One dreaded SAT test that I took had a passage about how cats are different than dogs. I’m not sure exactly what it said, but based on my life, it should have been about cats and humans.
Take my cat for example. He sits on our chairs at the dinner table, tries to eat off the table and loves people food much more than he loves people food. I find that weird. He should eat that processed junk that all other cats has to eat, and he’s not gonna say please and thank you and eat with a knife and fork, he should not get to eat at the table. But he tries, again and again.
Then there is my aunt and uncles cat. He was too fat so they put him on a diet. He has specific meal times, with a specific amount of food that he gets. But once you go fat you can never truly go back, so he always begs for a handout. But he is not aggressive like my cat. This cat keeps all four on the floor as if to say, I’m hungry but I’m going to stay within the realm of cathood. But then again, this is coming from a cat who is not allowed to go outside (he has kitty AIDS and is therefore a menace to cat society) and has mealtimes.
On the other side of my family, another set of aunt and uncles have two cats. This is a house that I have lived in for a week at a time, and still have only seen the cats when their food bowl is empty of when I pursue them. Like my cat, they have a bowl of food that is continually filled and can be nibbled at when they please. But these cats don’t go for anything further. Do they just love the cat food? Hate the people food. Or are cats supposed to realize their place, and my cat is just wack? I would like to say it comes back down to nature vs. nurture, but we’ve had other cats that don’t act like this and my aunt and uncle’s (the unseen cats) have had a fairly similar upbringing.
I think, that it is therefore inevitable that all cats will eventually be like mine. He was named ‘Big’ for his size, but now I find it more reflective of his dreams. To start the long journey towards human traditions. After all, isn’t that what domestication is all about? Now they are just doing it for us?
I’m not sure we give cats enough credit as a species.
Apropos of what we’ll be discussing for much of next week, this episode of PBS’ Nature series discusses the relationship between humans and our classic domesticated pets – cats and dogs. Through expert interviews, a visit to a Humane Society shelter, and owner-bios reminiscent of the famous couple scenes from When Harry Met Sally, the show seeks to explain – or at least explore – the bonds between pets and their humans.
It’s easy to get indignant about humans domestication of certain animals – we’re asserting our dominance! we’re pretending we rule the globe! we’re stripping them of their natural wild natures! – it’s also important to remember that we evolved alongside our domesticated animals, both pet and pastoral, and through this coevolution we all have become different creatures. Marc Bekoff, a former Guggenheim fellow and Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Boulder who is interviewed extensively in the episode, explains that these bonds of coevolution are strengthened by the presence of mirror neurons in both humans and common pets – that is, dogs and cats. Mirror neurons are what enable us to feel the emotions of another creature, be they of our species or another. As Bekoff puts it, they are “the neural basis for empathy…[required] for the formulation and maintenance of social bonds.” In other words, that prize human emotion – the one that leads to self-awareness, to social structure, to emotional relationships – is, in fact, not human at all.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out the often elitist – or at least excessively moral – human paradigm that we, as a species, tend to impose on the rest of the planet’s animals. And it’s important to note that these animals are not human – they are close to us, but they are not, and never will be the same as us. As one of the dog owners interviewed in the opening sequence says, “they’re another tribe…and what I really love about dogs and cats is that they’re not like us.”
So watch the documentary. Though be warned, it might bring you to tears –I know it did me – the kind of hot, messy, gut-wrenching tears that we seem to save for the inevitable goodbyes to our pets.
Tagged adoption, animals, brain, cats, companionship, documentary, dogs, dogs v. cats, empathy, euthanasia, evolution, humane society, humans and animals together, love, mirror neurons, neurology, PBS, pets