Dealing with Cats, Part 1: What is respect?

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Disclaimer: I am not an animal rights activist, I have zero connection to that movement and their personal sets of widgets, and often only minimal exposure to them through some of their worst representatives (PETA, Peter Singer).

I think the argument about whether animals (including humans) have a nebulous and abstract quality called “personhood” (which seems to have to do with the values of a particular set of human cultures) is the entirely wrong way to go about giving respect to animals. Too often it is terribly ableist and depends upon whether the creature in question possesses certain traits valued by certain humans, and when you go down that road you end up creating a set of criteria that not even all humans let alone all the rest of animals meet. Then you end up creating a system that privileges people based on those traits. And Singer is only among the worst of human beings to do this, he is far from the only one. In fact most people I encounter regularly seem to do this sort of thing all the time, to one degree or another. Arguments about “sentience” are similarly doomed, offensive, and full of the obvious limitations of various human imaginations when it comes to non-humans and some humans. Except that somehow they’re given even more of an outer sense of objectiveness because “sentience” seems to mostly be used in scientific or science-fiction circles.

[Edited to add: I have been told that some of that may matter in legal situations. But this series of cat posts is about personal situations between humans and cats. So in this context, cats should be respected because they exist.]

I base my beliefs in matters like this on respect.

I believe that everything, human or not, animal or not, conventionally considered alive at all or not, is worthy of respect.

I do not believe this in some fluffy insubstantial manner; fluffy sorts of people have been attracted to me in the past because the words I use superficially resemble words they sometimes use, but as soon as they find out a bit of what I am actually about they have a habit of running away rapidly. It is serious to me, solid, and ethically demanding. I also happen to believe that everything communicates and can be communicated with. I do not mean sitting around speaking out loud to rocks and having them speak out loud back. I mean that everything conveys information to everything else, whether or not that information is transmitted through the laws of physics or through complex linguistic patterns.

This is a perception that I have had my entire life and that has often been at odds with my culture. But I can’t let go of it just because some people have done terrible (and I do mean terrible) things to me on this basis (although at times I have learned to avoid the subject altogether). It is too important to how I treat others, from humans to cats to plants to rocks. I am not (as some have misinterpreted me) attributing human traits to nonhumans, I am rather saying that I view every kind of thing from humans to nonhumans as having a quality entirely their own that is important and valuable and worthy of respect and sincere attempts to listen to what they have to say to the world around them.

(I also don’t divide the world up the same way the English language forces me to sound like, but I have learned that very few other humans can speak the language I started out with and have always carried with me underneath the various attempts to sound as if I speak English. I have also found that attempts to translate my language to English not only fall short but cause reactions in others from ridicule to condemnation as incredibly inadequate in some manner whether moral or functional. And that linguists get pissed that I use the term language at all but I don’t know a better one.)

How do I know this language or whatever you call it is shared by other people? For one thing, I see it mentioned from time to time:

Momo listened to everyone and everything, to dogs and cats, crickets and tortoises — even to the rain and the wind in the pine trees — and all of them spoke to her after their own fashion.

Many were the evenings when, after her friends had gone home, she would sit by herself in the middle of the old stone amphitheater, with the sky’s starry vault overhead, and simply listen to the great silence around her.

Whenever she did this, she felt she was sitting at the center of a giant ear, listening to the world of the stars, and she seemed to hear soft but majestic music that touched her heart in the strangest way. On nights like these, she always had the most beautiful dreams.

Those who still think listening isn’t an art should see if they can do half as well.

–Michael Ende, Momo

Or the following quote (somewhat autistic-centric and specific-culture-centric, so occasionally prone to generalizations):

MM: [Speaking of some autistic people…] we do not draw a line between inanimate and animate beings, that they all have a soul to us.

Daina: As a child, everything was somewhat alive to me. Perhaps the face-processing tendency that most NTs have enables them early on to distinguish what is alive and what isn’t, and what is human and what isn’t.

Ava: Or maybe what is and isn’t alive, is just another assumption that NTs make. So for the NT child, either because of the strength of those attachments to faces and the accompanying social world, or through some coincidental developmental process, the aliveness of the sensory world fades. Whereas we ACs retain more of the direct experience of the world and less of the face-addiction-belief thing.

Sola: This reminds me of a poem that I studied in high school, “The Pond” by Bjalik. The poem describes a secret place in the forest, where there is a little pond and a tree growing from it. When the poet was a little boy, he used to go there, alone, and listen to the “language of visions,” an unmediated way for the child to communicate with the tree and the pond. The articles that I read about this poem discussed the role of spoken language, as adding the social aspect, separating the initially naive child from the true essence of the world. I was enchanted by the poem. For many months I perseverated on the meaning of communication and language, searching the library for more articles about this. However, unlike the conclusion of the poem, I did not feel that growing up and maturing inevitably meant losing this innocence and being expelled from nature. I felt that I was still that child in the forest. Now that I know that I am AS, I am not surprised that the poem had such influence on me.

[…]

MM: We are always sewing souls into the things we create.

Jane: Yes I think soul (essence of being) is created through the creation of a relationship. I call it a moral relationship (which I know sounds prissy or sanctimonious to some), by which I mean a relationship where there is acceptance/acknowledgement of agency and responsibility. When I relate to an object (whether it is another human or a bear I have created out of cloth), with my moral/aware consciousness, when I acknowledge my power to affect (recognize, hurt, heal, shine like the sun or nourish like rain — even to destroy like lightning), I also give power to the other (the object) to affect me. So that other is as alive as I am (in this sense). We are in a moral relationship that gives life meaning. That is why I know the bears who are my most intimate and daily family do help me be/have whatever is good in who I am and what I do. It is the relationship that makes us who we are (that makes me who I am). And I say that even though I have a strong tendency to want to say/feel I am I, alone. That fraction of truth lives inside the larger truth of relationships.

MM: Most of humanity is ignorant for not seeing what is around them. I hear the rocks and trees. Wish me well and tell me I am one of them, one of the silent ones who has now been given a voice, and that I must come out of hiding to protect others without voices: in my case I tend to help give voice to persons with Alzheimer’s disease. My washer and dryer speak to me, and I painted a face on them and gave them names and make sure I don’t overwork them. When I worked in a copy shop I could produce more copies than any other employee. Yes, I could understand the physics of the machines and their limitations from overheating etc. But for me the machines were talking to me and I talked back regularly.

I was raised by my Siamese cat I could understand her language better than the human language, and so I spoke Siamese before I spoke English, and I thought the cat was my real mother because I could understand her more than I could understand humans. I speak to children, babies, machines, rocks and trees as if they can hear me and they know what I am talking about. That is why my success with Alzheimer’s patients is so high: I treat them with such great respect and assume they know what I am saying. And I wonder why the rest of the world is so ignorant as to treat others as stupid and dumb and things and animals so terribly because they are somehow less than us? Well I think that this is a very arrogant stance to think we are better or more alive than these others who very much have a soul.

