Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A girl with a cat with an evolutionary message

By Ellen Weiss

Before my husband met me, he always says, he dreamed of meeting a girl with a cat.  It was all he really wanted in life; to love and be loved by a girl and her cat.

He met Max and me in 2005.  Max, now 18, has been my, and then our, companion for over 12 years.  Wise, calm, perceptive, adaptable and affectionate, sleeping every night on my right shoulder, he was a perfect friend for a wandering college student to have found.  When I met Brian, he switched to sleeping between us so he could be close to us both.

In the 8.5 years since our meeting, Brian and I have somehow managed to acquire 3 more cats (but there will be no more... no more!).  Our cats all came from a barn where Brian's family boards horses.  They are from litters years apart but all have the same father, a scrappy fellow called Mu Senior who produced prodigious amounts of incredibly affectionate and adorable kittens in his years.  When Brian and I first began cohabitating and were both working outside the home, we felt badly that Max spent so many of his hours alone, so when Brian's mother told us to come visit a crazily affectionate kitten that was following them around at the barn, we did.  We found the scraggly, knotted, long-haired, ginger colored 10-month-old girl sitting on a barrel of oats.  Brian picked her up and she settled into his arms for half an hour while we had a tour of the barn.  Brian asked his mother to ask the owner of the barn when we could bring her home.  Fifteen minutes later she was sneezing hay dust into the backseat of our car.

Feisty and unwavering in her conviction that she rules the roost, Casey brought her vibrant personality storming into our home.  We nursed her to health and she and I spent many days together during her early years and our bond has never broken.  I am her person and she is my girl.

But she was young and Max, at age 10, wasn't thrilled with her persistent attempts to wrestle with him.  “She needs a kitten,” we often said, but we lived in an apartment then that wouldn't have accommodated 3 cats well.  After we moved into a condo Brian's mother innocently told us about a new batch of Mu Sr. kittens at the barn.  We went to visit them.  She introduced us to one of them who was particularly cuddly.  A week later we brought Casey home her new kitten, Mu Jr., 4 years younger, cinnamon-and-sugar striped with that long fluffy fur I'm a sucker for.

It was a huge mistake.

To our surprise, my precious, loving Casey cat hated Mu the moment she set eyes on him.  Despite keeping them separated for weeks and introducing them slowly as directed, if given a moment alone with him she'd corner him and slap him back and forth while he lay submissive on his back, terrified, sometimes literally defecating out of fear.  We questioned whether it was kind to keep him, to force him to live in a home with someone who hated him so, but persevered because, (1) we'd fallen in love with his gentle heart and (2) we held out hope that our vet was right when she insisted they'd learn to live together.

They did eventually develop an uneasy truce and most of the time ignore each other, but Mu will never stop thinking of Casey as bad news, never stop giving her a wide berth and backing away when she's close.  And though he now surpasses her in size, she still occasionally corners him until he cowers in submission while she towers over him, reminding him that she is Queen.

“We will never get another singleton kitten,” Brian and I told each other after the 6 months of tense adjustment in our home.  “Only pairs of kittens from the same litter.”

Less than 2 years later, my mother in law posted the following photo of a new Mu Sr. kitten on  Facebook, captioned, “Kittens free to a good home”:

The freckles on either side of his nose.  The crazy fur.  The eager, bright eyes.  The resemblance to his half brother.  I have never fallen in love with any creature so fully and so fast.  He came home a week later and tumbled into our lives with absolute, unending, constant enthusiasm and unfettered joy.  He has no idea that suffering exists in this world.  Our affection for each other is among the purest I have felt with any creature of any species.  He adores me and he adores his brother Mu.

And better still than all of this, Mu adores him.  Having a little brother has given Mu a sense of place and purpose.  He has come out of his shell; he is more joyful, less nervous.  He is more affectionate with us.  He wrestles with, sleeps with, grooms Ollie.  They are unquestionably brothers, and inseparably friends.  And everyone is friends with Max.  He is grandpa to all.

But Casey.  Although she dislikes Oliver with less ferocity than she hated Mu, she will occasionally wallop him to remind him that she's boss.  Oliver has self-esteem and confidence so foundational that it cannot be shaken, and he trots off from these scuffs emotionally unscathed, unlike Mu who took them as signs that he lived in an unsafe world; but still, our fiery girl can be vicious.

Two weeks ago we saw Casey pounce on Oliver and begin to smack him.  Then, we saw Mu see what we saw.  And in a flash he charged her, hissing and growling, smacked Casey off of Oliver, and chased her away from him.

Since then we have 3 or 4 more times seen this same thing.  Mu, normally reserved in general, and nervous around his sister, in particular, sees her attack Oliver, and in an instant loses all fear, charges her, smacks her off of his brother, and chases her away.

I find myself incredibly touched by his protectiveness and affection for his little brother.  It is so poignant to me to watch his ability to see suffering in someone he cares about, and to put aside his own fear to end that suffering for his friend.  I have never seen such behavior, such empathy, in a cat; indeed I did not know it was possible.  Cats suffer from a poor image in the media (where is their PR rep?).  From the devilishly named and endlessly cruel Lucifer in Cinderella to the relentless Tom from Tom and Jerry to the hissing cats kept by villains such as Austin Powers' Dr. Evil, cats are portrayed over and over again as cold, cruel, calculating and aloof.

It is true that cats tend to be more emotionally independent than, say, many dogs, but our cats at least are far from aloof.  I spend much of every day as a revolving affection dispenser; each one comes to me multiple times per day for cuddles and hugs and all 4 are always near us.

And, our recent experience with Mu and Oliver has demonstrated that at least some cats are capable of a kind of empathy, perceptiveness and protectiveness that is normally considered to be absent from the cat behavior repertoire.

It is not therefore, of course, a coincidence that humans form close relationships with pets.  We are all biological creatures, and enough of our physiology is shared that, though our emotional lives and ranges are not identical to each other, we have enough in common that genuine affection, love and, as Mu has shown, empathy and concern, can be shared between us.

I enjoy a good dog, and grew up with a spectacular Golden Retriever.  But what I have come to most appreciate about the housecat is that they do not need their people; they do not need to be reminded by their people that they are amazing and loveable as many dogs do, for they are already confident that they are.  They share their affection with us because they choose to, and I have decided over the years that it is better to be wanted than needed.  And want us they do, our four crazy, mischievous, loving, complex cats.


Anne Buchanan said...

This post was written by Ken's and my daughter Ellen. When she told us the story of Mu protecting Oliver, in spite of his very reasonable fear of the reigning queen, we thought it was a beautiful reminder of how so many evolutionary stories are based on a limited range of observed behaviors. I'm reminded again of Wolpert's admonition when molecular geneticists report "no phenotype" with transgenic mice, "But have you taken it to the opera?" We don't know what we, or any organism, will do when stretched to our limits, but Mu reminds us that we could even be heroes.

Jennifer said...

I suspect that the empathy is real, but also, he's not lying on his back being attacked, which is a very vulnerable position. Instead, Queen Casey is busy - her attention is elsewhere (on Ollie) so he has a serious advantage. That probably has helped give him much more confidence. Perhaps now that he has noticed that she is not invincible, he will be more likely to fight back when he, himself, is attacked.

Ellen said...

Jennifer that is exactly what has happened. After 3 years of being scared of her it's like he suddenly realized he doesn't have to take it. He's actually preemptively striking her now. The entire dynamics of the tribe have shifted.