THE INTELLIGENCE OF CATS
By MICHAEL JOSEPH
IN most arguments about animal intelligence eat-lovers are an eloquent minority. A comparison between cats and dogs is inevitably made, nearly always to the cat's disadvantage. The dog has all the virtues which gratify his master's sense of proprietorship. He is useful, loyal, good-tempered, demonstrative, and always ready to adapt himself to his owner's mood. The cat is inde- pendent, fastidious, disobedient, and master of his own destiny. It is because the cat is relatively unpopular that his intelligence is in danger of under-estimation. Unpopu- lar animals are rarely credited with their good qualities.
Sentiment and tradition are largely responsible for popular fallacies about animals. The lion is universally hailed as the king of beasts, whereas he is in fact inferior in courage, strength and skill to other animals. But he looks the part. The intelligence of the horse is over- rated, because he is a handsome and willing creature. The deg is by tradition the friend of man, and I will not .deny that he deserves his popularity, although I suspect he is often credited -with more intelligence than he really has. The squirrel is a pretty little thing, but does far more damage than the rat and is infinitely more cruel and destructive to bird life than the cat. Yet the cat is more unpopular. The very qualities which excite the admiration of his friends cause him to be disliked by others. Few people will take the trouble to insinuate themselves into friendship with a cat. Why should they ? If all they want is an affectionate, uncritical, obedient companion, there is always a dog to be had. It is only the true cat-lover who can understand, the subtlety of the .cat's character.
. The intelligence of animals is a favourite subject with the present-day biologist. Scientists claim that they can .assess the intelligence of any living creature by applying a serifs of laboratory tests. An American authority on animal psychology recently rated animal intelligence in this order : chimpanzee, orang-outang, elephant, gorilla, dog, beaver, horse, sea-lion, bear—with the cat tenth on the list.
• It is easy to dispute an individual assessment of intelli- gence. Consider the notorious fallibility of examinations. Every schoolmaster .knows that the student who excels in the examination room is not necessarily superior to others Who are mentally or temperamentally unable to do themselves justice in written papers. I wonder whether the scientists are on the right track. Can the cat be classified by scientific experiments ? Remember that eats are peculiarly sensitive and temperamental creatures,. You can learn nothing about them unless you first establish- friendly relations, and that takes time, sym- pathy, and patience. They are easily frightened and cannot be intimidated. Everyone who has studied them closely !Mows how cats will isolate themselves if there is any attempt at arbitrary procedure. For this reason it is rarely possible to teach a cat even the elementary repetitive, tricks which monkeys, dogs and some other animals learn with ease and sometimes with relish. To my mind, this merely proves that the cat is unwilling to .obey. The assumption that he does not understand what is required of him seems to me quite untenable.
The nature of the scientific tests from which the cat emerges so discreditably in the eyes of the professors is worth examination. A favourite method is the maze. A eat (or other animal) is put in the maze and left to find his way out. Usually a reward of food is placed at the exit. The maze can be fairly simple, with only one blind alley, or more intricate with many turnings. Another instrument is the puzzle-box. This is a kind of cage from which the imprisoned animal can only escape by manipu- lating latches and similar contrivances. The victim's intelligence is measured by the speed with which it over- comes mechanical obstacles and the faculty it shows for recognising and memorising such artificial devices as a white card placed over the correct exit from a maze.
To test an animal's " intelligence " by such methods as these is absurd. A maze is chiefly a test of sense of direction. Fish can manage mazes with four or five turnings ; monkeys and even rats can negotiate a labyrinth. Cats and dogs, however, make wild and " unscientific " attempts to extricate themselves. Such experiments are presumably based on the assumption that the captive wishes to escape or eat as quickly as possible. The food placed at the exit may be a magnet for some animals, but to try to induce a eat to perform any sort of evolution for the sake of food betrays a complete misunderstanding of feline nature. Fear has a stronger influence over cats than hunger; and every cat- lover knows that a frightened or even an offended cat cannot be tempted by food. The fallacy underlying these ." scientific " experiments is quite plain. except to the scientists. Their idea appears to be to test animals by human standards. Up to a point such a test probably is illuminating, provided it is only applied to animals like the chimpanzee, who are physically capable of imitating human actions and to whom such imitations are plainly congenial. Nothing could be more uncongenial to a eat, on the other hand, than imitations of human beings.
I like to imagine a new Gulliver in Cat-Land, put through his paces by inquisitive eats. What an unhappy -and unsuccessful time this Gulliver would have ! In Cat-Land he would cut a sorry figure. He would be made to jump "blind," to judge distance to the fraction of an inch, to climb, to move adroitly, to fend for himself in primitive surroundings, to catch fish with his hands, to defend himself against the aggression of menacing creatures much heavier and stronger than himself. By cat-standards poor Gulliver would fail as miserably as the cat in the hands of the human investigators.
It is impossible to understand eats on the strength of superficial acquaintance. They are shy, unobtrusive creatures who prefer solitude to uncongenial company. Unlike dogs, they are not anxious to make a good impression. In the cat's personality there is aloofness; pride and a profound dignity. Even the most ordinary cat has a touch of the aristocrat. The cat does not ask to be understood. • The blandishmenfs of other more sociable animals are not in his line. If human beings are so foolish as to regard him as the social inferior of the dog, as a convenient mousetrap and nothing else, the cat's philosophy is proof against such injustice. He goes his own way, blandly indifferent to human folly. It is not his business to correct it. Above 'all, the eat is independent. If he chooses he will follow you around, .play with you, demonstrate his affection ; but try to exact obedience from a cat and you will immediately find it is not forthcoming. Even Siamese eats, who are more responsive than other breeds, will refuse to do what they are told. If I say to my dog, "Conic here," he comes. I have not the slightest doubt that my cat understands me, but, unless he feels like it, I can summon him in vain.
• This reluctance to obey—call it perversity if you Will —is responsible for the common lack of 'appreciation of the eat. His disregard of us and our wishes is disagreeably unflattering. The trouble is that we human beings are so vain that we look upon the habits of any domestic animal (of course, the cat is not truly domesticated) as being specially developed for our benefit. The dog or monkey who will learn mechanical tricks for the reward of a. pat On the head or a piece of sugar is acclaimed for his skill. And this ability to understand and obey is applauded as a sign of intelligence.
The cat, on the other hand, applies his skill and intelli- gence to his own purposes: There is truth in Bernard Shaw's remark that footballers' brains are in their feet. The cat reveals his braininess by .incredibly skilful feats of jumping and balancing, but it is useless commanding him to perform. The rarity of performing cats is signifi- cant. Anyone who has an intimate experience of eats will agree that the cat is temperamentally incapable of obedience.
Because I think that intelligence is something more than the ability to understand and to obey, I offer this definition of animal intelligence : an animal's ability to reason and act for itself, in any situation which may arise in its experience, without human interference. Judged by this standard, the cat passes with distinction. If there is an opportunist in the animal world, it is the cat. He is independent and resourceful ; and innumerable stories have been told, by such expert observers as the late W. H. Hudson, which confirm the view that the cat is a highly intelligent animal. There can be no doubt that animals exhibit activities -which are obviously not mechanical, and that the cat is one of the animals which can learn and profit by experience. The extent of the cat's intelligence can only be gauged, in my opinion, by close observation allied to a peculiar sympathy with the cat's character. That is where the scientists go wrong. A detached and objective attitude towards cats is likely to yield very misleading results ; and although allowance must be made for the excessive enthusiasm of the cat- lover, I am convinced that the cat can only be understood and appreciated by his friends.