Sunday, August 1, 2010

With Sideways Mind: On Listening To Cats

Scene: computer room, my house, around 7:30 PM this evening

Shadow (from the floor behind my chair): "YAAAAAAOW! YAAAAOW! MYOOOOOUUUU! MRRREW!"

Anne: "What?"


Anne: "What, little guy?"

Shadow: "Nrrrrrrr. Miew. YAAAO!"

Anne (gets up from chair): "Okay, fine, Lassie, show me what you want."

Shadow: *gets up, trots into the hallway*

Anne: *follows, waits to see which direction Shadow seems to be going in*

Shadow: *heads toward kitchen*

Anne: *follows*

Shadow: *plunks self down on linoleum, looks at Anne, looks out window*

Anne: "You want me to sit down?"

Shadow: *motions in the affirmative*


So, I sit down, right on the linoleum (which is actually linoleum and not vinyl). Shadow proceeds to snuggle up against my leg. I hear the purr motor start going.

Seated there, I notice that there's quite a lovely breeze coming through the back screen door. The air smells fresh and carries little notes of back-yard with it: tomato leaves, pepper, dry grass. Then I look out the large window overlooking the patio.

Through the trellised semi-roof over the concrete surface next to the garden I see a huge flock of birds making their way across the sky. They're too far away for me to tell what type of bird they are; all I can see is that they're dark-colored, too small to be crows, too large to be sparrows.

Shadow and I both sit there for a while. I don't keep track of exactly how long. The birds pass in waves: one group, then another, then another. The breeze continues to blow. Shadow climbs into my lap, still purring.

Eventually, of course, I have to get up, so I do. But not before thanking Shadow.


Cats communicate. They may not speak (in English or any other human language) but they certainly have plenty to say. I do not claim to understand cats in general, or any specific cat, perfectly, and I find it unnerving (and often a sign of bad ethics) when any human makes such a claim.

However, in living with cats and noting the patterns of how they interact with me, with other cats, with objects in their environment, etc., I have definitely come to realize certain things about listening. Not listening with ears, per se. -- more like (and readers of Michael Ende will know what I mean here) Momo-listening.

What cats have to say can be very subtle. Shadow meows loudly and often but that is only a miniscule part of what he says. Yes, he often wants a snack, and sometimes it's clear he wants me to get one of those wand-type toys he loves and wiggle the string so he can chase the feather-tailed mouse or whatever happen to be attached. But other times he just plain surprises me.


The incident related above is foremost in my mind as I write this, yet it is far from isolated. I have been astounded more times than I can count at the complexity and delicacy of what my cats tell me, how their actions illustrate what they're noticing and paying attention to in the world around them.

There is just not much in the human culture with which I am most familiar (or its common vocabularies) that prepares someone for this kind of thing.

For listening to cats involves a lot of what I would call "the cognitive equivalent of peripheral vision".

It involves a lot of not as well: as in, not immediately assuming the cat just wants food, or even play, or generalized "attention". It involves not placing fixed, arbitrary limits on your idea of what cats are capable of thinking, experiencing, and doing.

This is, in part, because cats are so good at being cats, they don't actively require our approval or permission to continue doing so throughout their lives. In other words, their catness is not dependent on being judged proper or sufficent by humans; catness simply is, and cats are surely cats even when no-one is looking.

This means that a human might "keep" a cat, feed her, change her litter, pat her head and call her a good cat on occasion -- presuming the whole while that their human view of their coexistence encompasses the whole of the cat's existence and experience. When in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that only cats have subjective knowledge of what being a cat feels like, and the truth is also that cattish priorities very often differ from typical human ones.

As for me, while certainly I am not a cat, I am very interested in what they have to say. I want very much for them to feel like they can show me where to sit to let a nice breeze wash over one, and where one might get to witness a dazzling display of avian migration. I want them to know that I see their priorities and interests as valid and genuine. I do not know the degree to which this will ultimately be possible, but I am sure as heck willing to keep trying my darndest to listen.


  1. This post really resonates with me. I've had far too many examples like this to list - cats know what they want, and they do their best to tell you. Most people, it seems, just assume that the cat wants attention or food, and don't really try to understand what the cat is trying to communicate.

    Cats are so expressive when you pay attention.

    Sorry I haven't commented for the past few days. Excessive distractions came up and I forgot to check back. I'm glad to see several new posts up, though. :)

  2. Oh goodness...nobody needs to feel obligated to comment here or anywhere I write! Your comments are always welcome and appreciated, of course, but the way I see it people will write when they have the time and inclination and for pretty much everyone those things don't coincide on a schedule of clock-work regularity.

  3. Oh and yes indeed, cats are VERY expressive when one pays attention. But a lot of humans consider "expression" to look like a few particular things in a very narrow range and consider everything outside that range to be noise or nothing. Thankfully that isn't ALL humans, though!

  4. I don't feel obligated to comment here, just was a bit sad I'd forgotten to check back right as you made several new posts.

    And I agree about most humans. I think they're pretty fixated on one form of consciousness and failing to fit into that consciousness means a failure to have intelligence or awareness.

    I think it's kind of funny, when I've actually argued about this, that I'm the one accused of anthropomorphizing animals when the people I'm arguing with are basically saying that animals aren't anthropomorphic enough for their standards.


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