Strange Creatures Among Us

My wife and I adopted two cats recently. It’s not the first time we’ve had cats, but it’s been several years since the last one died. Yes, they’re cute and fun, but that’s not what I want to write about now. It’s possible that aspect of cats has already been covered elsewhere on the internet.

What strikes me now is just how alien these strange little creatures are. People play with cats, but to the cats there is only one game — hunter/prey, the game of life and death. Our cats have distinct personalities, but the gray tabby is the most single-minded predator I’ve ever watched. Destined to an indoor life, she carries the jungle within her. She attacks every lure presented to her with a ferocity that would be terrifying if we existed on her scale. Even our other cat retreats to a safe location when Smokey is on the chase. Nothing stands in her way; she’ll carom off the walls and furniture, leap higher than our waists, and twist in mid-air to capture the prey. Lying in wait behind the glass patio door, she stands alone to secure us from the total squirrel apocalypse which surely would result without her diligent protection.

Watching the cats convinces me that their existence is as alien to ours as any extraterrestrial civilization could ever be. What a great disservice we do in films and books when we portray animals as small, furry people with human thoughts and concerns. Teaching children to look at animals this way is a terrible waste of a profound learning opportunity, but it’s nearly impossible to do otherwise. We can only think from a human perspective. Even if we could really understand their perspective, how could we ever describe it? Our tools of description are words and concepts completely outside the animal experience. Casting their lives into human terms would be a poor translation, at best.

Even the lives of ancient people, far removed from our own experience, may be easier for us to understand. With them, we share the life of reason, words, hopes, and dreams. With cats, we share our living space, but what that means to us may bear little resemblance to what it means to them.

Of course, it’s also possible to go too far this way — to say that their wordless life of instinct means they have no actual consciousness as we know it. I think that would be a mistake. Any efficient predator must be able to anticipate the reactions of the prey. That implies at least some ability to imagine the perspective of another creature, which is a sophisticated act of conscious behavior. In this regard, the difference between us may be more a matter of degree than of kind.