I once knew a cat but, what is more to the point, the cat knew me.
I knew the cat not well, but as a kind of nearby resident I had helped a little once and made friendly overtures to. He or she (I suspect she and will refer to it so from now on) first came into contact with me when a racket of magpies not far from my home attracted my attention. I found magpies harassing a marmalade (orange tabby) cat in a tree and the cat seemed trapped there.
Since there was no nest in the tree for the magpies to be protecting, I chased them off some distance with the aid of shouts and stones, then tried to persuade the cat to come down but she just looked at me – afraid of me too, I thought. Some days later, I came across a marmalade cat outside some nearby houses and called to her and, when she came, stroked her and then went on my way. She made as if to follow me but then gave up.
A few weeks later, I was coming up the road when I saw a marmalade cat about 50 yards away and wondered if it was her. She however looked up, saw me and hurried over, then began rubbing her body against my leg.
So how did she recognise me? Cats have very good hearing but I very much doubt she could identify my footsteps on a concrete footpath amidst all the traffic noise from so far away. Cats also have a good sense of smell but I don’t think it’s good over distance. They are not good at recognising human faces, according to tests. So, she probably recognised my shape and gait (like those recognition software programmes the secret services have developed and with which they monitor a lot of CCTV coverage — reassuring, huh? Not so much!).
It is true I have a somewhat identifiable gait, so I am told – a swagger learned as protective colouring in my teens but about which I am nearly always unconscious and when I am, try to control. Once doing that in New Cross in SE London, a black youth I knew from my work in a local youth club shouted from across the street: “Walk like a white man!” Apparently my attempt to control the Dublin swagger was resulting in the kind of walk adopted by many Afro-Caribbean youth.
But, back to the cat. Anyway, it was an amazing feat of recognition of an individual of a different species and of minimal acquaintance and I think she would have recognised me no matter how subdued my usual type of walk. I wonder how many individuals considered friendly or otherwise a cat can identify by sight at a distance – just how big is their database?
Another time I came upon this cat, she was stretched out on a warm sunny pavement but being persecuted by a pair of magpies (probably the same ones as before). The cat saw me and so did the magpies but I stopped at a distance to observe what was happening.
One magpie distracted her attention by strutting up and down in front of her head, but out of reach of swipe or sudden rush, while the other waited its chance and pecked at the cat’s tail. She lay there suffering this persecution, only twitching her tail from time to time in a futile attempt to keep it away from the bird or perhaps out of tension.
“But why don’t you move, Cat?” I asked her, half in amusement and half in sympathy.
She looked at me and seemed to say:
“Why should I? This is MY pavement and I am harming no-one! I am not going to let two BIRDS chase me off!”
“Well, you could spring at them …”
“What’s the point? They keep just out of range and I’d miss, giving them a reason to mock me.”
The Magpies, in turn, might have been saying:
“This has nothing to do with you, Mister. This is a Cat, ancestral predator on birds and fair game for us at any time. Keep out of it!”
“Yeah, we remember you butting in before!”
And magpies probably can identify human faces – at least tests with their close relatives, crows and jackdaws, show that they can. And magpies are the only bird so far shown able to identify themselves in a mirror.
I did keep out of it. I had things to do and left them to it – the cat after all had the option to leave and even were I to chase them off, the birds would only fly a little distance and then come back. I’ve seen magpies do this “torment-the-cat” thing before. And cats will kill a magpie, if they can.
The cat’s refusal to move or to make a lunge she knew the birds would easily evade, the provocative tormenting by the magpies and the way they worked in unison, all seemed to me so very human, even allowing for anthropomorphism.
But thinking about it later, I came to a different conclusion: it is not the animal behaviour that is human-like – it is OUR behaviour that is animal-like! After all, are we not descended from a common ancestor, albeit nearly 300 million years ago?
In total, I saw that Marmalade Miss maybe four or five times and then no more. Perhaps her owner(s) moved – I hope so and that she was not killed by traffic.
I had nothing I could gain from the cat, other than a kind of feeling of kinship perhaps. Other than a stroke now and again, she had nothing to gain from me. It was an uncomplicated friendship and not, like with some dogs, a dependency by either of us. I know she is gone but years later, as I pass near that street, sometimes still look out for her.