BOOKS: The Cat I.Q. Test

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1997:

The Cat I.Q. Test by Melissa Miller
Viking Penguin (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014-3657), 1996.
198 pages, paperback, $8.95.

When I think of feline intelligence,
five cats among the hundred-odd I’ve known
come to mind. My first cat, Catapuss, was a
creatively malevolent yet oddly compassionate
misfit who terrorized dogs, did not hunt,
objected if other cats tormented prey in his presence,
thrashed the barnyard bully in his only
big fight, let every other cat steal his dinner,
rarely socialized with other cats, and yet was
often first to alert us to another cat who was
hurting. He was behaviorally so different, and
so obviously inclined to work out detailed plots,
that one could not observe him without concluding
that he exercised considerable capacity for
abstract thought. Yet he did not seem clever at
basic feline survival.

Next came Orky, a tiny slate-grey
former feral with uncommon ability to decipher
human speech, plus her own spoken vocabulary,
which included self-justifications when
caught at naughtiness. Whatever Orky did, or
wanted, she explained.
I picked up Squeaky, an abandoned
kitten, from a roadside on a late winter morning
run. A farm wife named Lorna nursed her all
day, and called me that night to watch as
Squeaky pulled herself up to the edge of her box
to investigate the world. “Nothing gets past that
kitten,” Lorna said, and indeed, Squeaky was
far more alert and inquisitive than other kittens
her age, or for that matter, most cats. She
feared nothing, living or mechanical, and
when she was killed by a car at age two, it was
literally a case of curiosity killing the cat, not a
routine cat/car mishap.
A trapper took Alfred the Great to the
Quebec woods at about four months of age to
use as live fox or coyote bait. Somehow Alfred
escaped, surviving a bitter January in the contested
no-canid’s-land between fox and coyote
dens. I knew he was there, having torn out the
traps and seen his footprints, but I never saw
him until he followed me home, so hungry he
forgot to be fearful. He became an affectionate
pest, who despite having survived early hardship
seemed clumsy, was slow to solve problems,
and often climbed into places––not all
that high––that he was afraid to descend from.
He hunted mainly snakes. Often, if I came
home late for dinner, he’d be waiting with a big
live snake. I’d thank him, then let the snake go.
Now an indoor cat, he still captures occasional
snakes, where none should be.
Most notably, Alfred picked repeated
fights with every other cat we had, including
cats who otherwise never fought, and was routinely
trounced by all of them.
Time passed. Our cat population
turned over. Alfred between thrashings followed
and copied Gidget, a psychotic old cat so
nasty she once trounced a notorious cat-eating
coyote. Newcomer cats noted Alfred’s scars
and took seriously his method-acting. Over the
past few years, this cat who has never beaten up
so much as a puffball has been treated with the
deference due a heavyweight champion. Alfred,
in turn, no longer picks fights with the few
older cats who might use him as a dust-mop. .
Finally came Dennis the Menace, an
orange “tom” kitten who turned out to be
female, found strutting through a busy intersection
in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She has
Squeaky’s curiousity, Catapuss’ capability of
abstract thought, a little of Orky’s loquaciousness,
and common sense. She figures out how
to get results from fax machines, answering
machines, and photocopiers. All day she
strives to know, for the sheer sake of knowing.
Her usual facial expression is a question mark.
Dennis would fare well by Melissa
Miller’s The Cat I.Q. Test, because much of her
intelligence is applied in a problem-solving
manner that can be measured. The other bright
cats I’ve known would do less well, because
their unique mental attributes can’t be measured
even in humans. And that’s the problem with
I.Q. testing: the only quantification of intuition,
creativity, and political skill is in the outcome.
Canine intelligence, unlike human or feline
intelligence, lends itself more easily to testing
because canine thinking tends to be focused
within hierarchical social relationships, which
narrow the range of possibility. Dogs have an
amazing range of inate abilities, learned skills,
and intuitive, applied, and reactive types of
intelligence, but rarely exhibit the idiosyncrasy
that marks the most interesting cats and people.
Practically obligated by the success of
her previous book, The Dog I.Q. Test, to do a
sequel for cats, Miller gives it a game try,
filled out by historical background, but in the
end, as I’m writing this, I’m ringed by seven
cats, six feigning indifference while Dennis listens
to each click of the keyboard as if deciphering
Morse code. They know I’m writing about
them. The problem is, I don’t know how they
know, or how much they know, and Miller
doesn’t either. Until someone figures out how
to fathom that kind of mystery, cat intelligence
remains in the realm of jazz: you don’t know
how to define it, but you know when it’s there.

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