I was working on a writing project late one night when I got up from my desk, intending to head to the kitchen for a beverage when I almost stumbled over Buddy, who was lounging care free and belly-up in my bedroom doorway.
“Not a good place to lounge, Bud,” I said, stepping over him as he stretched and yawned.
I took another step, looked up…and saw Bud sitting on the dinner table about 12 feet ahead of me, fixing me with his quizzical Buddy Stare. WTF? I thought.
I did a double-take, looking down at the doorway where the little dude had been laying just a second ago, then turned back toward the table. Buddy regarded me, head cocked slightly to one side as his tail gently thumped the table.
For a long second I entertained the possibility that there were two cats, that somehow a gray tabby who looked a lot like Bud had gotten inside, and for some unfathomable reason Buddy was perfectly nonchalant about it.
“No teleporting in the house!” I told him. “It’s rude!”
“Mrrreppp,” Bud replied, hopping down from the table and stepping toward the kitchen.
The story comes to mind because we had another teleporting incident last night, with little man lounging on my bed, then appearing on my desk chair half a second later.
It’s easy to forget how quick and silent cats can be when it suits them, especially since the majority of their time is spent sleeping, eating and lounging. Their little legs can accelerate them to 30 miles per hour, which leaves average humans in the dust and even surpasses the fastest human runners.
Not bad for a species known for its unmatched laziness.
Please share feline teleportation stories if you’ve got ’em. We must further investigate this additional facet of feline weirdness!
“Study finds dogs are more than twice as smart as cats,” the clickbait headline reads:
A study gives dog owners solid scientific evidence that dogs really are smarter than cats.
A study led by Vanderbilt University counted for the first time the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex of the brains of cats and dogs and found that dogs have more than twice as many neurons as cats.
The research found that dogs have about 530 million cortical neurons while cats have about 250 million. These neurons are the brain cells associated with thinking, planning and complex behavior, which are all considered hallmarks of intelligence.
That’s from a story published Aug. 30 on Local12.com, the website of a Cincinatti-area news station.
So what’s wrong with the story?
It’s dishonest: The study was conducted in 2017, but the Local12 story presents it as news in August of 2019.
It quotes the study’s lead author, giving the impression a reporter from Local12 spoke to her. That did not happen. The quotes were copied and pasted from the press release that originally announced the study two years ago.
It misinterprets the study’s results: Neither neuron count nor brain size — relative or absolute — are reliable indicators of intelligence.
This is what passes for news in 2019: Old, recycled content presented as new information, slapped together by a web producer who didn’t bother to read more than the study’s abstract.
It’s all about traffic and designing pieces of content ready-made for Facebook feeds.
But what about the central claim, that the number of neurons in an animal’s brain correlates to intelligence?
If that were true, we’d be living on a planet dominated not by humans, but by elephants: Earth’s largest terrestrial animal has some 260 billion neurons compared to an average of 100 billion for humans.
Research suggests the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex, as opposed to the entire brain, may be a better indicator of intelligence. Indeed, that’s what the study focuses on. The cerebral cortex is associated with higher cognitive functions. As you’d expect, humans have unusually high neuron counts in that region of the brain.
But by that measurement, humans aren’t at the top either.
If neuron density in the cerebral cortex was the primary indicator of intelligence, the long-finned pilot whale would reign supreme, and other types of whales and dolphins would rival humans.
Not only do pilot whales have twice as many cortical neurons as humans, their brains have much more surface area, which scientists once believed corresponded to intelligence.
So if we’re keeping score, intelligence is not determined by:
The number of neurons in the brain
The number of neurons in the cerebral cortex
Brain size relative to body mass
Brain surface area
At one time or another, each of those things was thought of as the way to measure smarts. So if none of those things are true markers of intelligence, what is?
That’s the million-dollar question. We don’t have an answer, which is why scientists conduct this kind of research in the first place.
Contrary to what the article claims, cortical neuron count does not provide “solid scientific evidence that dogs really are smarter than cats.”
But that doesn’t make for a clickable, shareable headline, does it?
In truth, we can’t even define what “more intelligent” really means because each species sees the world differently, and has different priorities to enable it to survive and thrive.
When we measure intelligence, we measure it on a human scale, according to how we humans see the world. That’s hardly an impartial way of evaluating the intelligence of animals with much different needs and ways of seeing the world, and it doesn’t yield many useful insights.
Keeping that in mind is particularly important when it comes to studying cats, who have their own agendas and priorities. Dogs are eager to please and obedient. Cats only listen when it suits them.
