December 11, 2011
His Person's Voice
A Cat Who Will Come When Called
One moment guaranteed to lighten my heart and fill it with joy is when I step out of the house at night, call for the cat and there --- far down the block --- I see a shadow darting among the shadows. I know it's Trilby Kitty doing a fast trot home to my voice (running would be beneath his dignity). Each time this happens, I can't stop a goofy smile from breaking out. Because I know there's no one else on earth he would do that for, no other voice he would respond to when he was so far away. But my voice can bring him home as long as he's in earshot of it.
Now Trilby is still a cat. I've been known to call him multiple times throughout the day, and he doesn't necessarily come every time he's called. Sometimes he makes a game of it and won't come until he knows I've spotted him. When I've locked eyes with him, then he'll stretch and act like, "Oh, did you want me?" as if he hadn't heard me yelling his name, before casually making his way over to me. And there are some times he won't come at all even though I'm reasonably certain he's in earshot.
Trilby Kitty hears his person's voice
If it's someone he knows or if it's someone who "speaks" cat and he's close by, another person can get him to come to them to be petted, though it's as much their body language he's responding to as it is their voice. Once he's out of sight or at a distance, anyone else's voice is so much background noise to the cat, and when they call him, Trilby Kitty pays it as much heed as he does the sound of birds in the trees.
But with me, he doesn't have to see me: my voice is in his head and his heart and when he hears it, it registers.........even if it just registers he's going to ignore it.
Still, it never fails to charm on those nights when I call him and I see him coming from halfway down the block. Whatever he was doing down there it doesn't matter. His person is calling and he wants to come home to me. And, if it's at night, there's a good chance that his person is calling him to go for his walk, and he adores his walk around the block. If I've called Trilby and he didn't respond, I add, "Walk!!" to the call and that almost never fails to get him to show up. I suspect the few times he doesn't show up he's out of earshot. Because he knows the word "walk" ------ at least he does when it's said in my voice.
Years ago, it was Trilby Kitty's reactions to my voice that let me know I was in trouble back in the days before I decided I was keeping this homelorn cat that was a guest in my house.
As I explained "In the Mind of a Sleeping Cat," Trilby (who I was simply calling Kitty back then as I didn't want to personalize him) decided after he had been here a month that he wanted to start going outside. I hadn't considered him being an outdoor cat or even an indoor/outdoor cat, and there was a lot that finally went into my decision on allowing it. But at that point in time I was trying to keep him indoors. I have a screened-in porch, and I thought that might satisfy his urge to be out of doors while still keeping him confined. Boy, was I wrong. The porch is not the same as having all the out of doors to roam it. I didn't realize I had a loose screen, but it didn't take the cat long to find it. When he got out I assumed I hadn't closed the door all the way, and he had pushed it open. Eventually I discovered the loose screen but didn't really feel like fixing it.
We were still in this stage of him fussing to be let out, and I was getting fed up with it when one day I let the cat out on the porch knowing full well he'd take-off. Honestly, part of me was probably hoping he just wouldn't return -- sure I'd be worried and upset for a few days --- but it would solve my dilemma of what to do with this cat whose owner I couldn't locate and who was acting like he lived here when I had no intention of having a pet. Sometime later I noticed it had started to sprinkle. I opened the back door and called, "Kitty! Kitty!"
As soon as the cat heard my voice he came racing onto the porch and ran into the house. And my reaction to that was "Oh shit." Because the cat knew my voice. He recognized my voice and came to its call. That was not good. I knew I was in trouble. All the time the cat had spent cuddling on my lap, the obsessive way he'd followed me around the house until he'd finally relaxed enough to let me out of his sight...........sure, those were signs he'd gotten attached to me. Visual signs. It never occurred to me that the cat would know me by voice. And, despite the fact I was calling him, I really didn't expect him to come to sound of my voice. Because I knew enough about cats to know that cats don't do that for just anyone. In fact, cats hardly do that for anyone. They do it only for their person. But I was not this cat's person. True, I hadn't managed to find the cat's person, but it didn't mean I was now the cat's person. And he needed to stop acting like I was, because I wasn't. (With hindsight, one of us was the smarter of the two when it came to understanding the reality of the situation and clearly it wasn't me.)
The second moment when I realized just how much trouble I was in with this cat houseguest was one night when I was lying in the living room watching TV. The cat was on top of my torso, sitting there like a sphinx while staring at my face. I was idly petting the cat, one hand stroking along his back and side. (It's virtually impossible for me to have my hand on something soft and furry and for me to not pet it.) I would drop the occasional word, maybe in response to something on the TV, maybe just to the cat. It didn't matter what I said, only the tone of voice counted and I kept that quiet and soothing. One time I happened to be looking directly at the cat who was still staring intently at me and noticed that his pupils suddenly dilated.★ That made me recall something I had heard: that human pupils dilate as a positive response when experiencing a pleasant stimulus and contract as a negative response to an unpleasant stimulus.† It was one of those tricks that human lie detectors and con artists were supposed to watch for as it's not under our conscious control; it's a purely autonomic response. So the cat was responding positively to something. Sure, why not? He was happy, safe, secure and being petted. But the pupil response didn't seem timed to the petting. So I ran a little design of experiment on the cat to determine exactly what his pupils were reacting to: just being on top of me, the petting or my voice. It was my voice. Even if I stopped petting, every time I spoke it happened ------ his pupils would get huge for a second, then contract back to normal. My reaction to that was a silent, "Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap."
