A clever experiment this week proved that cats recognise their own name but often choose to play dumb and ignore their families calling for them to come in. Amazingly, this was a big surprise to some people.
Cats are often portrayed as small furry geniuses, sweetly clever if you love them and cunning sociopaths if you don’t, but I’m afraid that my two are not the brightest kitties in town.
Intelligence is a tough subject, mainly because even a definition is elusive. But academia aside, I do see huge differences in individual cats.
Scoop, our old boy, was very clever. He had lots of classic cat skills, being a superb cat hunter, and he also had good people skills. He was a typical Sarawakian boy: easy-going, able to get on with all kinds, and happy to have supper with friends at any time.
Au, Scoop’s pal and Target’s mentor, was smart as a whip. He hunted for fun but his true joy came from inventing complex games. He used mirrors, door handles and taps, and deconstructed shadows. He would spend weeks figuring out systems, purely for the fun of getting around them. He was the Murdoch of cats.
Target is totally adorable, a purry furry cuddle bug, and he’s totally up on creature comforts. When it comes to puzzles, he can tell which bowl has the most food and he’ll work out where he can get optimal fan space combined with the best comfort. However, that is his limit.
Target gets stuck in the tree in our garden on a regular basis. He meows for help and he has enough sense to trust me when I unhook his claws and lift him up but he’s daft enough to get stuck in the same spot in the same way.
It’s the same with the roof. He jumps out of the upstairs window, staggers down to the level below – and then has to call me to help him down. Again, I climb on the garden wall and he will let me pluck him off even though it means hanging in the air 12 feet above the ground.
I tell him he’s brave and sensible to trust me but I wonder silently why he doesn’t remember how that walk went last time. Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, is not a sign of genius.
Guido was an excellent cat with lots of feline master skills. He could walk an inch wide fence, trot across it actually – and he climbed like a champion. His triumph was figuring out that the bat who visits us flies over the drive, and so our fuzzy sat on the car roof, waiting to pounce.
He did catch the bat but when I congratulated him and touched his ears, he meowed in the full flush of victory – and the bat flew out of his open mouth. Poor Guido fumed for days. He knew I’d meant it to happen, you see. He understood my motives perfectly.
When Swooner joined us, I had secret high hopes that he’d be clever. He’d survived a bad accident and lived rough on the streets, so I anticipated good hunting skills and a mind keen as a razor, ready to take advantage of opportunity.
It is certainly true that our kitten is fantastically focussed on food but his skill is determination. If you have food in your hand, he will stalk you, meowing imperiously and insistently until you pay his tax: one nibble is his.
For the rest, he is curious about the world around him and can recognise himself in a mirror but he doesn’t use it to play stalking games. He can’t turn taps or open doors either.
Still, he’s young and so I kept my hopes up. Then this week something happened that gave me definitive proof of his mental faculty.
I was sitting in the living room when I heard a weird buzzing sound. I thought one of the security lights might be on the blink, so I opened the front door – and was faced with a cloud of bees.
Target went straight upstairs, the sensible fluff. But Swooner thought it was pawsome. He rushed around, batting at the occasional low flier. When I picked him up and took him inside, he wriggled away, complaining I was spoiling his fun.
We’re either cursed, or National Geographic is conducting a secret shoot at our house, because this is the third colony we’ve had in a year. Luckily, bee keeper Saiful Harman was kind enough to come and rehive the queen.
It was quite a big operation and, for a few hours, we had 2,000 bees flying around. Again, Target hid inside like sensible fluff while Swooner was up front and centre, totally fascinated and oblivious to the threat of stings.
So, while I maintain my public façade that all cats are smart, between you and me, I admit that our sweet Swooner is a darling but he’s no Einstein. Still he doesn’t get stuck in the tree and that can only be a plus.