The newest lie detectorThe sidewalk on Market Street was a crazy salad of autumn leaves and candy wrappers blowing along as I walked briskly toward my car. I had come downtown to renew my passport in contemplation of some further adventures in foreign lands. I was in a particularly good mood, and so the inclination to walk
a while overtook me.
I came upon an array of cages set out by the ASPCA. The larger cages contained dogs; one contained a mother and her litter. The two top rows of smaller cages contained one or two cats each.
I stopped to take a look. It occurred to me that these cages were out here to remind the passersby that these animals would either be adopted soon or put to sleep. A solicitation for clemency. To me, this appeal was well meaning but all wrong. The responsibilities of pet ownership should be undertaken only after much planning and premeditation, not as an impulse decision like the purchase of some check-out counter item at a supermarket.
One of the cats looked up in surprise and immediately got to its feet. I was momentarily startled by the intensity of its stare. I took a step backward and looked away. The cat meowed loudly to regain my attention and then began to pace back and forth, rubbing itself on the front of the cage. I pushed my hand into the mesh near its face. It pushed its wet nose into my palm then it rubbed the sides of its head on my fingers, first in one direction then in the other. I looked over at the young volunteer who was managing the display. He had a funny look on his face.
"She bit the vet. No one at the ASPCA will have anything to do with her."
"You're not a very good salesman. You are supposed to tell me how loving she is and how good a pet she would make me."
"I know. I have nothing against the cat, in fact we get along great. But I just wanted to be honest with you. I don't want you to be mad at the ASPCA for supplying you with a lousy pet. She's a beautiful cat. A lot of people have tried to make friends with her today but her reactions have ranged from indifference to hostility. I have pretty well given up on finding her a home. She seems to be taking to you pretty well, though."
She was, indeed, a beautiful cat. Her tawny, medium length fur modulated to a dark warm gray toward her face, feet and tail. She had the barest beginnings of a tiger striping. But what really set this cat apart was the intensity of her bright blue eyes.
The guilt was mounting. The poor creature seemed unadoptable. She obviously liked me.
"Would you allow me to take her out of the cage?"
"Sure, help yourself. I have Band-Aids here if you need them."
His offhand remark was not reassuring. I undid the clasp on the door, swung it open and reached gingerly into the cage. So far so good. The cat placidly allowed me to lift her up and out of her pen. I cradled her in one arm and stroked her head and behind her ears. But instead of purring I got that deep intense stare.
"I'll take it. How much do I owe?"
It took the volunteer a moment to get over his surprise at my decision. "Fifteen dollars, cash or check. She has already been spayed and has had her shots."
As I wrote out the check he unfolded a cardboard box and punched out the perforated breathing holes and handles. As he handed me the box he said, "Hey, good luck with the cat. And don't say I didn't warn you."
On my way back to the car I was having all sorts of second thoughts. On the one hand, I had been thinking about getting a cat for quite some time. A cat can be good company, which I sorely needed. But with a cat comes fleas and cat-box odor and the added expense of cat food. And I would have to worry about the cat if I wanted to take off for the weekend, not to mention my extended travel plans. She would put a damper on that. Half out loud I muttered, "Cat, you had better work out," to which the cat responded with a resounding meow.
Once inside my apartment I sat the box down on the floor, not wanting to open it until she had had an opportunity to overcome the indignity of the conveyance. When I finally opened the box I was half expecting her to launch herself at me and bury her claws in my face. Instead she nimbly leapt from it and began to look around.
Again, she gave me that piercing stare. This was indeed an incredible animal. What was this being? What powers of perception did she possess? It struck me just how presumptuous it was to read all of this into the expression on a cat's face. It is difficult and ambiguous enough to read the expressions on a human face much less a cat's. Also, I was all too familiar with our human tendency to personify animals, to ascribe more to their actions than really is there.
She began her explorations of the apartment with the perimeter of the living room. I went to the kitchen to get her a bowl of milk. This would have to do for the time being since I had been caught totally unprepared.
She hopped from the floor to the sofa and from there to the desk. She explored each of its holdings in turn. She seemed to be intently interested in my algebra book. After staring at it for five minutes or so she carefully turned the page with her paw. That was cute. If I could get her to do that in front of my friends I could tell them she was reading it. We would all get a good laugh out of that.
I set her bowl of milk down on the kitchen floor and said, "Hey cat, come and get it."
