30 May 2005

Reading Animals

Two things have always been a part of my life: books and animals (primarily cats). A cat was present in my parents house before I was. The book part (for me) took a little longer. I taught myself to read at the age of 2 and haven't been without either item since then.

Recently, I read Animals in Translation. The author, Temple Grandin, is autistic---although obviously one of those who are afflicted and manage to make their way in the world, PhD and all. She is not a "horse whisperer" type of person. Rather, she believes that her autism (which may be caused by problems in the pre-frontal lobe areas of the brain) gives her the ability to "see" the world in a similar way to that of animals (who lack much pre-frontal lobe development at all). She uses a lot of research about the brain in order to make the argument that humans and (other) animals have a lot of the same circuitry. Even if our outward actions from the activation of those circuits are different, we can still use that knowledge to understand animal behaviour and improve their lives (including those raised for slaughter).

I have 3 kitties. Two are 12 years old and one is 8. We have been a "family" for some time now and have experienced several life changes together. About a year ago, we moved into a new home and acquired two more housemates. Both housemates are human and neither is what I would term an "animal person." They each like animals and have owned them at one point or another---but they seem to lack a connection to animals. The animals were just "things" in the way one might look at your shoes or a picture on your wall. There are no stories about the animals in their lives because they never included the animals in that way when they had them.

The same day as the second housemate moved in, one of the cats left a big steaming pile of poop right outside her bedroom door. I suspected that it was the youngest of my charges, Oliver. (He is pictured above with my gal Bitty.) I apologized on his behalf and cleaned things up. But I was mystified as to why he would do that. A few months ago, there were some piles left in another part of the house where the first housemate would leave her shoes or other items. Indeed, there were a couple of piles inside of a closet where she stored some toys for her grandchildren to play with when they were here. Again, I suspected my 8-year old. I knew it was some sort of message (and not one of marking territory, as my housemate surmised), but what? I hadn't ever seen that behaviour from any cat before.

But the book I just read may have helped me decode things a bit. Grandin talks about hierarchies within "packs." I am the "alpha member" for my cat pack and me. The 12-year old male is "beta." (Pooh is pictured below.) The younger male, who is much bigger and stronger, has never formally challenged this...although I suspect he might as the older one becomes more aged. My 8-year old knows his place in the pack. His message last summer outside the bedroom door was intended for my housemate to know hers: below him (in his mind) and don't get uppity about it. Why did he wait so long to assert himself with the other housemate? Because as soon as I stopped spending much of any time with her, he perceived that her ranking in the pack had dropped. And he wanted her to know that he was well aware of that.

I can't be mad at the cat for doing any of this. It isn't pre-meditated or intended to be malicious. In fact, I kind of have to laugh a bit. He is such a sweet boy and very willing to show his belly to you as an act of "submission." But as happy as he is most of the time, he's not letting anyone get ahead of him in the pack. So there.

I think the real power in Grandin's book comes from her ability to connect what we know about human brains and actions to animal ones. She may be wrong about a lot of things---some of her supporting research is rather shaky. But if nothing else, it gets you to look a little deeper into why animals behave in certain ways and gain a healthy appreciation for that. It shows why we're so much alike, as any animal lover may already claim. It is also humbling in many ways. It reinforced for me that people who have a "take 'em or leave 'em" attitude about animals are often those who try to bend an animal's will from the outside...rather than becoming part of their world.

This Memorial Day, the cats and I will be spending some time together and I'll be doing some more reading. But then, being surrounded by both kitties and books has always been part of my pack mentality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I liked the book very much as well. My review is here.

Ms Grandin has an interesting writing style, too.