It’s 11 :00 a.m., a Thursday. Toby has just jumped from the table to the floor for some food. He eats constantly. He has a love of eating that has become a little disquieting. He has become obese. He’s becoming a sphere, a basketball with legs and a tail. It’s a worry, and a frustration.
We’ve tried curtailing his food intake. We’ve tried limiting him to one 5.5 ounce can of turkey or or salmon or chicken formula per day. We devised a method by which to monitor his food intake. Each time we opened a can, we marked the date and time on a sheet of paper which we attached to the refrigerator with a magnet. It soon became evident that we were fighting a losing battle. As the days advanced, the time when we opened a new can became earlier and earlier. If we opened a can at noon one day, we would find ourselves opening a can at 10 :00 a.m. the next day, and 8 :00 a.m. the day after that. And so on, until we were opening a cans at three or four in the morning. We continually lost ground.
Our system was compromised not so much by a lack of will as by constant, relentless pestering. Toby employs a variety of strategies to bend us to his will. He will sit by his bowl and look utterly downcast and tragic until we break down and plop some food in it. If this ploy fails, he will become more aggressive, and exercise more tactile methods. He will tap us the arm while we are reading on the couch or sitting at the computer, which is a freakish sensation when you anticipate a human and see a cat gazing into your eyes.
Toby, like all cats, has fully mastered the art of staring. He will stare hot rivets of yearning into your soul. He will stare hunger and desolation into the deepest reaches of your being. Please feed me, his eyes eloquently plead. I need food. I need chicken. I need turkey. I need salmon. I need your cooperation. And I need it now. If I do not receive the aforementioned food and adoring cooperation I will continue to exhaust and beleaguer your patience until your measly human will is nothing but a murmur, a vain whispery thing blowing in the wind of my feline whim.
When I was a young child, among my favorite books was a series by Hugh Lofting about an English naturalist of the Victorian era named Doctor Doolittle who had the ability to converse with animals. I found this utterly charming at the time, but now I find I am desperate to find the key to unlock their minds. Toby’s mind in particular. Wittgenstein cautions that “if a lion could talk, we would not be able to understand him.” I’m not entirely sure what is meant by this, but it does not bode well when it comes to conversing with animals, much less an enigmatic feline.
But if I could direct words toward Toby, words that he could understand, and he had means available to indicate that he understood what I said, a nod of the head, a dilation of the eyes, a wagging of his tail, anything to compensate, however crudely, for the lack of vocal organs, then I would say “Toby my dear friend and companion, this constant eating cannot go on. You must modify your eating. You eat too much. If this continues, you will soon be a furry balloon with a tiny little tail and little pegs for legs. You will not be able to jump to the chair much less the table or kitchen counter. You will not be able to jump on my lap. You will have to suffer the indignity of being picked up each time you want to reach a destination higher than the floor. Is this what you want ? A life as a feline blimp ?"
I wonder how Toby would respond to this reasoning. Would he reply philosophically, and tell me that life is short, enjoy everything while you can as much as you can, even if it means abbreviating your existence by a few months or years. In the scheme of things, does it matter whether your life lingers a few years longer if you’re not truly enjoying it ?
Or would he agree ? Would he nod, and murmur a statement of accordance, and say yes, I eat too much, I am a slave to chicken liver and turkey. Please help me. I want to modify my eating habits which are clearly out of control...?
Of course, this will never happen. Wittgenstein and Doctor Doolittle aside, Toby does not have the organs necessary to produce meaningful consonants and vowels, nor any ability that I am aware of to send his thoughts outward into the world by some form of telepathy.
I do see some minor indications that argue against a state of total linguistic inability. If Toby is able to recognise his name, why can’t he recognise other words ? “Treat,” for instance. He goes nuts for his treats, little white chalk-like nuggets of dehydrated chicken. If I say “treat” there is no recognition. His language ability is limited to the one word. His name, Toby.
It does amaze me that he recognizes his name. At what point was he able to figure out that the sounds that make the vocalization of his name, was, in fact, his name ? That those syllables referred to him ? Does he have a sense of identity in the same way that I have a sense of identity ? Does he have a sense that his being has a history and a set of behaviors and a constellation of habits and mannerisms that all culminate in a phenomenality named Toby ?
