The mechanisms by which animals recognize others of their species is an ongoing subject of research in the field of animal behavior. How much of this recognition is learned, how much is innate, what kinds of cues (visual, aural, olfactory) do animals use to recognize their own kind? A very interesting study of dogs from a few years ago demonstrated that domestic dogs recognize other dogs’ faces, even when there is huge diversity in those faces’ size, shape, and features.
I was thinking about this issue in relation to cats the other day when DS was playing with his stuffed cat while Cookies was hanging out with us. Cookies joins us for bedtime stories on most nights, and on this night he was relaxing next to DS’s bed when DS decided to pick up his stuffed cat and make it meow at Cookies. DS does a pretty good meow (modeled on Linus’s meow), and Cookies
immediately gave the stuffed cat a thorough sniff and then a stinkeye. Cookies has had all manner of stuffed animals thrust upon him and usually doesn’t show any interest beyond the occasional polite sniff. If anything, in general stuffed animals are the least interesting to him of DS’s toys; he is more of a Lego and wooden block cat. Now, in this case the convincing meow probably helped get his attention, but he has shown particular attention to feline-shaped objects in the past, even ones that look nothing like a real cat and made no sound.
The first was a ceramic tiger statue that belongs to my grandmother. She has had it for years, and I remember being fascinated by it when I was a kid. It’s about two feet high (much larger than any cats Cookies would have encountered in his life) and is depicted more or less realistically; the artist did capture a seated tiger’s pose and demeanor. It is definitely more of a work of art, however, than a life-like model. Cookies was going to stay with my grandmother while we went on vacation, so he was exploring her apartment while we chatted. It took him a few rounds of exploring before he noticed the tiger, but when he did his double-take was Kramer-esque. He stared, wide-eyed, for thirty seconds or so, then approached very cautiously, leaving his hind end on the floor and stretching himself forward as far as he could, one front paw raised to touch the interloper. He feinted a few times before actually batting it, then stared at it suspiciously for a few more seconds before deciding it wasn’t a threat. But little did he know that another cat was lurking behind him: my grandmother’s statue of the Egyptian goddess Bastet! She was sitting on top of a cabinet, peaceful and self-contained as always. Cookies looked with horror at her (so much for being a patron saint of cats). I took the statue down to let him sniff it, but he had no interest in making the goddess’ acquaintance. “What is it with the weird, non-moving cats around here????” he demanded, and went to hide under the couch while he collected himself.
This brings us to the most recent encounter with a faux feline: a movie about lynxes who were reared by a human before being released into the wild. We watch a lot of nature shows here at the Abbey, including ones about different cat species (lions, tigers, bobcats) and all manner of creatures who are cat prey, like birds, small mammals, and fish. Neither the sounds nor sights of the animals in these shows generally attract the cats’ attention. (If anything, Cookies likes watching submarine films or old episodes of The Twilight Zone.) However, for whatever reason the lynxes in this film grabbed his interest and he watched the film intently whenever they were on the screen. We first noticed it in a scene when the lynx kittens were wrestling with each other. There was a voiceover narrating so the kittens’ sounds were not audible at this point. Cookies’ head came up from where he had been resting on my feet, the ears perked up, the eyes widened and the nose twitched.
He continued to do this throughout the film, whether or not the lynxes were vocalizing, and would stop paying attention whenever the footage shifted to other animals, such as a dog or human. Our TV screen is large so, like the tiger statue, these lynxes were much bigger than any cats he would have encountered in real life. But he knew they were cats, and moreover understood that they were here but somehow not physically present in the room with us.
So what does this all mean? Cookies knows a cat when he sees one. The poor guy can look forward to my trying other recognition tests with him soon. I can’t believe he puts up with me sometimes . . .