I saw one of our cats on top of the kitchen range and of course I immediately thought of Mark Twain.
It was Twain who explained the limits on cat learning. He noted that a cat who leaps onto a hot stove and oh-so-quickly leaps off the hot stove will never get on a hot stove again.
Or on a cold one either.
The cat at our house a Siamese named Sydney was on a cold stove. That tells me something. And it isn't that Sydney is a genius, though he is brighter than average for a cat.
It tells me that he has never jumped on a hot stove either because Twain is right. If Sydney had ever toasted his toes atop that stove, he would never again feel at home on the range.
You who attribute a lot of intelligence to animals you who tend to believe that cats and dogs are just short people with the weird habit of walking on all fours are probably jumping to a conclusion right now:
You probably figure that Sydney is so smart that he jumps on the stove only when it is cold. You think he is so smart that he leaps up there looking for chicken crumbs only when he knows the burners are off.
Or maybe you think he is so smart that he knows how to leap up on the cold side of the stove, helping himself with his secret little cat spoon to the food cooking on the hot half.
If that's what you think, then you are proving, not that Sydney is as smart as we are, but that you are as slow as Sydney. The truth is, Sydney is too short to see what is way up there on top of the stove. And he can't see the controls on the back of our old stove from down where he pads around even if he can read the dials, which I tend to doubt.
And I am not disputing Sydney's mental prowess because I dislike him. I love Uncle Chester, drunk or sober, but I would not lie to you about how clever I think he is when he has a snootful. When Uncle Chester is down on all fours with a snootful, he will jump on a hot stove without thinking twice about it.
And the harsh truth is, Uncle Chester is smarter drunk than Sydney is sober.
But I am fond enough of both of them not to make up stories about how sharp they are because exaggerating their brain power would say that Sydney and Uncle Chester aren't good enough for me just the way they are.
Indeed, a person could make a case that I have a warmer feeling in my heart for dogs and cats because I can accept them the way they are without trying to build them up into something they aren't and never will be people.
And while we are straightening the record in these matters, it is not true that animals are better or worse than human beings. Animals, like human beings, exist in infinite variety, in all stages of sanity and insanity. It isn't true that all people are evil at heart and all cats are just as decent as they can be.
For the record and to the insignificant degree that it matters, humans generally behave better than animals on the whole no matter what people with fur for brains try to tell you. Cats and humans are both pretty violent but cats are dirtier and have no work ethic at all. And for all his many flaws, I have never known Uncle Chester to dig in the bushes or torture a mouse to death.
Sydney does both. And he is correctly considered normal as a consequence. That's just the way cats are. But that's also the point: They're animals. (On the other hand, I have never known a cat cruel enough to feed nothing but vegetarian food to a dog, though there are alleged animal lovers who do exactly that.)
For good measure, Uncle Chester made it most of the way through elementary school. Sydney not only didn't but couldn't.
The brightest recorded non-human animal on Earth, so far, is a chimp named Kanzi who has learned after years and years of study to understand and respond to spoken English at the level of a 2-year-old human.
All the humans I know learned to understand and respond to spoken English at the level of a 2-year-old after about two years.
Sydney, after two years, has learned to respond to only seven words of English:
"Get off the stove, you little hairball!"
Forward to the next column
Back to the Main Page