The last set of quotes is from a set of conversations between several autistic women in the book Women from Another Planet edited by Jean Kearns Miller. It’s not identical to my experience, but the basic idea many of them are getting at is quite similar to my own idea of my innate “language”. These are not the only autistic people I have heard say this either, just the ones readily accessible in a book. Whatever way I innately perceive the world around me in this sense has a lot in common with a specific subgroup of other people, many of whom have been defined by others as autistic but not exclusively that. And I am always glad to hear something of autistic people that isn’t the stereotype of either having an empty head or a head filled exclusively with elaborate formal logic like Spock.

So how does all this apply to cats? Well, in my book cats are as deserving of a fundamental respect as are humans, rocks, and all kinds of other things whether traditionally considered animate or inanimate. Like all forms of respect, this doesn’t mean treating all cats identically to all humans (that would be a frightfully human-centered way of doing things), or even treating all cats or all humans the same as each other. Respect has to do with really listening to who someone is and treating them accordingly, even if that differs from how you would treat someone else with respect. Identical and equal are not the same. It is as wrong to reach out and pet all over a cat who finds indiscriminate petting unpleasant, as it is to withhold petting from a cat who thrives on it (but in both cases it’s also wrong to approach the cat in a way that has everything to do with your own preferences and nothing at all to do with the cat’s!). Respect doesn’t mean you don’t have to work to understand the cat either, but that is a topic for a later post in this series.

This post is the first in a series of posts I am planning to write about how to deal with and interact with cats. It’s an attempt to give a broad overview of where I am coming from before I jump into all the details. And my reason for writing this is my reason for writing most things: I rarely see anything written about the subject matter from this perspective, I know I can’t be unique in valuing this perspective (because no one is that unique no matter what they believe), and so I write the kind of thing I would like to see written. And because a friend and I have been discussing nothing but cats for ages, so my brain is pointed in this direction.

feysnuggleface10

[Photo is Fey, viewed from over the top of both of our heads. Her face is pointing the opposite direction of mine, and mine is barely visible in the photo. Her cheek is partly on my cheek and partly on the grey neck pillow. She is a grey cat with ticked fur, and a white area on her nose like a diamond on top of a triangle of white. There is also some white visible on the tiny part of her chest that you can see. She has green eyes, each one partially shut but with one more so than the other. Her ears are in their normal relaxed position. Her whiskers are neither pulled in nor pushed out, and can only be seen on one side where they spray upwards (her face is pointing to the left side of the photo). And to me, the way her face looks in this photo is both intense and familiar, although I don’t know how they would look to anyone else.]

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

41 responses »

  1. This was really beautiful and made me happy and, as most of your writing does, wish that more people thought this deeply about the things they take for granted. Most of them aren’t going to. I used to communicate well with cats (and many other non-verbal creatures) but as I have become better at verbally communicating with humans I have noticed this ability diminish to the point of disappearance. I think this is an inevitable result of any move from the autistic world to the surface world. In this case I think I am better off because I have no need for cats in my life now and thus rarely interact with them, but it is still a real loss. Thanks for writing this.

  2. noah: I don’t know if it’s language itself or our culture’s oppressive disrespect that more often than not speaks through it, that destroys our ability to communicate with nature (our own included).

  3. I have noticed that among autistic people who have that initial experience of the world, some seem to lose it after learning language and some don’t. (I haven’t, but I know others who have and who wish they hadn’t.) I don’t know what’s up with that.

  4. As usual, my statements were initially unclear (I often have this problem). My verbal language acquisition was not the impetus for my losing the intuition necessary to communicate with non-verbal beings. The impetus was rather my gaining the ability to read NTs’ social cues (or at least improving this ability greatly). I think this has something to do with turning my perspective outward (as in, towards the surface), rather than letting it remain inward (as in the intuitive autistic world). I am not proud of this but it has been necessary for me to accomplish things like getting work and not getting beaten up by assholes. There is some element of conformity at work here, also, that is not only reflected by my ability to interact with most people without problems but also by my loss of many of the superpowers I had when I was young.

    I no longer think using intuitive sensitivity but rather concrete responses to the things which are outwardly perceivable.

    This has both good and bad points, like the fact that I am no longer tense around people whose arousal level is too high, but I also have more trouble relating to the people who are very sensitive to arousal level.

    In a way though, it is like gaining language, because now I have learned to think in different terms than I once did. I am less capable of communicating with people who only speak that language, but I am also largely immune from the negative things which they experience.

    I hope this made sense.

  5. Interesting. I have talked to people before who said that gaining language specifically made their entire way of perceiving the world change irretrievably, because language made them think of the world using linguistic concepts rather than their old way of thinking which they had trouble describing but that sounds a lot like how I think (although with individual differences because everyone is different). They also said it had good and bad points.

    I don’t really feel like I have superpowers though, just a different way of perceiving the world that has both strengths and weaknesses itself. It has also developed and changed throughout my lifetime, so in many ways is different from what it would have been if I had left it behind in childhood.

  6. It’s also interesting to me that this, while not being the first post that discusses this, is the first post where I really point out that this way of viewing the world has had a strong effect on my ethics. It’s of course only one of many ways to come to the same conclusions and I don’t want to suggest that people who don’t experience things this way can’t be ethical or can’t hold the same views I do. It’s just that normally I am used to avoiding this topic because of the reactions I get (which in the past have included ridicule, extreme physical abuse, condescending attempts to patiently explain to me that objects aren’t alive or cannot communicate, being accused of claiming to be psychic, having other people actually believe I was psychic or spiritually evolved and put me and sometimes other autistic or disabled in general people on a pedestal, and in general do things that damaged either me or other people).

    So this is some of what I mean when I say I am not an “autism blogger”, but rather a blogger who views the world and ethics in a particular way and applies that to whatever topic I happen to be blogging about.

    Additionally this is why, even though I respect much of what they do, I will never be fully comfortable with the world of skeptics. Not only is it generally a world that prizes a form of thinking that I find impossible to sustain, but it also is usually based on a worldview where… well, there are a lot of problems with it really. But the one I am thinking of is the fact that many skeptics would take one look at the way I perceive the world (and the way my ethics have formed) and just laugh at it before throwing it out with the trash. So even as I admire some of what they are doing, I am also aware that I am in the territory of people who would (not all, but enough) use the basis of my thoughts, perceptions, and ethics as a scratching post.

    But I have no other way of explaining how my ethics apply to nonhumans. Because all the standard ways I have heard of doing that are different in ways that would result in something very different-shaped than what I intend to write about. So I just had to decide to try to write about it even though it’s difficult and scary.

  7. First of all, thank you for making the effort to write about this.

    I try to respect everything, really. I mean really, in a way that sometimes hurts.

    I did not come to this intuitively.

    Abstract concepts have always felt more real to me than animals, non-human animals, or objects.

    I often feel like the real world is a dream and inside my head is more real.

    Sometimes I used to wonder if anyone who thinks the way I do is capable of love.

    But Socrates thought like I thought and he was ethical enough to subject himself to murder for the sake of truth.

    Somewhere between you and I, there is a hypothetical perfect person who thinks perfectly.

