Caturday felid trifecta: Man plays fractious cat; why you can’t outrun a housecat; what is it like to be a cat?; and lagniappe

September 11, 2021 • 9:30 am

It’s time for the weekly cat trifecta, and we have special lagniappe today.

The Animal Rescue Site has a training video for veterinary technicians. Here a man plays a fractious cat, and the site says he should win an Oscar for his performance.  I think this is a joke, but maybe not. . .

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From Wired we have this provocative article (click on the screenshot). If you have a cat, you already know that it can run a lot faster than you—even if you’re Usain Bolt. (Bolt ran his 100 m record sprint at 27 miles per hour, just under the top speed of a house cat.)

and here’s the study it refers to, which I haven’t read as it’s impenetrable (click on screenshot for free access):

As the first article notes, there are three factors at play in determining an animal’s maximum speed: body size, limb length, and whether it’s bipedal or quadrupedal (the latter confers more speed). Previous work had suggested, in contrast, that metabolism was the key, and large animals simply ran out of fuel faster than small ones.  This doesn’t appear to be true:

[Michael] Günther’s team was also able to predict theoretical speed maximums for different body designs at 100 kilograms, or about 220 pounds. A house cat this size could run up to 46 miles per hour; a giant spider, if its legs could somehow sustain its weight, would top out at 35 miles per hour. Unsurprisingly, the average human body design comes in last place here: At 100 kilograms, we can only reach about 24 miles per hour.

But body size isn’t the only feature that comes into play when maximizing speed. In the model, leg length also mattered. Animals with longer legs are able to push their bodies farther forward before their foot must leave the ground, prolonging the time they have to accelerate between midstance and liftoff.

As for why four-legged animals can run faster than humans, Günther says this isn’t because we only have two legs, but because our torsos are positioned upright and feel the full force of gravity. Bipedal creatures have evolved with much more rigid spinal structures to prioritize balance and stability over speed. Animals whose trunks are parallel to the ground, however, evolved with more flexible spines that are optimized for prolonged foot contact with the earth.

But what about muscle fatigue? “It doesn’t play any role,” Günther says.

Oh, and there’s this:

According to the team’s results, the sweet spot for overcoming air drag and inertia lies at around 110 pounds. Not coincidentally, that’s the average weight of both cheetahs and pronghorns.

The paper is way, way above my pay grade. Here’s one of its figures, which has to be a candidate for Worst Figure of the Year:

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What is it like to be a cat? The NYT has an op-ed on a man obsessed with that question (click on screenshot). The author, Farhad Manjoo, doesn’t refer to the piece’s predecessor, Tom Nagel’s famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?“, but he should at least have mentioned it. This is, however, a very nice essay:

Manjoo and his wife treated themselves to two Bengal kittens (be still, my heart), Leo and Luna, five months ago, and now they’re two months older. After admiring their beauty and grace, Manjoo started wondering what was going on inside their heads.  I don’t think any biologist wouldn’t wonder about stuff like that. I often ponder what my ducks’ consciousness is like, but I always draw a complete blank.

The musing get more and more complex:

Like, when my new kittens look at me, what do they see? As their provider of food and shelter, do they regard me as a parent? Or, with my towering (relative) size, my powers over light and dark and my apparently infinite supply of cardboard boxes, am I more like a deity to them?

. . .Watching the cats romp about has become a reliable way to escape all that. I find myself jumping from small questions — does Luna seriously not realize, yet, that she is attached to her tail? — to larger, more abstract and eternal ones: Does Luna even understand that she is — does she, in the way René Descartes conceived it, possess knowledge of a self?

More specifically: What is it like to be my cats? Are they “conscious” in the way I am? What, anyway, is consciousness? And if a cat can be conscious, can a computer?

He’s asking the Big Questions! But yes, cats are conscious, but not in the way he is. (I am guessing, of course.) Computers aren’t conscious—yet.  Manjoo then muses on animal consciousness and why it matters. I haven’t read the linked “Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness” below, but it’s pretty clear that animals have some form of qualia—sensing pain or its absence, and perhaps pleasure. Mammals sure act as if they’re in pain when you hurt them, and even birds, if given a restrictive and cruel pen, as they often are when domesticated, will show a preference for roaming in better surroundings, like a field or open plot. Does that preference not show consciousness of what environment feels better, or is it only a mechanical response to evolved tendencies?

