrfect Paws Animal Behavior Center president and certified behaviorist. Their bond is so close that a large photo of Franz's green eyes looks out from a sign for her business in the plaza on Sheridan Drive at Eggert Road.

"The shock of what had happened to Franz was so hard for him that he was cat-aggressive when he came here," she says from the cozy office where cats and ferrets roam and play. "I couldn't touch him; he would hiss, growl or swat at me."

Gradually, she says, Franz realized that he was safe. Workman's other cat, Timothy, a gregarious gray and white charmer, served as ambassador. "Franz and I made a truce, that I would keep him warm, safe, dry and fed. If I couldn't cuddle with him, that was fine, because I had Timothy to cuddle," she says.

One day, Workman was clicker-training an Abyssinian kitten to sit, using the small plastic clicker to mark the behaviors she wanted and rewarding with small bits of food. The kitten wasn't in the mood and wandered away.

What happened next was an enormous surprise. "Franz was perched on the bookcase, watching, and when the kitten wandered off, he got up, came toward me, looked me straight in the eyes and sat in front of me," she said. "I clicked and gave him a piece of tuna. He still wouldn't let me touch him, but he took the tuna. I moved away, and he got up, walked over to me, looked me in the eyes, and sat in front of me again."

It couldn't be more clear. Franz was ready to learn.

Workman's eyes tear up as she tells the story. "It still makes me cry, because I never thought I would be able to touch him," she says. "From that moment on, he was a different cat."

In the four years since Franz became Workman's cat, he has shown off his talents for hundreds of people. In the TLC program, he has charmed and delighted children who come into the program disliking cats.

But now, the 16-year-old cat is coping with some physical and mental issues, including a kind of feline Alzheimer's. Workman says that although she has had to modify her requests because Franz can no longer comfortably stand on his hind legs, he seems happiest when they do the familiar clicker training.

"It seems to keep his brain active and slow down the effects of his disease," says Workman. "His best moments come when the clicker is out. It brings him back to something he knows he can do."

Any animal that is motivated by a reward, whether it's food, play or praise, can be clicker-trained, Workman says. Franz didn't start training until he was 12, which, she says, "proves that you can teach an old cat new tricks. In fact, senior animals do better because they are so interested in the interaction. I think senior animals are treasures."

To see Franz working with students in the SPCA's TLC program, go to PurrfectPawsABC's channel on YouTube and watch "Clicker Training with Franz -- The Movie."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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