Tag Archives: ethology

Fishin’ Sort of

Sassy & Glori

living the good life

Somewhat in alignment with the Bateson motive, here’s our two new cats, in some relation to an aquarium screensaver. I installed a demo of on my wife’s Macbook.

Glori, the mostly black short hair cat, and, Sassy, the tiger short hair, have enhanced our quality of life since we were almost forced to bring them into our abode in mid-October, after Kate, finally bowed out at almost 19 years of age.

We’re both cat people, and I’d add we’re inveterate cat people. But, I haven’t been in the land of kittens for almost 30 years, and my wife Susan has never had the delicious experience. Since we had it pretty good before, let me tell you what I mean by ‘enhanced.’ For one thing, we have to be careful where we step. The main thing is how much we both look forward to coming back to this land and its amusements. We anthropomorphize our furry children, calling them our daughters and doing so to the extent my step-son, Susan’s son, Matt is now their brother.

By far the finest consequence for me personally is that I get to hear my wife’s laughter even more than usual. Her laughter is by far my favorite sound in the world.

I like to study our kittens’ behavior. I guess this makes me an informal ethologist. Anyway, the two female kittens came from different litters, took to each other over the course of their first half day together, and, yet have established a pecking order too with Glori being the alpha. As far as the shelter was concerned the two kittens were the same age, born around the middle of August. Our vet thinks it likely Glori is a couple of weeks older. She’s definitely 30% bigger. Sassy is deferential at times. We’ve had to protect her food dish. In fact, Glori will go through part of her food and then try to take over Sassy’s bowl.

Still, at the same time, both kittens spend large amounts of time wrestling and chasing each other. Sassy holds her own with her alpha playmate, yet Glori will at times put her foot down, so-to-speak. Both girls handled the influx of relatives over Thanksgiving, including nieces and nephews, oh, and brother, just fine. Also, both are inquisitive.

Sassy was found and fostered very early on, maybe within a week of being born, so she is a wool sucker, although she doesn’t eat into the sweater or what-have-you. Glori, meanwhile, I called the zen cat. Susan calls her the chill kitty. Now, I call Glori the yoga kitty to acknowledge how she likes to stretch in any number of positions, including on her back with her legs up in the air, and, the same, but with her head hanging down off the back of the couch. Glori’s a bit more athletic than her half-sister (!) and has a vertical leap that exceeds her tale-to-nose length of about 20 inches. Both cats usually break into a motoring purr as soon as either of us pick either up, yet neither are lap kitties. They mostly like to hang nearby, lounge next too, but not upon either of us, with Susan sometimes proving to be the exception to this.

Sassy likes to look at the TV should the picture have some motion in it and dialog. She’ll sit below it and gaze at the screen for minutes, up to about five minutes–a mountain of focused time in Kitty land. I’m reminded it is not clear how the human system of awareness can capture the actuality of the feline system of something like awareness, interest, etc.. …a mild Batesonian point, if you will.

Kitties nappin'
A note.

excerpt I. In 2004 Jean-Denis Vigne of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and his colleagues reported unearthing the earliest evidence suggestive of humans keeping cats as pets. The discovery comes from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where 9,500 years ago an adult human of unknown gender was laid to rest in a shallow grave. An assortment of items accompanied the body–stone tools, a lump of iron oxide, a handful of seashells and, in its own tiny grave just 40 centimeters away, an eight-month-old cat, its body oriented in the same westward direction as the human’s.

Because cats are not native to most Mediterranean islands, we know that people must have brought them over by boat, probably from the adjacent Levantine coast. Together the transport of cats to the island and the burial of the human with a cat indicate that people had a special, intentional relationship with cats nearly 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. This locale is consistent with the geographic origin we arrived at through our genetic analyses. It appears, then, that cats were being tamed just as humankind was establishing the first settlements in the part of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent.

excerpt II. Considering that small cats do little obvious harm, people probably did not mind their company. They might have even encouraged the cats to stick around when they saw them dispatching mice and snakes. Cats may have held other appeal, too. Some experts speculate that wildcats just so happened to possess features that might have preadapted them to developing a relationship with people. In particular, these cats have “cute” features–large eyes, a snub face and a high, round forehead, among others–that are known to elicit nurturing from humans. In all likelihood, then, some people took kittens home simply because they found them adorable and tamed them, giving cats a first foothold at the human hearth.

excerpt III. The wide range of sizes, shapes and temperaments seen in dogs–consider the Chihuahua and Great Dane–is absent in cats. Felines show much less variety because, unlike dogs–which starting in prehistoric times were bred for such tasks as guarding, hunting and herding–wildcats were under no such selective breeding pressures. To enter our homes, they had only to evolve a people-friendly disposition.

