Feline Ethics, Part 2: Avoiding Arrogance

Standard

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about feline-human ethics. The first post is Dealing with cats, part 1: What is Respect? The current post is on the topic of avoiding arrogance. The post that’s currently planned as the next post will be about the power humans hold over cats.

Human arrogance towards cats frequently goes two apparently opposiite directions.

1. Cats are like miniature humans in every way. They understand every word of what we say, are motivated by exactly the things that motivate us, and if they don’t respond exactly how we expect another human to respond then they are just being stubborn, callous, cruel, manipulative, etc. Any attempt to say otherwise relegates cats to the realm of dumb animals.

2. Cats are totally unlike and inferior to humans. They do not understand a single word of what we say, cannot love, cannot reason, are not self-aware, etc. They see us as food sources and nothing more. Any claim otherwise needs to be rigorously proven in a laboratory setting, and is probably a misunderstanding of basic instinctual behavior.

The first approach is arrogant because it comes from a tendency to view the world, and especially cats, as a reflection of humanity. So it views respecting cats and seeing them as human as if these two things are synonymous. The second approach is arrogant because it views certain traits as exclusive to humans (or at least to “advanced” animals). It also, like many false ideas about cognitive disability in humans, views it as “scientific” to start from the assumption that cats lack certain abilities and demands absolute proof of the presence of those abilities before it will believe in them. Whereas for “normal” humans the preesumption is that we have those abilities.

From my standpoint those views are two sides of the same coin. The idea they both stem from is that humans are superior in certain ways. It’s just that one solves the problem of respecting cats by giving them traits identical to humans, and the other just doesn’t bother respecting cats and assumes that only humans have traits that are common among many species, cats included.

Often someone who holds one of these beliefs will assume that the other belief is the only other one possible, so that if you doubt one you must believe the other. If you doubt the first one someone will think you believe cats are nothing like humans and are overly wedded to the biases of many scientists, and if you doubt the second one someone will believe you’re engaging in overly sentimental anthropomorphism.

When most people think about cats, they see them as having a life that is simpler than our own. A little life that can be contained inside the bigger concepts that humans have. Emotions are like ours but fewer of them, thoughts are like ours but less complicated and not as many, and so forth.

This is not a useful way to look at the lives of cats. They are not miniature humans, and they are certainly not like humans but with certain aspects blunted, removed, and simplified. They are cats. They have their own complex way of relating to the world and each other. They have their own emotions which they feel according to their own values. They have things in common with us, but it’s dangerous to assume either identicalness or that they are just limited versions of us.

So when you think of cats, have some humility. Understand that there are more aspects to their way of doing things than humans can even perceive, let alone understand. This doesn’t make cats innately mysterious, it just means that we are working with different bodies, sensory organs, and brains. Even humans with the best sense of smell have nothing on cats. Our visual system is set up totally differently, not only can we not see in low light levels but our perception of motion is nothing like a cat’s. These are not little differences, they shape cats and humans into very different beings. As humans trying to understand cats, there are just flat out things we will only comprehend the vague shape of, and others we will never guess.

Be excited over these differences rather than trying to think of cats as inferior or even simpler beings. This is not to diminish what we have in common either, just an attempt to avoid making them into lesser beings just because they are different ones.

It is also important not to think of yourself as a Cat Expert. If all the stories you tell others or yourself contain phrases like “good with cats”, “a way with animals”, etc., then you are headed in the wrong direction entirely. You may have an affinity with cats — I have always found them easier to relate to than humans — but the moment your self-image depends on being right about all matters cattish, you are doing the cats a grave disservice. Because once you enter that frame of mind, you will begin to delude yourself and forget that you can make mistakes. The moment you forget that you can make mistakes, you are able to do great harm to the people you base your ego on understanding. And ‘people’ there includes cats.

Whenever someone meets Fey and begins by saying they are ‘good with cats’ or similar, I try to convey enough watchful alarm in my body language for Fey to pick up on it and get on the alert herself. (Such people never notice this body language in either one of us.) Some things I have seen such people do:

1. Grab her and find a way to hold her where she knows she can’t fight. At that point she gives up (but looks terribly uncomfortable) and they tell me, “See she likes being held after all if someone who is good with cats does it”.