That doesn’t mean one is smarter than the other, it simply means they’re different
Sometimes you’ve gotta fib to protect the ones you love, which is how I found myself lying to Buddy the first time he wanted to go outside and ineptly chase hunt birds.
“I’m sorry, Bud, I can’t let you do that,” I said, doing my best to sound serious and authoritative.
“Why not?” Buddy asked, pawing at the door impatiently.
“Because it isn’t safe.”
Buddy was exasperated. “I’m 10 months old! I can take care of myself!”
“You don’t understand. It’s not for your protection.”
I lowered my voice conspiratorially and nodded toward the birds outside. “It’s for them. Mice too. Squirrels. Even coyotes.”
Comprehension dawned on the little guy’s face.
“To protect them from me?”
“Precisely,” I said gravely. “It wouldn’t be fair, unleashing a beast of your size and power on those poor unsuspecting creatures. It’d be like that scene in Jurassic Park when they lowered a cow into the velociraptor cage.”
“That makes sense.” He eased onto his hind legs and raised his front left paw, flexing. “I mean, I am really ripped. These guns must be intimidating.”
“They most certainly are,” I agreed. “So ripped! So you can understand why I can’t let you out.”
“Illegal, you say? Like actually illegal?”
“A $500 fine if you even step out the front door.”
After that he didn’t ask to go outside anymore and was satisfied with telling people that the local Council of Dangerous and Awesome Animals had specifically forbidden Buddy the Beast from stalking the neighborhood unless chaperoned by a human with his huge muscles restrained in a harness.
Ed Sheeran’s cat: A preventable tragedy
I recalled this totally accurate and real conversation after reading news that musician Ed Sheeran’s cat, Graham, has died. I clicked on the story expecting to read about a loyal cat who’d stuck with Sheeran over the better part of two decades before succumbing to old age.
That’s not how Graham died.
Sheeran’s five-year-old cat had his life cut short when he was hit by a car on July 31.
Allowing cats to roam free is the norm in the UK, even in busy neighborhoods. Cats are killed in traffic — or meet other unfortunate ends — regularly. Even a rampage by an alleged serial murderer of cats, who was said to kill more than 300, didn’t dissuade them from keeping their cats safely indoors, nor did the subsequent (pardon) copy-cats.
The usual excuses paint cats as one step removed from wild animals, creatures who range several miles in their “natural” states as outdoor kitties.
The problem is, that’s not true.
Domestic cats don’t belong in the wild
Cats are domesticated animals. They’ve evolved over 10,000 years from African and Eurasian wildcats, to the human-friendly mousers who protected grain stores, and finally to the companion animals we all know and love.
They are second only to dogs, who were domesticated 30,000 years ago, as animals who are uniquely attuned to human presence, able to read our expressions, detect our moods from our pheromones and parse the subtleties in our vocalizations.
Cats belong with humans. They have no “natural habitat.” As domesticates who are genetically distinct from their wildcat ancestors, there’s no place in nature for them.
In other words, cats belong in human homes, benefiting from human companionship, protection and care.
They’re not as fast, agile or nimble as their wild cousins, and while some can adjust to rough living, most don’t: The lifespan of a feral cat is a pitiful two to five years compared to the 16 years or so an average, well-cared-for indoor cat can live. For feral cats eking out an existence on their own, as opposed to living in a colony, the average lifespan is less than two years.
It’s our responsibility to protect our cats
The point is that we’re not doing cats any favors by letting them roam outdoors unsupervised. In addition to being ill-equipped to deal with nature and predators, they’re also defenseless against maladjusted and hostile humans who do things like intentionally poison flower beds. They’re particularly vulnerable to vehicle traffic. They’re easy meals for large birds of prey, wild canids and other mid-sized animals.
So what’s the solution? Simple: Be a good caretaker.
An indoor life shouldn’t be boring. It’s our responsibility as caretakers to provide our cats with attention, affection, toys and stimulation.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, cats aren’t antisocial animals. They want to play, to interact with people, to simulate hunts with wand toys and laser pointers. They feel safe snoozing and purring in human laps. That’s not just the opinion of cat lovers, it’s backed up by solid research showing cats value human companionship.
A happy indoor life
If we give them the attention we’re supposed to, there’s no reason why our cats should be bored indoors. And an indoor life doesn’t have to be completely devoid of nature. That’s why there are customized cat perches, catios and harnesses, allowing domestic cats to watch and enjoy the outdoors without exposing them to the many dangers outside.
The Grahams of the world shouldn’t die early because of our misguided belief that cats need to roam like tigers. Keep your buddy indoors, give him the attention he needs, and he’ll have a long and happy life.
Chronicling the adventures of Buddy the Cat and his various criminal enterprises.