So are today’s cats truly domesticated? Well, yes–but perhaps only just. Although they satisfy the criterion of tolerating people, most domestic cats are feral and do not rely on people to feed them or to find them mates. And whereas other domesticates, like dogs, look quite distinct from their wild ancestors, the average domestic cat largely retains the wild body plan. It does exhibit a few morphological differences, however– namely, slightly shorter legs, a smaller brain and, as Charles Darwin noted, a longer intestine, which may have been an adaptation to scavenging kitchen scraps.

The Taming of the Cat. By: Driscoll, Carlos A., Clutton-Brock, Juliet, Kitchener, Andrew C., O’Brien, Stephen J., Scientific American, Jun2009, Vol. 300, Issue 6

Our previous vet, once had a bumper sticker that read:

Dogs have masters,
Cats have staff.

One of Gregory Bateson’s most important (and well-known,) papers became the chapter, A Theory of Play and Fantasy, in Steps To An Ecology of the Mind. Here’s enough of an excerpt to allow you to draw the connection with the land of kittens.

(3) The first definite step in the formulation of the hypothesis guiding this research occurred in January, 1952, when I went to the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco to look for behavioral criteria which would indicate whether any given organism is or is not able to recognize that the signs emitted by itself and other members of the species are signals. In theory, I had thought out what such criteria might look like—that the occurrence of metacommunicative signs (or signals) in the stream of interaction between the animals would indicate that the animals have at least some awareness (conscious or unconscious) that the signs about which they metacommunicate are signals.

I knew, of course, that there was no likelihood of finding denotative messages among nonhuman mammals, but I was still not aware that the animal data would require an almost total revision of my thinking. What I encountered at the zoo was a phenomenon well known to everybody: I saw two young monkeys playing, i.e., engaged in an interactive sequence of which the unit actions or signals were similar to but not the same as those of combat. It was evident, even to the human observer, that the sequence as a whole was not combat, and evident to the human observer that to the participant monkeys this was not combat.

Now, this phenomenon, play, could only occur if the participant organisms were capable of some degree of meta-communication, i.e., of exchanging signals which would carry the message “this is play.

(6) Threat is another phenomenon which resembles play in that actions denote, but are different from, other actions. The clenched fist of threat is different from the punch, but it refers to a possible future (but at present nonexistent) punch. And threat also is commonly recognizable among non-human mammals. Indeed it has lately been argued that a great part of what appears to be combat among members of a single species is rather to be regarded as threat (Tinbergen,64 Lorenz65).

(8) We might expect threat, play, and histrionics to be three independent phenomena all contributing to the evolution of the discrimination between map and territory. But it seems that this would be wrong, at least so far as mammalian communication is concerned. Very brief analysis of childhood behavior shows that such combinations as histrionic play, bluff, playful threat, teasing play in response to threat, histrionic threat, and so on form together a single total complex of phenomena. And such adult phenomena as gambling and playing with risk have their roots in the combination of threat and play. It is evident also that not only threat but the reciprocal of threat?—the behavior of the threatened individual?—are a part of this complex. It is probable that not only histrionics but also spectatorship should be included within this field. It is also appropriate to mention self-pity.

From the chapter, Redundancy and Coding.

(7) This still leaves unexplained the shift from communication about interaction patterns to communication about things and other components of the external world. This is the shift which determines that language would never make obsolete the iconic communication about the contingency patterns of personal relationship.

Further than that we cannot at present go. It is even possible that the evolution of verbal naming preceded the evolution of the simple negative. It is, however, important to note that evolution of a simple negative would be a decisive step toward language as we know it. This step would immediately endow the signals— be they verbal or iconic—with a degree of separateness from their referents, which would justify us in referring to the signals as “names.” The same step would make possible the use of negative aspects of classification: those items which are not members of an identified class would become identifiable as nonmembers. And, lastly, simple affirmative indicative statements would become possible.Conscious Purpose versus Nature*

Here, of course, we’ve left the land of kitties.

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