Animal Logic

Audrey Thompson

Fish with long attention spans

Ivan and I used to know someone who, according to Ivan, had the attention span of a gnat. Eventually, Ivan abandoned this description, viewing it as possibly unfair to gnats. Ivan is not especially pro-gnat; other than this one time, I have never heard him mount a defense of gnats. It was just that he didn’t see why a human should be compared to a gnat, when the gnat, an innocent bystander, was being made to look bad through comparison to a human.

The whole business of assessing the attention spans of other animals is problematic. First of all, there is the largely ignored issue of individual variation. Our human friend had what I will call a short-short human attention span. If some fish had been observing humans, trying to figure out our attention span, and had hit upon this particular human as their subject — I will call him “Bertie” — they would have been forced to decide that “humans have no discernible attention span.” But what if they had studied my friends Dori and Rose — I will call them “Dori” and “Rose” — instead? Then the fish would have had to say, “Humans have an amazing attention span.” Depending, of course, on whatever it is that fish are prepared to recognize as an attention span. Which brings me to my second point.

At dinner a few years ago, Nayan and Deepma happened to mention that fish have a very short attention span. “According to whom?” I wanted to know. According to scientists, they said. “Scientists! What do scientists know about what would interest a fish?” I demanded. “They put a fish in a bowl or a tank and it swims around and around, trying to find some way out, while the scientist is saying, ’Pick a card, any card.’” Under the circumstances, I asked, is it really all that surprising if the fish just ignores the scientist, who then decides that fish have a short attention span? “Fish have a short attention span for what would interest a scientist. I don’t suppose that they have a short attention span for what would interest a fish,” I said.

I was able to fully persuade Nayan and Deepma who, as it happens, do not know any fish. I don’t know any fish either, but I do know some scientists.

Motives are murky things. The nice, neat categories that psychologists and detectives have for human motives are not a good fit for the motives that humans have in real life, so you can imagine how far off scientists are going to be when they speculate about animal motives.

A few years ago, Ivan told me about a woman at work who was interested in the ancient Mayans. Ivan is interested in the ancient Mayans. This seemed like quite a coincidence to me. How many people do you know who are interested in the ancient Mayans? I said to Ivan, “How did she get interested in the Mayans?”

“I don’t know,” said Ivan.

“Didn’t you ask?” I asked.

“No. Why would I ask?” said Ivan.

“Just because it’s unusual. Not all that many people are interested in the ancient Mayans,” I said.

“Oh,” said Ivan. “I always assume that everyone is interested in the ancient Mayans unless they tell me they aren’t.”

It occurred to me that I had never asked Ivan how he himself came to be interested in the ancient Mayans. One day he wasn’t and the next day he was. I suppose I never asked him because Ivan has a lot of enthusiasms, most of them full-time. The only way he is able to keep up with them all is that he sleeps a mere five hours a night. I have pointed out to him that he cannot just sleep five or six hours a night. It is deeply unfair. “Team sleeping,” I remind him. “Every couple has to sleep a combined total of sixteen to eighteen hours per night. If you are only going to sleep five hours, I have to sleep a minimum of eleven. That isn’t fair. You have to keep up your end.” But he doesn’t. He stays up half the night and studies Ch’ol grammar and Mayan epigraphy.
Ivan at his computer
8 Ahaw 8 Zek
Ivan at his computer

When I asked Ivan how he came to be interested in the Mayans, he told me, “I just woke up one day and said to myself, ’I wonder what date it is in the Mayan calendar?’ and one thing led to another.” It sounds simple and almost commonsensical, when put like that, but of course your ordinary person does not think along those lines. Your ordinary person says to himself, bitterly, “Surely it is not Monday again?” He does not say to himself, “It’s that damned Gregorian calendar.”

Now think of your Ivanlike fish or cat. Is a scientist really going to know what to make of the motives of a truly individual fish or cat? No. A scientist will work from fish and cat stereotypes. She is going to say to herself, “I know what cats are interested in. All cats like tuna.” Some cats, however, are only mildly, if at all, interested in tuna. Our cats like tuna if you are having it, but not otherwise. Harley does not really care for any food that is not a dry, hard pebble of cat food, unless she finds it in Trillin’s bowl. Teddy also likes anything in Trillin’s bowl, provided that it came out of a can. Trillin herself is not fond of canned food. What she likes best are lemon squares, home made French bread, Brie and Camembert, garlic cream cheese, popcorn, and cream of broccoli soup. Those foods also happened to be Ketzela’s favorites, especially the lemon squares.

