A Cat on a Quest

» January 22nd, 2013

The most read story. at the New York Times as of this morning was about a lost cat, Holly, who traveled 200 miles over two months through Florida to find her owners. The Times piece quoted our friend Marc Bekoff, who said, “I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain . . .  Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.” No data indeed–how could we have data on such an event? But a lack of data hardly means we shouldn’t draw some important conclusions from such an astounding feline accomplishment.

Such as: maybe it’s not all that astounding. Perhaps cats—and all the animals we think we know so much about—possess remarkable abilities that humans, stuck in a self-referential gaze, fail to recognize. This seems to me a likely scenario. After all, whenever scientists do take a systematic look at animal behavior, they always find something new, and the regularity with which we are making surprising discoveries about animal cognition and behavior strongly indicates that we’ve barely scratched the surface of animal minds. The Times captured this sentiment back in a 2006 editorial. It wrote,  “We keep probing the animal world for signs of intelligence—as we define it—and we’re always surprised when we discover it. This suggests that something is fundamentally wrong with our assumptions.”

It’s a great point. Unfortunately, the lack of data to explain these sorts of happenings allow skeptics to reduce clear cases of animal decision-making to instinct. I say “reduce” because it’s a willful denial of situational thinking, the kind of thinking that would raise serious questions about the overall ways we treat “higher” animals in general. It is a testament to our deep-seated fear that we may be very wrong about animals that so many of us, scientists included, refuse to be swayed by an overwhelming example of a house pet using what appear to us as stunning navigational skills to go from Daytona to West Palm Beach.  To grant that Holly figures that business out on her own is to force a reexamination of our opinions of animals in general, and how we treat them.

The other point to keep in mind–in addition to the obvious point that Holly was making situational choices only partially based on instinct–is that, as we continue to document animal intelligence irrespective of instinct, we must remind ourselves that intelligence mustn’t be the yardstick for lending animals moral consideration. That honor belongs to sentience—which I see as basically the ability to experience suffering as a conscious being.  Fetishizing intelligence in animals can be dangerous because it creates a situation in which the animals we study—and, inevitably, find intelligence—will be the animals that get our moral consideration. And that, of course, is no way to evaluate animal rights. It’s too arbitrary.

In the end I see Holly’s geographical conquest as a heartwarming story that affirms the power of the human-animal bond while reminding us that there is so much we do not know about animal cognition and behavior. In a more optimistic interpretation, it might also serve as a gateway of sorts for people who never think about animal rights to start thinking about them and, in so doing, move toward a basic appreciation of sentience as a moral arbiter.  In any case, three cheers for this amazing cat.





11 Responses to A Cat on a Quest

  1. Sailesh Rao says:

    A sign that we’ve truly matured as a species: when we stop calling ourselves “homo sapiens”, the “wise hominid”. For, I haven’t met a truly wise person who’s constantly boasting about his or her wisdom.

    • CQ says:

      Sailesh, here’s an answer to your wish that we mature as a species:

      Petition To Change Human Beings’ Zoological Name

      WHEREAS “complex” describes human beings far more comprehensively than does “sapient” and so the Latin complexus describes human beings and differentiates our species from others more accurately than does sapiens;

      Whereas human beings act based on names and descriptors, accurate or not, at least as much as on demonstrated reality;

      Whereas calling themselves by the inaccurate name Homo sapiens promotes and perpetuates an attitude in human beings of their own exceptionalism & superiority;

      Whereas Carolus Linnaeus acted non-scientifically when he invented the name Homo sapiens – deferring to a belief in human exceptionalism & superiority based on established religion, to avoid persecution due to the lack of legal protection for free speech & thought in his time;

      Whereas calling themselves by the inaccurate name Homo sapiens and deeming themselves inherently superior to and more worthy of consideration than other beings is a factor in human behavior that unjustly and to humans’ and all other beings’ disadvantage destroys other beings and disrupts Earth’s ecosystems & biosphere;

