Sunday, 16 January 2011

Supposedly Sage Sunday: Are We Not Cats?

Hello again to one and all, and welcome to another session of insight and rambling hosted by yours truly. It's still fairly early here, and very cold outside, so you must pardon me if what follows seems a little deeper than last week. I've had a lot of time to think in the last while, and what I want to talk with you about today is the behaviour of cats...and more specifically, the way that cats and people seem to be more alike than meets the eye of the casual observer.
Every cat, and every person, is different in some way from every other. I've lived long enough to see that this is true, even when two cats or two people are for some reason trying to do the same thing or seem the same way. I don't think this difference will ever go away entirely, though I suppose I could be wrong about it. And yet, despite the things which make us unique, many of us seem destined to mimic our care-giver's feelings and moods.
Take kittens, for instance. They begin life clinging to their mother and crying whenever human predators get close to them. Eventually, they are taught not to fear humans, after which much handling and purring and stroking are sure to follow. All that attention is undoubtedly wonderful, but most young cats suddenly seem to decide - perhaps willingly, but perhaps without even realizing it - that humans should be emulated and depended upon. Soon they begin to follow the human around, begging for food and interaction while forgetting mostly about hunting and other such things. Give them a little while longer, and they will perform tasks to get what they want - sitting up prettily to receive a treat, for instance - which puts me in mind of one human working for another and doing much the same thing. The human wants the cat to behave a certain way, offers a reward, and elicits the action easily because of it. Cats who think they are training their human have to realize one thing: they may be doing so on some level, but a human's training has a lot more punch to it because they're smarter than we are - perhaps not as smart as they think they are, but just look around you for proof that they're very intelligent creatures - and because they're ultimately the ones who mostly control what and when we eat, and even where we go. Aside from training in this way, most cats who live with people tend eventually to seek affection out. People have wonderfully nice hands, and I can forgive their strange murmurs and babbles and word sounds as long as I'm getting lots of petting. Cats raised on their own don't tend to seek the attention of humans, yet those who live with humans abandon their self-reliant nature and all but beg to be cuddled and stroked. Humans are very social, always talking or touching or interacting in some way, and it comes to me that perhaps cats, seeing this in various ways as they get older, realize that they ought to conform in order to make their stay with the humans easier.
Here's what I'm really getting at, folks. When cats are around humans long enough, I think they almost stop being cats in the truest sense. Their attitudes become noticeably high-handed and smug despite the limitations within which they live; their actions often mimic those of the people with whom they're staying; most telling of all, though, they seem to forget - or at the least, to more or less abandon - some of the essentials of being a cat. Before I go any further, I want to say right here that I'm just as guilty of all of these things as the next cat is, as can probably have been figured out by now. I'm not attacking anyone or talking ill of cats in general; I'm simply musing on the impact humans tend to have over us. In fact, I bet many of you have had similar thoughts, but I've yet to see anyone else admit to it. The way I see it, happiness and comfort are what counts...and if that means a bit of accommodation to suit the situation, go for it.
I mentioned in a post a few days ago a cat named Michael. He's gone now, sadly, but his story is an oddly telling one, and a clear example of what happens when this unconscious training and mimicry goes horribly wrong.
Someone in Gregg's family got a kitten a long long time ago, when Gregg was still young. The person's name is Rob, and he's still very much alive; the kitten's name, at the time, was Muscles. Rob used to go to work every day and leave Muscles at home. This by itself wouldn't have been too bad, but Muscles was desperate for some kind of attention by the time anyone got back to their house, and so he'd climb all over just about anything that moved. He was very friendly but full of fun, as Gregg tells of those kittens who wants to play and be everywhere at once. Rob encouraged this behaviour far far too much, and would make the kitten angry and upset by playing with it long past the point where play was fun. In short order, Muscles began to use his teeth and claws while playing, to the point that Gregg no longer wanted to touch him for fear of being slashed or bitten. Some small time later, Muscles was given to Gregg's grandparents and quickly renamed Michael. He grew to be a huge cat, but unfortunately never recovered from his kittenhood. As time went by, Michael became known for extremely odd behaviour; for instance, he'd greet you when you came to his house by mewing way back in his throat, rubbing against your ankles, then hissing before commencing a purr. You couldn't touch him while in this mood, as he'd hiss and spit at you - and even attempt a bite if you weren't quick - before scampering off to look at you from some higher vantage point. Periodic attacks on Gregg's grandmother eventually led to Michael first losing his front claws, then his fangs, seriously crippling his ability to do damage. Gregg's grandfather claims that Michael eventually got to a point where he'd lay on his chest while he was reading, and I do believe it, but I bet it was years before it came to pass. That cat lived a fairly long life, but eventually died of something Gregg calls cancer.
I tell this story as something of an object lesson. Michael is a fairly rare case, I'm sure, but both people and cats should keep it in mind. When people and cats live together, cats grow more dependent than they otherwise would; whether or not it's -too dependent is a debate I'm not really prepared to sink my teeth into at the moment. Suffice to say that this dependency and behaviour change can be a wonderful thing when you get what you want, but can go dreadfully wrong if you live with humans who don't care much. To all the humans out there who might read this, please remember that your cats, young and crazy and timid and strange as they might be, are trying to adapt to you being a constant part of their lives, and that it's harder for them than for you in most cases. To all the cats who might read this, please remember that your human is smarter than you, but should not be resented (or excessively mimicked in deed or action) simply because of their greater intelligence. Rely on them because you have little choice, but try to retain enough of your independence that you can live without their presence or intervention as much as possible. When cats run away or when humans give us up for adoption for no particular behavioural reason, I bet it's often because all involved had not struck - or could not strike - the necessary balance to live together. It's not hard, you know...not nearly as hard as I make it sound. Just keep your own skills and strengths in mind, avoid being arrogant and focused on how you look - as some people regrettably are - and you'll do just fine.


