Saturday, February 28, 2009

Animal mind: One way that animals teach

Recently, I mentioned to a friend the following reminiscence from my own childhood:
... it reminds me so much of the time – nearly 50 years ago - that one of my old cats adopted an abandoned tom kitten I had found and brought home.

The cat was washing her face with her paw when the kitten “play” attacked her.

Without seeming to notice the kitten’s approach, she suddenly put her face-washing paw on the kitten’s neck and whump! – he did a 180 degree turn through the air and landed on his back.

He tried it again - and guess what?

Yes indeed. The same thing happened.

To the extent that cats think, that kitten probably started to think ….

The old cat acted throughout as though nothing at all had happened, and continued washing her face with her paw.

But of course the kitten was learning not to make the mistake of heedlessly attacking another cat face forward ….

That is the one direction in which the stalked cat has the advantage - because cats have binocular, face forward vision. So she always saw exactly what the kitten was doing.

I don’t know that she realized that, in the human sense, but the way she acted sent a message to the kitten.

Later, as I recall, she took that kitten out into the meadow and taught him to stalk mice. She taught him to follow mouse trails and she whacked him sharply on the ear any time he was making noise - but she gave him whatever she caught. So he learned the value, as well as the technique, of hunting rodents. She hunted for herself at night, when the kitten was asleep.

Strange how, when one is old, one’s memories are of long vanished meadows and the long vanished animals that inhabited them.
(Note: Cats sometimes establish their social rank by "staring" contests. They stare at each other. The contest can last for hours, and the loser is the cat who can't stand it any more, and stops staring and runs away - if only because he urgently needs to contact his litter box. In some subrational sense, the cat knows the importance of stare-ability.)