(I have even seen mention of that one in a better than average book about cats. But most cat books don’t mention it or other ethical issues at all, except sometimes to reassure humans that whatever decisions they make for cats are the right ones.)

2. Try to do whatever I just told them not to do. If they succeed in doing it without provoking a major response, they assume she is okay. If they do provoke a major response (hissing, spitting, tail lashing, ears back, clawing for instance) they go “awwww what a cute playful little kitty cat” and make me want to go at them with my claws out.

For example, Fey has some kind of condition affecting a particular nerve going to her back right leg. The vet said she had never seen a cat so thoroughly indicate that the problem is a particular nerve and not others. I tend to tell people to avoid her entire back end. On good days she will initiate touch in that area, on mediocre days she will allow touch but stiffen and look uncomfortable, and on bad days she will indicate pain in every possible way and defend herself by any means necessary.

Some really egotistical people will, upon explanation of this, proceed to grab her by the exact body part that hurts in order to try and prove they are Special People Gifted With Animals who can touch her there without provoking a response. And even if she responds by mauling them, they Dont Get It. At all. No matter what happens, they especially don’t get that causing another living being intense physical pain on purpose to prove that they are a special good kind of human only proves that they are an especially terrible, insensitive, and cruel kind of human who ought not to be allowed within a mile of a cat.

(I have also seen these sorts of people at the animal shelter. Fortunately they get thrown out pretty quickly because, among other things, if an animal scratched someone they have to be put in isolation for a long time which is horrible for the animal and everyone wants to prevent it. And because the people who work there actually care about animals.)

3. Read all sorts of bizarre and obviously false things into her behavior because they just can’t possibly handle the idea of not knowing what some action on Fey’s part means. Which in turn leads to really pissing her off eventually.

4. Use their “knowledge” about her as an ego trip or power play with me or other people.

5. Do any or all of these things to me as well, because lots of people who view themselves as Good With Cats also view themselves as Good With Autistics (or sometimes Good With Nonspeaking People). And they especially love to do it in situations where I can’t do anything about it. Such as get me in a situation where I can’t respond well and then harangue someone for ‘upsetting me’ or something when nothing of the sort has even happened.

Viewing yourself as Good With an entire category of people opens you up to massively egotistical mistakes that lead you down the road to outright physical and emotional abuse. It doesn’t matter if everyone around you comments on your gift with cats, your way with cats, your being a cat whisperer, whatever. I ignore such comments if I get them. I have a close relationship with a cat. Not special powers. You should never ever let praise go to your head. No matter who you are, your ability to make grievous mistakes when trying to understand another species is an absolute given. Until you understand this, avoid cats.

And if you have either thought “This part of the post doesn’t apply with me because I am too good with cats to make serious mistakes,” or if you respond to other cat lovers admitting to serious mistakes by either thinking or uttering “I am so good with cats that I could never make that level of mistake”? That goes double for you. I have a deep and rewarding and loving two-way connection to Fey that is more detailed in our understanding of each other than any other relationship, human or cat, that I have ever had. And we both make mistakes and have misunderstandings every single day. If you think that doesn’t happen you are fooling yourself and setting yourself up to harm the cat.

The other direction arrogance can go is in assuming there is no actual harm in making massive mistakes because it’s just a cat. Or worse, that because the cat can’t tell anyone what you do, it is really okay. I have only ever got one person to admit that last one. But as someone whose ability to communicate in standard ways can come and go, I have watched what I thought were decent people transform into assholes many times the moment they thought I was either unaware or unable to tell anyone what they had done. And if it was bad for me it would be worse for cats.

I don’t really know what to say to all that. I know people who think if someone purportedly can’t understand what’s happening then cruelty isn’t wrong. I know some peopleonly care about being caught doing wrong, not about doing wrong itself, because such people have done awful things to me when I either couldn’t tell anyone or wouldn’t be believed if I did. But I know that each time people play out such attitudes on cats, the cats suffer.

Cats also suffer when treated like humans in cat suits. They end up being punished in ways that feel like a random attack from nowhere for no reason. People do things that are polite to humans but terribly rude to cats. And cats also suffer when people assume that things like love are too human for cats to fathom. Working across species is even harder than working across cultures in many respects, it’s hard to know what’s exclusively human and what we share with other animals. And there are things we may never know.