    But that person is not real.

    Sometimes I wish that there were nothing at all, that nothing had ever existed.

    I’m babbling…

  8. I will only delete it if you want me to. By the way I was not meaning to imply that my way of thinking was the only way to approach ethics, just that it was the way I approach them. When I first really became capable of abstraction of a certain kind I used to wonder if dreams were real and reality was a dream. That got me in at least as much trouble with the psych people as my communicating with objects did. I have a friend who thinks the opposite of me (sort of an inverted form of my thinking) and our efforts to understand each other has created a really deep friendship. We sort of balance each other out.

    • “I used to wonder if dreams were real and reality was a dream. That got me in at least as much trouble with the psych people as my communicating with objects did.”

      *blinks*

      Obviously, they never took philosophy. That is a basic question: “Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly dreaming I am a man, or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man dreaming I am a butterfly?” I never took philosophy, have never been hugely interested in it, and even I know this. *shakes head in disgust*

      Glad you’re strong enough to have moved past them / not paid attention to what they thought.

      :) tagAught

  9. I am sure Dennis would very much approve of your recent cat posts……he and we are like siblings…..love each other but have squabbles from time to time……most of them are over physical contact. I cannot explain to him the difference between WANTING physical contact with him and really NEEDING it because of being upset or overloaded or very sad or scared or some other kind of highly charged uncomfortable emotion or sensation. I wish I had a means to explain the difference in a way that would make sense to him……I can’t even have this concept fully make sense to MYSELF or the rest of us except for these words I am writing now.

    Amanda: Have you ever had such an issue with Fey? Or the other way around? She wants or needs contact but you cannot or don’t want to touch or be touched by her? Or any other cat in your life?

    Anyone else have something like this before? Even with another animal? I’m very curious now that I wrote this. Sometimes Dennis wants attention (or needs maybe…..I can’t tell) and I’m irritated or overloaded or something……or if not me one of my internal siblings…..Ivan tends to push away when upset……..
    Then we don’t want physical contact with him…..and escape where we cannot hear him meow for us.

    meow!
    Athena

  10. Respect is also speaking/communicating with a cat the way you’d want to have the same done to you by another human. Most of us want to be respected by members of our own species….but even cross-species communication must be respectful especially if we humans are sharing a living space with members of another species, like a dog or cat.

    I have trouble being respectful to Dennis when he digs up a plant or makes another mess for me to clean up, but I always feel badly after yelling at him, and I try not to do it very often. It’s hard when extremely frustrated..

    I think my last comment got eaten……….

    Athena

  11. Pingback: Right Lifestyle, or Right Livelihood? « Urocyon's Meanderings

  12. I just found your other comment (Athena).

    I have been on both sides of something similar with other humans. In all such instances, the person who thought that they needed a certain kind of contact (whether physical or not) because of being extremely upset, overloaded, etc., was in bad need of learning the difference between a need and a very strong want.

    It is very alarming at best, physically dangerous at worst, to have someone view it as a need to push themselves on you when you are not comfortable with it, when the reason is because they’re extremely upset or overloaded (and in some circumstances it would be wrong to do so even in a situation where it was a survival need).

    As a human being, I can just barely (because of inertia it’s harder for me than it is for most people) either escape someone doing that to me or tell them to go away. (And in one case I have had to pretty much end a friendship because I kept telling them that their presence at certain times was dangerous to my life and/or health and they kept showing up at those times with the excuse that they were very very upset and “needed” me. This gave me much more perspective on the terrible things I had done to others at times with the same excuse.)

    Dennis is a cat. Cats have no foolproof way of making us stay away from them when they want space. That means even the best intentioned cat lovers have a tremendous amount of power over our cats, more than most humans can ever have over most others. And that means we have an equally tremendous amount of responsibility to do right by them.

    That means it is more important than ever to distinguish between need and very strong want when it affects them. And not even the level of emotional distress that crosses over into the realm of needs a bit (like being suicidal) gives us the right to encroach upon a cat who does not want to be encroached upon. We have the legal right to do nearly anything with a cat (and I have seen cats whose eyes glaze over when they are picked up because of exactly that), but not ethically. Ethically we have to take more care not to blur the lines between want and need with a cat than we do with nearly any human. The more power we have over someone, the fewer rights someone has in our society, and the fewer ways the person has to communicate in the dominant language, the more that responsibility to respect their boundaries increases.

    So since this is not something a person should do to even other humans (unless there is an uncoerced agreement saying otherwise of course), it’s definitely not something to do to a cat. Nobody ever needs to touch any particular other person for that sort of reason, even if you could somehow try to explain to a cat that you thought you did. And it’s incredibly unpleasant at best to have someone saying they need to do things much less invasive than touch with those justifications. Let alone “I need to touch you because I am really really distraught”. That’s a line that should only be crossed in much different situations of need (like needing to administer medical care to the cat or something).

    And the power relations between humans and cats are currently planned as being the third post in the series, although all posts involve them somewhat (since nearly nobody ever writes about them in cat care manuals).

  13. Following on to Amanda’s comment about distinguishing a need from a very strong want, I would say as well that in general it seems like a recipe for an unhealthy relationship if one even holds the perspective that they NEED to touch or hold someone else when they’re feeling bad, etc. and that the other party NEEDS to permit this.

    In other words, yes, it may make a human feel better to cuddle with a cat when we’re upset, etc., — but we still have no right to force them to cuddle if they don’t want to. No matter HOW bad we feel, and no matter HOW much we feel like we “need” it.

    And IMO, there’s something very wrong even about sitting there and feeling slighted or like somehow the cat “should” be cuddling you. More than likely the cat knows very well you’re upset and that you’d like to cuddle, but can’t take the emotional energy drain (for lack of better phrasing) that cuddling you then would entail. And that needs to be respected.

    Not to say that you can’t feel your feelings or anything, just that some things need to be made “off limits” in anyone’s mind if that person wishes to be ethical and respectful of others, and the whole “cat, you need to understand that I NEED to touch you when I’m upset” thing is definitely one of those things. It may not feel disrespectful, and you may feel like you “can’t help it”, but frankly given the power humans have relative to cats, it’s our JOB to help it, because it IS disrespectful.

    Moreover, once someone stops emitting “demandingness” (not sure how else to put that) for affection, comfort, etc., it is probably a lot more likely that the cat WILL come sit with them. There are ways of wanting and appreciating things that don’t entail “demandingness”, and again, if we’re to live with creatures like cats it is absolutely our responsibility to figure out what these ways are and try to use them whenever possible.

    • *nods thoughtfully* I’ve always felt I need touch when I’m upset – but feline touch, not human touch. I’ve been lucky in my cats: Brightspot always understood when I was upset and came over, quite often licking my face to try to sooth my crying. Mitzy was always up for a good cuddle. Aspen… would let me pet her, but wasn’t really a cuddly cat, so I was satisfied with that. (She liked being petted, but a lap cat, she was *not*.) And Imber is usually happy for me to cuddle her, but it ends when *she* decides it ends. (She is of the opinion that happens even when I want it to end before she does as well, naturally…. ;)) So I guess it *is* more a strong want than a need. It’s something that helps calm me down and help me regain control, of myself and of the world, but if a cat doesn’t want to be cuddled, I accept that and let them go.

