A Cat on a Quest
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.