“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice. —Alice in Wonderland
WHAT IF OUR ANCESTORS SURVIVED AND EVOLVED ACCORDING TO how well they were able to put themselves into the minds of the animals they relied on for survival? What if those who did so best were our first scientists? Some anthropologists are now proposing just that. Louis Liebenberg, an expert on the tracking techniques of the Kalahari (or San) Bushmen of Africa and an expert tracker himself, suggests that “it is in the art of [animal]tracking that we may find the wellsprings of the scientific quest”1—of man applying the scientific method far earlier than previously imagined. The renowned Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg concludes, “we perceive what may be the oldest act in the intellectual history of the human race: the hunter squatting on the ground, studying the tracks of his quarry.”
Liebenberg proposes three stages of tracking. The first is simple tracking: following visible tracks in ideal conditions. Next is systematic tracking, which uses the same analytical process to interpret many types of spoor evidence under difficult conditions.
The third kind of tracking is a lost art, known today to only a handful of people in the world: one term for it is speculative tracking. Here the tracker views the last visible evidence of spoor and adds to it his knowledge and instincts about the animal’s behavior, habits, and instincts, its terrain, the season, weather, soil type, and more. Instantly weighing these “complex, dynamic, and ever-changing variables,” the tracker attempts to put himself into the mind of the animal in order to “see” its motivations and actions. One writer notes that “[a]nthropologists who have worked closely among the hunters of the Kalahari and elsewhere have found that hunting is not simply an instinctual practice but also involves considerable and occasionally great learning and intellectual insight”2—comparable to the methods we now use in history, psychology, and quantum physics.3 As Liebenberg explains, “The modern [Kalahari] tracker creates imaginative reconstructions to explain what the animals were doing [at the time they laid down the last spoor sighted], and on this basis makes novel predictions”4 of what they will do next—and where they will go next. This imaginative, intuitive act involves executing “complex mental operations with lightning speed.”5
In fact, speculative tracking involves precisely the kinds of mental acts described by Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, as “thin-slicing”—the rapid and largely unconscious sifting of enormous amounts of information to reach a conclusion invisible to the less experienced. It wasn’t until I read Blink (which says thin-slicing expertise arrives in a mere ten thousand hours of practice) that I saw there might be an explanation for how I developed my intuitions on cat behavior after thousands of hours of practice.
The hunters themselves have another name for speculative tracking: “mind-throwing.” The hunter throws his mind ahead of himself, into that of the animal, in an attempt to become one with it. Imagine—science midwifed by man’s attempts to see through the eyes of the animals. Animals that, we should remind ourselves, men and women of antiquity often viewed as sacred. Let me be clear: I’m not a proponent of hunting in the modern world. But could hunting-related empathy with animals be part of our own naturally selected abilities? The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously said that human societies revered animals not because they were good eating but because animals “are good for thinking.” He was referring to how humans understand the world around them, and their places in it, through their knowledge of animals.
Unfortunately, we’ve forgotten a great deal of that lore, or obscured it from our awareness. And cats in particular are now hard for us to read. Among the clouds obscuring our view of cats’ minds is the common belief that cats behave and are motivated just like dogs. I’ll discuss this further in “Forget the Alpha Model: Dogs are From Mars, Cats are From Venus” (Chapter 3). Another is imagining that they think and feel like humans. We call this anthropomorphism. The third is the belief that cats are just inexplicable—that they are so quirky and eccentric that no one could possibly understand them. (For example, nearly everyone who heard of the writing of this book actually expressed shock that there could be such a thing as modification of cat behavior—everyone but the clients and the vets I work with, that is.) Finally, many people believe it is the cat who is responsible for its behavior, and who must be trained to change its behavior. None of these beliefs is accurate. Cats are not like dogs, or like us; but they are hardly inexplicable. And it is relatively easy to change most of their behaviors—but doing so almost always requires changing our own behaviors and the environment we have created for the cat. Do that, and the cat will respond naturally with the behaviors we want to encourage.
Anthropomorphism and Its Pleasures—and Pitfalls
I always enjoy the anonymous “Excerpts from a Cat’s Diary” that frequently makes its way around the Internet. It begins with the “Dog’s Diary,” which simply lists a dozen things like “Wagged my tail!” and “Milk bones!” each followed by the refrain, “My favorite thing!” The more cunning cat’s diary is an amusing example of thoughts and motives attributed to a cat:
Day 983 of my captivity. My captors continue to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while the other inmates and I are fed some sort of dry nuggets.
The dog receives special privileges. He is regularly released—and seems to be more than willing to return. He is obviously retarded. The bird has got to be an informant. I observe him communicate with the guards regularly. I am certain that he reports my every move. My captors have arranged protective custody for him in an elevated cell, so he is safe. For now …
If you’re a cat lover, you nod and smile as you read this, remembering, re-experiencing your own cats past and present; you feel the pleasure of recognition. How true, you think to yourself! And yet … it’s not.
