Friday, December 30, 2016

I Love My Cats. Do They Love Me?

Chili, the angel.
Our cat Chili is an angel. All she requires is regular food and water, a little daily string chasing, a warm lap to curl up in every time she gets a chance, and a hefty amount of independence.

Lemmon, on the other hand, is a whiny pest. She follows us around, mewling and trilling and stretching up to try to turn the doorknobs of doors she wants us to open. When I open the pantry for any reason, she runs across the house hoping to be fed. She stations herself in the path where she knows I will walk next, desperate even for the attention of being kicked accidentally. I can never feed her enough food or play with her for a long enough period of time to satisfy her insatiable desires.

Lemmon, in a calm moment.
Or so it used to be. Although I love her desperately even at her whiniest, I was concerned that she wasn’t behaving in a healthy way. I did quite a bit of reading online about needy and demanding cats and finally happened upon an article stating that focused attention for a few minutes a day could turn these behaviors around. The author wrote of the importance of holding and petting a needy/whiny cat like Lemmon, looking in her eyes, and telling her how much I love her, repeating her name over and over again. Believe it or not, it works! At first it was hard for her to get used to being held like a baby, and she seemed to feel a bit strange about all the eye contact (as cats do). But now she settles right in and blinks at me happily as I repeat her name and coo at her. Sometimes she reaches her paws up towards my face, and a couple of times she has even bitten or licked me softly on my nose and cheeks. Five or ten minutes of this special time calms her down for a long time; a couple of sessions usually last the whole day.

Recently my husband and I watched The Lion in Your Living Room, a Netflix documentary about cats and how, even after millennia of domestication, they retain their wild behaviors. It was fascinating. But the documentary didn’t cover the emotional lives of cats, didn’t seek to explain moments like my special times with Lemmon. Is her growing calmness in my arms simply a reliving of her days as a kitten, turning instinctively to her mother for food and warmth and security? Or do we share an emotional relationship that exists beyond instinct?

Scholars in Animal Studies are currently studying this question: do animals experience emotions and, if so, what is the nature of those emotions? The field bifurcates: domesticated animals whose lives are wrapped up with those of humans may or may not have an emotional life different from that of free-ranging animals. The problem is that scientists cannot ask animals to explain their emotions, so they must infer them from their behaviors. (Of course, just because humans can explain their emotions doesn’t mean we fully understand those either!) Moments of play, courtship, and sharing of food suggest that animals are experiencing such emotion as joy, love, and care, respectively. The behaviors of hanging onto a dead relative or mate with a dejected air - which has been documented in many species of mammals and birds - suggest grief. The next question is how long these “emotions” last. Can animals be said to have real emotions if they are fleeting, unlike humans, who can remember and dwell on emotions such as grief for years?

There are also promising directions in research involving brain imaging, showing what areas of the brain light up when animals see other animals or humans or food or toys. And physical measurements can be taken: heart rate, eye movements, and so on. But then there is the problem of interpretation, as in studies of the human brain: explaining what is happening is much easier than figuring out why.

I think about these questions as I hold my little Lemmon. I’m glad we’re trying to answer them even though I’m not convinced we’ll ever really know the nature of animal emotions. Some scholars argue quite convincingly that humans are simply projecting our own emotions onto those animal behaviors. But it’s amazing enough to me to me that two such very different creatures as Lemmon and I can snuggle, let everything else go, look each other in the eye, and simply feel good in each other’s company. Isn’t that already pretty remarkable? And it sure feels like love to me.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Seven Bird Gifts of Christmas

On Christmas Eve, I can’t help but notice that most of the gifts given in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are birds:

Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

Wait, you say! Golden rings aren’t birds. Well, not a lot is known about the origins of the song, but many speculate that, in keeping with the other kinds of gifts mentioned, the five rings may refer to rings on a bird, such as the ring-necked pheasant, or perhaps to the “goldspinks," which shows up in an old Scottish version, a reference to the goldfinch. Another clarification: “calling” birds is a more recent term. Older versions refer to “collie birds,” which are blackbirds (think black like coal), or “canary birds.” French hens are basically chickens.

Xavier Romero-Frias, "Twelve Days of
Christmas Song Poster," CC BY-SA 3.0
This very old song probably originated as a children’s memory and forfeit game, where one child keeps advancing until making a mistake in trying to remember all the words, and then the next child gets a turn. Since the song is about Advent gift giving (probably from a lover to his love), this implies that at the time of its origin birds were considered among the very best gifts possible. One can imagine that birds represented all kinds of ideas that a lover would wish to convey to his beloved: beauty (swans), fertility (geese laying eggs), nourishment (pheasants and hens), cuddling (turtle doves), and romantic love (partridge, with its heart-shaped breast). It also shows the agricultural base of the context, calling up an image of maids a-milking (perhaps another nod to fertility), surrounded by farm animals such as geese and chickens.

In short, this silly song provides another example of how we invoke animals as symbols in our relationships to one another.

So Merry Christmas to you all. Thank you for the gift you give me of reading my blog! In return, I give you this old video of a wonderful parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by the a cappella group Straight No Chaser.