      And I understand the point about power, but – perhaps because I grew up with cats since I was born, and once I got past the bratty stage of pulling Tikky’s tail and petting him when he didn’t want to be petted – I’ve always understood that if a cat wants to be left alone, leave them alone. They have claws. And teeth. (Mind you, this hasn’t stopped me from trying to coax cats to approach me occasionally, and let me pet them, and I had remarkable success with one very nervy cat on my paper route as an early teen…. :) But that’s coaxing, and again, leaves the power of choice up to the *cat*.) I think people who abuse the fact that they’re bigger… well, they’re *abusers*. Animal or “human” (given we are also animals), it doesn’t matter. That’s abuse. *nods firmly* (And that’s one ethical thing that *I’m* inflexible about.)

      ;) tagAught

  14. What Anne said has been in my thoughts as well.

    There are times when I can’t move without Fey touching me.

    But she doesn’t touch me at those times because I found some way of convincing her I needed her to touch me.

    She touches me at those times because we have a long history of a back-and-forth relationship that involves trust and respect, and she wants to touch me. Otherwise I would just have to sit around and wait till I could move again, and I would not consider it at all ethical to try to persuade her to touch me when she didn’t want to, even in those circumstances.

  15. This is very different in many ways from how i see things, but i still feel a sort of echo of recognition in it, which i am trying to analyse…

    I know that i can’t see cats (or any other nonhuman animals) as being “equal” to humans; if i did, then both the neutering and euthanasia of cats (both things that every single “cat person” and every single animal rights activist i have ever known thoroughly support) would horrify me as much as what was done to Ashley X and to Katie McCarron horrifies me; for that matter, keeping animals in any sort of captivity, even as much-loved pets or as assistance animals, would become as unjustifiable as keeping humans in institutions. For this reason, i don’t ever intend to live with or “keep” any nonhuman animals (which, now i think about it, is quite similar to at least one major aspect of my reasons for not ever wanting to have children): i don’t condemn others for having pets, though, and in fact i respect those who can successfully juggle that ethical dilemma – my non-pet-keeping is an abstention due to not being able to resolve that.

    The language aspect also interests me: i have no idea whatsoever what i was like before i acquired language, because i have no memory of the time before i acquired language, yet in a sense, verbal language is *not* my primary means of thinking about abstract concepts; although i am an extremely verbally-oriented person (and in many ways completely fit the stereotype of autistic people (or at least the “Asperger’s/HFA” “end” of the spectrum – not that i accept that distinction) as being entirely verbal in communication, with almost no meaningful nonverbal communication at all), it takes a lot of effort for me to put concepts that i naturally understand on a “pre-verbal” level into comprehensible words. I often feel like i think in “shapes” or “patterns” (which are not exactly like geometric shapes or patterns percieved visually, but more like that than anything else i can think of), which i instinctively grasp much faster than i can “translate” into words (an example would be the parallels that i see between different “axes” of oppression, on grounds of gender, disability, race, etc, and “patterns” that i can see repeating themselves in how people of different oppressed groups are treated, so that i instantly recognise a familiar “pattern” even in an entirely different context. For a long time i thought that this was what people were talking about when they used the term “intersectionality”, and i only fairly recently realised that that term (as i now understand it) is actually more about the differences between how people who are oppressed for different reasons experience oppression.) So i think i probably have “lost” the thing that you talk about some autistic people possibly losing when they acquire language (and probably at too young an age for me to remember ever having it), but still seem to have some sort of… “pre-linguistic” form of thought, even though it now seems to need to be mediated through language to become communication.

    (I actually don’t know if that made any sense at all… please let me know if you got anything meaningful out of it…)

    Lindsay at Autist’s Corner has a post here that i think you might be interested to read, discussing animism and anthropomorphism. While her way of seeing things is quite different from yours (and mine is probably closer to hers), i think your and her viewpoints complement each other quite interestingly. Would i be right in saying (and i’m aware that this may well fall for you into the category of “widgets”, so don’t worry if you can’t answer) that your viewpoint is a kind of animism without anthropomorphism?

  16. Ugh my ipod ate my first reply to you. Trying again from the regular computer.

    I read that post and was kind of annoyed at it. It described things that sounded at first glance similar to how I saw things, but then called them anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is not at all how I approach things. At all. I don’t see all different things as distorted versions of myself, I respect them for what they are, not what they aren’t.

    Animism is closer but still misses the mark somehow.

    Also she described this thing as “opposite” to the views she was talking about, where she grew up seeing people as random colors and stuff, and that’s exactly how I saw things all the time back when I was a kid and still perceive things if I don’t really work at it. It’s in no way incompatible with the other aspects of how I see things.

    Which does make me think there are serious widgets at work here.

  17. shiva wrote:

    I know that i can’t see cats (or any other nonhuman animals) as being “equal” to humans; if i did, then both the neutering and euthanasia of cats (both things that every single “cat person” and every single animal rights activist i have ever known thoroughly support) would horrify me as much as what was done to Ashley X and to Katie McCarron horrifies me; for that matter, keeping animals in any sort of captivity, even as much-loved pets or as assistance animals, would become as unjustifiable as keeping humans in institutions. For this reason, i don’t ever intend to live with or “keep” any nonhuman animals (which, now i think about it, is quite similar to at least one major aspect of my reasons for not ever wanting to have children): i don’t condemn others for having pets, though, and in fact i respect those who can successfully juggle that ethical dilemma – my non-pet-keeping is an abstention due to not being able to resolve that.

    Oh geez. I know what you mean about ethical dilemmas here, I’ve been going through them since adopting my three kittens and was doing so intractably prior to that as well.

    And while I certainly still haven’t RESOLVED all those dilemmas, I am (at this point) at least in a position where I don’t figure I would necessarily have been doing these cats a service by leaving them outside to grow up as ferals when I had the means to provide another sort of home for them.

    Every day of course I still think about what it means that I saw these little creatures outside and decided that they ought to come and live with me, and enacted the power I had to make that happen — and some of it DOES feel very weird and awkward.

    Moreover, I don’t think life as a feral cat has to be horrible — I am pretty well acquainted with several members of the local feral colony, and they seem quite well-fed and happy despite probably having fleas and whatnot. :P

    BUT, at the same time, what ended up really compelling me to decide to take in these kitties was the fact that the colony they were from was getting large enough to be visible to potentially more humans in that neighborhood, and I was concerned that someone who didn’t like cats would end up calling animal control who would round up ALL the cats and take them off and kill them.

    So I figured that by removing three from that population and giving them the best home I could, I might potentially be helping save the lives of a whole bunch of really neat cats. I might have been wrong in my reasoning but that is the reasoning I used, so I figured I would relate it here.

