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Nashville Scene Death of a Catbox

When the automatic gadget goes out, it's back to scooping

By Walter Jowers

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  Last Christmas, I bought wife Brenda the Windmere Litter Maid electric catbox. The idea of the Litter Maid is that cats walk in and do their usual business, then infrared beams trigger an electric rake, which moves through the litter and dumps the clumped-up cat byproducts into a sealed plastic container.

The only warning in the Litter Maid owner's manual was that we shouldn't let kittens or really old cats in the box. The manual didn't say exactly why, but I guessed it's because the electric rake could mistake really slow or brain-addled cats for turds, scoop 'em up, and toss 'em into the sealed container.

Which reminds me of my buddy Lester, who had a problem with wandering neighborhood cats peeing into the air vents of his classic Chevy. This made the beloved car smell like concentrated, ammoniated cat funk, full-time. Lester couldn't abide that. So he rigged up a cat trap, figuring he'd catch one or two cats, and that would be the end of his problem. Well, before it was over, he caught twenty-something cats, which he humanely released on the far side of Bellevue. "I figured they'd never bother to swim back across the river," he said.

"I took 'em out behind the Cracker Barrel," he continued. "And they all did the same thing. They jumped out of the trap, ran full-out for about a hundred yards, then turned around and looked at me. Then they just loped off into the woods."

But I digress. Back to the Litter Maid. The electric catbox served the Jowers family well for a while. I actually bragged about it in this column and encouraged other cat owners to run out and get their very own Litter Maid.

I'm sorry to tell you, the experiment didn't work out. Oh, the catbox was swell at first. During the initial joyful period, the Jowers humans, the Jowers cats, and a few of the Jowers' neighbors would set aside some time each day just to watch the catbox do its stuff.

Now before we go any further, let me explain that the Jowers catbox has always been Brenda's job. Years and years ago, before we ever got our first cat, I explained that I liked cats just fine, but I couldn't stand to get within noseshot of a catbox. Put me in the same room with a catbox, and I get rheumy-eyed and nauseated. Brenda knew perfectly well that if it came down to me having to clean the catbox, I would end up throwing it into the yard, Olympic hammer-throw style, maybe with a cat or two in it.

Slowly but surely, the reality of the electric catbox settled in. First Brenda noticed that the clumps sometimes made the rake hang up. That would make the catbox motor run for minutes at a time, as it tried manfully to drag the clumps over the ledge and into the plastic container. Brenda read the owner's manual, which blamed this particular problem on the litter. So Brenda tried different clumping litters, looking for the mixture that would create the perfect clumps. As far as we could tell, no such litter exists. Eventually, Brenda just started scooping out the troublesome clumps and dumping them into the plastic container. Of course, this defeated the purpose of a hundred-dollar electric catbox. Still, Brenda struggled on.

After a while, Brenda noticed that when she removed the plastic containers full of clumped-up cat excrement, the containers would "oil-can" and pop pieces of crud up toward her face.

I suggested that she just throw the plastic containers away every day, long before they got full enough to belch out cat funk. "That's a fine idea," she said. "But those little plastic boxes cost 20 bucks for two dozen units."

"Sweet Baby Jesus," I exclaimed. "That's 83 cents a unit! That'll buy a whole year's worth of fine imported beer."

"Well," Brenda said, "the owner's manual says we could wash the containers."

"I doubt it," I said. "Life is way too short for scrubbing cat crap out of plastic boxes. That's Turkish-prison stuff. And where are you going to do it? Over the sink? In the tub? You sure can't put those things in the dishwasher. And you can't use the hose. Too many flying particles."

Brenda decided to toss the containers every third day and keep the consumables cost down to a hundred bucks a year.

About a month ago, the belt that propels the little plastic rake broke. At that point, there was nothing electric or automatic about the catbox.

We found our warranty paperwork and saw that the thing is guaranteed for a year. We could just file a warranty claim and make the Litter Maid people refurbish the catbox.

But no. Now that we've put the thing through an 11-month trial, I've decided that it needs a lawn-mower motor, a chain drive, and a self-cleaning stainless-steel turd container to work right. It needs to follow my garbage disposal rule, which is: If it ain't powerful enough to eat a Shetland pony, it's useless.

Today, Brenda bought a regular plastic litter box. Nothing automatic about it. She's gone back to scooping.

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