Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Cat Aliases, Or the Science of Cat Naming

Book Cover: Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S.Eliot. His work on the subject of cat naming broke new ground in the field.
  Anyone who has ever known a cat knows that cats don't always come when we call them. We may mistakenly think that our cats are either arrogant or stupid, but the truth may be that they're using, albeit clumsily, B.F. Skinner’s conditioning methods to teach us to stop calling them by dumb people-given names. They might consider names like “Smokey” or “Whiskers” as just their aliases - their nom de la maison, so to speak. They do not recognize these as their “names”. They are like Miranda Priestley, their attitude being: “Bore someone else with your problems, human.”
Korean Painting: Cat with Chrysanthemums (ignoring humans)
  Some might say that cat names and behavior are a frivolous subject, but no less an exalted personage than T.S. Eliot has written extensively the importance of Cat Naming:

 “Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES”

Eliot was a pioneer in the field of cat naming, and his work on this important subject inspired the play Cats, to the delight and/or dismay of many. It’s been a neglected but now newly important issue for modern science and we would do well to give it the heightened scrutiny our modern age requires. 
Cats on the Roof Goya 1786-1787, reenacting a scene from Cats
  I’m not a scientist myself, but I trained to do scientific research in college. But more importantly, my family has always had cats. I come from a long line of cat-loving people, and we always took the business of naming our cats (actually the giving of cat aliases seriously.) No simple “Socks” for us; we had cats named after my brother’s second grade teacher (Mrs. Stewart; both the cat and the woman had eyes of that lovely golden hazel color) and cats named for their specific personality. We had a particularly naughty white cat named “Billy Bother”, which is a name so awesome in retrospect that I think it should be the title of a children’s picture book. My college companion cat was a handsome all black shorthair named Monty Python. We take cat names seriously in my family, as we all should.
Monty Python. 1977-1995 RIP World's Finest Cat
 Science has recently taken up and continued Eliot’s groundbreaking work on cat naming and behavior, showing renewed interest in the subject. These scientists (perhaps dog owning scientists?) have long wondered why dogs, (reliable, affectionate, open–hearted dogs! Sterling pets!) always come when they are called, sometimes even when they aren’t called, anticipating our every dog-related desire like the enablers they are, but cats almost never do. (I like to imagine the cats in this experiment thinking of the dogs as needy, brown-nosing toadies. “You little fools!” thinks Grumpy Cat in her cold, cold voice.)
After the experiment the scientists were able to prove that cats do in fact hear us when we call them by name, and yes, they recognize our voices, but they just don’t care enough to get up and see what we want.

 “These results indicate that cats do not actively respond with communicative behavior to owners who are calling them from out of sight, even though they can distinguish their owners’ voices”, write Saito and Shinozuka. “This cat–owner relationship is in contrast to that with dogs.”
Please note the puzzlement of the researchers. Obviously they are unfamiliar with basic cat etiquette. Cats do not wait breathlessly to fulfill your every cat-related desire. They are not dogs! Page one of Emily Purrst’s Guide to Pet Etiquette clearly states that, “One must not expect doglike behavior from one’s cat, or one will be condemned to eternal disappointment.”

Any cat owner in history could have told them this without them going to all the bother of hooking up all of their fancy electronic equipment, but at least now we have Scientific Proof that cats DGAF what we want. To paraphrase a different book: your cat is just not that into you.
Pen and Ink, White Cat Ignoring His Owners calling Him, Even Though He Hears Them
The best part of their study is the wistful tone of their conclusion:

“ although “dogs are perceived by their owners as being more affectionate than cats […] dog owners and cat owners do not differ significantly in their reported attachment level to their pets”. The study concludes by observing that “the behavioural aspect of cats that cause their owners to become attached to them are still undetermined.”

Meaning: We don’t have any rational explanation why people love their cats. Their cats clearly do nothing to encourage them. The applications of this study to human interpersonal relationships are wisely left unsaid.

 Other research by cat behavioral specialists tells us that cats don’t meow to other cats. Cats meow to communicate with humans. Kittens meow to communicate with their mothers, but adult cats only “talk” to humans this way. Cats use other methods to communicate with other cats; including special body language, hissing, and growling, but they only vocalize with us. Maybe this is the reason most cats look patient and sometimes slightly exasperated when dealing with humans: they have to use baby talk to communicate with us and we are so bad at understanding what they are trying to say. Some scientists speculate that our communication problems with cats originate in the fact that humans did not domesticate cats the way that we did dogs. Due to centuries of human domestication and selection, our dogs know us in a way no other species does. Dogs are quite skilled at interpreting human behavior, aware of the meaning of gestures and very willing to please. Cats, opportunistic takers that they are, domesticated themselves to gain access to free food and shelter and obviously feel that they are not obligated to do anything more for these things because they are gracing us with their presence. If we were in a relationship counseling session with our cats, the therapist would ask us why we stayed with a partner who expected us to do all of the work in the relationship, but made no extra effort to please us.

Mme Desroziers with her cat. Please note the annoyed expression on Miette's face.

