Do animals have memories? (One of many questions postulated by folks who have never spent time with an animal, or watched a show about them. It’s one of those questions that I like to think come out before the asker has had a chance to process how silly it is.) Of course they must; how else could they learn how to find food and mates, know the boundaries of their territories, be trained, etc.? A better question is what kind of memories do animals have? Are they purely “instinctual,” operating at some subliminal level and allowing the animal to function in its world without thought or self-analysis? Or do they also comprise the narrative of the animal’s life, the sequence of experiences — good, bad, or neutral — in which it has partaken, which can be reflected upon later? A recent experience with Mr. Cookies opened a tiny window into what seems to have been a memory of an early part of his life, a memory that was triggered by a sound fundamental to all mammals: suckling.
To begin, Mr. Cookies loathes car rides. Loathes. The first time we took him to the vet to be checked out before bringing him into our house he merowled and yowrled most piteously and desperately the entire way there and back. He’s a very laid-back cat and not much upsets him; he really did not like this and it was almost as if the merowling took over all of his brain for that period, blocking our attempts to soothe him. Every car ride since has been the same, even when not to the vet (plus how could he have known where we were headed?). Cars + Cookies = Merowling.
Anyway, one morning I caught an article in the news about a composer/cognitive researcher who had composed music specifically for cats, which was being showcased at a recently-opened cat cafe in New York City. The cats there had had very interesting reactions to the music, including sitting very close to the speakers and scent marking them with their facial glands, among others. I love information like this (how cool is the idea of species-specific music?) and since I happened to be facing another car trip with Cookies to the vet that morning, I thought, “Hey, would this music help him cope in the car?” So $2.58 and two downloads later, I had Cozmo’s Air and Rusty’s Ballad queued up on my phone.
I buckled Cookies’ carrier onto the front passenger seat and plugged the phone into the car’s speakers. I started the engine; instant merowling ensued. Speaking softly to him, I adjusted the speaker settings and pulled down the driveway with Cozmo’s Air playing at an appropriate volume. After a few more merowls, Cookies was quiet for a minute or so. (A first!) I glanced at his face in the carrier window and he was listening attentively. As we drove along I kept the songs on loop, and while Cookies continued to merowl, they were much lower in volume and less frequent. By the time we were most of the way to the vet, he had stopped completely. (Again, a first!) I had noticed that the song that really seemed to catch his attention was Rusty’s Ballad, which among other sounds incorporates that of a kitten suckling. On the return trip from the vet, he was absolutely silent. My car generates a lot of road noise and I had noticed that much of the music was getting lost, so this time I just played it from my phone sitting on the seat next to Cookies’ carrier. It certainly did the trick. Not only was he silent, but he was also much less freaked out than he usually is after these ordeals. I was totally fascinated, and so pleased that the music had seemed to help him deal with an experience that he finds truly unpleasant.
A few weeks later, just for the heck of it I decided to play the songs for Cookies when we were getting ready for bed. He came over and sniffed my phone and paid quiet attention, but that was about it (and I didn’t really expect much more than that since bedtime is already pretty positive). The next morning, I was settling in on the couch to do some reading; Cookies was conked out on his floor pillow next to the couch. He was in full-on REM sleep, dreaming away with whiskers and paws twitching. I started to read and then heard something that was familiar but that I couldn’t quite place. I looked at Cookies; his little mouth was going and he was making the exact suckling sound from Rusty’s Ballad!!!!!!!!!!! (I have never owned a kitten so my only experience with how suckling sounds is through the song and now Cookies.) I watched him and it continued on and off for a minute or two, and then the general dreaming movements quieted down. I was amazed. Cookies is about 9 years old — it’s been quite some time since he drank his mama’s milk. Other than heightened levels of playfulness since Linus (who is a little less than two) joined our household, he has never really exhibited infant or juvenile behavior — why would he? But here he was, suckling in his sleep after hearing that sound in the song. Did the song trigger memories for him that then came up as he dreamed? To me, that seems like the most logical conclusion. He is too far removed from kittenhood for it to be a mere stimulus-response kind of thing. We know that Cookies had a pretty rough young adulthood (he was apparently abandoned and showed up starving in our neighbors’ yard one day) and then lived (with the neighbors’ help) as a feral for about 6 years, until he decided to adopt us. I can only hope that kittenhood was kinder, and that these memories of snuggling with his siblings in Mama Cat’s embrace, slurping warm milk and being safe, were peaceful ones.
Meanwhile, I will definitely observe Cookies and Linus more closely after playing the music for them in the future. I am also wondering what music for chickens might sound like . . .