    Also, re. the bit about “..then both the neutering and euthanasia of cats (both things that every single “cat person” and every single animal rights activist i have ever known thoroughly support) would horrify me as much as what was done to Ashley X and to Katie McCarron horrifies me”….yeah, THIS has definitely been on my mind. A lot.

    I’ve started the process of getting my kitties sterilized (the girl is done now, the boys have their appointment in January), and you can bet I’ve been thinking a ton about what it means that I would engage in such an invasive procedure on their bodies without their consent even though I’d condemn it if the same were done to humans.

    And what I’ve determined is that it really has NOTHING to do with whether or not cats are “equal” to humans, but rather to species-specific physiological differences between cats and humans.

    Like…I know some people might find it awful for me to say this, but if HUMAN babies were capable of having litters of more human babies starting at around four months of age, and if said babies were actively capable of escaping from their homes and tearing around the neighborhood looking for mates when barely out of infancy themselves…well, in that case I COULD see myself advocating spay/neuter of human babies!

    Humans don’t run into the same sorts of reproduction and population-related issues cats do because we are not built the way cats are in that department. We mature far more slowly, we reproduce in smaller quantities, and we can employ things like contraceptive pills and prophylactics.

    Also, for cats there are actually a number of really serious health problems they can end up with when they aren’t sterilized. Female cats that don’t breed and go into heat repeatedly can end up with pyrometra, which is essentially “pus-filled uterus”. It is extremely painful and almost always fatal. Humans are not so prone to such things, so there’s less of an argument for spaying human girls, and moreover, there can be weird health consequences to hormonal insufficiency in humans (bone loss, etc.) that cats do not tend to experience.

    In those respects, you almost can’t really compare spaying a cat to spaying a human — it has the same sterilization effect, but the health consequences can differ widely and for me that factors greatly into the question of whether or not it’s a good idea.

    So, I guess when it comes down to it I definitely wish there were some way to help cats avoid the problems that come from their unmitigated reproduction that was not so invasive — but given there really isn’t at this point, I definitely advocate spay-neuter and plan on having any companion animals I live with sterilized. It’s a “lesser of many evils” thing, as I see it, and again, not one that has anything to do with judging humans or felines to be better or worse or equal or unequal, etc.

    Oh, and in addition to all that, one has to look at how in HUMAN cultural history, involuntary sterilization has practically always occurred in the context of some big huge ethical fail, in which one or more groups of humans is being *singled out* as unworthy of reproducing and hence not deserving of any respect of their bodily autonomy.

    In the human context, sterilization is usually not the ONLY thing that happens to someone who is sterilized — generally there’s lots of awful assumption-making, depersonalization, and other assorted craptastic things going on at the same time.

    So that’s a big reason why I do NOT at this time go around telling parents of human children to please spay or neuter their sons and daughters: I don’t know if humans are even capable of doing stuff like that to other humans without turning it into a bizarro value-judgment and assumption-making game that is practically guaranteed to be unethical and abusive.

    And…while certainly if you look at the weird world of “cat fancy” and professional breeding you will see more than a few shades of eugenics and assorted bizarritude, when it comes to cats in general, you don’t see stuff like…people claiming that only disabled cats should be neutered, or that neutering disabled cats in particular is acceptable becaue “they’re like eternal children” and whatnot. The cultural baggage humans impose so duly on one another just isn’t there when it comes to cats (other actual abuses of cats notwithstanding).

    So, yeah, I don’t know how much of that made sense, but it is all I could come up with to explain why I do in fact advocate certain things for cats but not for humans even though I consider both species to be of equal *value*. They’re different, and that matters, but the differences in how each is ideally treated should never come down to just figuring one to be a “diminished” version of the other and hence less deserving of having their autonomy respected.

    In dealing with any species I will make every effort to respect their autonomy to the greatest degree possible, while allowing for situations where it seems to me that not doing [invasive thing] would hurt them more than help them. And in taking this position, I accept full responsibility for my decisions and recognize that ultimately no amount of good intentions means I’m guaranteed to be right.

    With that said, I also have some very personal philosophical reasons for figuring it good for some people to live closely alongside nonhuman animals of various sorts, one of which being a belief that it is actually very weird and wrong and unnatural to figure humans some isolated, separate piece of the ecosystem that does not and should not have meaningful interactions with other species.

    I think it can enhance the lives of multiple species to engage in respectful interactions with each other, and that just because some people seem unwilling to go about these interactions respectfully that does not mean the answer is to sequester off humans in a humans-only zone. Not that you’re saying it is, just rambling at this point but yeah, those are some of my thoughts on this subject.

  18. Oh, and one more thing: you can count me as a “cat person” who is NOT actually all that thrilled about the prevalence of “euthanasia” in veterinary practice and the overall culture of companion-animal keeping. Frankly I find it ethically unacceptable the way it is so often presumed that a given animal would rather be dead than alive — in my experience, plenty of old and even ill cats can live happily for years with proper pain management and maintenance treatment.

    There is just so much pressure to “put them out of their misery” that too little is done to improve the lives of cats and dogs living with chronic pain, etc., and I do NOT think that just because the ease with which companion animals can be “put down” is so ingrained in the culture that it HAS to be that way.

    Also I often find myself really disgusted at reading accounts of how this or that person had the cat or dog euthanized because s/he had some kind of “behavior problem”. I read a truly awful article recently about someone who took their cat to be killed because he had issues with the litterbox (as in, often wouldn’t use it). There are a TON of reasons why a given cat might be avoiding the litterbox and I am by no means convinced that this person, or any of the other people who take their animals to be killed for similar problem, has really and truly “tried everything”. At the very least I would think they would be expected to try giving the cat a safe outdoor area to live in.

    But the fact of the matter is that you can pretty much go in with any pet and someone will kill him or her for ANY reason, even if it’s purely a matter of that animal having become inconvenient.

    And I think THAT is really, really wrong.

    Now as for “euthanasia in general”…I guess if it’s a case of “this animal is dying already and there is literally nothing we can do to stop it”, and there was tremendous pain involved, etc., then maybe it might be acceptable, whether that animal be human or not. But the problem is that for animals AND for, say, disabled humans, people tend to assume they’re at the “there’s nothing we can do” point waaay before they actually are. Not only that, but they tend to project all these ideas onto the ill or injured party that reflect not that party’s wishes (which may not be knowable) but their own biases about what kinds of lives have value to those who lead them. And THAT is also wrong, in my estimation.

  19. We’ve kind of been sitting around for a while trying to decide how to respond to this post. Often we have no idea what to say when someone describes a thing that isn’t usually described, which appears from their descriptions to line up very, very closely with our own experiences and perceptions and ways of dealing with information. Just… suffice to say a lot of this sounds really familiar, as does the frustration of not wanting to or not knowing how to talk about it because it sounds like some new-agey thing or “toaster powers” to the vast majority of people.