I would have understood and not been worried if the pupils were responding to being petted. That's enjoyable no matter who's doing it. But it wasn't the petting. It was my voice. My voice. Not the human voice, because the TV was on and he never reacted to the voices from it. It was my specific voice. A single word dropped in my voice and his pupils reacted as fast as a reflex knee test at the doctor's. Crap. Because sitting there, I realized that the cat's brain had been rewired. Literally he had developed new neural pathways triggered by my voice. And this wasn't a conscious decision like when he came the time I called him. This was a purely autonomic reaction below any level of conscious thought. I'm not a neuroscientist. I didn't pretend to know the exact route. But stretched out there in the living room with this cat on top of me, I could imagine the path as the vibrations of my voice entered his ear canal triggering the nerves which sent a signal racing off to the part of the brain that processes auditory input, but it didn't stop there. Instead more signals were sent out ending up at wherever the pupils were controlled from and probably with a detour through the pleasure center on the way.
Crap. What was I supposed to do with a cat whose very brain, whose subconscious brain, had rewired itself to me.......that's how closely he had bonded to me? He wasn't my cat. I didn't want a cat. And I was in big trouble. Because if his connection to me ran that deep, how would he react if I took him to the Humane Society?
Some people like to think humans are totally different from other animals. I've never seen it that way. We evolved from the same precursors they evolved from --- as far as we can ascertain life on Earth was only created one time and we're all its descendants. To me it's a continuum, not a discrete difference. Which is my way of getting to the point that trust matters. And it doesn't just matter with humans. However the cat had ended up in my next door neighbor's driveway that summer, he had had his trust violated once..........and I'd witnessed first hand how that violation had ripped his psyche to pieces. Now, staring into the cat's eyes, I'd just witnessed first hand how deeply his trust in me had changed him. What would happen if his trust were broken yet again? Would he ever be able to bond this deeply again? In a human, you can only violate their ability to trust so many times before trust is replaced with suspicion of the world. What about for cats? That was the quandary I sailed into that night. Sometimes the moral problems of our lives aren't the results of some big crisis, but the smallest thing like the size of cat's pupils.
From the time the cat arrived to when I finally decided that I was going to keep this cat, it was three or four long months. Months filled with hours of trying to figure out what I was supposed to do and wondering just how much this cat would haunt me and if I could live with myself if I did take him to the Humane Society. Finally, I came to the conclusion I couldn't get rid of him. Even if I didn't love the cat ---- and I didn't love him then, though I grew to love him very much ---- I still couldn't hurt him. So I decided the cat had a "forever home" as it's called in pet parlance. (Unlike for many people, for me a "forever home" is a forever home which is why it was such a big decision.) I marked the moment with putting a collar and id tag on my cat. I began using the name the cat had told to me, "Trilby," (from his trilling greetings) and retained the anonymous "Kitty" to be his last name.
That was three years ago. Of course, Trilby Kitty still responds to my voice. Whether it's coming from down the block or one slow wag of the tail when he's half-asleep, my voice is in his heart and his head. And on rare occasions his pupils will still dilate just from the sound of my voice though long hours of study have shown me that this only happens under conditions basically duplicating what was happening the first time I noticed it.
Trilby Kitty is my cat, and I'm his person. He lets me know that every day in a hundred ways, big and small. And one of those is how he acts when he hears his person's voice.
★ "Pupillary diameter is affected by the LC-NE systems and the ANS and mediated through nuclei in the reticular formation (Gray, 1973), making pupillary response subject to cognitive and emotional states. Animal research has shown that pupil size varies directly with cortical activation (Naquet et al., 1960)."
Herman Staudenmayer, Environmental Illness: Myth and Reality. (CRC Press, 1999) p. 160
† In doing some research on pupil dilation for this article, I've discovered that positive stimulus=dilation and negative stimulus=contraction is not accurate. Now why am I not surprised that so-called human lie detectors and con-artists got it wrong? Pupil dilation is caused by arousal. It could be a positive arousal like sex or a negative arousal like "Holy shit, I'm about to be eaten. I'd better fight-or-flight." Either way, pupil expansion as a part of arousal is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. (If you'd like to see an interesting flash animation on the sympathetic nervous system, click here.)
"Increases in pupil size during arousal by startle, orienting to a pleasant or unpleasant stimulus, focused attention during detection of an anticipated stimulus (particularly if threatening), or when actually faced with a threatening stimulus are consistent with Cannon's (1929) model for the fight-or-flight response." -- Ibid
"Following an initial light reflex, pupillary changes were larger when viewing emotionally arousing pictures, regardless of whether these were pleasant or unpleasant." -- Bradley, M., et al., (2008). The pupil as a measure of emotional arousal and autonomic activation. Psychophysiology, 45(4), 602-607.
If you'd like to read more about Trilby Kitty "The Devotion of a Cat" is a heart-warming tale. As previously mentioned there's "In the Mind of a Sleeping Cat." Trilby is also featured in "10 Reasons Why the Best "Boyfriend" I've Ever Had Is My Cat" and is a supporting player in "The Suburban Wilds." If you're a pet owner then "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food" is a must read. To read some non-cat pieces, check-out the Archive and be sure to scroll down for the Trilby Kitty LOLCat.