Making Animals Pat Us on the Back

» January 6th, 2013

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.



10 Responses to Making Animals Pat Us on the Back

  1. Bea Elliott says:

    I too am absolutely certain what chickens would do to humans if they had the abilities to know the truth. This trumped up story of bird-heroics is just another way to dismiss and apologize for the brutal reality we’ve subjected them to.

    Meanwhile our species gets to set up yet another impossible standard that nonhumans will always fail to meet, thus allowing the exploitation to continue. It makes the justifications to kill chickens (who don’t save humans) that much easier. We’re quite the shrewd and devious ones aren’t we? :(

  2. Jamie Berger says:

    I’m with you in regards to the chicken… but I’m not so sure about the cat (although I haven’t read the stories, so I’m not exactly sure what happened).

    Your comment, “Plus, if these animals could act with such implied intentionality, they wouldn’t save and honor us. They’d kick our ass” made me laugh because my cat really kicked my ass once. One day when I was little I chased my cat around the house and later (perhaps an hour or so) found a lovely pile of feces on one of my favorite Barbie’s heads. I remember it distinctly because I was so upset and the cat poo smell never came out of her hair despite repeated washings.

    I don’t know how this could be interpreted as anything but calculated revenge. He had never done his business in that part of the house before (he almost always used the litter box, which was in a totally different room) and the fact that it was so purposefully placed right on top of my Barbie makes me think he had to *know* that the doll was mine (and that he’d make me mad by pooping there?). He also used to pee under my mom’s desk after she made him mad (by refusing to feed him before his usual feeding time, for example). We eventually learned not to piss him off if we didn’t want our stuff pissed on.

  3. CQ says:

    I can’t speak for Cluck Cluck :-) but I believe any animal is capable of being altruistic toward anyone from any other species.

    We now know how sensitive and empathetic chickens are. So I think it entirely plausible that she felt cared for and respected by this family who, after all, spared her from the fate of most of her kin. And I think she was grateful, and responded just as any faithful friend would when a loved one is in trouble: she cried out in alarm.

    If street dogs had taken her into their pack, or sheep into their fold, I think Cluck Cluck would’ve done the same thing. In other words, I don’t think the mere fact that her “rescuers” are human is what inspires her devotion. So I don’t see why this is a case of humans thinking they’re exceptional. It’s just that they’re the only ones who report these happenings to the press!

    Granted, the article doesn’t mention how close her coop is to the house, so it isn’t clear if she was in self-preservation mode. But I’m going to side with those who call her a hero. If that makes me gullible, so be it.

    As for Toldo the cat, that’s an entirely credible story, too, in my view. How can we be sure that cats don’t have feelings for their human friends that are every bit as deep as a dog’s?

    Seems to me that it’s unscientific, not to mention unfair, to categorize members of species by degrees of their interest in and/or affection for humans. Maybe our surprise over what we call unlikely friendships and altruistic acts is what’s unnatural? Could our perception be too limited? Don’t matters of the heart defy categorization?

    I’m patting the animals on the back for acting upon their best angels, no matter what species the subject of their loyal affection happens to be.

    Say, James, you’re not pretending to be cynical here in order to engender a lively discussion, are you? :-)

  4. Mountain says:

    I was with you until the last paragraph. These stories are pretty clearly wishful thinking of humans projected onto animals. The animals did what they did for their own reasons, which almost certainly weren’t human-centered.

    Your final paragraph reeks of the same things these stories reek of. You’re angry about how humans have treated other animals, and you project that anger on to animals– especially chickens. In reality, their behavior would be based on them, and specifically how they (those particular animals) had been treated. Just as we have no reason to think the cat wanted to honor its owner or that the chicken wanted to save the family, we have no reason to think they’d want to kick their asses. Let the animals be themselves, not vessels for your anger.

  5. Jasper Wilcox says:

    I appreciate your sense of humor, Mr. McWilliams. Thanks for the link.

  6. Nichole says:

    I wouldn’t underestimate the cat – elephants have been shown to stop at the bones of fallen herd members to pay respect. It could be the cat observed others leaving things on the grave and decided to follow suit. Everyday we are discovering more and more about the “human-like” qualities that animals possess.

    If the chicken felt that the human family was part of her flock, it’s entirely possible that she intentionally warned them of the fire.

    What I wholeheartedly agree with is that the press needs to stop telling these stories like they are exceptional – that chicken wasn’t “smarter” than other chickens, she was simply treated well enough to be emotionally bonded with her human companions. If we stopped eating and minimizing animals, we would probably observe behaviors like this all the time.

    • CQ says:

      “If we stopped eating and minimizing animals, we would probably observe behaviors like this all the time.”

      That’s the truest statement made yet on this blog, Nichole. I think Cluck Cluck, Toldo, and all other nonhuman beings would agree with you!

  7. Jennifer says:

    These animal stories can be viewed several ways. To project human qualities of service, loyalty and duty to “pets” is a little nauseating and more of the same. But, animals in close proximity to humans continually surprise us with their abilities to communicate with humans using language that WE can understand. It is not out of the realm of possibility to assume that an animal living with humans would bond and try to protect them.

    Whether these stories are true doesn’t matter because they are a representation of what we want to believe about animals and us. But it gives me some hope because it is a chicken (despite the patronizing portrayal of the chicken) and not a regular companion animal. These animal stories are standard fare but with a twist and I hope it is an indication of our broadening empathy, however narcissistic the scope.

    See this story of the fallen Navy Seal’s dog at his funeral. I think he tried to get up several times but stayed put, for some reason.

    • Jennifer says:

      About the Navy Seal’s dog, I think he did try to get up several times but just him laying there for approximately 10 secs got looped to appear to be a single episode of the dog laying there with sentimental music for about a minute and a half. The most used video that I have seen of this (through Facebook) is a single picture (not the looped video) of the dog laying there with sentimental music and text. Despite the relationship that this dog may have had with this human one cannot help but feel manipulated by the portrayal of this story. It is more about honoring the fallen soldier (the dog as our proxy) than about the dog’s true feelings towards his human.

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