None of our cats will touch an anchovy or a sardine on a bet.

When Trillin thinks it is time to be fed, which is a goodly amount of the time, she yells. Then again, she chats or yells most of the time. When she is not zooming up and over the furniture, she is conducting slinky, sneaky investigative operations, chatting the whole time; it is not as secretive an activity as she seems to think. When she notices me opening a can of cat food or preparing something she regards as food for cats — Cheerios, say, or pie or mashed potatoes and gravy — she calls out a celebratory “Tally ho!” like a mounted hunter shouting out upon spotting a particularly toothsome rabbit.

Just when you think you know a cat’s own particular nature, they change. When Ivan and I first put out the bird feeders and the birdbath, the cats would sit expectantly underneath them, waiting for birds to arrive and be caught. No birds ever came.
Trillin lying in wait at the birdbath Trillin lying in wait at the birdbath
Teddy peering into the birdbath Trillin lying in wait at the birdbath

Just before the Olympics, it got really cold and icy, so we put out birdseed again. The birds would hang about the trees and watch me put out seed, but they wouldn’t come and eat. I began feeling quite sharply critical of the birds around here. They ignored the two new birdfeeders and the fresh suet with birdseed, but kept an eye on a flat wooden feeder attached to an old mailbox post that Evan had put together years before, when he lived downstairs. The birds gathered around to watch the flat feeder from a respectful distance, as if some stage bird might come out and put on a song and dance. Eventually, when no entertainment showed up, they drifted away. Ivan claimed that they were nudging each other and saying, “You try it.” “No, you try it.” “I’m afraid; you go first.” But Ivan doesn’t know birds like I know birds. These were urban birds. They were saying, “What’s everybody hanging around for? Is something happening?” “I don’t know. See that stage? I think some big star is supposed to show up any minute.” “Who?” “Probably the Osmond birds.” “But I don’t like the Osmond birds.” “Neither do I. Let’s go.” And then they would all leave and no one would eat our seed at all. It was hard not to be annoyed. Luckily I am not the type to let little things get to me.

Eventually, however, the birds relented and began to use the bird feeders. Now, when I go outside in the morning to fill up the feeders, a melodramatic squawking and chattering goes up all at once, with the watchbirds yelling, “Wait, wait, it’s happening after all! That woman is back! We thought that she had forgotten forever, but she’s back!”
Quail Hawk
Quail House Sparrows

Now that the birds are a constant presence, the cats ignore them. Or I should say, our cats do. The neighborhood cats stalk the birds, and our cats stalk the enemy cats. Trillin and Harley watch the birds from the picture window, but Teddy ignores them even when they are on the lawn six feet away from him. When doves or quail look for seed that has fallen on the ground, Teddy, who is a Buddhist, concentrates on eating the fancy grass that grows from the seeds that the birds have missed.
Teddy, Trillin and Harley Harley and Trillin
Teddy and the one who got away Teddy and the one who got away

Teddy is not a Buddhist about everything. He is not a Buddhist about his blanket. When the Chief — Larry Parker’s Mom, Norma — gave me a cat blanket, I shared it with the cats. I never said that it was just Teddy’s blanket, but Teddy thought that it was understood. Last time I washed it, he happened to be outside; when he came back in, Harley was curled up on the clean blanket. Teddy was horrified.

He sat on the edge of the blanket and watched Harley for a while. Harley pretended to be serenely oblivious. Teddy waited, perched next to her, almost rigid with outrage. Harley cleaned herself as if she didn’t have a care in the world.
Teddy and Harley Teddy and Harley

You have to be patient for justice to prevail. Eventually Harley left and Teddy was able to reclaim what is rightfully his. He curled up right in the middle, so that there could be no mistake.