I have no idea what goes on in the mind of a cat, and concede this point to Wittgentsein. It is eminently possible that if Toby was suddenly and mysteriously gifted with the power of speech that I would not understand anything he said. I would not understand his point of view. I would not understand his references and metaphors. I would not understand his orientation in this world, his appreciation of our care and feeding, his queries and clarifications for his captivity in our apartment, his sensations and syntax, his appetites and philosophy.
I can see his thinking at times. His thinking is visible when he jumps suddenly to the table and succesfully navigates the clutter of pens and paper and Christmas cactus and earphones and calculator without disturbing a single object. I find that remarkable. He must be able to configure a relation of objects and space instantaneously, far more rapidly than I can. He has a higher intelligence than me in this regard.
He also has my wife and I figured out. He knows how to get us to do things for him. He reads our minds. He sees into our character. He knows our weaknesses. He knows how to work us like puppets. But when I go to the hallway storage closet to get a small stepladder or some other tool he panics and runs to hide under the bed. He cannot tolerate anything new. Unless it is a new toy. He is somehow able to diffferentiate a toy from a tool, a mouse stuffed with catnip from a masonry trowel, a ping pong ball from a swing bevel. He’s not stupid. He knows a hawk from a handsaw. And yet he is terrified of the vacuum cleaner.
My biggest frustration, however, is when we go on a trip. It must be terrible for him when we’re gone for a number of days. He has no idea why we’ve gone, or if we’ll ever be back. Does he think we’ve been eaten by another animal ? Does he think we’re lost and eventually we’ll be able to find our way home ?
He is clearly upset when we return from a trip. The longest we have been away is six days. He was extremely needy when we returned. He clearly suffered a lot of insecurity. I feel bad for this, and this sympathy adds pliancy to his demands.
It would be nice to tell him that we’re going to X for X number of days. This would bring me relief. Especially if we convinced him that the cat sitter, the woman who enters our apartment while we’re away and kindly deposits food in his dish and replenishes his water and tries to have an affectionate exchange is not an intruder who is there to eat or harm him. He does not need to growl at this person.
Does he not see the logic ? Why would someone put food in his dish if they were there to harm him ? He eats the food, and the food is good. The food does not harm him. There is no poison or anything noxious in it. Clearly, the person giving him this food is benign and caring and not there to do him injury. But he does not operate according to the perspectives provided by logic. He is driven by something else. Something like instinct, but larger than instinct. I don’t have a name for it. I don’t know what it is. It is something animals have. It is a deeper knowledge than human knowledge. Such as when the animals of Indonesia somehow sensed or knew that a tsunami was on its way, maybe not a phenomenon as specific as a tsunami, but something huge and horribly wrong and terrible was evident to their keener senses in the serene blue air, and they instinctively knew to find protection on higher ground.
What is it they sense ? Is it a smell ? Is it a vibration ? Is it a form of magnetism, a disturbance in the planet’s magnetic field which somehow alerts their nevous system, unsettles their inner equilibrium ?
Whatever it is, it is not logic. Logic appears to be a human invention, a capacity that the primate family enjoy. Our cousins the gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees have all amply demonstrated the ability to reason, to see relations between things, to use analogies. What a remarkable ability. Where did we get it ? How did we arrive here ? Is reason the product of tree climbing, of using hands, of being social, of using tools?
One thing is clear : humans and primates all have a capacity for the endowments of reason, but not all humans exercise this ability. I have met a lot of people who either choose deliberately not to exercise their sense of reason, or some other more compelling force, superstition or religious belief, has dislodged it from their synapses.
Life is a paradox. Its complexities and contradictions often disrupt the clear patterns that reason and logic provide and lead us into wildernesses where intuition and instinct and a set of exquisitely vigilant senses are more effective guides for our behavior, our response to a world of other beings and snakes and strange variety shows.
This is what cats teach. Be alert. Enjoy eating. And sleep as much as you possibly can. For life is short, and real, and unpredictable. If all else fails, if destiny disappoints your charms and wiles, sit down and groom yourself. There is no philosophy like fur, and no surrogate for the protocol of claws.