    About the language thing and losing certain types of perception as you get older and gain skills that might help you look more “normal”… I remember that when we were kids, when we read a book where a character was represented as thinking in words, we decided (on some nonverbal level) that this was considered to be an acceptable simplification that authors indulged in for convenience, because obviously, people didn’t really think in words, and there was no way to represent how thoughts actually felt and worked with words. We were genuinely shocked when we figured out, sometime in our teenage years, that people actually were supposed to think in words, beyond in an echolalic random-language-generating sense, and that when we asked other people if they thought in words, they said yes.

    And at some point we came up with the idea that maybe all the problems we had were because we didn’t think in words– that if we made a conscious, concerted effort to think in words, we would become more “normal” and be able to produce speech more confidently, etc. And for a limited number of years, we were able to coach our thought patterns into having a lot more language in them, though a lot of it was deliberate “talking to ourselves in our head,” or representing ideas as essays we drafted out in our head. During that time, we ended up losing some of the abilities and methods of perception we’d had as children, and were really upset over this, because some of those types of perception had been very important to us– we tried all kinds of weird methods to regain them, including trying various ways to regress ourselves back to the mindset of a child. But we were also trying to exert far more control over when those perceptions happened than we’d ever had in childhood, where they often came and went involuntarily. We pretty much had this fantasy that we could get to a point where we could make any ability come and go at will– I guess it didn’t seem like a fantasy at the time, since it seemed to be what was expected of us by most people, but our brain had never remotely shown a propensity towards being able to do that.

    Then we had a burnout starting in our mid-20s– it started kind of slowly, but got to a point where no one around us could reasonably deny what was happening any more– and got to a point where we could no longer do the forcing our thoughts into words business most of the time; it took up spoons we didn’t have. Even representing our internal conversations with each other in words was, and often still is, too much. I’m deliberately leaving out a huge amount of detail and mitigating factors, and other influences during this time, of which there were plenty; but we did start to find that after a point in that burnout, some of our perceptions were going back to something more like what they were in childhood. While we looked “less functional” to outsiders afterwards, we also felt that the quality of our life had improved (and this is something that a lot of people don’t get, or want to get, or they want to twist it into something like that we “enjoy being helpless,” which is not at all true).

    Riel also had a response he was working on, about the whole “anthropomorphism” issue, but we’re falling asleep, so that’ll probably be finished tomorrow.

  20. Everything Anne said is true of my ethical thoughts on the matter of euthanasia and spay/neuter as well. A huge thanks to Anne for posting those replies because I was having a huge amount of trouble figuring out how to word my thoughts on the matter. Especially… Gah, accepting standard views about feline euthanasia is awful considering it is so rarely appropriate.

  21. And Amorpha&: the desire not to sound like a flying toaster is why I rarely talk about this. But when I was writing this post I could figure out few other ways to explain that cats ought to be respected because they are cats, not because they have a certain number of human-valued traits.

  22. Responding now to this bit of shiva’s comment:

    …for that matter, keeping animals in any sort of captivity, even as much-loved pets or as assistance animals, would become as unjustifiable as keeping humans in institutions.

    See, to me there is a difference between unjustifiable captivity/abuse and setting certain physical boundaries in order to keep someone safe.

    My cats pretty much have the run of the house (they can sleep on the beds, jump around in the bathtub, climb the bookshelves, etc., with impunity :)), but I would not let them roam freely out near the busy main road close to my house any more than I would a young human child in my care.

    I see the kinds of restrictions I place on my cats’ freedom (e.g., no roaming around near busy streets, no jumping on the hot stove, no eating foods like chocolate or onions that could poison them, etc.) as being like those fences they put up under rollercoasters at amusement parks with “DO NOT ENTER” signs, or like when my partner sees me walking in front of a car and pulls ME out of traffic. Neither of which feels “institutiony”.

    What would be “institutiony” would be if I ran the household, where the cats were concerned, like some of the public elementary schools I went to, where I could only go the bathroom, eat, drink, and take care of other necessities at certain times of day and only with the approval of some authority.

    And where so much of what I did as a function of being who and what I was was seen as pathological or as “misbehavior” by people who saw me as a broken or “problem” child rather than a fairly robust autistic child. I HAVE seen houses with cats in them run like institutions and it is awful, but it is not the existence of walls or humans within those walls that make it that way…it is the way the resident humans run things and the way in those situations the cats’ catness goes constantly unrecognized.

    Like when I see people yelling at the cat for scratching the couch (or worse, having the cat de-clawed) but not providing a decent scratching post. Or when people fail to clean out the litterbox enough, or put the litterbox in a location the cat doesn’t like, and then yell at the cat (or worse) when s/he decides to go somewhere else. Or when people take their cats to the pound to be euthanized because the cat scratched their child, without taking into consideration that the child was provoking the cat. And so on. But it does not HAVE to be like that when one lives with cats.

    And as for the notion of bringing cats to live in proximity to humans in the first place, if you look at the history of the domestic cat, there’s a lot suggesting that the ancestors of today’s cats *chose* to live near humans as that often meant plenty of food (grain storage done by humans tended to bring in lots of rodents!), warm places to sleep, etc. So it is not like their “natural state” is totally separate from us to begin with.

    Like I mentioned in another comment I am acquainted with some feral (born outdoors, never handled by humans as kittens, generally wary of most humans) cats in my local area. And I think a lot can be learned about what cats would naturally choose if left to their own devices by looking at these kitties. For one thing, they generally stake out a territory they like and stay there — they aren’t nomads, despite occasionally roaming away from preferred territory to search for a mate. For another thing, they very clearly appreciate having access to food, water, and soft/warm/safe places to nap. All the ones I know have chosen to live in and around particular people’s yards, not off in the woods or something. I even know two ferals who are constantly trying to get into the house (of my partner’s parents) because they know it’s warm and there is food in there, and because they have come to trust the occupants over time.

    So yeah sorry this is getting so long, but I guess I just don’t see in my experience anything that suggests that living with animals like cats is the same as “confining” them in an institutional manner. They did not evolve in an isolated vacuum and neither did we, there was a lot of side-by-side stuff going on. I would even go so far as to say that cats in particular are sort of part of the modern ecosystem. I.e., without “alley cats” surely lots of restaurants and apartment complexes would be overrun with mice and such.

    All that said, I DO think that there is a lot wrong with the way a lot of humans treat their companion animals. I do not think they get nearly enough respect or autonomy in many cases, and tons of that comes down to exactly what Amanda points out regarding the need to see cats as CATS in order to know HOW to treat them ethically.

    Too many people see them as being either like toys or objects, or as being like diminished or less advanced versions of humans, and treat them accordingly, leading to what I am sure is lots of misery for the cats. The “glazed over” look referred to is something I have also seen, and it is positively depressing…basically when you see this it means the cat has “given up” and lets him or herself be tossed around like a sack of potatoes simply because s/he is worn out from trying to express his/her will and repeatedly having these attempts ignored or scolded.

    [This is one reason I am sort of oddly glad that the cats I ended up with lived as ferals for a while…that meant they had an opportunity to develop the self-respect needed to say (in unmistakable Felinese) “no, don’t touch me!” or “I don’t know you yet so I am going to keep my distance”, which all of them are still plenty good at asserting even though they have gotten quite comfortable with me and my partner by this point.]

