Me, cats again, more cats

I saw something when I was a girl that disturbed me greatly. I was in our front yard, on my way to a neighbor’s house, looking for a good time, a game of Rummy or Cootie or Uncle Wiggily. I stopped to wait for a car to pass. Meanwhile, across the street, a dog was chasing a cat. I hadn’t seen the dog before, but it was a beautiful white and brown Pointer. When I was a child, dog breeds for a hundred was my jeopardy category.


The chase was on, full speed, much barking, considerable commotion. The cat ran alongside the road for a minute or so. Then it turned, streaked my way, the dog close behind. The cat got faster. The car hit and killed the dog.


I went crying to my mother. When my father got home that night, I told him what I’d seen, my clear and terrible sense that the cat had planned it just the way it happened. He asked me why I thought that. The cat had run alongside the road first, I said, and only crossed when the car was close. The cat had stopped running the minute the car hit the dog. It had come into our yard, sat unconcernedly on our sidewalk, cleaning its face with its paw. It looked at me afterwards, I said. It gave me a look.


My case was not a strong one. Dad attacked at my weakest point: the look. A cat can look at a king. Doesn’t mean it knows he’s royalty.


My father and I had a long-running argument on the subject of animals and their brains. I grew up surrounded by cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, turtles, rats and a snake named Melpotamus Jones. I believed, based on my own observations, that some of these animals, the dogs and cats, at least, could think.


My father was a behavioral psychologist. (Another child might have realized that this was his area of expertise and she was just a six-year-old, seven-year-old, eight-year-old child, but that’s not the kind of child I was.) He believed animals acted in response to changes in their environment. Through conditioning and reinforcement, he believed animals could learn. But he did not believe they could think. Or at least he felt it was a hypothesis not proven, which was his way of not believing. He was always cautioning me against the sins of anthropomorphism.


But it now seems to me that the refusal to anthropomorphize is not the value-neutral stance that it appears to be. You can demand that something be proved or you can demand that it be disproved; either choice has implications.


Weeks later I saw that same cat behave in that same way. On this occasion, its timing was off – the car braked; the dog, a mix of various Terriers, made it safely across the street. They were both still running when I last saw them.

2 thoughts on “Me, cats again, more cats

  1. Just saw your 2/14(?)/14 post about cat thinking/intentionality. With just about enough intellectual training to think about the concept, years of reading have left me as flummoxed as ever. Now the retired owner of two cats, I regularly see the purposeful, cause-&-effect behaviour you describe, but I’m not sure it qualifies as “thought.”
    If a cat or other animal looks for a way to prolong its survival (your case) or improve an outcome (ie getting food) I’m not sure that qualifies as “thought.” It could be described as “merely” survival behaviour honed by successful adaptation. Similarly, because cats are so very focused bettering their personal outcomes, one of my cats has found that various really irritating behaviours will get me out of bed early to feed him faster than yowling at me or manifesting affection. He jumps onto my chest or over me whilst I’m still asleep. If that doesn’t move me out, he goes to my ensuite bath & knocks objects from the vanity into the sink (electric toothbrush, digital timer…). It works every time. But it’s not at the same level as playing together with his brother. (They do play with toys successively, never together.)
    I guess I’m romantic enough to believe that functional adaptations (do x to get y / so that y happens) are one thing & the directionless & baroque elaboration of ritualistic or artistic or comedic thought another. However they’re probably all in the same family.

    • Dear Florence — as luck would have it, I only just read an article by David Grimm on Slate Magazine entitled “What Are Cats Thinking: Inside the mind of the world’s most uncooperative research subject.” In it, he asserts that cats, like dogs, can follow a pointing finger as evidence that they have a rudimentary theory of mind, ie understand other creatures as thinking beings.
      But the article also says that it is early days with regard to cat research and everyone else is as flummoxed as you and I. But new research is on the way! Maybe we will live to see some of these questions settled. In the meantime, I truly appreciate your smart and thoughtful reply. kj

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