Pavlov’s Belle: Cats with Intent

by Brooks Riley

Kitsch on chair

I, Kitsch

At particularly difficult periods in my life, I study my cat. I’m not a biologist or an anthropomorphologist (okay, maybe I am), but I do occasionally like to read about animal behavior and its human interpreters and interpretations. Much research work examines the intelligence of animals based on tool-usage or communication skills: the New Caledonian crow fashioning hooks out of stiff leaves or twigs to dig up a tasty worm from a hole in a tree stump, chimpanzees doing math, gorillas like Koko using sign language, etc.

One word which suprisingly fails to appear in the scientific literature is ‘intent’. And it is exactly this word which ennables me to decipher the mysteries of my cat.

In the animal world intent can mean the carrying out of instinctive behavior. A squirrel intends to store a nut, a lion intends to attack an antelope, a robin intends to dig up a worm. All of these intentions are hardwired into the ongoing survival apparatus of that animal. In the more intelligent animals, intent consists of more than one level: The New Caledonian crow intends to get that worm, yes, but before he can do so, he has to intend to fashion a tool out of a leaf to facilitate his first intention. This latter intention is intrinsically linked to the first intention, but it is not part of the instinctive level of intent. It is a learned behavior whose origins lie in an exquisite act of deductive reasoning: Some ancestral New Caledonian crow actually thought about the problem of how to reach an out-of-reach worm. And to find a solution, he had to imagine something outside of his own corporeal construction that might facilitate his goal. He put 1 (twig) and 1 (hole) together and came up with 2 (the worm). Then he taught his kids. That his descendents were able to repeat his invention and possibly even incorporate it into their own instinctive behavior doesn’t mitigate the fact that catching a worm in New Caledonia involves two intentions, both based on need, but only one based on original instinct.

But back to my cat. A domestic housebound cat doesn’t use its instinct anymore to hunt for food. If it’s hungry, it has to find another way to get food. And that other way also involves a bifurcation of intent: First it has to get your attention—by yowling, scratching the pristine upholstery, or jumping on you from a great height as you sleep. A different cat might utilize gentler means, such as butting it’s head against your leg or laying a paw on your arm. Whatever the means, she intends to annoy you in order to carry out her first intention, which is to get fed. Her tool, like that of the crow, is a secondary intention meant to ennable the first intention. In Pavlovian terms, you are the dog, she is the bell. Instead of salivating, you rise up zombie-like from your bed and feed the cat.

Intelligence and intention are closely allied in my amateur assessment of animal behavior. Beyond the intention to accomplish the instinctive to-do list—bathing, eating, sleeping, relieving itself—the domestic cat betrays a host of other intentions which do not fall into the cyclical biological narrative. And it is into this gray area that my cat and I wander to communicate.

I’ve learned to recognize her ‘Do not disturb’ signs, sometimes the hard way. The shape of her eyes changes from round to almond, creating a facial expression that reads ‘Don’t go there.’ If I still try to remove her ever so gently from my comfy chair or my lap, she will bite me. She intends to stay put.

At an earlier time, in another apartment, if I came home late from work, this cat (but not our other one) would race out the front door as soon as it was opened and had to be retrieved from another floor landing. In spite of the fact that she was hungry and her dinner was late, the intent to punish me was greater than the intent to be fed. That this non-essential intent could override the essential intent of getting fed suggests an emotional intelligence not that far removed from the dialectical response mechanisms in human beings. Of course, one could argue that she flew out the door in search of food elsewhere, but this interpretation is unlikely, since food, for her, has always been inextricably linked to my presence.

Temper, jealousy, revenge and subterfuge are built into the otherwise loveable nature of this particular cat. (The issue of personality differences in cats opens a whole other anthropomorphic door through which I will not venture, except to say that our other cat, who died, was a saint.)

Studying one’s cat means asking questions. She asks them too. We spend a lot of time trying to read each other’s minds: She intends to climb in my lap, but first she stares at me, looking for a sign. I stare back, and after ten seconds, she decides to take the plunge even though I haven’t signaled anything. (What Lola intends, Lola does.) Her intention to get into my lap is probably easily explained. Bodily contact is a need which has evolved in the domestic cat—a throwback to pride behavior? Or a predilection for social interaction with a living being–any will do?

Sometimes I don’t know the answer to the questions: Why does she sometimes beg to leave the apartment? (That she might want to get away from me is not an option.) Why does she try to kiss me at night? (Is it the toothpaste?) Why does she take up the most room on the king-sized bed? (And how does a wee thing manage to do that?) Why does she always win the staring contests?

Volume plays a major role in some of her intentions: The more she wants something, the louder she gets—fish-wife loud. Anger or frustration are expressed with a silent snort—a dainty harumph which I can hear if I am close enough. Her emotional intelligence may be no greater than a two-year-old child’s, but it is evident and undeniable.

My cat is older than me biologically, but we both have become fearless later in life. She spent most of her adult life in fear of strangers, hiding when we had visitors. Now she approaches them, flirts with them (with intent), and allows herself to be petted. My old fears were more abstract, and my new fearlessness has more sophisticated components, not the least of which is an acquired fatalism. But is there a biological correlation? Does the biochemistry of fear alter in old age, the fight-or-flight response failing to churn out the necessary adrenalin? Did my cat intend to conquer her demons, or did biology do that for her?

I wonder about her choice of napping locations. She will sleep in one chair for 5-7 days, and then make a new selection for the next 5-7 days. Once she has slept in a chair, the chances are 95 percent that she will sleep in the same chair the next day. Habit-forming in my cat differs from habit-forming in me:

Me: Once + once again + possibly once again = habit

Cat: Once = habit

It took her only one trial morning expedition to the lawn outside our balcony to form a new habit: The very next morning, she howled to get back to the green.

Her nomadic napping could be the somniatory marking of territory. (Too often, she seems to curl up just where I want to curl up.) Or it’s simply that her habit-forming faculties follow a different formula than mine. She has slept on many surfaces in cycles of 5-7 days—methodically moving through the apartment until no surface is left that has not been the repository of her dreamtime interludes.

My cat is a bundle of ‘extracurricular’ intentions, cunning strategies, and social overtures, whether it’s placing herself between me and my book, commandeering my suitcase if I’m packing for a trip (my brother’s cats used to block his driveway), or greeting me with ‘Huh?’ if I happen to pass by. Living in the limited, foreign world of our apartment, she intends to define her role in it by teaching me her rules of engagement and learning mine. We have détente.