The best way to approach learning about cats is with a combination of respect and humility. Know that you’re going to mess up, but don’t focus on it so hard that you don’t even try. Be alert to signals that the cat doesn’t like what you’re doing, and don’t laugh them off with “awwww aren’t we feisty today”. Treat the cat as an individual and conscious being that you are getting to know, not as a human or a mindless automaton. Keep your ego out of the way. And above all, be aware that despite differences in species, you are dealing with someone (not something) who is capable of feeling love, physical and emotional pain, anger, joy, fear, and many other things. Treat them accordingly.

Fey on my bed

The photograph is of Fey, a grey cat with ticked fur and some white markings. She is lying curled up on a foam mattress on top of a hospital bed tilted slightly upward. Her face is at the top, in profile. You can see the dome of her eye, with a large black pupil underneath, her eyebrow whiskers pointed straight up, and a big triangular ear pointed directly at the camera. The focus becomes fuzzy towards her tail, which is curled up and around. You can also see the shiny bedrail with some notebooks behind it. The mattress she is laying on is yellow memory foam with a pale green bedsheet part on and part off it. The foam is roughly the same shade of yellow as her eye.

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.

31 responses »

  1. You should certainly never underestimate cats, because they are treating you in a particular way too. They know you are not a cat, and apparently have a different set of calls they will use toward humans than they will toward other cats.

    They are incredibly observant and perceptive and have good memories. It was interesting having two very different cats, not just for the way that they each interacted with the humans in there lives with different personalities but the way in which they reacted with each other.

  2. There have always been cats in my home, they are a constant in my life. Their constant presence has certainly affected the way I move, speak and act, whether they’re around or not.

    At the moment there are two, a mother and her son. The mother has very sensitive skin: she likes to be close (nearby in the same room) but not touched very much. I was furious with a friend once who grabbed her so she couldn’t escape and then rubbed her fur vigorously the wrong way, insisting that she (the cat) was enjoying it. And I don’t like it when people make negative judgements like “she’s not very affectionate, is she?”, as if there’s only one way to show (and receive) affection. Oh and people who talk loudly, make sudden violent movements, walk through the room as if the cats weren’t there and expect them to get out of the way, stand up without warning when the cats have settled on their lap, try and grab them instead of inviting them…I could go on, but won’t.
    Arrogance, all of it.

  3. You just explained exactly what I’ve tried to explain about cats to people. I love my cat, and I don’t think I understand him very well at all, and it really bothers me when other people whom I live with don’t respect him and then make mean comments when they don’t like his reactions to them, while leaving their behavior unchanged.

  4. Yeah. I feel very fortunate even to know AnneC’s cats from a distance for that reason. Three are ex-feral littermates and the other is an older Siamese. And to watch them on YouTube and see pictures and read about them all the time is almost as good as being there. (Maybe better as my presence would probably bother them.) I grew up around lots of cats (my parents didn’t “get” neutering until I was older) but it’s different as an adult, and living indoors with a cat 24/7.

    I’ve never bought the idea that cats think of humans as mother cats. All cats have had mother cats. And I’m pretty sure it’s Really Frigging Obvious that we are not in any way shaped like a cat. Plus I’ve caught Fey giving me the same looks I’ve seen mother cats give to kittens who are Just Not Getting It so I jokingly say she thinks I’m a big and not very bright kitten. But I know she knows the difference.

    The interesting thing is she almost never used any calls at all with me until she was around middle aged. She never even meowed at doors, she’d just sit at them for hours until I opened them. At one point when we were still living somewhere where outdoors were safe for her, I led her to the front door, got down on the ground, and demonstrated meowing and scratching the door a number of times. She took to scratching after that and used the meow as a last resort.

    Now she meows a lot though, but usually after trying other things first. She basically waits till you have her attention then shows you what she wants by either walking towards it, or by following/failing to follow you as you walk towards all the main options (bathroom water, kitchen water, food, and play).

    And wow is she ever perceptive. About everything that I can see happening and lots I can’t. And she was the first person who learned how to get me going again if I froze up. I have an incredibly hard time teaching humans to do many of the things she does.

