Target is lying upside-down on the sofa, all four paws up and curled comfortably over a prosperous tummy. By contrast, Swooner is sitting on the floor, eyes fixed on the ceiling where a baby cicak is waving its little tail.

Swooner is shaking with hunter’s frustration, totally fuming at the lizard he’s sure is laughing at him. Target is oblivious, until the kitten’s frustrated meows waken him.

As green eyes open and the senior cat sees the quarry, I wait with baited breath – and then Target yawns and closes his eyes.

Cats are supposed to be hunters, eliminators of vermin – and so critics may be inclined to suspect my Target is too fat and lazy to hunt. They might advise me to put him on a diet until he “does his job”.

But the critics would be wrong because science tells a very different story. To understand the role of instinct in animal behaviour, you have to step back in time a little.

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Target is happy to just snooze … and leave the lizard-hunting to Swooner. Photo: ELLEN WHYTE

In the past, people liked to think of animals as being brutish and unthinking. The reason animals survived, they said, is that they were born into the world pre-programmed to act a certain way. They were deemed creatures of instinct.

Looking back, it seems pretty obvious that their purpose, consciously or unconsciously, was that they were trying to push the idea that humans are superior.

While these ideas were popular, people working with animals knew that animals have feelings, as well as learn and reason.

About a hundred years ago, the scientific community was considering an important question: exactly what behaviour is instinctive, and what is learned?

All kinds of researchers devoted their time to this question but, when it came to cats, the first modern expert in the field was undoubtedly Professor Kuo Zing Yang, an experimental and physiological psychologist from Shanghai.

On the face of it, figuring out instinct versus learning seems a simple question.

However, learning begins at birth. When kittens are born, they move, squeak, paddle their paws and so on.

Generally speaking, behaviour that is rewarded (with food, friendly licks, etc) appears more and more. In other words, the kittens are learning. When they open their eyes, they’re seeing how everyone around them behaves. They start imitating each other, and learning from their environment really kicks off.

As you might expect, it is a bit of a challenge to see what is instinctive and what is learned.

Determined to get to the bottom of the question, Prof Kuo ran a grand experiment in the 1920s and 1930s when he raised cats in different circumstances. He raised solitary kittens, families of cats, and then worked to find out one question, “Do cats hunt and kill rats out of instinct?”

It took a decade but, in the end, he’d proven cats become hunters only if their mums teach them. If a kitten has a mum who doesn’t hunt, or, heaven forbid, is raised without a mum, that kitten may adopt rats as friends, ignore them or run away from them.

As Prof Kuo wrote in a Journal Of Comparative Psychology article in 1930: “Our study has shown that kittens can be made to kill a rat, to love it, to hate it, to fear it or to play with it: it depends on the life history of the kitten.”

If you look at our house, the lesson is crystal clear. Target lost his family in a storm drain accident when he was a little cat. Guido presented himself at his rescuer’s house when he was small, too. Both were raised mostly by their human guardians, so their hunting skills suck.

If a small creature runs or flies past, Target and Guido will go for it. Movement attracts them. However, they don’t actively go chasing stuff. Their idea of fun is spying on the neighbours, sitting in the sun and playing games with each other.

On the very rare occasion that they catch something, they bring it straight to me. While they’re purring with pride, I wipe off the kitty drool and release the prey somewhere safe. Guido, in particular, has a very soft mouth. If he were a dog, he’d be a Retriever.

Swooner’s background is a mystery but with the injuries he sustained before he joined our family, he certainly isn’t built for hunting. He’s definitely a killer, though. When the house lizards are foolish enough to venture too low, I have to be very quick in my rescue missions.

For me, a contented cat is pleasure made manifest, and as Target is quietly purring to himself, just looking at him makes me happy. I love him for who he is and I’m not encouraging him to hunt.

However, if you are looking for a helping paw to keep mice out of your house or garden, then my advice is to steer clear of kittens sold by bad breeders. The cat mills that produce pretty pets for sale are extremely unlikely to offer a kitten a good upbringing where a mummy cat passes on her hunting skills.

If you want a hunter, invite a working stray from a known family of hunters to take up the position. You can exchange vaccinations, worming tablets, clean water and supplementary food in exchange for services. Then it’s win-win.


Between instinct and learned behaviour

In the past, lots of things were said to be instinctive, from boys being violent and girls being gentle, to orang utan building nests, and racoons washing their fruit. However, today, all those ideas are being challenged and many completely disproved and being placed firmly under learned behaviours.

As it’s such a challenge, scientists from all kinds of fields including psychology, genetics and neurology are trying to figure out where the line is between instinct and learned behaviour. It’s a very active area of research, and if you want to witness some huge academic snits, bring the popcorn and sit back and watch.

In-fighting aside, generally speaking, most agree that some reflexes (nicknamed primitive reflexes) can be said to be purely instinctive. For mammals, kittens as well as human babies, this would include rooting and sucking reflexes. A brand new baby mammal will nose about for a nipple and then suck and swallow automatically; it’s presumably inbuilt as it’s the only way tiny mammals can feed.

More complex behaviours tend to be disputed but one interesting exception entails sea turtles. As all Malaysians know, sea turtle nests are built on the beach, with mum disappearing as soon as she’s laid her eggs, leaving her offspring in nature’s care.

Depending on species and location, it can take between 45 and 120 days for the baby turtles to hatch. However, as soon as these little reptiles break through their shells, they head straight for the ocean. It’s not like their mother left instructions, so that pull to the water is considered instinctive.

A borderline example concerns the dances performed by honeybees. In the 1960s, it seemed that honey bees performed waggle and round dances that directed their nest friends to good pollen sources, water and new nest locations. As baby bees aren’t schooled (or at least, not that we know of), it was deemed instinctive.

However, today there is some debate. For one thing, European bees living in lush forests and gardens loaded with food seem to be less accurate than Asian bees living in rain forests. There is also talk that some honeybees dance more than others, and that some may not dance at all. Scientists are now studying this phenomenon more closely.

Deciding what is instinctive and what is learned is not easy but it’s fascinating and worth reading up on.