The Gate        Why Are They Looking?
Jon Carroll
Friday, December 29, 2000
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle

Warning: Definite cat column ahead. Cat chat without limit. Those with no interest in cats but some feelings about the Christmas quiz may skip to the last paragraph, but do not even glance at the other words or you will be turned into a hair ball. And it would serve you right, vile ailurophobe.

Ican recommend to you "Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name," a new book by Vicki Hearne, philosopher, dog trainer and swell writer. In her home, cats and dogs coexist almost peacefully, and she therefore has many useful thoughts about felines.

Her chapter on cats begins with a description of a study devised by comparative psychologists to test the intelligence of various animals. Test subjects were shown the location of a cache of food, and then, hours or days later, the scientists watched while the animals tried to find the food again.

Humans did moderately well on this examination, dogs a little better, but the champion of all was the digger wasp. Writes Hearne:

"I cheered for the digger wasp, because the results in question did at least cause some pause in the machinery of behaviorist speculations. But the animal that defeated such speculations absolutely was the cat. I used to hear older experimenters advising younger ones about working with cats. It seems that, under certain circumstances, if you give a cat or cats a problem to solve or a task to perform in order to find food, they work it out pretty quickly, and the graph of their comparative intelligence shows a sharply rising line.

"But, as I heard, 'the trouble is that as soon as they figure out that the researcher or the technician wants them to push the lever, they stop doing it; some of them will starve to death rather than do it.' "

THIS BEHAVIOR MAY have surprised the scientists, but it did not surprise Hearne -- nor would it surprise any cat owner who pays attention. Indeed, many of us have conducted our own little experiments and have noted the inverse relationship between the cat's awareness of the human's wishes and the cat's desire to comply with those wishes.

The stronger the wish, the more stubborn the cat -- as anyone who has ever yelled "Come here!" to a cat can tell you. The cat will come anywhere but there; usually, the cat will simply disappear until your passion for its company subsides.

Then it will reappear, place itself squarely between you and your task, and purr. Sometimes it will roll over in the cutest and most submissive way possible. Cats are submissive on their own terms. The mistake is in thinking of cats as employees.

Hearne argues -- and you must read the book to get the full force of her thesis -- that cats are just as interested as dogs in the opinions of their owners. The bond is just as strong; it's just different. A cat is interacting with you when you are not aware of it; this interaction is part of the bond.

Hearne quotes the end of a poem called "The Thing About Cats" by John L'Heureux. It goes: "A cat is not a conscience. I'm not/ saying that./ What I am saying is/ why are they looking?"

IN OTHER NEWS: Oh, so many people have written to complain that no photos of Archie and Bucket exist on my Web page. Odd, isn't it? Anyway, this lack has been corrected. Go to and click on the Photos link. It's there in the lower left-hand corner.

On the quiz: I asked what was the largest city in California with a name not based on a Spanish or Indian word. I gave the answer as "Oakland"; many people reminded me that Long Beach is far larger than Oakland. These people are perhaps unaware that "Long Beach" is a corruption of the Pomo Indian word "lun'b'che," which means "place of the big boat that never goes anywhere."

The solution, of course, is don't use cats; they mess up the data.

And when they're really wailing, Michelle and Cass are sailing, it really nails me to

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