  5. I love this post more than anything I’ve read of yours. It applies to how to treat any sentient being: approach with caution and humility; be quiet and pay attention; understand that you’re going to screw up and keep trying anyway; stop thinking you’re all that.

    Awesome.

    Plants are pretty cool, too, the way they know how to be tulips rather than daisies or lupines. When I was four, I used to look at the tulips in our garden for hours, wondering how on earth they knew to become tulips rather than some other flower. People just go “Oh, what pretty flowers,” but they have a knowing all their own.

  6. Yes they do, and it is so different from animal knowing that I find it really amazing there are so many kinds of life in the world. When I was a kid I was supposed to do a project where I let one plant grow in light and the other in darkness. By the end I felt terrible for what I had done to the dark plant, who was pale white and had grown far taller than the other one trying to find the bit of light coming in from the closet door. I just felt… sick inside that I had made it suffer so much. I can still remember exactly what it looked like and it showed me you don’t need a brain in order to yearn for something desperately or to fight for your own survival. Plants know how to do all that with totally different structures than we have. I have no illusion that they feel things in the brain-based way we do (or about those ridiculous “plant telepathy” experiments) but they certainly feel things some way or they wouldn’t move towards the light with such intensity.

    Unfortunately I am absolutely terrible with plants even when I’m trying to do it right, so I don’t keep any around the house. I can’t even keep cat grass alive. Of course I never really learned how from anyone who was good at it (my parents are but I never learned more than watering from them). But in any case I don’t keep them for the same reason I don’t keep fish, I don’t want them dying because of my ineptitude.

  7. Regarding “cat grass”, if it’s oatgrass or wheatgrass, it actually doesn’t last very long even if you’re doing everything right. I didn’t know this until very recently, and figured I was screwing something up because the stuff I planted kept withering up. But the last bag of seeds I got (for oatgrass, I think) actually said something about the grass actually withering within a week, or something like that. Then you are supposed to add more seeds.

    Which is kind of a pain, because I don’t want to be re-planting stuff constantly, but I don’t mind doing it once in a while. The younger cats all like to munch on it, but Nikki (the 8 year old) will only eat grass from the yard, which I guess is a different kind. She is very particular about all her food, though, so that isn’t a surprise!

  8. Oh and also, yeah, I also like this post a lot. Is it okay if I quote you on my cat blog, specifically the part about the two kinds of human arrogance toward cats?

    And re. your presence potentially bothering my kitties, probably at first it would because none of them immediately take to strangers (even very calm strangers who don’t move much or grab at them), but if they got to know you they would probably be fine. =^_^=

  9. Certain kinds of cactus can survive an amazingly long time even if completely neglected for months on end. My partner and I are both terrible at caring for plants because even when we’re trying it slips our mind to water them. Plus, we don’t really know anything about plant care. So we just don’t have plants that we’ve bought ourselves any more. However, someone did give us a small pot with three tiny cactus plants in it, each a different kind of cactus. Two of them died within months, probably because we didn’t water it often enough. But the third one is still alive many years later. I’ve no clue what kind of cactus plant it is.

  10. I’m often (well, we all are in general) bothered by the feeling that I’m not good enough for our cats, don’t deserve to be the one to take care of them, because I so often can’t understand what they’re trying to communicate. I always feel inadequate when they stand at the wall meowing and I can’t figure out what it’s about, and even when it occurs to me that there might be a reason I can’t figure it out, like my relatively limited human senses of hearing and smell, I still get this probably-unreasonable feeling that if I were a “good” caretaker to them, I would somehow know it immediately.

    And also because we’ve known people whose cats never seemed to meow, never seemed to want anything, and we always assumed it must be because their owners were just that good at taking care of cats. Though thinking back over this and your last cats/respect post, I also now wonder how many of them were just resigned and had stopped trying to communicate most of their needs and irritations, allowed themselves to be picked up by anyone regardless of whether they wanted it or not, etc. I’ve started to look for that distant/eyes-glazed/resigned look more and more, and I’ve noticed it, disturbingly, in the cats of a lot of “good with cats” people. (Also a disturbing number of “good with cats” people who laughed about what I thought was cruelty to cats in one way or another, enjoyed teasing them and laughing when they flinched, etc. There seem to be a disturbing number of veterinary technicians like this, also, of the “aww aren’t you feisty today” variety.)

