Gio 17 Gennaio 2019
There is a growing desire to learn more about the cat and its characteristics; the number of articles, seminars and conferences on the subject grows daily. More and more people are committing their lives to better the coexistence between humans and cats. This is an amazing accomplishment from which to keep going forward with renewed vigor and interest in the cat's well being (and ours too!). But, there is a 'but', and it's about what I like to call the “anthropocentric traps” that hide in the feline behaviour studies. This traps, that aren't hidden well at all, give a completely wrong view of the animal because of the human lenses used when analyzing aspects of the coexistence between humans and cats.
Let me explain better. In the last few months one of the most frequent questions that I have been asked has been: “is it true that cats can be trained like the dogs?”. The answer to this question is “yes”. Cats have a complex and lively intelligence that allows them to learn new and different behaviours not related with their survival, but only if they are taught through positive reinforcement and always respecting their time and specie's characteristics.
But my question is: why would you want to train a cat?
Let's think for a moment and try to give ourselves an honest answer. The desire that might push us to train a cat starts with the absolutely human need of gratification. Seeing a majestic and independent animal do things only for our pleasure, projecting onto the animal our desire of success, and connecting its behaviours with typically human emotions are all driven by our need of gratification (I would like to clarify that I am strictly talking about our relationship with the cat. The relationship between human and other animals is different; the way we share things depends on the species' ethological characteristics and needs.). Here is an example: I decide to teach the cat to sit on command. Every day I give small rewards and respect all the principles of a kind education, until the cat finally succeeds! So, I take a video of the cat sitting on command and I post it on the social networks; millions of people watch the video and love it. It's actually very cute watching this lovely cat sit on command. We can see that the cat is not suffering and it is actually happy to eat the treat. There are a lot of comments on how sweet and good and intelligent the cat is, but then.... isn't there something wrong in of all this? Yes, indeed. There is something wrong in trying to teach the cat something completely useless for its daily life (the cat sits only when it wants, doing it on command does not benefit its existence in any way). This way we have lost the opportunity to learn something really important from the animal itself about its own nature.
At this point you might have an objection: it's not a futile activity, it strengthens the bond between human and cat!
Are you sure? What have you given to the cat with this exercise?
You have probably spent some time with your cat, and it received some extra food, but you have done an activity completely focused on the human concept of domesticating an animal. It's a foreign concept for a cat, it might do it gladly with you, but have you ever tried to repeat some cat behaviours? If you haven't, I suggest you to try it, at least once. Pick a behaviour that intrigues you and that your human nature allows you to enjoy, and try to reproduce it. It will be a special experience. It will finally be you to open up to the knowledge of another species; and maybe you will realize that there are activities more productive for the both of you, and they will certainly be more strengthening for your relationship. Until now you might have missed this opportunity simply because you didn't stop to think about it.
Training is just another way for the anthropocentric (it means completely centered around the human being) view to twist an experience. Other examples of this view include: the idea that the cat has to “obey” orders, respect the house rules (I can assure you, no matter how sane and mentally stable we can be, our rules will never seem logical to the cat's mind!), show us the affection we deserve in the amount and the way that we most enjoy...
I have gone through an anthropocentric period myself, until I realized my mistake and I opened up to a different kind of sharing. A sharing that takes into account the characteristics of the animal species I choose to live with. So who cares if when I come home the cat does not come to greet me, or if it sits right in front of me when I want to be alone, or if when I call it looks at me briefly and then keeps going its way! Because there are precious moments when without words, commands, or logical reasoning we simply find each other together. It could be a walk in the woods (my cat Nora happily walks with me on familiar or unknown trails without anybody having taught it that, simply because we have learned about each other), a healthy nap on the couch, or a mushy conversation made of sounds, purrs and cuddles. These are the moments that should make us understand how an inter-species relationship (between animals of different species) can be a limitless and precious source of reciprocal knowledge, that should always be balanced and never leaning towards one side or the other.
P.S. With this article I absolutely do not want to say that teaching some exercises to the cat is an inappropriate thing. I just want to point out the fact that quite often we lose the opportunity for very satisfying experiences, just because we are not used to listen and observe what happens around us without interfering in some way.