I understand that it’s hard not to think of animals as being personlike, with personlike feelings and, especially, thoughts. It’s fun and touching to imagine that my cat Josephine (on the cover of the North American edition of this book) is my little girl who is so sweet and such a good little girl, who is nice, who loves me and wants to express her love to me, who really feels my love. I’m especially moved when I imagine she’s lonely without me and needs my love. And there are definite benefits to such anthropomorphism, for the pets as well as their owners. One is simply that when we feel empathy for an animal’s suffering and feelings, we become curiously more human, and more happy. The feeling of connection seems to be a source of well-being for us, with animal owners in general showing better psychological health than nonowners. Imagining that our cats feel and think as we do helps us feel closer to them and contributes to our taking better care of them.
However, we must be modest in our anthropomorphism. Why? The first reason is that since cats are quite different from humans, we’re often wrong in our projections. Readers who prefer to enjoy the fantasy that their cats are just like them may wish they could skip what I am about to say, but I aim at a higher target: I want to restore to cats their catness. Rather than trying to imagine cats as micropeople, I insist that we let cats be cats, allow them their otherness. What dog trainers say about dogs is equally true for cats: They are not small people. All domestic animals remain profoundly other—but the only partly domesticated cat is especially so. The cat, as Rudyard Kipling said, “walks by himself.”
Is your cat sweet? I have a hard time thinking of mine in any other way. Why else would something be so cute, so charming, so endearing and affectionate to us, other than because it is, and intends to be, sweet? But guess who the sprayers in your house often are. Give up? The sweetest ones. Anxious cats find ways to soothe themselves and increase their confidence. One way is to spray. Another is to always be near and rub up against the human who gives the affection and food, and has the soothing voice—that is, to be sweet toward the human. So the most cuddly cat may also be the most intractable sprayer. The original breeder of Ragdoll cats claimed, in the 1960s, that the queen cat who founded the breed was especially affectionate by nature. But that cat had become unusually attached to her owners only after experiencing the great trauma of surviving serious injury in an automobile accident. Socialization of a cat is faster “if the kitten encounters stress [or]has a strong emotional experience such as hunger, pain, or loneliness,”6 agrees veterinary behaviorist Dr. Bonnie Beaver, author of a highly regarded guide to cat behavior for veterinarians. Is that sweet, or anxious? Affectionate, or needful of reassurance? Some people conclude that Siamese are more friendly than other breeds—but at least some of that friendliness may be because they have thin coats and seek human heat.
A few years ago, Jeffrey Masson, a former psychoanalyst and the author of several popular books on the emotions of animals, turned his close powers of observation to the emotional lives of cats. Early on in his book The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats, I thrilled to his statement of his mission: “Too many people tend to see cats as uncomplicated creatures with few emotions, at least none worth thinking about in any depth. I am convinced that, on the contrary, cats are almost pure emotion.”7 He’s absolutely right. In the last decade, research on many animals has shown they lead rich emotional lives. Beyond mere fear and anxiety, they are capable of grieving the loss of their human or animal companions; they can become depressed; they can experience anticipation and pleasure. And as you’ll see in the rest of this book, they experience dramatic emotional responses to changes in their environment. Cats share with humans the same brain neurochemistry that allows us to feel.
But cat emotions are at once far less complicated and far more foreign to us than most people—including, I think, Masson—often make them out to be. For example, Masson writes that a cat newly brought into the home sits endearingly atop his chest as a calculated and “cunning ploy,” a “decision” the cat made in its “cunning little feline heart,” and that the cat ceases the behavior the moment he “knows” he will be allowed to stay in the home. Masson also remarks that one of his cats does not like to play while others watch. Why? Because, he says, she views play as “undignified.” While Masson understands that cats feel no guilt, remorse, shame, or sheepishness, he believes a cat can be “embarrassed” or “humiliated” by missing a jump—as evidenced, in Masson’s view, by the cat’s subsequent licking of its paws. Masson believes that a cat that visits its absent owner’s room and meows (or “raises her head and gives a small, hopeless cry”), then travels through the house (or “wanders the apartment restlessly”) until returning to that room, is showing powerful “evidence” of “love.” And he says that cats stare “out of affection.”
In reality, cats do not think about us, at least not in our sense of thinking, because they lack the cognitive framework necessary to such thinking. They certainly cannot process the thought, I’m going to get back at you, or I know you hate this, but I do it to spite you, or Here is yet another act of mine that, yes, you should take personally. Like a Zen master in meditation, the cat merely regards us, without thought or judgment at all. “I have lived with several Zen masters,” Eckhart Tolle has said, “all of them cats.” That we cannot often identify with this state of being is unfortunate, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Cats do not design and plan cunning ploys, nor calculatedly manipulate us with aforethought. If they miss a jump, they are startled, frightened, perhaps even hurt, and they lick themselves afterwards because washing is a form of self-soothing. They are not embarrassed. That is what humans feel when they fall before others. Cats cannot feel humiliated any more than a gerbil or a fern can. Cats just are. The patron saints of cats are not Freud but Buddha or Lao Tsu, not Dr. Phil but, yes, Eckhart Tolle.