    No matter what happens, they especially don’t get that causing another living being intense physical pain on purpose to prove that they are a special good kind of human only proves that they are an especially terrible, insensitive, and cruel kind of human who ought not to be allowed within a mile of a cat.

    We were reading an essay about narcissism (of the extremely destructive kind– I don’t believe in facile handing out of personality disorder labels but there does seem to be a certain set of traits that some people possess, that can roughly be described that way) once. It mentioned that narcissists often have this really extreme belief that they are really good, caring, loving, wonderful, etc, to the people in their lives, when they are anything but. And one of the things they’ll do to affirm their “goodness” to themselves and others, is that when someone tells them not to do something, that it hurts (usually emotionally, but sometimes physically), they’ll continue to do that thing over and over, to “prove” that it really doesn’t hurt. Because after all, they are good people, and if they just keep forcing it on you, you’ll realize how wonderful they are and that you were wrong and it really doesn’t hurt at all. Or because they’re so specially special and loving, even if it hurt when everyone else did it, surely it can’t hurt when they do.

    Long story short, I think the people who do these things to other humans and the people who do them to cats are often the same people.

    About the similarity between people who think they are good with cats and those who think they are good with autistics or generally nonverbal people– I’ve mentioned a few times how many parent blogs trigger me or just make me very frustrated and angry, and that is another reason for it, I think. The parents who think they can “read their child” so well, and then go and talk about it as “regression” or “s/he had a bad day today” when the child is overwhelmed or has a meltdown. And then punishments for what they fail to understand and can only parse as “bad behaviour.”

    And after getting our ears flushed out today after having them blocked up with wax for a week and a half, and having to re-adjust to what our normal hearing is like, I am acutely aware (no pun intended), at this moment, of the number of things that can overwhelm me, completely unfocus my thoughts, and knock my ordinarily tenuous grasp on the objects in my environment into incomprehensibility. None of which any person who has ever claimed to be able to read me (or any other member of our system) like a book has ever demonstrated the slightest awareness of. (And, if they had any understanding of certain noises being problematic to us, seemed to believe that pain was the only issue, which it is most definitely not.) I doubt many of these parents who shrug it off with “sometimes, we just don’t understand him/her” are any more aware of it.

    At least I’m aware of the possibility that when our cats meow for what seems to me like no reason, it could very well be based in something I’m just not perceiving. Or something internal to them, because they have inner lives as well. (Another thing that parents and teachers and staff often fail to take into account. I remember, for instance, times as a child when I’d think of something sad or upsetting, completely unrelated to anything going on around me, and start crying, and then be unable or afraid to explain to anyone else why I was doing it.)

  11. Yeah. I know someone who claims to be wonderful with just about anyone who can’t speak, human or otherwise. And her poor cat… she picks the cat up, flips her over, and does various things to her body that even the most easygoing cats I’ve met would never want, and the cat goes completely glazed over like that. And she has seriously traumatized other pets until they had to be taken from her and gently taught to trust humans again (even as she has tried to force her way back into their lives, and they have run terrified away from her even if they had grown to trust others).

    She will also insert herself into any situation with anyone who is temporarily or permanently unable to use words, and claim to know every reason they do everything. If she is right (or just thinks she is) she will gleefully tell anyone who will listen all about how she knew what nobody else was able to tell and totally solved the mystery of why they were so upset. What’s scary is nearly all her friends are people she does this to. She used to be frustrated that I didn’t present her with any such opportunities, but if I am too overloaded to type she will happily do it to me as well and swear she is right.

    When she has interacted with my cat, her first action has always been to do whatever I just told her not to do. One conversation went like “See, she let me do that.” “Yeah, she does sometimes.” “But, but.., she won’t let anybody do that and she let me.” “No, really, she sometimes lets people do that.” “But you said she won’t let anybody do it.” “No, I said she doesn’t like it because generally she doesn’t and generally people can’t tell the difference.” “But I could tell the difference…” Headdesk. She has also gotten in situations where several people wanted to pet Fey, and claimed Fey was annoyed by everyone but her. And really hated it when I tell her that actually Fey was annoyed by everyone. Her included.