    Anyway, I guess what it comes down to for me is the notion that not all uses of power are *abuses* of power, even though certainly all of us have to be very very very careful about monitoring ourselves so as not to cross that line with our actions.

    I also think there is a particular sort of widget that has the potential to appear here, in which people might figure that in order to avoid abusing power, they should just try their best to never make any decisions that affect anyone else. That way whenever anything bad happens, the folks employing this widget can just say “oh well that was just nature sorting itself out, I had nothing to do with it.”

    And that is the sort of mentality that leads to such things as “non-intervention” policies in school bullying…that is, it looks like “giving people freedom” on the surface but in actuality is a means of allowing particular, more powerful parties to do things that negatively affect less powerful parties.

    And…I think maybe some people who get stuck in that mentality do so because they are possibly worried that anything else would be paternalistic. or “white man’s burden” stuff. And yes, I think that is a danger that needs to be guarded against — that was something I saw coming up over and over again in discussions of Ashley X, and it bugged the hell out of me.

    But you don’t avoid icky sorts of paternalism just by removing yourself from the decision-making process when it comes to everyone else. I don’t know exactly how to explain this, but generally what I try to do is just consider all individual situations as they come up and figure out for every individual case what actions on my part are likely to lead to the best outcome.

    I do not always expect to be right, and I know good intentions never excuse bad consequences, but at the same time I figure it would be a big mistake to refuse to ever use the power I DO have just because I am afraid of doing something wrong. But it is very hard to discuss this sort of thing with anyone because it’s like Widget Minefield most of the time. :/

    • Wow. I have to agree with pretty much everything you said here. Certainly I would *never* have my cats de-clawed (all else aside, it leads to serious mental health issues, and can lead to physical health issues as well!), and euthanasia is only an option if there seems to be no other choice. (I hate “putting cats down” with a vengeance… but there are some times where it seems more the cat’s choice than yours. My first cat [as in I was her human, rather than the first cat we as a family had] was put down because when I took her in because she seemed somewhat more lethargic than usual, they found she was so severely anemic that the vet had no idea how she was standing up, let alone jumping up to my shoulder as she had done when he came into the exam room. He suspects she was holding on for my sake, rather than her own. She’d been at the vet’s overnight before, and always had perked up to go home when I came to collect her, but that morning she just… it really seemed like she was ready to go, now that I’d acknowledged that she was dying. I’m just glad I was there with her.)

      I always spay my cats (I don’t go for male cats). Something my parents taught me. I was unaware of the health issues you mentioned farther up, but I *did* know that spayed / neutered cats tend to live longer and happier (at least as far as we humans can tell) lives.

      Anyway, just read this comment and knew I had to respond.

      :) tagAught

  23. Anne — I like your long comments because often they explain things I either haven’t figured out how to word yet, or else are sitting in the editing software on my iPod waiting to become part of various posts.

    I didn’t catch the part of shiva’s comment you are replying to but I agree with what you said. Just keeping cats around is not anywhere close to an institutional situation. Institutions do not come about by the shape of the walls or whether people can leave a certain area or not, but rather a specific kind of use of power. Some people do use power in that manner but the real problem is that they are doing that, not that people live with animals. Different species live with each other all the time, it would be less natural to artificially separate them and in many cases doing so would merely kill many of the species or alter drastically their living patterns for the worse. Which is in many cases outright cruelty (which is why I am not and never will be a PETA member, talk about widget factories creating tragic consequences for the animals!!!).

    You are also right that we have to watch constantly for abuses of power even in mostly good situations. Today the phone rang and I instinctively put out a hand to keep Fey from bolting, and she didn’t bolt but she sat there visibly fuming and then gave me five quick nips on the chest (barely controlled to avoid drawing blood but get a message across). I never want her to become a cat who is so intimidated that she will not nip me if I cross a line with her. She had every right not to be touched like that and I was in the wrong, even though I have done enough right that she has never lost the reaction of being visibly infuriated when her rights are violated.

    • Yes! This is how cats (and other animals) *should* be treated – never afraid to scold us (in their own ways, whether nipping gently or whatever) when we cross a line. (Of course, biting – as opposed to nipping – should be discouraged, but there’s no need to get physical about that; one of my parents’ cats loves getting attention from me, but when he was a kitten, he would bite even when nipping would be more appropriate. I responded by ignoring him when he bit me, and he stopped. He’s still willing to nip or scratch if he objects to something, but he – *usually* – doesn’t bite anymore. He certainly doesn’t bite me.)

      Imber, my 4 year old kitten, would rather hiss and snarl at me when I cross a line with her than get physical – she saves that for Thor, the other of my parents’ cats. Unfortunately, usually the time she does that is when I’m clipping her claws…. *sighs* Which I have to do, not only to save the furniture and my skin, but also to make sure that she doesn’t accidentally scratch herself when she gets anxious. And she ducks down when I have to apply her anti-anxiety cream in her ear – but I definitely don’t stop her from running away from me when it’s done! (She usually comes back within minutes, and then the wariness is gone until tomorrow night.) *sighs again* Unfortunately, her anxiety *has* to be controlled, or she goes nuts at the very *sight* of Thor. And she exhibits allergy-like symptoms – biting the skin at the base of her tail and around her ruff to the point where she breaks the skin – when not on the meds. So that’s definitely for her own good. She just hates the feel of the cream in her ear (and hey, can’t blame her for that! I’d hate it too!)

      Anyway, going off-topic. So, my two cents to this comment as well!

      ;) tagAught

  24. We’ve known some people who were really… I don’t want to say “fluffy,” exactly, but not really in touch with reality, when it came to perceiving what animals were actually doing. And who believed that they were genuinely respecting animals when they projected all kinds of human motivations and thoughts onto them, and would then get upset if you told them that animals really didn’t think that way, accusing you of denying that animals had the capacity for emotions or love or deserved rights. Because apparently, they actually couldn’t conceive of animals being different from humans in significant ways, and still being deserving of respect– that they were only worth caring about because they supposedly thought about and felt things just like humans. Which strikes us as being as incredibly human-centric a viewpoint as you can get, but there are people who seem to genuinely believe that it is respect.

    And we’ve also seen people use this idea of “respect” to do things to animals that we saw as cruel or violating of their rights. For instance, we’ve seen people deciding that animals or a certain animal in particular understood human language, to a much greater degree than they did. And would then basically do what looked to us like terrorizing them, getting in their faces and loudly repeating certain words or phrases again and again because they thought the animals understood them, or that they could train them to understand certain phrases by loudly repeating them over and over the way some parents do with babies. And would be basically be patting themselves on the back for being so sensitive and enlightened that they “realized” animals understood them when everyone else thought they (the animals) were just dumb brutes.

    (I know that with some birds, they do learn to repeat phrases or words if they hear them a lot, but we don’t know so much about birds– this was more about animals like dogs and cats, anyway. Though we know that a lot of people prioritize talking in birds to a ridiculous degree, to the point of giving them away or abandoning them if they don’t “talk enough,” which is a whole other kind of abuse.)

