What is it like to be a cat?Until we learn to read the minds of animals, it is doubtful we will ever know the answers.
I thought I was not a cat person until one day, a grey tabby kitten began to whine outside our home. We fed it at first, apprehension visible on both sides as the thin squiggle lapped up its bowl of milk with the thirst of a person stranded in the desert. Until then, I had believed myself to be a dog person–canines are much more predictable, and in their unconditional love for their human beings is a purity none of us can attain. But cats are entirely different from dogs: Silent masters of the hunt, with mood swings that make them purr in pleasure one moment and swipe at you with their claws the next.
As the days went by, it was clear the kitten’s mum had abandoned it. It stowed away on a neighbour’s ledge, revealing itself to us whenever we called out for it with the bowl of milk and now rice. One day, it decided to jump in our laps after its meal. Here, then, was the final proof that we were worthy enough for its trust.
Lesson in patience
Having a feline for company is a lesson in patience. Unlike dogs, who readily give you all their attention at the drop of a hat, you must wait until the cat decides you are worthy of a rub against your legs. Your arms and legs will be covered in claw marks you’ll be embarrassed to reveal to the world. A cat decides when it wants to play. When it wants your attention, it’ll let you know in no uncertain terms–and heaven forbid if you decide you’re too busy at that time.
But it is so with most animals, not just cats. Animals teach us about empathy. Most pet owners assume they know their animals well. But what is it like to be a cat, borrowing from American philosopher Thomas Nagel’s thought-provoking 1974 paper, "What is it like to be a bat?": "Our experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is limited… But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat." What is it like to really feel the sensory experiences of animals? Can we ever perceive the world the way they do?
In Kiko’s case—for that’s the name we gave the kitten—despite being abandoned and raised by us, we could see its primal hunting instinct emerge step by step. It chased the pigeons and the chickens around our yard, although never successfully. After a vacation, we wondered whether it would remember us. Its incessant purring and constant rubbing told us it was mighty pleasing to see our return. And when we shout at it, it literally faces away from us in protest. But would a cat feel joy in the same manner as humans do? What does an association with a human mean for it and for the other animals humans have decided to keep as pets? Is it food and shelter, or more?
Until we learn to read the minds of animals, it is doubtful we will ever know the answers. But from the human side, as VS Naipaul wrote and I experienced, "It didn’t take me long to understand that around this simple love of cats was a whole culture I knew nothing about and would have to master before cats could become fully rewarding." One has to observe the animal–in the way it lowers its liquid body as close to the ground as it can, in the way the back legs do a little hop-scotch before it prepares itself for a jump, and even in the ungainly way it runs with its tail ramrod straight and head turned around at his "phantom pursuer"–and imagine themselves in its place. One has to learn how to empathise.
Humans have been fascinated by cats for millennia. It is now suspected that cats probably domesticated themselves in a mutually beneficial relationship with humans. Its role in rat control probably gave birth to the Lepcha legend about the cat being sent down by the gods to help humans, and that its purrs were the animal’s prayer to the gods. The Egyptian cat-goddess Bast oversaw both wars and childbirth in its different avatars, and families often mourned dead cats and mummified them. In Hindu mythos, no cat has achieved the fame of Sarama, the divine hound or the dog that accompanied the Pandavas on their last journey, although the minor goddess Shashthi is said to ride one just as the goddess Durga rides the cat’s bigger cousin.
But the human fascination with dogs, cats and other domesticated animals also reveals an innate desire to achieve mastery over animals–and nature. We aren’t fond when nature oversteps its boundaries: In Jhapa a few months ago, locals assaulted an elephant calf left behind by its herd, tugging at the tail of what looked like a very frightened child. We also believe nature can be recreated: In India, eight African cheetahs have been reintroduced in a land where they were hunted to extinction more than 70 years ago. Animals are also ritualistic objects for us, especially so during festivals such as Dashain, when they are sacrificed to the gods in lieu of better karma for humans.
Complex and illuminating
We’ve changed the world around us, not just for ourselves but for all the animals that share this planet. Such a superiority complex inevitably leads to humans imagining animals experience the world in the same way as we do, except they don’t. From birds sensing the magnetic fields to assist them during migration to the echolocations of bats, animal senses are vastly different from ours and much more complex and illuminating. To learn about them is to know humans perceive the world in limited ways. As an American journalist, Ed Yong writes in An Immense World, which begins with Nagel’s foundational question about what consciousness means and ultimately asks us to think of the world from an animal’s umwelt: "To perceive the world through other senses is to find splendour in familiarity, and the sacred in the mundane."
The comforting presence of pets reassures humans of their own kindness and magnanimity. Truth be told, it is the other way around. In learning about our pets, we learn more about ourselves, just as I discovered what it means to be a cat’s sleep pod. One could argue that animals, perhaps more than other humans, teach us the true meaning of kindness, but with the internet awash with videos of cruelty towards animals and our ability to kill them in all sorts of ways and reasons, it would be difficult to press home this belief.