A cat’s life: Not as complex as you might think

by Gene Lyons

Look, here’s the deal: Anybody who tries to tell you about your beloved cat’s rich inner life is trying to sell you something. Most of it’s nonsense, at best. Any cat lover tempted to throw away spare cash on an app like Meow Talk, a program that promises to use “machine learning and artificial intelligence to decode cats’ individual vocalizations,” or to buy a book like “The Hidden Language of Cats” by Sarah Brown, Ph.D., would do better to make a donation to a nearby animal shelter.

Veteran cat wrangler Eugene Lyons, Ph.D., says you can love them all you want, but the intriguing little beasts don’t have rich inner lives to probe. Also, if you pay attention, you don’t need an app to understand what they want. Food, mostly — also warmth, comfort and clean running water. Cats are obligate predators, which means they need to eat animal protein to thrive, whether from freshly harvested rodents or little cans of tuna.

They’re ambush hunters, cats, meaning they locate a spot where their prey is apt to show up — i.e. where they can smell or hear it – and then go into a kind of feline fugue state until it does. No thinking, just waiting; half-asleep but hyper-alert. Cogitation would only distract them. Then it’s a quick, merciless kill, a meal and a nap. Sometimes, they kill things just for fun.

If your cat really likes you, he’ll bring you leftovers — half a chipmunk, or the business end of a rat. After we left the farm and moved back to town, our cat Albert, aka “The Orange Dog,” who hung out with our Great Pyrenees dogs most of the time, vanished for a couple of days. Then he materialized walking along a rock wall carrying a freshly slain rat for his dog friends.

Out on the farm, Albert had been a 90% outdoor cat. When we wanted to see him, we’d hike with the dogs to the neighbor’s barn. He’d follow us home across the fields, panting like a little lion, visit for a while, and then go hunting. Away from the house, he moved like a wild animal, wary of coyotes. But after I broke several ribs in a fall from a horse, Albert turned himself into a 90% indoor cat for the several weeks it took me to heal up. He’d perch on the arm of my chair purring while I watched the Red Sox on TV.

Do I contradict myself? Not at all. I didn’t say cats aren’t fond of their humans, only uncomplicated. I’d always been kind to Albert; he was kind back. He also had his limits. After we adopted a husky/Great Pyrenees mix who turned out to be an enthusiastic cat-chaser, Albert moved down the street to our neighbor’s porch, and he hasn’t returned. He tolerates my visits, but only just.

But, of course, cats have distinct individual personalities. Every species I’m familiar with does. Dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep and goats. The lot. Our other cat, also an orange tabby called Martin, made his own adjustment to the new cat-chasing dog. (If I’d known, Aspen wouldn’t have become our dog to begin with, although he’s perfect in every other respect.)

Martin is totally bonded to my wife and me. The two Pyrs and I rescued him from the woods along our gravel road 10 years ago. About 12 weeks old and roughly the size of my fist, he came running to us hollering. Somebody had clearly dumped him and driven away.

He used to climb Diane like a tree and perch on top of her head like a furry hat. So, it’s not real complicated: She’s his mom and I’m his personal hero. Anybody else comes around, he hides.

In a sense, Martin never grew up. I don’t believe he even hunts. He stays in our bed snuggling and purring like an outboard motor until I wake up, and then asks to be let out, spends all day doing nothing — we never see him outside — and materializes on the front porch at dusk after he hears the dogs go out back. Our deal is, there’s always a closed door between him and them.

If there’s a mistake, he’s under the bed.

It’s all quite simple: Martin’s our cat; we’re his people. One Mikel Maria Delgado, a “certified cat behavior consultant” in Sacramento, recently told Slate that the question she’s asked most frequently by anxious clients is, “How do I know if my cat loves me?”

Simple: If he’s in your lap, purring, then yes. He’s fond of you. If he’s hiding under the bed, something’s wrong. Delgado also points out, “Their experience of the world is qualitatively different from ours.”

Well, yes. Cats can see, hear and smell things we can’t perceive.

But a lot of it, trust me, you really wouldn’t want to know.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner. Email: eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.