At any rate, the question of animal suffering is a pressing one, as Manjoo points out at the end. I think, along with others, that when our descendants look back on us 200 years hence, they’ll ask “How could people possibly torture animals before killing and eating them?” Will they cancel all carnivores then?

Manjoo muses further (there’s more after this, but I’ll stop here)

There is also evidence that nonmammalian creatures with quite different brain structures possess a conscious self. In 2012, after reviewing research on how animals think, a group of neuroscientists and others who study cognition put out a document declaring animals to be conscious. They wrote that the “weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness,” which they said could likely be found in “nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” It is not only possible, then, that my kittens feel the subjective experience of being served chicken slop several times a day — it might be likely that they feel something, even if we have no way of knowing what it is.

Still, I don’t blame you if after all this you’re left asking, Hey, Farhad, I’m glad you like your cats, but why does it matter to anyone what’s playing out in their heads?

I’ll end with a couple thoughts, one slightly obvious and one less so. The obvious reason: Consciousness matters because it confers ethical and moral status. If we agree that our dogs and cats are conscious, then it becomes very difficult to argue that pigs and cows and whales and even catfish and chickens are not. Yet if all these creatures experience consciousness analogous to ours then one has to conclude that our species is engaged in a great moral catastrophe — because in food production facilities all over the world, we routinely treat nonhuman animals as Descartes saw them, as machines without feeling or experience. This view lets us inflict any torture necessary for productive efficiency.

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Lagniappe: A cat defends itself against a cobra. Why didn’t the guy filming the video do something?

Bonus: more lagniappe! I got this picture from reader Frits this morning. It’s titled “Dog behaving badly,” and Frits says this: “Picture made by my wife in Buis-les-Baronnies (the little town in the Drôme Provençale where, irrelevantly, Titania McGrath is supposed to have a gîte).

h/t: Paul, Stephen, Lenora, Tom, Frits

10 thoughts on “Caturday felid trifecta: Man plays fractious cat; why you can’t outrun a housecat; what is it like to be a cat?; and lagniappe

  1. ‘[…] when our descendants look back on us 200 years hence, they’ll ask “How could people possibly torture animals before killing and eating them?” ‘ – Some of us already wonder that, of course. (The 40th anniversary of my becoming a vegetarian is only about six months away.)

  2. I am probably going to get savaged for this. Please understand that I am in no way defending factory farming, which is cruel and inhumane. But there are ways of handling food animals that are better.

    My first criterion for the consumption of animals is to ask those who think it’s wrong what they think should happen to the species we now use for food. Usually I just get a blank stare, or alternatively either “let them run free” or “let them become extinct”.

    In the “let them become extinct” scenario, what might happen when several species DO become extinct? The idea that food species contribute nothing to the ecosystem is false. Grazing animals, when the grazing is properly managed, make the land stronger. Some food species collect inedible- to-humans vegetation and turn it into usable protein. A lot of people think that there will be no effect on the environment, but they have no particular reason to think that, other than that viewpoint aligns with their politics. There is no biological basis for that position.

    In the “let them run free” scenario, usually what people envision is the Bambi movie, with the hero in a sunny, warm, grass-and-flower-filled field. The reality is that in exchange for their captivity, my animals get a reliable source of food, a reliable source of water, shelter from the elements and predators, birthing assistance if necessary, and health care. In the wild, that you don’t see in Bambi movies, are starvation and dying by thirst, staying out in the cold and the elements, dying a horrible death if birthing goes wrong, and YES, being eaten by predators. But they do get to run free!!

    There are also economic considerations, which I won’t outline here, except to say that there are many societies that rely on animals and animal products, and eliminating those would have a disastrous ripple effect. Nepal springs to mind because I have friends who assist the goat industry there, but there are many other similar places.