Katnip Lounge said...

Well Sage, we see how you came by your name, you are a Wise Cat indeed.

Taking a Cat into a Home is a commitment for life, and it's too bad that not all Humans respect and nurture the relationship. Because, even though Humans may be smarter, Cats are purrfect!

Karen said...

What a wonderful post and so true. One of our cats pixel, we got when she was barely 6 weeks old and she has imprinted on us, she is not afraid of anything. doesn't mind the evil cat carrier and wonders what the noise in when she hears the fire alarm. The other one samba we got when he was about 5m and he is more sckiddish, afraid of his own shadow and runs at noises. We have had him for 2.5 years and he is less afraid around strangers and will now march out when they are here but. He will still run and hide with small things.

Everycat said...

What a terribly sad story. Poor Micheal. Humans so often don't learn about our behaviour and do things to us that cause us to exhibit the behaviour they don't like, then whoop-de-do we end up being punished for it, in Michael's case with surgical mutilation. Disgraceful. Poor Michael, declawed and defanged, the pain that poor cat went through all because of an original owner who did not know the problems he was causing. Declawing and defanging cripple cats for life. The sooner both procedures are outlawed in every country of the world the better. Grrr.


Kara said...

I agree. Thankfully, I've still got my claws and all of my teeth. I'm glad Gregg doesn't mind the occasional scratch or nip enough to take my only defenses away. Not that I have to have them for much these days...but I do hope it becomes less and less common to take a cat's claws away.
To make matters even worse, Gregg's grandparents have another cat - really not a lot more than a kitten - that isn't turning out much better. When they got her almost a year ago, she was sort of skittish and playful, and would get into anything that was handy in order to get a little excitement in her life. Apparently, Gregg's grandmother started "putting her down for a nap", which entails either putting her in a bedroom with the door closed, or worse yet, into a closet. It limits her destructive potential, but it's far too easy to put the cat out of sight and out of mind, so now she doesn't want to be social, and her bad behaviour's only gotten worse. I wish someone would take that cat away and love it before it's too late...but I worry that perhaps it already is.
Ever notice how it's always the cats who end up going strange after living with humans, instead of the other way round?

Everycat said...

Putting a cat in a cupboard? !!!
That's horrific. Maybe these people might like a nice book about cat care and behaviour as a present, you know, one of those books that celebrates cats as cats and comes across as a lovely gift rather than a lesson?

Humans commit atrocities every single day yet rarely do they get killed for their transgressions. We animals get one chance mostly. A dog will be put down just for one bite, never mind that the dog was fearful and maybe being tormented. It's a big, rotten, unjust old shame. Animals deserve better.