McKinley the Siberian cat joins owner on her journey to be 46er
By Holly Riddle
Hike just about any popular trail in the Adirondacks and you’re likely to come upon at least a few hiking pups — but a hiking cat? It’s not something you see very often, but for pet parent Charlotte Simons, hiking with her Siberian cat McKinley has become an enjoyable and rewarding part of both their lives.
“It was the intention for him to be more of a companion and an emotional support animal for me,” explains Simons, who has a history in animal training and working with dogs, birds, pigs and horses. “I went to school out in Washington State and everybody there went hiking a lot and I just decided, why not train the cat so he can be my hiking buddy? I think he was put in a harness for the first time at 13 weeks old.”
Currently living in Atlanta, Simons has been visiting the Adirondacks annually since infancy, traveling to her family’s Lake Placid home for six weeks each summer and several weeks in the winter for nearly her entire life. An aspiring 46er, she hopes that McKinley can accomplish the goal alongside her.
“I think there are a couple of dogs on the [46er] list, but I didn’t see any cats,” she laughs.
But training a cat for hiking is easier said than done. The process started, Simons says, with getting McKinley accustomed to wearing a harness, then accustomed to wearing a leash. From there, it was time to explore the yard, before finally teaching McKinley the commands necessary for him to safely travel outside the home.
“It was actually more difficult with McKinley than I thought it would be, because most of the dogs that I work with are food-motivated,” Simons explains. “And those that are not food-motivated tend to either be toy or voice-motivated. He was none of those things. He didn’t care if you gave him any of the food… He did not care about toys. So, I went with voice and it didn’t work great, because he was a kitten, and I found the thing that motivated him was physical contact. He wanted to be picked up and held.”
Using physical contact as McKinley’s positive reinforcement, Simons worked on his training before it was time for the feline’s first hike, at Palouse Falls in Washington.
“He loved it. He exceeded my expectations,” Simons says.
McKinley’s hikes in the Adirondacks have now included Mount Van Hoevenberg and the latter portion of Whiteface Mountain. He’s also enjoyed snowshoeing excursions at John Brown Farm State Historic Site.
“I have a hiking buddy that doesn’t judge how slow I want to go,” Simons says of McKinley. “Even though I was a competitive rock climber and am an athlete, I have asthma and enjoy going slow… and, if something is wrong, he’s pretty intuitive. I can see it. And the companionship is nice.”
While seeing a cat out on the trail might come as a surprise to some, for those who are in the know, there’s an entire community of cat hikers, paddlers and otherwise outdoor adventurers. Adventure Cats is one of the most popular online resources for cat parents looking to learn more about taking one’s cat on outdoor excursions, while a quick search for #adventurecats on Instagram brings up nearly 400,000 photos of adventurous felines taking on the great outdoors, all around the world, from British Columbia to Colorado, Switzerland to Maine.
For those interested in training their cat to take on the Adirondack peaks, Simons says, “I highly recommend it. Start slow… The first adventure can be onto a screened-in porch or into your backyard on the leash. Definitely start with harness and leash training inside the house, under supervision in an area the cat is comfortable with… If you have a cat that is nervous in new places, take that slowly and advocate for your animal. Watch their body language and start with what they’re comfortable with before bringing in extra.”
She recommends only using properly fitting harnesses and harness leashes for cats, never collar leashes or retractable leashes, and cautions pet parents to consider the weather before taking their cat on any hike in particularly hot temperatures. Just like with hiking with dogs, she notes that it’s important to bring along the proper supplies to pick up after your cat on the trail as well, and remember that some of your fellow hikers may be uncomfortable around cats, so keep their needs in mind, too.
“Make sure, if you’re taking your cat outside, while I highly recommend it, I also recommend truly being attentive to your animal’s needs and their body language. For cats, a lot of time it’s their tail or their ears… A scared look, or hissing or shaking is an obvious ‘I’m uncomfortable,’” she adds. “And, even if hiking isn’t right for someone’s cat, a patio or going into your backyard can be such a great enrichment activity for a house cat.”
When he’s not enjoying the outdoors, McKinley is both an emotional support animal and a trained, registered therapy animal. Both of these job titles are different from a service animal. ESAs require no specific training and need a letter from a mental health professional following an up to date DSM diagnosis. Their rights are restricted to living arrangements, and a few airline exceptions. However, most airlines are no longer recognizing ESAs due to abuse of the system resulting in incidents.
Learn more bout McKinley’s adventures by following him on Instagram, at www.instagram.com/mckinleythecat/.