      Whereas, as long as the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and the scientific community generally sanctions use of the Homo sapiens for human beings, those who strive to teach ecology and ethics and to reverse ecologically destructive behavior and its consequences will be in the untenable position of referring to the beings perpetuating such behavior as sapient;

      Whereas recognizing hyper-complexity rather than sapience as their distinguishing trait, human beings will be more likely to establish a less-unjust and less-destructive relationship to other beings and the rest of nature than they have wrought to date;

      Whereas the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature is accepted worldwide as the authority on species names and therefore is in a position to change human thought and behavior for the better by giving our species a more accurate name;

      THEREFORE, Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc., located in Glenside, Pennsylvania, USA, with members and supporters throughout the human world, urges the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, c/o The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK, to change human beings’ species name to Homo complexus and to announce this change to the scientific community and to the human world generally.

      Respectfully submitted this 5th Day of August, 2008.

      David Cantor
      Executive Director
      Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc.

      In an email accompanying this petition, Cantor wrote:

      “You can send an e-mail to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN@nhm.ac.uk) lending your support and pasting in the petition. Be polite and respectful. Linnaeus died in 1778 and didn’t enjoy protection against religious persecution. Today’s scientists didn’t get the speciesism ball rolling, but many of them increase its momentum. It would be great of them to help rectify the problem! Send me copies of your communications if you wish. This petition will circulate widely and will gain the support of many people and organizations throughout the world — including, I hope, yours, since RPA members reside in 25 states and four countries!”

  2. “lack of data hardly means we shouldn’t draw some important conclusions from such an astounding feline accomplishment.”

    Really? Lack of data would mean to me to reserve from jumping to conclusions especially if I’m particularly prone to bias. While tempting it might be to trump up these anecdotes as a “gateway” I think instead we should not be so quick to sell ourselves short. I touch upon this on my blog here: http://pythagoreancrank.com/?p=1450

    • ingrid says:

      I understand your point in a general sense, about drawing erroneous or flimsy conclusions from little data. In this context, however, the “conclusion” James points to is that “maybe it’s not all that astounding” that a cat can find her way home — that a “lack of data” needn’t preclude higher consideration of her capacities, nor should her intelligence (measured by our arbitrary standards) determine that level of consideration. I see this discussion as an adjunct to the point in your blog, where you say that fairness for animals shouldn’t be predicated on a love for animals. Inherent value seems to be the basis for both views.

  3. Yetik Serbest says:

    I agree that we frame the definition of intelligence ourselves and then say the animlas are not intelligent. What a self-serving approach! The same goes for the argumant of “having a soul”.

  4. Rebecca Stucki says:

    I made the mistake of reading the comments on the article (oh, why did I do that?). What is truly amazing to me, and sadly indicative of both some humans’ sense of superiority AND of the human capacity for duplicity (unequalled among all other animals, I believe), is that so many of the people responding believed that this was merely a hoax to get publicity!

  5. Boohoo says:

    And at last, amid the orgy of kitten-huffing, someone brave enough to speak up for wildlife: http://garethsworld.com/catstogo/

    • Rebecca Stucki says:

      Humans are much more dangerous to wildlife. Why not take a survey to see who promises not to bring another child into this world?

    • CQ says:

      I see the survey that asks whether people will agree not to get another cat after their current cat dies is heavily on the “no” side.

      Maybe the questions should be: “Will you promise to not buy more cats or breed more cats but only adopt cats?” “Will you promise to keep you cats indoors?” “Will you try to feed your cat the best vegan cat food and take her to the vet for check-ups to see how healthy she is?”

      I’m all for doing everything in my power to reduce — no, eliminate — human-caused (even through a cat) harm to earth’s still-free-roaming creatures.

  6. Boohoo says:

    ” Unfortunately, the lack of data to explain these sorts of happenings allow skeptics to reduce clear cases of animal decision-making to instinct.”
    This is opposite to your argument of Jan 6 when you were saying that humans read too much into animal behaviour and unreasonably frame it in human terms.

    • James says:

      No, it’s not. Read the articles more carefully and you’ll see that I’m making the same point, in different ways. And if your statement was true my reaction would be: so?

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