Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Cat's Meow

You may think writing about our house cats doesn’t fit the purview of a blog about nature. But I would argue that much of our interaction with nature comes through pets - and that we can learn a lot about wild animals (and ourselves) by observing their domesticated counterparts. If you doubt me, then read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book, The Hidden Life of Dogs.

We’ve had Lemmon for a little over three years now and Chili for about two. We found Lemmon as a kitten on an isolated stretch of highway, and Chili was a street cat who was picked up and loved for a few years before being given to us because of allergies. Two somewhat wild cats, at least at some point in their lives.

They are very talkative cats. I have whole conversations with Lemmon. She trills every time she enters the room or passes me in the hall. She purrs and blinks to show me she’s happy. She meows a questioning little meow when she thinks I might be heading toward the food pantry, and then she yowls insistently as I start to get the food out, put it in the bowl, and carry the bowl to her spot. Chili was silent when she came to us, but now she makes a heartbreaking little shriek when she’s ready for food. And, when she needs attention, she drags her favorite toy (a bit of Christmas ribbon) into the room, rolls around in it, and yowls until one of us comes and jiggles the ribbon in the air in front of her.

I poked around on the internet a few months ago and read that cats don’t meow to each other; it’s a sound they reserve for humans. Kittens meow a bit to their mothers, and cats yowl and hiss at each other about territorial or reproductive issues. But the trilling and meowing of adult cats are strictly for their human friends. That’s true in our house. Lemmon and Chili greet each other with silent face licking. We recently left on vacation for a week. When we got back, after what was apparently a week of silence, it took them a couple of days to remember their sounds and get back into the habit of talking. And they didn't always do this. These behaviors have developed over the years.

So we as humans have brought out a form of communication in animals that wasn’t really present in their natural, undomesticated lives. It’s not language exactly, as explained in this article, but it’s something. But that’s not what fascinates me the most. Instead, I am amazed to think what cats have done to us. When Lemmon trills, I trill - and give her a chin scratch. When Chili yowls, I yowl - and get up to go play ribbon with her. They’re both “pleasantly plump” from all the extra little bits of food their meows have gotten them over these years. And note the above wording: “I have whole conversations with Lemmon.” We go back and forth, with me meowing at her as much as she is meowing at me, sometimes spurring her on to louder and more insistent yowling with my own. So we humans, too, have developed a form of communication that wasn’t really present in our natural, undomesticated-by-cats lives.

One of the ongoing themes of this blog is how we as humans are shaped by nature, sometimes in ways that we don’t even realize. If two little furry animals can manipulate my behavior and get me to develop a whole new mode of communication, just imagine how much I as an individual and humans in general are shaped by the natural world around us.

Well, that's all I have time to write - I hear some insistent meowing in the kitchen.

1 comment:

  1. As the proud steward of seven--yes, seven--cats, all strays, I am fascinated to find that cats have developed a language just for talking to me, not their colleagues. Cats, I once read in the New York Times, are the only animal that actually made a decision to domesticate themselves. They saw that there were lots of mice in the barn--or whatever the paleolithic equivalent to this was--and settled in for the long haul. Thanks, Amy for making me appreciate the generosity of our domesticated-by-choice animal companions!