I’ve always been fascinated by her earlier book, Animals in Translation, and have often, during a slow moment at the bookstore, opened it at random just to prove to myself that every single page contains a startling insight. She’s never proved me wrong. Her rapport with animals is uncanny.
Temple Grandin became famous for her memoir, Talking Pictures, and achieved notoriety for her compassionate re-designing of the slaughterhouse chute, so that the animals we are determined to butcher will at least be killed more humanely.
I’d been waiting for her new book, Animals Make Us Human, and when I pounced on it, I was delighted to see an entire chapter set aside to help explain the behavior of those most baffling beings on this planet – cats.
Ever since I read Dawn Prince-Hughes’ Songs of the Gorilla Nation, I’ve been fascinated by the rapport autistic people have with animals, and in fact, actually wondered if there was something slightly autistic about myself to explain my high animal empathy. The idea of a stripper from the Lusty Lady learning how to pass for human by watching the gorillas in the Woodland Part Zoo opened a door in my mind. We were all imitating.
So, here we are now, Buddy curled in my lap, in my favorite armchair on a Saturday afternoon, reading the chapter on cats in Temple Grandin’s newest book. I can tell Buddy isn’t as interested as I am – he’s more concerned about finding the absolutely most comfortable position in my lap, stretching out to cover as much territory up and down my legs as possible. Nevertheless, I’m keeping him awake by reading aloud the good parts.
“A cat is in some ways like a miniature tiger in your living room.” That got his attention. It rated a lash of his tail. Cats don’t signal with facial expressions, like dogs do. I check out my little housemate, giving him a stroke to rouse him from his stupor. He regards me blankly. Is he annoyed? Is he aroused? Yup, she’s got that right.
Which is not to say that Temple Grandin is a literary stylist. This book is occasionally written in pretty clunky prose. No matter, it’s all about the content, period, and Buddy and I are both pretty dang interested in the content – aren’t we, Buddy? – so that’s fine with us. We aren’t reading it for its literary value. We’re reading it to get smarter and communicate more effectively with our feline housemates.
What cats don’t communicate with facial expressions, they do communicate with smells, with paw glands and facial glands. A bold cat is a friendly cat. The more people who handle kittens during their first few weeks, the friendlier the grown cat will be. Black cats are statistically friendlier than other cats. The mutation that causes black fur might make cats resistant to viruses in the HIV family. Techniques to keep cats calm in a vet’s office are firm stroking and a bathmat to prevent slipping on slick table surfaces – “Slipping causes panic in all animals.” And so it goes, page after page, penetrating insights into the fascinating, complex mind of the cat.
I’m intrigued. Buddy is sound asleep.