Mar 10, 2013
Cat Thinking -- The Day My Legs Turned Blue
It was summer that day when my neighbor frantically came to my door and poured out a story about a cat who showed up in her driveway the previous night and refused to leave. Little did I realize ---- as in not the faintest idea ----- that when I picked up the strange cat from underneath my neighbor's SUV and carried it into my house that this would be my cat, Trilby Kitty.
One morning not long after I started letting Trilby outdoors, I went outside to cut what passes for my lawn. Trilby Kitty was outside, and ordinarily Trilby loved it when I was outside with him. He would come up to me for a petting and to say in his cat way, "I'm happy to see you." But not this day. This day Trilby Kitty came out of the bushes when he heard me, but he took one look at me and wouldn't come any closer. I tried calling him over, even knelt down, but the cat wasn't having anything to do with me. He obviously recognized me, but he was also frightened at the same time. Conflicted would be a fair description of his reaction.
I could not understand what was putting the cat off. Then it occurred to me that I was wearing pants. Here in Florida, summer is most of the year. The joke is that the four seasons here aren't "Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter" but "Almost Summer, Summer, Still Summer and Christmas." I actually do describe our weather as "summer" or "not-summer." (This January when one day it got up to almost 80ºF/27ºC (a humid almost 80º at that), I wistfully said to a friend "At least it's still not-summer.") Because of the weather, people here can --- and plenty do --- spend most of the year wearing shorts. And that included me.
I realized that the cat had never seen me in anything other than shorts and short nightgowns ---- all clothing that left my legs exposed. Now, for the first time, my legs were covered. To the cat it must have seemed like my legs had suddenly turned blue. He wasn't sure who I was anymore.
That revelation gave me an insight into the cognitive level and image mapping of the cat''s thinking. This cat had formed a mental map of his person. It included my voice (see His Person's Voice / A Cat Who Will Come When Called), my scent and my appearance. In that appearance, the top part of me was variable as the clothing changed daily, but the bottom part of the map was fixed ----- it was two bare legs. It had never been anything other than two bare legs. Now Trilby Kitty sees me and suddenly I've got these two blue things he's never seen before as the bottom part. No wonder the cat was a little freaked. It was me, but it wasn't me. And he was no longer sure who I really was as I no longer fit his mental map.
If there's anyone out there who reads this and thinks I have a stupid cat, let me mention my neighbor's grandson who knew me since he was a baby. The first time saw me doing yardwork, he came up to me and asked "Who are you?" He was pre-school age, maybe 3 or 4 years old, and he couldn't recognize me either. He had only ever seen me in shorts and his image map of me was of a me wearing shorts. The cat and the pre-schooler were at the same cognitive level of development when it came to recognition. (This does not excuse adult characters in classic fiction who can't recognize someone when they wear different clothes, especially when that person is their spouse like in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. They're just idiots.)
Trilby's reaction got me thinking about field wildlife biologists. It would make an interesting experiment if a field biologist wore the same type of outfit day after day, until the subjects being studying were used to the biologist in that clothing, and then seeing what would happen when the biologist showed up one day wearing something completely different. If the animals reacted, it would tell you something about the mental map they had made of the biologist.
Trilby Kitty never did come up to me that morning as I was doing the yardwork. He didn't come up to me the next time I did yardwork while wearing pants. But by the third time he'd seen me with blue legs, he was getting used to it and cautiously approached to confirm it was still really me. After that he accepted it and would eagerly come up to me. He had adapted the mental map of his person to include a bottom half that could change too. So when not-summer finally arrived and the days came for pants, Trilby was fine with it.
For more about cat thinking, in the cat of Trilby Kitty, read:
"In the Mind of a Sleeping Cat"
"The Devotion of a Cat"
"His Person's Voice or A Cat Who Will Come When Called"
"The Tree and the Cat"
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