There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who adore cats and those who don’t.
As Target who is lying on my desk, and Swooner who is at my feet will testify, I’m in the first camp. However, it’s always interesting to listen to other opinions.
One that interests me in particular is the accusation that cats are simply out for what they can get. They’re supposed to have no conscience, that inner voice that knows right from wrong.
This week, I got a really good chance to see if that’s true.
Conscience is an interesting concept because it’s one of those things we all understand instinctively but we struggle to explain it.
For me, conscience is a product of culture. If I’d grown up in Troy in 500BC, for example, personal vengeance against someone who wronged me would be perfectly proper. Growing up today in Kuala Lumpur, the proper thing would be to report it to the authorities.
Culture, the way we do things here, is learned, and as it happens, our three cats have very different ideas about the proper way to eat together.
Target believes in sharing. He doesn’t mind if someone shares his bowl, and he will exchange plates mid-meal, no problem.
Guido refuses to share. His attitude is that his bowl is his, and anyone who sticks his whiskers in there is asking to be whapped.
Swooner thinks all food should be his. His bowl, your bowl – it’s all yummy deliciousness crying out to be eaten by him.
Now, Target and Guido decided years ago to live and let live. As Guido has the harsher rules, Target follows his lead.
But when Swooner joined our family, he was a practiced and shameless thief. We only had to look away for a second, and the kitten would be marching away – chicken wing, chop or other loot, firmly in his furry jaw.
We humans took a gentle approach, pushing him away and blowing on his nose, the way an angry mummy cat would, and Swooner eventually adapted to our standards. But did he know right from wrong, or was he just fed up of us denying him consistently?
I wasn’t sure, and there seemed to be no sure way of finding out. Until Guido took a paw in the question.
Swooner understood from the word go that Target was a pushover, but he struck out when he tried his luck with Guido. Our big boy whapped Swooner every time the kitten tried to steal from him.
After a while, Swooner gave up trying to take food from Guido. However, last week, I bought new cat food and unwittingly changed the game.
I bought new cat food because Target and Guido have been a little conservative with new products. As I wanted to expand our food options, and Swooner is a four-pawed eating machine, I thought I’d take advantage.
I put out the new flavour and our Swooner was there tucking in and purring loudly. Target immediately needed to know what was so good, so he had some. At that point, Guido was too overcome with curiosity to resist and he was eating, too.
I must say, I was feeling pretty smug. I don’t get to outsmart cats very often, so I was basking. What I didn’t know was that more interesting matters were to follow.
Some of the new flavours are better than others, but the one we had that day, mackerel, was getting four paws up from all three cats.
Guido and Target had theirs and wandered off while Swooner was still eating. Guido hopped up on his big red chair, cleaning his whiskers and watching Swooner lick his own bowl clean and then move on to Target’s leftovers.
Having eaten his own and Target’s, Swooner spotted Guido’s bowl.
To my immense interest, Swooner looked over his shoulder, clearly trying to figure out where Guido was. He didn’t see the big cat in the big chair, and so he crept up to Guido’s mackerel, and looked around again.
I had a good view and I could see Guido watching him. The thing is, unlike Swooner, Guido doesn’t share but once he’s walked away, he doesn’t mind someone else finishing his food.
But Swooner doesn’t know Guido as well as I do. Our kitten checked over his shoulder again and then he was chowing down nervously, gulping down the mackerel. Swooner was the picture of guilt, no doubt about it.
He was almost done when Target ambled over. The senior cat was feeling relaxed, so he sniffed Swooner’s tail in a friendly way. Poor Swooner jumped a mile. He went straight up in the air, tailed bushed with fright, eyes huge with horror.
Target was staring in surprise, totally taken aback but I was convinced that Swooner thought Guido had caught him red pawed.
As far as I’m concerned, cats teach each other right from wrong but, in fairness, I suppose others might argue that Swooner might have jumped at anyone touching his tail.
However, this has also settled another matter for me. You see, Guido was watching too and when I looked over at him, I swear he was laughing. The big cat jumped down from the chair, swaggered past Swooner and he chortled all the way.
As far as I’m concerned, cats have a conscience – and a wicked sense of humour, too.