Making Animals Pat Us on the Back
Chickens cluck when they encounter a fire. Flames scare them. Cats undertake daily migration patterns that often include arranging an assortment of objects in one place. They nitpick nature. Presumably, these habits, or at least their genetic rudiments, preexisted the emergence of human beings. These observations bear on a couple of animal stories that have been making the feel-good media rounds of late.
Hoopla has been made over a chicken, presumably kept as a pet, who saved a family from a house fire. One report declared that this bird was “one cluckin’ smart chicken” for this act of heroism. The other news item was about a cat who adorned his owner’s grave with twigs and other supposed mementoes. “Loyal Italian Cat Brings Gifts to Owner’s Grave,” declares one headline. “How sweeeeeeet,” we’re supposed to say after hearing these stories.
Time for a deep breath here. It is the height of human self-regard for anyone to think that the chicken clucked for the sole purpose of intentionally awaking his family and, in turn, saving their lives. Likewise, there’s zero evidence (to my knowledge) that feline cognition is such that a cat can get all sentimental for a lost owner, much less express that sentiment with symbolic objectification.
I’m not saying that these animals are stupid. Quite the opposite. I’m arguing that much (if not most) of their considerable intelligence exists and thrives independently of human interaction. Neither chickens nor cats (unlike dogs) have experienced the depth of interaction with humans to explain such human-directed acts of altruism. They reserve their altruism and intelligence for each other. They need not us to be brilliant. Myopically, we fail these animals when we reduce their behavior to implausible demonstrations of affection for us. Frankly, these stories only appear because they are mash potatoes for media whores.
Plus, if these animals could act with such implied intentionality, they wouldn’t save and honor us. They’d kick our ass—especially the chickens. Given the level of cognition suggested in the anthropomorphous-ness of these interpretations, chickens would use such human-directed cognition to make it loud and clear that we have treated them with unconscionable disdain. Perhaps we construe these chicken-saves-people and cat-mourns-owner stories as we do because we know, deep down, that our treatment of these animals has been a colossal crime.