 After I learned that cats communicate with us in the parent-child context it suddenly made sense why more women than men have an affinity to cats: we’re used to dealing with sullen uncommunicative beings with entitlement issues. But I digress.
Cat With Bird, Painting. Bruno Liljefors, 1883. Domestic and feral cats kill millions of birds every year.
 With the invention of tiny lightweight cameras and GPS trackers, suddenly scientists had the tools they needed to solve the eternal mystery of what the heck cats do all day.
The scientists who did the Surrey study put a little thought into it:

 'GPS uses a lot of power, but we could only use a small battery, so in order to save energy, we used an activity sensor to trigger the GPS only when the cat was moving. This also saved us from collecting a lot of uninteresting data on sleeping cats."
Renoir, Cat Sleeping. Sleeping is their favorite thing to do, followed by ignoring you., destroying flower arrangements, and scratching furniture.
Someone on that team must have cat experience, because what cats do the most of is nothing, and why waste precious battery time on monitoring cats doing nothing?  So far, the Surrey study scientists have learned that cats are unfaithful to their owners, (visiting other houses for food and affection), have distinct habits and territories, and are ruthless, cold-hearted predators at times (which any cat owner could have told them, but they needed to find out officially, for Science.)
 Two House Cats Fighting, J.J. Audubon. Unneutered male cats are known to fight ferociously over territory, and sire thousands of unwanted kittens every year.
 The Cat Tracker Project scientists, not be outdone by a bunch of British scientists, are doing a study of their own. They are enlisting the help of Citizen Science Cats to gather data from a much larger and more diverse sample of cats from a variety of locations. It’s not clear whether or not we’ll learn that American cats are more independent, or have larger territories, but in the end we will probably find out that American cats are the same as British cats, except without their charming accents.
The best part of their study is this phrase, which I have been saying over and over again, because it delights me so:

If you are concerned about your cat's privacy, you can have the data published under a cat alias.

 The sweet dear Cat Trackers are concerned about my cat’s privacy! If we consider the actual level of cat caringness about issues of personal privacy and recall that all cats are already living under an alias, we’ll understand this is a completely unnecessary precaution for cat feelings. Yes, cats have names that we give them, but we don’t know their real cat names (if in fact cats have names for themselves at all. Cats might not even have names as we know them, but instead identify each other by their individual smell. These aren’t dolphins we’re dealing with, people.)
  We are right back to T.S. Eliot again, with his secret cat names. If we think about this rationally, and we should, since this is for Science, what difference would it make if the study were published listing your cat under her common name “Tiger” versus her alias “Madam Meow”? Cats don’t read. They won’t be talking amongst themselves about what Mr. Pickles was up to last weekend. What we are really worried about is our privacy. Cats, as always, Do Not Care.
  The Cat Tracker statement inspired me to invent some possible Cat Aliases, which I present to fellow Citizen Science Cats for their use, if they desire to protect their Cat Privacy.

Ming the Merciless (After the evil emperor in the Flash Gordon serial)

Benedict Cumbercat (this name should require no explanation)

Shere Khan (The tiger in The Jungle Book)

Harry Longpaw (Harry Longpaw is a punning name for Harry Longabaugh, the actual name of the Sundance Kid. My own ginger cat is named Harry Longpaw because he looks like Robert Redford. No, really, he does. See for yourself. The resemblance is uncanny.)

 Harry Longpaw. Harry did not pose for this picture. He was staring at a giant killer wasp which was, unbeknownst to me, right behind me as I took this picture.
Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid, Harry Longabaugh. Photo courtesy World Biography
Eartha Kitten (Eartha Kitt played the Catwoman on the Adam West Batman series, and she was also a wonderful jazz singer.)

Cat Power (The actual name of a singer-songwriter)

Andrew Lloyd Webber (He was just asking to be a Cat Alias by writing Cats)

Sergeant Tibbs (He was the cat who helped save the puppies from Cruella DeVille in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.)

Abelard (He was the ginger cat in I Capture the Castle)

Minerva McGonagall (She was an Animagus who transformed into a lovely silver tabby in Harry Potter I-VII)

Calvin Coolidge (The President reportedly used to hide his two cats in various locations in the White House for his wife to find. What a practical joker! Knowing this Cat Fact about Coolidge has upgraded my estimation of him several points ahead of Franklin Pierce, whose cat preferences are unknown.)
Calvin Coolidge with a cat that wants to get away
Judge Posner (The Judge is a huge cat person, and he speaks highly of his Maine Coon named Pixie. He would probably be flattered if his name were used as a cat alias.)
Pixie, Judge Posner's Maine Coon Cat. Picture by Judge Posner. Pixie is holding down the NY Times. Courtesy whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com
  After you have enrolled your Citizen Science Cat in the project under a suitable alias, being as considerate of your cat’s privacy as a decent cat guardian should be, you can be assured that the ensuing fame that any cat citizen might gain from participating in this experiment will not change your cat in any way. Because what we have learned from multiple studies and anecdotal experience is that our cats Do Not Care. They don’t care about us as people, however affectionate they seem. It would be much shorter to list what they do care about: themselves. Cats are the uber-takers, and Ayn Rand would be proud of their self-interestedness. (She was also a cat fancier, as a self-respecting Randite would be.)
  It’s clear now to both science and the general public that cats hold all the power in our codependent relationships, while we have only the Friskies on our side to bind them to us. This kind of power imbalance should be of great interest to science, and maybe one day we will discover how to make them love us as much as we love them. The whole situation sounds like it should be in a letter to Dear Prudie: “How can I tell if my cat cares?” Answer: He doesn’t.

T.S. Eliot, The Naming of Cats, http://allpoetry.com/The-Naming-Of-Cats

A portion of this essay was previously published here http://airshipdaily.com/blog/09252014-t-s-eliot-naming-cats

1 comment:

Venus de Hilo said...

Love this article, thanks for brightening up my day!
I've taken to referring to my two (Halo and Cosmo) as "Squirmy and Scratchy" when speaking of them jointly, so they are up to two names each. Clearly they need third, more eloquent, aliases.
Will put my mind to that task immediately.