How the Hen House Turns—The Human Factor (Part 6)

How the Hen House Turns
The Human Factor (Part 6): The Human Factor and Cats
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

When trying to define the Human Factor, we had better be careful to distinguish who does what when we’re dealing with dogs and cats. There may be something to be learned in the difference between these two animals.

Why do we (some humans) support and defend feral cats, when no one these days encourages packs of unlicensed dogs? And what draws us to one and not the other?

I had both as a child, and they were great pals to each other. Oscar the cat and the dog Boots hunted gophers and moles together. If the cat missed the pounce, the dog immediately dug up the huntee and they shared the meal. Moles, they deposited on the back porch.

However, the dog and the cat were as different as pudding and jello when it came to domestication, relating to us people. The dog slept in the house. Oscar the cat refused to enter the house, even when we begged and tried to bribe him with peanut butter sandwich crusts.

The cat would disappear for days at a time and return battle-scarred and unapologetic. We didn’t give it a second thought. When the dog went missing for only one night, we all had hours of panic and grief until we found her on the correct snowy road, coming home from the Tahoe City post office, where she had spent the night. We had driven off, leaving her on the porch. Would a cat have stayed there all night, waiting for our return?

We found Oscar as a kitten under the Fairview school house. He loved people, loved to rub his scratched face and burr-scarred eyes on my boy friend’s clean pant legs, and enjoyed our plowed-earth baseball games outdoors.

He also was popular with the local feral cats, but we could never tame his many offspring or mates. He brought them home for the pans of milk my dad provided when milking Buttercup the cow. Pa called it “squirting the cats.” We tried, but could never get within 10 feet of Oscar’s many kittens.

If they had been dogs, I think they would have come begging for attention from us. The human factor works on dogs and their tameness gene package. It has probably saved them from mistreatment and abandonment over the last 40,000 years or more.

The most striking example is this. Only dogs, not even chimpanzees, react appropriately when a human points to a cup containing a treat (one they can’t smell). They are good at reading us humans. They tune in to the part of us that respects all life. I haven’t heard of anyone trying that on cats.