Our feline friends finally get the recognition they truly deserve
Cats are uncooperative and inscrutable, but last week we learnt that they can be superheroes too, says Jemima Lewis
Published 18/05/2014 | 02:30
Writing about cats is as hard as writing about love. You either get it or you don't. A non-cat person will never understand why this blank-eyed, unsmiling slayer of songbirds should inspire such ardour in so many of us.
They think we must be mad to worship a creature that gives so little back. They think cats are incapable of returning our devotion.
We always knew they were wrong, of course – but it has taken a spectacular act of feline heroism, captured on CCTV, to prove it. The footage, which went viral after it was posted on YouTube, shows a four-year-old boy called Jeremy Triantafilo playing on his bicycle outside his house in suburban California.
The neighbour's dog, a labrador-chow mix, suddenly rushes up, sinks its teeth into his leg, pulls him off his bike and starts shaking him about like a piece of prey.
But – whoosh – what furry superhero is this? Jeremy's cat, Tara, lacking only a cape, comes flying into the frame, lands on the dog with such force that she sends it spinning, and then chases it away before returning to the injured boy's side.
Those of us who always knew dogs were the real baddies – how could an animal with deadly fangs, foul-smelling fur and toileting habits that would make Beelzebub blush be anyone's best friend? – can now enjoy the rush of vindication. You want bravery, selfless devotion and a companion who doesn't reek of damp socks? Send for a cat.
Most cats, admittedly, don't demonstrate their loyalty quite as dramatically as Tara. That is why the video has us all agog: it's rare to see a cat behave in a way that makes anthropomorphic sense. Nobody really understands them: not scientists, not vets, not even their owners.
Author David Grimm has just written a book about the human relationship with cats and dogs. He found mountains of research on canine intelligence – and scarcely a scrap about cats. This, he discovered, was because scientists find it impossible to study cats. They won't co-operate.
If you put them in a laboratory, they go bonkers and bounce off the walls.
If you visit them at home to conduct the experiment, you will be met with crushing indifference. "They don't participate in the experiment, or they walk in the wrong direction," one beleaguered scientist told Grimm. "I can assure you that it's easier to work with fish than with cats."
Nevertheless, a Hungarian scientist did manage to ascertain that cats can interpret human body language. They can follow a pointed finger to identify which of two bowls has food in. Simple though that may sound, it proves that cats (and dogs) have a rudimentary "theory of mind": the ability to understand what another animal is thinking. This is a rare skill – our closest cousins, chimpanzees, don't have it – and it probably comes from having cohabited with humans for 10,000 years. They understand us.
This might explain why cats often seem so delicately attuned to their owner's moods. If someone is crying somewhere in the house, the cat will always track them down – pad, pad, up the stairs, on to the bed – and curl up next to them consolingly.
I can measure out the phases of my life by the soft feline bodies I have wept into. Bullied at school: that was Ginger, the short-lived cat who peed everywhere. Heartbroken over first love: that was Pudding, the fat tortoiseshell with a tiny head. And during the long decades of singledom, it was George – then a tiny black pom-pom of fluff, now a 21-year-old elder statesman – who slept on my pillow and kept the loneliness at bay.
"I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat," said Edgar Allen Poe. We will probably never know the workings of the feline mind. But they seem to know us – stranger still, to love us.