    And you’re right, she’s very narcissistic with word-using people too. She has told me all about what horrible people various people are, and they turn out to be people she has been really nasty to and wouldn’t take it. She picks fights with people and calls them bullies. And generally wherever she goes she leaves a trail of unhappy people in her wake. She actually was kind of upset with me that I never presented her a chance to see me when I was unable to type so she could “read” me better. (People who can actually read me well don’t need to wait until I can’t type. She has never shown the slightest ability to do so in either situation.) I have also seen her manipulate people by learning about them online and then using that knowledge to do things she knows they like and act like it was just her intuition (and then tell the stories as happily as the other stories I mentioned).

    She was a big inspiration for a lot of this post. I have known many people who each did parts of these things but only a few who did close to all of them.

    As far as feeling inadequate for one’s cats, I feel like that about Fey all the time. I know her better than I know anyone but there are so many things I will never know. But then I realize that’s the best-case scenario for any human with a cat because there is so much of their lives we are unable to share with them. The most we can do is keep trying.

  12. This is kind of unrelated, but your post and last comment lead me to a question:

    Do you think that Fey ever engages in “protective annoyance” (very poor word use but I can’t think of anything better)

    What I mean by that is…..imagine that a bunch of people are visiting you all at once. Fey’s body language suggests a high level of irritation with those people. Could she possibly be trying to “defend” you from an onslaught of visitors by glowering at them?

    Here’s another question. You’ve said that you are both very tuned to each other’s body language and signals. Has she ever tried to come between you and another person after sensing that the other person is overwhelming you or causing you to be upset in some way? Kind of like a mother protecting her young….

    Ivan

  13. i was really surprised by the idea that cats can make mistakes. shouldn’t have been, but i was.

    that’s all i have to say for now, still processing the rest.

  14. The thing that made me understand that my cat had a mind of his own is that he would never come when I called him. He would only cuddle with me when he wished.For a while, I thought it was because I am bad with cats but now I appreciate that he wants to be with me on his terms. He always knows when I am upset even when other humans don’t and he knows how to comfort me during shutdown, something no human has ever done. I try to pay attention to his signals but I don’t always know if I’m doing it right.He’s a good friend.

  15. Our cat passed (okay, died) two winters ago, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to get another. Our dog died the same winter. I was with each of them when they died. The dog we had to have euthanized, and it was quick and peaceful (as far as I could see); the cat died naturally (and somewhat painfully) as we witnessed it.

    I keep telling myself that I feel freer without animals, but that’s not quite right. Dogs are a lot of physical work that I’m not up to anymore, but a cat doesn’t need to be walked and it doesn’t bark in the middle of the night and scare me half to death. I think I’m just afraid of losing another one. Cats seem immortal somehow. Our dog grew old and frail. Our cat didn’t. It was weird. It seemed like she’d always be there, and then the light left her eyes, and she was gone.

    I think I need to get another one. Or two.

  16. I think of myself as good with cats, and I wouldn’t consider the people you describe as being good with cats. For me, it’s the cats I’ve known who have told me I’m good with cats – they tend to seek out my company and act affectionate towards me. Not always, because no creature is always sociable or affectionate towards anyone, and some cats aren’t really like that towards any human at all.

  17. Today I was at the zoo. (Side note: although I personally don’t think zoos should exist as ‘entertainment’ for people, this one is better than the average and is involved in multiple conservation initiatives which actually do make a difference and aren’t just actions that make them look good while not really doing much. I think if any zoo anywhere is going to exist, it *needs* to be very heavily conservation focused. Keeping living beings captive is ethically problematic, but in limited circumstances, it *may* be a way to help the species…)

    Anyway, we visited the burrowing owls. I stepped too close to the enclosure, and the owl hunched down and spread hir wings in what appeared to me to be a threat/defense gesture (I am not really familiar with birds, but from my limited knowledge, I got the impression that the bird was not happy.) I stepped back, and s/he put hir wings down and relaxed hir body. Some other guy came over to see the owls, and when he realized that getting too close to the enclosure would provoke that response, he kept leaning in to rile the bird up, stepping back, and then leaning in again to see it happen again. It bugged me, and made me immediately think of this post. He shouldn’t have kept provoking the owl. Once you realize that what you are doing is upsetting (and I think that even humans, with our limited remaining instincts and very limited abilities to ‘read’ other animals, can tell at least *sometimes* when they are upsetting animals), you need to stop doing it.

