I am trying to learn from the cat. We’re outside, on the second-floor porch. It’s a late summer morning. I’m reading, book in one hand, cup of coffee in the other. I look up and see Lula watching the birds in the neighbors’ yard below.
Why can’t I be more like her—more here, more now—engaged with what’s actually happening rather than the thoughts in my head?
She crouches, motionless, a predator in the present moment. I can’t see her eyes, her round black pupils as she peers between the porch railings, stalking the robins and grackles as they flutter around the seed-filled feeder.
Lula, a buff-colored tabby, can’t get to the birds. I don’t worry about a messy kill, though clearly that’s her intention, even though a fresh dish of Savory Chicken Entrée waits for her in the kitchen. The birds dart on and off the rim of the feeder.
Quietly, I place the book and cup on the table beside me. I try to watch the cat as closely as she watches the birds.
For a small cat, Lula is a gifted killer. She was in bad shape when I got her: sores on her face, missing a front tooth, belly shaved and stiches showing where she’d just been spayed. She was found on the grounds of the city zoo, half-starved and covered in fleas. The shelter manager guessed she was about six years old and had been abandoned or run away.
When I brought her home, I was amazed at how fast she chased after a tossed stuffed mouse, how high she jumped to swat down some feathers on a string.
Healthy now, she crouches lower, her body ready to spring. What does she remember of those nights at the zoo? According to researchers, little or nothing. Though we humans spend much of our waking hours reconsidering the past or worrying about the future, other animals, except our close primate cousins, lack the capacity to do so.
It’s impossible to know what it’s like to be another animal, be it bat, cat, or butterfly. In 1965, the United Kingdom’s Brambell Committee looked closely at the issue of whether non-human animals were capable of mental time travel. The Committee was considering the conditions in which livestock—sheep, cows, pigs, and the like—were raised and slaughtered, and what practices should be outlawed because of cruelty.
According to their report,
“There is no doubt that wild and domestic animals feel pain, usually more or less transient. But it is vitally important to distinguish the sensation of pain which is an essential safeguard of the animal body, from the idea of “suffering” as experienced by human beings. Human suffering is often very largely a matter of prolonged anxiety and imaginative anticipation of further pain—both of which are incomparably less well developed in most animals as far as we can see. There is no doubt that many types of animals live in the present to an extent which it is hard for a human being to conceive.”
Our human ability to remember the past and imagine the future is, as any philosopher, neuroscientist, or dumped lover will tell you, both a blessing and a curse. In the coming winter, I’ll look at Lula during snow storms and be glad she’s not fending for herself out in the cold. She’ll have no such thoughts.
The cat, still stalking the birds, doesn’t share my ambition to be in the present moment. There already, she turns her head to look at me, meows, annoyed that she can’t get what she wants. Something so near. Something frustratingly out of reach. She turns her head back to the birds.