    And if anyone suggested that actually, no, they don’t understand what you’re saying, then they’d be upset, accuse you of underestimating/not understanding animals, of not thinking they could be intelligent or communicate. (Not that, say, they do have a language but you’re completely missing it because you’re privileging human-style verbal language.)

    And we’ve also seen people attributing more malicious motives to animals than they actually have, and deciding they need to be “punished” accordingly. Like deciding that a cat or dog bit or scratched them out of deliberate sadistic desire to hurt them, or, on the more extreme end, deciding that predators were “evil” and had the same emotions and thought processes and the same kind of premeditation as human murderers. Which has led in some cases we’ve seen to people doing some genuinely terrible things to stray cats, for supposedly being “murderers” of wildlife. (I think in some cases this comes from having kind of a weird Disneyfied idea of animals and of “nature” outside the aspects that most urban humans see of it nowadays, and in other cases from a widgety idea of “suffering is always wrong” applied too far and in impossible ways to situations where moral decision-making processes don’t apply, but other people… we’ve run into people who hated cats for irrational reasons we could never fathom, that went way beyond just not wanting to live with them.)

    • *headdesks* Yes, I talk to Imber all the time – I’ve talked to all the cats I’ve lived around, and even the ones I run into when out walking. They’re generally better listeners than humans. And I only occasionally start thinking that they understand what I’m saying.

      I *do* think that some cats (and other animals) can learn to associate a pattern of sounds with something specific; that’s how dogs can be trained to sit on command, for example. Getting in their faces about is *definitely* not the way to do it. Only by being in normal situations and using repetition can it happen.

      Imber (and Aspen, and Mitzy, and Brightspot before her, and others before them) knows what pattern of sounds makes up her name, and the nickname I have for her. I’m pretty sure she knows what pattern of sounds make up the name I have for myself when talking to her (“Mommy-Cat”). She’s aware of what the sounds making up “No” mean. And I’m working on getting her to realize the meaning of the pattern of sounds making up, “I’m turning on the light”, so that she will start closing or narrowing her eyes when I come into my room and have to turn the light on to see. But words *as* words? I doubt cats have that concept. Their communication uses different patterns, different sensory systems. (I believe some researchers have speculated that cats’ sounds are more emphasis to what scents and postures are actually saying.)

      Jeeze, this is turning into my $2 worth! ;) Gotta be because we’re talking cats.

      :) tagAught

  25. WRT birds, some parrots really do understand language to a greater degree than most people expect, rather than just repeating it out of context. There’s been some proof of this (look up Irene Pepperberg, I’m sure there’s a lot of videos of her on YouTube), and I’ve also seen it with several different birds to a degree that it seems really obvious that even when they’re not themselves talking, they understand a lot more than most people would imagine.

    I could give examples, but there are so many I don’t know where to begin. I knew a bird who had a feather-plucking problem, where they tried every single standard way of dealing with that with no success, and then one day they sat down with the bird and explained to her, basically, that she was obviously reacting to being treated badly in the past, but that she needed to understand that she wasn’t the person she should be punishing for that. And suddenly she plucked a lot less. And I’ve seen many other instances where explaining things in simple, straightforward language got you further with a parrot than any other way of handling things. As well as many other situations. I basically never assume that a parrot doesn’t know what I’m saying, even if I would assume that (aside from a few words and phrases here and there) around a dog or a cat. And that includes parakeets, who are just a particular kind of small parrot.

    But I’ve seen exactly the kind of person you mean, which is why anthropomorphism pisses me off so much. The second part of this series of posts is going to be about avoiding arrogance (unless I rearrange them) and I’ve tried to write about the twin problems of assuming that cats are just like humans in cat suits, and assuming that cats have nothing in common with us, and none of their own abilities, to the point where it becomes ridiculous and harmful. (Among other forms of human arrogance around cats.)

  26. Yeah, that’s a good point re: parrots. We’ve heard stories from a few people we know about parrots (and parakeets) being able to use and rearrange language in ways that makes it clear they understand what the words mean. But I haven’t had a whole lot of experience with them personally.

    Our cats do seem to understand what’s meant by a few words and phrases, and dogs generally do too, from what we’ve seen. What gets me is people who start yelling things like “NO, NO, YOU BAD CAT, DON’T DO THAT” and assume the cat’s going to understand what it means. Or do the whole thing that English-speaking people stereotypically do when traveling in other countries, of repeating a phrase very loudly over and over when a person doesn’t understand it.

    And admittedly, we fell into the trap when we were younger of thinking that cats would understand everything from lengthy orders to being yelled at for “being bad”– the culture we grew up in kind of encouraged it, really, and our family didn’t know a lot about how to treat animals either; we had one family member whose total ignorance (at least, we like to think it was that and not deliberate malice) led a few times to animals being severely injured. We can’t make any excuses for the times when we did harm animals we had or violate their rights, or claim that our own ignorance made it okay, but we can at least do our best to treat the ones we have now with respect, now that we know more about what not to do.

    (For better or worse, looking at memories we have of a particular cat who was afraid of humans, didn’t like to be touched or picked up ever, and was sometimes aggressive– although she became much more so when people tried to force her into those things– has made us think that there’s a lot of thinking in common between some people who think it’s okay to abuse animals to “teach” them, and some people who think it’s okay to abuse autistics to make them “act more normal.” That in both cases, it can come from a deep, genuine resentment and hate of what the human or animal really is, that someone can easily pretend to themselves is all about “for their own good.”)

    • Abuse is abuse. Someone who will abuse animals will often be also willing to abuse humans.

      Glad you’ve learned a better way to interact with animals!

      :) tagAught

  27. Wow. This discussion has gotten really, really interesting!

    I’ve noticed that some of our interactions with Dennis have changed since we have read a few comments in particular…..about distinguishing a need from a very strong want…….waiting around for enough energy to do something instead of inconveniencing a cat with unwanted touching…..

    And the less we show our “distraughtness”, the quicker Dennis is to respond to it. I guess it’s because he has less irritating “needy” vibes coming at him…

    I wanted to say much more but……it’s late and I lost my train of thought…..it must have gone ahead of me to La La Land.

    Andrea, the Integral

    (who needed a non-mathematical feminine name to account for time not spent doing mathematics)

  28. That look in Fey’s eyes is the same look that one of my cats gives me when she’s planning to jump on me.
    Regarding need/want to touch, what about when you don’t want something but you do need it? The cat I mentioned above is very moody, and sometimes she gets really upset about something (such as a new kitten in the house). At those times, often if I try to cuddle her, she’ll reject me, but if I persist, then she finally starts to calm down. I can’t really explain it, but I have the same issue sometimes during meltdowns, so I can see when it’s happening with her.

  29. Pingback: Learning from animals: communication and compassion « Urocyon's Meanderings

  30. Pingback: What do dogs need from humans? « Urocyon's Meanderings

  31. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Post Topic » Feline Ethics, Part 2: Avoiding Arrogance

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