Teddy Occupying

When Cris and Stephanie’s cat, Nim, sleeps in the middle of the dog bed, Fey paces. From a human viewpoint, it seems like she could go somewhere and do something else for a while, but all her energies are needed for getting her bed back, in case she should feel weary herself. Cris says that their animals know exactly which buttons to push to get each other worked up.

It is hard to know how much of animal logic is their own distinctive logic and how much of it they have learned from us.

Trillin is something of a secret agent, monitoring all incoming and outgoing traffic and delving thoroughly into our paperwork.

Trillin, Secret Agent

Trillin’s motto is, “You can’t be too careful or too sneaky, when awake.” Ivan notes that this is also my mother’s motto. Cat logic is not entirely separate from people logic, but there is the question of what one chooses to focus one’s energies on. Julie and Naomi’s cats monitor all sink activity. I would be surprised to hear that this is what Julie’s or Naomi’s mom does.

Our cats do not follow sink activity, but they do keep a careful eye on the water bowl situation. There are two water bowls, and for a while the one with the dog bone decoration was the undisputed favorite. Now, though, the cats delicately sample from each bowl before settling on l’eau du jour.
Harley Teddy

Better, of course, is if the cats can drink from whatever you’re having.

Teddy drinking his water

Here are some of the cat rules in our house. The first cat rule is: all doors are to be open at all times. Ivan and I don’t obey this rule very often, but it is a very important rule. When a door that is not usually open stays open for even ten minutes, it is like the Berlin Wall is being torn down. The cats celebrate the introduction of cat democracy by rushing in and out the door every twenty seconds. Another rule is that Teddy’s food must always be in his exact bowl. It is the same bowl that my family’s dog, Maggie, used to have. My mother named Maggie after her closest friend. Not everyone would take this as a compliment but it was meant that way, and Maggie the human took it that way. It helped that Maggie the dog was a genius among dogs.

Maggie and Marian

Maggie’s bowl was one of a pair of cereal bowls that my grandmother had had. Once, when Phyl was visiting our parents, Chuck got out a white bowl for Phyl’s cereal and Phyl told him, “Usually I get the dog’s bowl, you know.” While it was really the pair to the dog’s bowl that she always got, it is not surprising that Phyllis thought that the rule was that guests got the dog’s bowl. Dogs were very important in our family and it would have been a tribute to the guest to share their bowl.

Now Teddy has the bowl but we have not told him it used to be Maggie’s. He would not care to think that someone else had used the bowl before him.

Teddy licks his nose

Another key cat rule at our house is the rule against being “put.” Being put refers to being lifted and set down on a chair or lap or other surface designated by a human. Teddy stubbornly gets down at once and Harley looks around confusedly before getting down, but Trillin does not even land before she is gone. Being put activates her springload response; even as her feet touch the chair, she is levitating off it again.

Trillin is the only animal I know personally who behaves like the animals in cartoons. You can see her hind legs going in that circular zooming motion like the Road Runner’s, as she runs in place before shooting off around the room.

There was a comic in the Sunday funnies a while ago congratulating cats on having retractable claws. I can see being proud of having retractable claws if you did, in fact, retract them, but the thing is, our cats don’t. We have very lap-prone cats and I am reasonably safe if I do not breathe too deeply, but their claws are already out and prepared to cling like death if I shift my position. You would think that there was a constant round of tornadoes through the house.

Cris knows several comic-strip-type animals. There are squirrels living on Cris and Stephanie’s garage roof; one day Cris will see them eating pizza and the next day they will be eating pancakes. In the comics, the squirrels and racoons have microwave ovens with long extension cords, but Cris’s squirrels do not have electricity. It is not clear where they are getting the pizza and pancakes from.

Stuffed animals are a kind of cartoon animal, but most of them don’t actually do anything, except Sneetchy. My brother claims that sock monkeys are no different from real animals. In the rich life he has invented for his “pet” sock monkeys, they really do behave like cartoons.

Tommy used to sleep with all his stuffed animals and a shovel.

