I’ve had all sorts of animals as pets over the years. As a boy, I had dogs, lizards, turtles, fish and birds. The birds were rescues that my dog would find. Every spring he would find at least one baby bird that fell from its nest and stand over it, howling until I helped save the bird. We raised quite a few birds that way. One of them became my father’s Woodstock. The stupid thing would follow him around outside and sit on his shoulder. Most times, the bird would get healthy enough and we would let it loose.
The main pet was always a dog and I’m still partial to dogs. The trouble is that I travel enough that owning a dog is difficult. About 25 years ago a woman I was seeing suggested I try a cat. I did not think I’d like a cat, but the first one turned out to be a good pet. It was some sort of Siamese hybrid thing that had very long legs and could jump about eight feet in the air. I was surprised to learn that you can train a cat and it is not all that difficult. Me and the cat leaned a bunch of tricks to keep us both entertained.
As a result, I have had cats for going on three decades. The upside is I don’t have to worry about walking them so I can keep odd hours and go away for a few days without a problem. Shoveling litter is not much fun, but picking up dog crap is no better, so that’s a wash. Otherwise, cats are like any pet, in that they are what you make of them. I enjoy having pets so I invest in the cat and I get a decent return on the investment. That’s why you can tell a lot about someone by watching their pets.
Unlike dogs, cats have a greater range of behavioral traits. By that I mean a dachshund is going to be a dachshund. There are some quirks, but otherwise all dachshunds are the same. Cats, on the other hand, can have wildly different temperaments within the same littler, much less the same species. The most likely reason is humans have had less of a hand in developing the traits we associate with a cat’s personality. We literally created the dogs we have, but cats are more of an accident.
One thing I’ve noticed about the cats I’ve owned is they seem to create a mental model of their environment. Whenever I’ve moved, the first thing the cat would do is walk the perimeter of the new place. Not just the outer walls, but all of the furniture and closets too. Just for the hell of it, I have moved furniture around while the cat was locked in another room. Sure enough, he re-maps the room to account for the new arrangements. I suspect it is why they investigate every new box or parcel that comes home. It’s being inventoried.
Having a mental map of the territory would be a useful thing for a predator. Cat eyesight is not very good in the daylight. Their night vision is well known, but it is gray-scale and mostly for detecting movement. Having a mental model of the hunting grounds would be a low cost way for the animal to have an edge on its prey. It would also come in handy for detecting threats. Any change in the environment would be noticed and that would signal danger.
There’s research that the human mind creates a representation of the world which makes it easier for us to navigate. It’s sort of our own private matrix. This may be why we always feel at home back in the area where we were raised. That mental model of the world was imprinted on our minds and is never fully erased. The model could also allow us to delude ourselves in order to make life more bearable, by filtering out things that are particularly vexing.
The other thing I have noticed about cats over the years is they seem to have a linear memory. Hiding the mouse always results in the cat going from one place to the next in the order it found the mouse in previous games. The words “where’s your mouse” starts a process in which the cat starts at the first hiding spot, then the second and third and so on. That could be some sort of subtle training on my part, but maybe there’s something else. I’ve noticed this with multiple cats.
Humans do this to some extent when we lose something. We rewind our timeline and retrace our steps. It reduces the number of possible places to look to a manageable number. Perhaps a small predator like a cat does something similar to locate possible prey and water. There’s also the possibility that the cat is just trained to think this is a game. It does appear they are built to appeal to us in many subtle ways, so the cat could just be humoring me when I ask about the mouse.
Keeping any sort of animal in the house is a strange thing, when you stop and consider it. This is commonly explained on utilitarian grounds. Dogs make good hunting companions and good sentries. Cats keep rodent populations down. But, there’s something else. We make strong emotional bonds with our pets and anthropomorphize their behavior. Pets have no utilitarian value to modern people, but we have more of them than ever, spending billions on them.
It is another reminder that economic man is a nonsense idea made up by dull-witted people to make life seem simpler. We are motivated by more complex forces. Spiritual belief is one of modern man’s oldest traits, perhaps the oldest behavior trait. It most likely co-evolved with language. A desire to be on the right side of whatever it is behind the world has been at the heart of all of man’s endeavors. Our pets are most likely some part of that desire.
Now you have it, a post about cats and yes, it is an extended metaphor for something else. In America, Thanksgiving is upon us and I will be taking a much needed break from life’s travails. For those in the states, Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for reading. For my international readers, enjoy another day at the salt mine and thank you for reading.