Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cat Answers My Question

(Reclaimed from Bubblews, where it appeared on April 3, 2014. Image from Gracey at Morguefile:

That's a Morguefile image of "a cat watching" because this is a true report about one of my resident cats. Which cat, I'm not saying. Some things this cat is reporting are crimes, so the cat is in the Witness Protection Program.

We have had some trouble with poachers and trespassers at the Cat Sanctuary. We are 99% sure who they are, but since their harassment tends to occur in the dead of the night when it's hard to identify faces or clothing, we have yet to get solid proof. The cat points out to me, every morning, exactly where anyone's been during the night and what, if anything, they've touched. If asked she's proved to be a reliable informant about which way they came and went. Actually, seeing that the cat got extra attention this way, other cats have started copying the behavior. I have wondered, based on forensic evidence, whether the cat makes a distinction between human poachers who may have been illegally hunting deer, and the deer themselves. In the natural course of events I knew that one day the cat would answer this question, too. 

Sure enough...last week when I gave the cats their breakfast this cat did the gesture-posture thing that means "We've had trespassers. Follow me." So I followed her, and she showed me how trespassers had entered the orchard from the woods and exited via the driveway. At the end of the driveway she did the gesture-posture thing that means "Be careful! Someone's around that corner!" Many times, when I've gone outside (warning: this may spoil some readers' mental image of me) wearing something I don't want anybody but the immediate family to see, the cat has used this piece of body language to warn me to go inside before a neighbor drove past, and dress to receive visitors if I wanted to receive visitors. This time I was ready to confront a trespasser, so I proceeded out to the road, and the cat walked with me and pointed to the trespassers.

Deer, they were. Of course poachers would have run away when they heard the door open and shut. Our resident deer family, however, know that I'm harmless. There were two big deer, two little deer, and two young fawns, browsing in the neighbors' woodlot. And if the cat makes any mental distinction between unknown humans and deer, as large dangerous creatures of whom she feels wary, I couldn't see it in her nonverbal communication.

Of course it's still up to humans to identify human poachers and trespassers by their human names...unfortunately! So I'm sharing this story in the interest of linguistic science. Social animals share information with friends, and this is how much information my social cats are able to provide.

(Update: Continuing harassment has left me 99.9% sure of the human trespassers' names, but still lacking proof that will stand up in court. Social cats copy behavior they see other cats rewarded for doing...all the cats, including little Sisawat, now nonverbally tell me about trespassers. Although dogs and humans continue to be a problem, the majority of our trespassers continue to be deer.)