  18. Pingback: Photos: Nigel and kittens « Urocyon's Meanderings

  19. Ivan: When I got evaluated for my powerchair last year, my advocate told me she thought Fey was protecting me in some way, because she acted very different than if I have other people over, wouldn’t let them out of her sight, and kept getting between them and me. And she has done other things I’d construe as protective. Although only she has full awareness of her intentions. And she used to seem to try to discourage me from doing things that would lead to collapse (and if I did that was the single biggest source of exasperated mother looks she’d give me… which are remarkably similar among humans, cats, and squirrels).

  20. Oh yeah. The inadequacy thing. I definitely have that every day. I mean I am delighted to have the privilege of living with cats, but there’s always a component of “gah, what am I going to screw up next?” along with a constant worry about whether or not I’m really taking THEIR needs and wants into consideration over and above my own convenience, etc. Because when one is in a position of power such as humans have over the cats we live with, it can be very easy to step over all kinds of boundaries without even realizing it, just because we can.

    I want so badly to do right by them (the cats) and I know I get things wrong, and I guess I only hope I can keep figuring out how to do that less.

  21. n.: Yep cats make mistakes, and can get plenty embarrassed at least about the physical ones. (Watch a cat who misses a jump sometime. They will usually get flustered and then make an exaggerated show of washing.)

    The thing about mistakes though is generally the worst thing she could do to me either on purpose or accidentally is make me need stitches and antibiotics. The worst mistake I make could kill her, even if the mistake didn’t involve violence. That’s a pretty impressive power differential which is my next topic.

  22. Amanda: (re cats getting embarrassed) or a cat who misses prey. Dennis was chasing a fly that was going round and round in circles…..

    I was watching him, so he stopped looking at the fly and trying to catch it after a while…..possibly because he didn’t want to keep missing in front of an audience…

  23. I’ve had Comet for nearly 5 years, and they said he was 3 yrs old when I adopted him. I’m pretty sure he was abused and has a kind of PTSD. He dislikes to have a hand above his head. He’s not a lapcat at all. He has only rarely jumped up onto my lap, and his routine then is to lick and nip my hands and arms, not to lie down and relax. I occasionally pick him up, and set him on my lap, but don’t try to hold him there. He goes into his licking routine. He’ll do that for a few minutes, then jump down. I don’t try to prevent him, he’s a free cat.

  24. I have a dog, not a cat, but I really like this post. I try really hard to understand him but most of the time, I have no idea. Today he was making a noise and seemed upset but I couldn’t figure out why so all I could do was lay on the floor next to him and pet him some for a bit. And also ask him what’s wrong a few times and tell him I’m sorry – literally, I mean, out loud. Not baby talk either but the same way I’d talk to a person. I know he isn’t going to answer me verbally and he is already trying to tell me what’s wrong.

    What do you all think? Should I quit asking next time? I’ve been thinking about how I feel when I’m having trouble speaking and explaining what’s wrong and it doesn’t help me to have someone ask multiple times what’s wrong. But then he’s a dog and doesn’t understand those words the same way I do (?) so I don’t know if it would make the situation worse for him or not.

    As to feeling unworthy – I feel this a lot. Especially because I know I have used my power over him in ways I shouldn’t and I feel terrible for it. I feel guilty sometimes when I put his harness and leash on to take him outside.

    I’m looking forward to part three.

  25. About the similarity between people who think they are good with cats and those who think they are good with autistics or generally nonverbal people– I’ve mentioned a few times how many parent blogs trigger me or just make me very frustrated and angry, and that is another reason for it, I think. The parents who think they can “read their child” so well, and then go and talk about it as “regression” or “s/he had a bad day today” when the child is overwhelmed or has a meltdown. And then punishments for what they fail to understand and can only parse as “bad behaviour.”