A cat may look at a king. I’ve read that in some book, but I don’t remember where. —Alice, Alice in Wonderland
As for staring, when a cat stares at another cat, the act is both intended and received as assertive, even threatening; it never signals affection. The staring cat means to intimidate. While cats often look at humans with harmless intent, a cat who feels aggressive may well stare at a human threateningly as well. In any event, there’s no reason to believe that a cat, which is pure instinct, would somehow modify its wiring to stare at humans with affection. Moreover, what we imagine as the cat staring at us may not even be the case, since a cat’s field of vision is quite wide. While apparently staring at us, the cat may actually be taking in an entire room, or focusing on a point somewhere between himself and us. The misunderstanding about what staring—and being stared at—means to a cat is in fact responsible for yet another of the many mistaken ideas about cats. How many times have you heard it said (or said it yourself) that cats invariably find the one guest in the room who doesn’t like cats in order to jump into that person’s lap—just because they are so perverse? What’s actually going on in those situations is that the person who doesn’t like cats or isn’t interested in them has probably not bothered to make eye contact, and has therefore not been perceived as being hostile or threatening.
Finally, what about feline love? While it is happily impossible even for me not to believe that my cats “love” me, I know that if I use a meaningful rather than casual definition of love,* I cannot say that Josephine’s meowing at my absence or the expression in her eyes when I pet her is evidence of love rather than, respectively, anxiety over food or the loss of a companionship to which she’s attached, and simple animal pleasure. But as any human over the age of twenty-something knows, the difference between love and pleasure is all the difference in the world.†
If typical descriptions about cat cognition referred instead to badgers or cows, or the very intelligent pig, we could see the absurdity of them—and we’d see, too, that statements like Masson’s “the cat is happy to be himself” apply to any animal, not just a lionized cat. It’s only because cats live so intimately with us that we come inevitably to project our own cognition onto them. The writer Stephen Budiansky states it well: “Cats are not so much pets as fellow travelers, and we impose our hopes and expectations and wishes upon them to our peril.” And to their peril too, I would add.
Animal owners have better health and live longer lives. Anytime we can find reasons to express love, we are happier, and healthier.
In short, anthropomorphizing may be good for you. It’s certainly fun. It feels good to feel, or imagine, that connection. I know I will continue to “feel the love” from my cats and, even better, give them back my love. And I wouldn’t suggest that you stop. But it’s the dark side of anthropomorphism that I want to talk about most. I call it the Anthropomorphic Trap.
The Anthropomorphic Trap
Being among animals is greatly simplified when we imagine they are just like us. As I grew up, it was hard for me to be aware of my own anthropomorphism. After all, as a little girl I thought even my stuffed animals had real feelings and thoughts. But when we imagine that cats feel the same kind of love we do, that they are happy in the way we are happy, that they are trying to be sweet or adorable, or are embarrassed, it’s a very short step to giving them other, less-attractive human intentions like spitefulness or vengefulness, stubbornness or intransigence.
And then we do things that harm them.
As veterinary and shelter staff know too well, we punish cats when we think their problem behaviors are somehow directed at us or are done when the cats supposedly know not to. We scold them. You know very well you’re not supposed to be on that counter! We hit them. You peed on that to get back at me. Take that! (A great deal of child abuse also happens over toilet training.) We throw them out of the house. If you can’t stop scratching you’ll have to stay outdoors! We abandon them. You just keep spraying and spraying, no matter how many times I tell you not to. We give them the “good death.” But it’s wrong to think that cats understand the connection between our abuse—for that’s what it is—and their behavior. And it’s certainly misguided to project rebellious or spiteful intent. Cats are motivated purely by survival. Spite, like any other higher-order human emotion or intention, doesn’t serve the cat’s survival. Urine and feces are not used as ways to get back at humans. As Sigmund Freud might have said if he had been a cat behaviorist, Sometimes poop in ze shoe is just poop in ze shoe.
I believe it’s possible to have a real emotional or spiritual connection with an animal. When I look into my Josephine’s or Jasper’s eyes, I believe I sense a sentience there, a consciousness that is aware of me in some meaningful way that I can’t properly describe. My life’s work has been not to project my feelings onto them, but to try to understand their feelings. I invite you to do the same. Charles Darwin’s father, Erasmus, put it well when he said: “To respect a cat is the beginning of aesthetic sense.”
Falling into the Anthropomorphic Trap can be an especially bad idea when you react with punishment and reprimands, which:
• are ineffective—they usually won’t stop the behavior
• are often counterproductive—they may increase that behavior or begin another problematic behavior
• can ruin your bond with your cat
• are inhumane
• don’t reflect well on the intelligence of our species
Stick with positive anthropomorphism (“He’s sweet”) and stay away from the negative (“He knows he shouldn’t do that, and wants to annoy me”). Better yet, learn how to meet your cat on his own turf.
* I have in mind, among others, M. Scott Peck’s definition in The Road Less Traveled, where “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
† I think we are more animal-like than we think; a good part of our own feelings of “love” also derives from survival instincts playing out in the brain’s chemistry. Almost all cat behaviors are related to survival, and many humans’ behaviors fall into that category as well.