She looked up at me from her "reading," hopped down from the desk and sauntered over to check out what was in the bowl. Then she spied my sushi refrigerator magnet. It was a perfect plastic replica of anago or smoked sea eel. Excitedly, she took two bounds and a flying leap at it snagging it in her front paws, then landed unceremoniously on the linoleum. After she had studied and sniffed at it, she picked it up in her mouth, came over to me and dropped it at my feet. Looking up, she waited for my response.
"Did you catch that all by yourself, Supercat?"
She cocked her head in disdain.
"Sushi, is that what you would like for supper? I'll bet! If you'll hold down the fort for a while, I'll go down to the corner and see what I can round up."
I went down to Bob's Market and picked out a selection of cat food: chicken, liver, tuna. Enough to hold me until I could get to the supermarket and stock up at a better price. Then, deciding to reward myself for finding such a fantastic cat, I picked up a salmon steak for myself.
When I got back with the food,! opened a can of the tuna and spooned it out into a dish and set it down next to the half-finished milk. "Sorry, cat, they didn't have any sushi."
The cat took great umbrage at my statement. Before I realized what was happening she had leapt at my leg and sunk her teeth and claws through my pantleg and my sock. I felt a sharp sensation. I could have touched the ceiling if I had had my hand up. When I came back down, she cuffed me and hissed. Trembling, I retreated to the living room sofa. I rolled up my pantleg and rolled down my sock. There were small indentations but there was no blood. She had not broken the skin. The cat ambled over as if nothing had happened.
"Tonight you sleep in the back room." I carefully picked her up, took her to the back room and set her down on a pile of clothes. Then I went to bed.
* * *
"You need a name. Who are you, anyway?" She looked up at my question then went back to her reading.
I began to rattle off all the names I could remember, both female and male. She did not respond to any of them.
She looked over.
"Cat it will be then."
She gave her nod of approval.
Cat and I were comfortably ensconced on the couch watching the nightly news. They were doing a feature on the Governor of Arizona who had just been indicted for misappropriation of campaign funds. The reporter was asking him some rather pointed questions regarding the Governor's culpability in the case. When the Governor denied everything, Cat flew off the couch hissing and attacked the television speaker enclosure. With each new sentence the Governor uttered, Cat would hiss and cuff the speaker with her paw.
That was it. Cat had absolutely no tolerance for mendacity. But how did she know he was lying? Was I simply jumping to more conclusions? There must be a more logical explanation. Maybe it was just the tone of the Governor's voice. To assume for the moment that she actually could distinguish truth from falsehood would explain her attack on me, but how was she doing it? Perhaps something akin to voice stress analysis. The keenness of senses in many animals surpasses that of man, yet I was not aware of any precedent for this phenomenon. No reports of lie detecting cats had turned up in the pages of Scientific American or even the National Enquirer.
I decided to put Cat to a test. I called up Ralph and invited him over for beer and pizza. Ralph is mostly blarney and what isn't blarney is bull. He would make a good benchmark.
Ralph arrived promptly forty-five minutes after he said he would.
"How have you been?" I asked.
"Great! Never better!"
"Hissssssss," went the cat.
"Sit down and make yourself comfortable. The game just started."
"Hey, did I tell you that the Pirates were scouting me in high school. They wanted me to play right field for them. I had to turn them down though. I figured I would make more money in real estate."
Cat was on his leg so fast, Ralph let out a gurgled scream and flailed his arms, first at the cat, then at the back of the couch in an attempt to raise himself up and out of Cat's clutches. Ralph stammered "Hey, I just remembered. I'm supposed to be over at, uh, Ed's place. I promised Ed I'd watch the game with him. Sorry I can't stay and watch the game with you. Hey, I'll see you later." As Ralph gingerly made his way to the door, Cat followed, cuffing him and hissing.
* * *
Cat has been with me for three years now. It turned out there was no incompatibility between Cat and my wanderlust. In fact, she loves to travel. I take her with me almost everywhere I go. She takes cars, busses and planes in stride. Where pets aren't welcome, we don't go.
More than a few acquaintances have dropped by the wayside due to Cat's candor but those that remain are truly trusted. It is such a secure feeling to know that she will let me know when someone is trying to lie to me.
And I have done no small amount of soul searching about my own standards of honesty. The area I find most in need of diligence is that of rationalization and self-deception. As I make progress along these lines I have come to the realization that the less I lie to myself the more difficult it becomes to lie to anyone else.
Jim Stanfield ireturns to the pages of The Ecphorizer; his writings have appeared in Intelligencer (San Francisco Regional Mensa), Graffiti and Gargoyle. Jim has an intense interest in Quantum Mechanics. "Cat" was originally published in The Ecphorizer #77, May 1990, Michael Eager, Editor.
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