    I tend to get anxious when it comes to blogs or discussions by parents of children with disabilities in general. Because so many of them involve relentless projecting, of the sort that even a child without any disability-related communication problems can have trouble contradicting (adults have a lot of power, and it can be hard to go against what all the authority figures are telling you about yourself). And I remember being younger and being projected at like that, and picking up some really damaging ideas about myself (either believing the somewhat-prejudiced things I was told, or believing there was something wrong with me when my experience didn’t fit what everyone told me it was). And I don’t want to project at other people’s kids, but the parents often say really similar things that sound less like reflections of their children as individuals, and more like parroting conventional wisdom on What Children With This Disability Are Like or What People With This Disability Are Like. And any disabled adults pointing this out tend to be treated as picking on parents or bullying.

  26. Christine,our dogs try to let us know when they are out of food or water or need to go outside, want a play time or need attention. They often have different body language for each. For instance, they will go to the door when they want to go out or scratch to the side of it. They will get under our hands for a pet. A dog with a thorn in the foot may limp or they may chew at their foot. If you have gotten a thorn out before they may even offer you their foot for examination. Dogs often have a large receptive vocabulary. They understand a great deal of English. We talk to ours all the time and they enjoy this. If we don’t know what our dogs want we check their food and water dishes to make sure they have what they need. Sometimes they just want a play time or are asking for a favorite toy. They have a special way of asking for a walk or car ride. They love routine so they can even try to tell you if you do something out of order or are late at fixing dinner. We had one dog who thought it her job to get us off to work in the proper order. She was beside herself one morning when I didn’t go to work first due to an appt. that I was going to later. One of our current dogs gets upset if dinner isn’t started within half an hour of what she considers normal. Dogs
    like to have a job to do and sometimes they think they are responsible for the order in our lives. They love routine and thrive on having daily rituals.

  27. This post really fascinated me so much. And the weird thing about it is that I seem to be one of the few autistics who never cared for cats. *ducks flying tomatoes*
    And with that I mean I neither love them nor hate them, I’m just indifferent. After reading this post(as well as Anne C’s cat blog) I’m beginning to think that maybe I just didn’t care for the “human projection” of cats, i.e. it’s maybe the concept of cat owning that I don’t care for, but cats themselves are totally interesting.

    PS: My comments is a bit late, but when I first read it, I just didn’t know how to put my thoughts into words, and then they became clearer after reading some of Anne C’s “catlaborations”.
    I’m so looking forward to more on this from both of you.

  28. Kowalski,

    Your second comment reminds me of a cartoon I once saw. In this drawing there were a bunch of animals (I think all were characters in some common comic strip but I don’t remember the name of it.) One of the animals in the strip yells out, “Duck!” in clear warning that there is something flinging through the air at about head height (I don’t remember what, maybe a mud pie or something). Several animals heed the warning and do duck their heads down. The thing flinging through the air whizzes above their heads. But then there is a duck who clearly thinks someone is trying to call his name because he calls back, “What!?” and turns his head to face directly toward the hurtling object ….

  29. Another fascinating (and so true) post.

    Personally, like Ettina, I think (or like to think) that I am good with cats. But all that means is that I usually know what body language to look for, have exhibited the patience and coaxing ability to get shy or wary cats to be willing to approach me and be petted, and know that my cats like me. I *definitely* am aware that all cats are different (witness my parents’ cats: Thor, who is a total sook and *loves* attention, and Mew, who sometimes wants attention, but only on *his* terms, and tends to be a *lot* more stand-offish with people). It definitely doesn’t mean that I can’t make mistakes. Luckily, my cats have all been quite forgiving of mistakes made (well, I call them my cats – I suspect that I’m more “their human”), so we’ve all gotten along well.

    I suspect that I see animals as “people”, much as I see humans as “people”. Not cat-shaped or dog-shaped humans, but individuals with their own personalities, likes and dislikes, and…. *sighs* Can’t think of the rest of what I was saying there. And humans don’t tend to have the same hunting instincts as cats: I’ve seen Mew play with a mouse, and while I haven’t seen the results, I know that he often brings dead birds and mice into the house to eat; and for some reason, I *adore* seeing Imber tear into her “Kickeroo” (really just a fabric log with a “tail” of a different, “furry” fabric), and treat it like prey. Humans don’t tend to do that. Any more than they sniff each other’s butts to get information on who this other being is and what sort of physical state they’re in.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that, as far as I know, I see cats as cats – and as “people” – and humans as humans – and “people” – but know that they are two very different “types” of people.

    So, my more $2. *shrugs*

    ;) tagAught

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s