    Lest someone respond to this post by accusing me of defensiveness (and I’m sure someone will, based on past experience) let me say that in response to a question of what the future should look like, a vegan once told me, “All of you should just disappear”. There are in fact occasions when defending oneself is an appropriate behavior.

    L

    1. I thought you were very sensible. Temple Grandin did so much to promote humane treatment of cattle, but I suspect most big companies would rather circumvent them, and lie about it, and then fire those few “bad apples” who do the abuse.

      There are some things I think American should be prepared to pay more for: gas and oil (without relying on dictators and wars to keep the price low) and more humane farming.

      1. More humane farming actually results in a better product.

        The best, most balanced, most complete treatment I have found of the meat issue is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and not just because he came to the same conclusion I did, which is that quality of life matters.

        Most vegan treatises focus on the moment of the kill because it elicits the maximum emotional response for the author’s point of view. But there’s a whole lot more to it that those authors ignore. Pollan covers the whole nine yards, and compares factory farming to humane farming. It was in that book that I discovered Polyface Farm. Going to their website and reading about their management practices is a real eye opener for anyone interested in humane farming. It was there also that I learned about the specifics of how managed grazing contributes to the health of the soil and the vegetation. I had seen and been involved in an experiment of managed grazing which showed incredible results, but I didn’t really understand the details of how it actually worked.

        Also, I lived for almost thirty years on the edge of the wilderness, and many times heard the death screams of prey species being taken down by predators. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t happen is naïve in the extreme. A quick kill at a humane processing facility is far preferable. I also saw firsthand the results of wildlife’s existence in nature, and it’s not pretty, or “humane”. Rarely do wild animals have it easy, and if they do, it’s only for a short time. Species that thrive well can quickly overpopulate, leading to starvation or extensive harvest by their predators. Things usually balance out, but not before a lot of suffering happens.

        Cost is always at the top of the list in this country, and cutting corners, which results in operations of factory farming, is the unfortunate norm here. But other countries are not all like that. I stayed at a dairy farm in Muhlau, Switzerland where humane treatment of their cattle was their first priority. The family made a decent living, but not at the expense of their herd. I am also familiar with Emmi, a Swiss company that has bought up several dairies, both goat and cow, in the US, and I know that they have brought their management practices with them (also their cheese cultures). There are two commercial goat dairies on the west coast that have sold out to Emmi, and most of their staffs stayed on and are happy with the new regime. (You can now get Emmenthaler Swiss cheese that is domestically produced, and it’s the real deal, so if you don’t want to pay for imported Swiss cheese, you don’t have to.)

        The issue of meat consumption always gets tied to the view of “exploitation” of animals, even when there is minimal death involved. Vegans don’t eat honey. Many of them do wear animal products only because they haven’t thought about it, but that is supposed to be wrong, too. But if you killed off the cashmere industry in Nepal, you would have an economic disaster. How humane is that?

        I need to stop there. Sorry about the soapbox oratory. Strong feelings.

        L

    1. Was actually pretty good video, except she should have used a much larger blanket. Worked my way through college by working at a Vet’s office. On most cats, we could just over it with a towel on it, but there was a Siames once that had the temperment of video guy.

      We’d to lasso the cat around the neck and pull it into a box, which we then could just carry to a clean cage. (The rope was out a small hole in the back of the box.)

      A visiting vet was scheduled to do the neuter surgery on him and we warned him what we had to do to contain the cat. But he didn’t listen to us, an and just reached into to scruff him. Sadly, his martini lunch did not prepare him for his decreased reflexes. Cat shredded his arm in a couple of seconds, and he ended up in the hospital for a week.

  3. Seems the cat cobra incident showed the cat to be smarter than anyone thought. Running would obviously be wrong. It also appeared the cobra wasn’t too interested in really fighting it out. I’m not sure what the photographer could have done spontaneously.

  4. Based on how still the camera remains when the cobra moves away from the cat, I would say that the camera is some sort of mounted surveillance camera and not held by a person. At least, I would certainly flinch (or flee!) if a cobra suddenly turned towards me!

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