Tommy sleeps with his shovel

When Ivan and I visited McCall K’inich, she brought out every single stuffed animal she had, to show Ivan and to shower him with.
Ivan with toys Ivan with McCall

McCall is a big fan of Ivan’s. So are a lot of other people. When I went into Sam Weller’s yesterday, Bruce immediately said, “Where’s Ivan?” Ivan was next door at T.P. Gallery with Dave. If I had gone into T.P. Gallery first, without Ivan, Dave would have said, “Where’s Ivan?!” I told Bruce that Ivan would be in in a minute. He issued highly descriptive threats regarding what would happen if it turned out I was lying.
Ivan and Bruce
Ivan and Bruce

David and Ivan
David and Ivan

Ivan is also popular with my family. When we visit my parents, Dad says to Ivan, “Thank you for visiting me, Ivan.” If Ivan doesn’t come, I hear all about it, although last time I visited my parents, Mom did suggest that I come back and live with her and Dad permanently.

“What about Ivan?” I asked.

“He could visit,” said Mom.

Instead, I am living with Ivan. The main people who visit me are animals. There is a little tailless cat who visits a lot. I don’t know her name. Donna calls her “Tailless kitty,” which is descriptive, but probably not her real name. She is extremely friendly. She comes to watch the birds, really, but the instant she sees me she abandons the birds. She would rather hang out with me. Not that she fully trusts me. I tried to give her cat food once, and she stalked it like it might bite back.

Tailless Kitty

Tom and Annika’s cats also do not entirely trust me. Stormy will let me feed her and pet her, but not hold her; Patches panics if she so much as sees me through the kitchen window. She does not trust Barb and Joe, either, however. When Patches scratches insistently at the door to be let in, Barb has to hide behind the door so that Patches cannot see her or Patches will run away. Presumably she knows that someone is opening the door, but as long as she does not catch sight of the person, she can hide from her fears.

Stormy and Patches
Stormy and Patches

The tailless kitty is not at all afraid of me, but she is not taking any favors. Anyway, she is mostly hanging around on the off chance that she might see Woody or Glenn and Raegan and the girls. When she is on the other side of the street and Glenn opens the front door, she shoots across the road and inside the house. Glenn and Raegan don’t know her name either, but she knows them. She is there partly to visit them and partly to visit Woody.

Woody is like Ivan, only more so. When people don’t see Woody, they ask where he is. I look for Woody every day. On a good day, I say to Ivan, “Guess who I saw today!?” It is always Woody or Indica or both.
Woody and Mabel
Woody and Mabel
Woody with Mabel’s hedgehog and ball
Woody with Mabel’s hedgehog and ball

Woody likes to visit me, but Indica prefers for me to visit her. She does not like Jane to get too far out of her sight. If Jane even goes to the water fountain, Indica looks at me trepidatiously. “We’d better wait,” she indicates, and sits.

Whenever I see Jane and Indica, I say, “Indica!” first and then, “Hi Jane!” Jane is very nice about it. She is used to my showing favoritism to Indica. She herself is very Indica-centered.
Indica and Jane
Indica and Jane

I had not known quite how animal-centered a person could be till Ivan and I had been married about two years and he said something sweet to me about why he loved me, adding very seriously, “Also, you’re nice to my cats.” I had thought that they were my cats, too, but Ivan’s thinking is perhaps along the lines of my father’s thinking that any visit to his house is really a visit to him personally, never mind Mom.

Naturally, all vets should be animal-centered, but not all of them are. We know a vet who thinks of animals primarily as skinbags of parts — kidneys, liver, lungs, bones, brain, stacked up in the usual fashion. When he is examining an animal, he complains if the animal is not as quiet as death. One time he yelled at a dog in a cage in the next room. “Someone is being annoying!” he shouted. “I imagine he’s awfully anxious, being in that little carrier all by himself in the other room,” I said. “That’s what he wants you to think,” said the vet. He was not a good vet at all. Ketzela hated him with a passion and so did we.

Our current vet is the best of all possible vets. He may be a scientist, but he knows the differences between animals. Recently, when I was at the vet’s with Teddy, there was an odor in the next room from a dog that had had a largish accident. “Open all the windows!” said the vet. “And the doors too!”

“What happened?” I asked. “Was the dog sick or just afraid?”

“Oh, neither one, really,” said our vet, smiling. “More . . . indiscreet, I think.”

A vet who knows when a dog is merely being indiscreet is someone who knows what makes an animal tick.


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