Friday, December 6, 2013
It's a few minutes after noon. Brian is curled up on the bed.
To sleep, perchance to dream, ay, there's the rub. Brian the cat in his most frequent pose in Troy.
Staff photo by Dana Wilde
“Brian. You slept on the chair all night,” I say. “Now you’re going to sleep on the bed all day?”
He opens one eye, purrs three or four strokes as if to say, “It’s cool, brother,” and settles back into some parallel cat dimension.
I wonder what he’s doing while he’s asleep. It seems obvious he dreams because he twitches and whimpers. In humans these are signs of a REM state. Whatever it is, Brian spends huge swaths of time there.
Of course, he’s only a cat. (His tufted ears, burly shoulders, thick orange hair and massive, dangerous claws suggest he’s probably got Maine coon cat genes, but no one knows for sure. He might just be huge.)
“Only a cat,” I say, though Brian is an intellectual, if lackadaisical, genius in comparison to his black and white sidekick, Panda, who is the household equivalent of the village idiot.
From one point of view this catthropomorphizing is an amusing but kind of meaningless sort of hyperbole because for a long time, science has denied that animals have anything like rational intelligence. There is just no way to know, empirically, whether animals think. So it has been assumed they act on instinct, and humans are the only people with conscious intelligence.
Of course, anyone who has ever lived with dogs or cats knows how naive this assumption is. Dogs and cats have definite individual personalities, and some are smarter than others.
Poe describes a cat of his that carried out a complicated process of opening a latched door.
And 2,400 years ago Socrates observed that dogs are philosophers. Think about it, he says in The Republic. A dog distinguishes friends or family members from strangers. When a friend approaches, he welcomes him. When a stranger comes in the yard, he gets angry (or, in the case of a trusting dog like a Labrador, he investigates). This means the dog bases his actions on knowledge. Which is what philosophers do. A dog is a philosopher.
So is a cat, though of a more existential ilk. Cats base their actions on a refined knowledge of routines.
Brian scrambles off the chair when he hears the top pop on a can of cat food. He heads for the woods when the younger grandchildren start piling out of cars. He comes out to greet us when he hears our cars, and hides in the garage when unfamiliar vehicles pull in.
Cats’ knowledge of routines can actually be too refined. A veterinarian once told me that in an experiment, some cats were taught (pretty quickly, I imagine) to follow a daily path to a food dish.
When the path was blocked off for a few days, the cats nearly starved because, while they smartly knew the routine, they could not outthink it. Panda could easily starve with food right around the corner. I have a feeling Brian would find the dish because for him, food trumps everything.
To me the phrase “dumb animals” is meaningless. Crows are fully cognizant of where vehicles do and do not drive: They go about their business undisturbed in the breakdown lane, but scatter from the travel lanes. Dragonflies and jumping spiders watch what you’re doing, apparently calculating whether you pose any peril. Cuttlefish, cousins of the octopus, learn to find their way around mazes. Bees, it is reported, can recognize a particular human face in photographs.
Even the scientists have acknowledged that animals are more than electrically animated meat popsicles.
“The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,” drawn up by a conference of neuroscientists and neurophysiologists in July 2012, states: “The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
(Continued on page 2)