Annals of Pard: Some People Are Just As Equal As Others

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischAnnals of Pard:

Some People Are Just As Equal As Others

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Photo courtesy Euan Monaghan-Structo-Pard101-IMG_1808-500w

Pard Gives an Eye-Level Visitor a Level Eye

This photograph illustrates something I’ve been thinking about cats, dogs, and people. And about Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

We know that dogs, descended from wolves, and having lived domestically with humans for as long as 30,000 years, are for the most part deeply hierarchical, conceiving of society as a pyramid with The Boss (Alpha Male, Master, Mistress, God, King, Leader) on top and other beings arranged in descending order beneath. Obedience to authority and acceptance of one’s place in that social and moral order is right behavior.

I believe that cats, descended from semi-social or asocial wild cats and having lived domestically with humans for probably less than 3,000 years, have no concept whatever of a rightful hierarchy of social or moral authority. It does not occur to a cat that any other being has any right, other than might, to its obedience, which is offered only out of immediate self-interest or personal affection. Cats are intensely opportunistic, practical anarchists.

What we see in this photograph, taken by an amiable human willing to get down on his belly at floor level with the cat, is that the cat accepts this willingness as unworthy of special notice. The cat considers himself on a level with the human, whether the human is towering six feet above him or is flat on the floor with him.

Knowing  that the human is a stranger, although a quiet, well-behaved one, and is ten times larger and stronger than himself, the cat shows no alarm, but some rational distrust. He offers no welcome, slits his eyes, sets his ears at alert, gives nothing away, and simply looks straight at the large intruder upon his territory.

This is the level gaze of one who does not conceive himself as inferior to anybody — who sees himself as the social equal of anyone he meets.

I don’t say the absolute equal. Size matters. Pard grants me a certain authority: there are places I forbid him to go and things I prevent him from doing, and though he tests these sanctions often and sometimes disobeys them, mostly he accepts them. I think he does so because he trusts me, is fond of me, and is very much smaller than me. If he weighed 120 pounds instead of 12, he would be lot likelier to assert his equality with me by disobeying my orders.

Relationships of trust and affection that involve a balance of power are never simple. We work them out as we go along, individually and by species. Generalizations lead to assumptions that are often misleading, sometimes fatally so. After all, an 80-pound dog frightened or goaded into aggression, or who has been trained and encouraged to attack, is as dangerous as any leopard.

That so many of us can’t see the cat’s level gaze as a declaration of equality, but see it as contemptuous, arrogant, even threatening — as declaring superiority — signifies that, like wolves and dogs, we simians are hierarchs. We want power to be assigned to certain individuals once for all, not to pass around among us according to circumstance. We make permanent niches — Higher, Lower — and fill them. Creatures who won’t stay in the niche we put them in frighten or anger us. The gaze of equality from a small, speechless, furry creature is read as the intolerable challenge of an inferior claiming superiority.

I said cats are anarchists, but a society of equals is also, after all, a democracy.

The cat-human connection, historically an almost entirely practical, utilitarian one (with occasional fits of worshiping the cat as a divinity) in our time has come to include powerful bonds of intimate affection, unconditional, as between equals. I like the idea that from these subtle, intense companionships we might have something to learn about the nature of our own politics, our difficulty in achieving, even conceiving, genuine equality.

20 July 2015

Pard - Photo by Moe Bowstern

Pard is doing the Legless Cat Asana on top of a four-drawer filing cabinet in the upstairs hall, at just about human eye level, a good place for exchanging greetings with his equals.



Annals of Pard: Some People Are Just As Equal As Others — 11 Comments

  1. Dear miss… I just want to tell you about new ideas and theories about wolves (and dog). There are some people in recent research who say that wolves don’t live in wolfpacks. In fact, in nature, the wolf has its family composed of a male, a female and the kids. Sometimes, another female, sister or relative of the main female, is added. The young males live in small groups untill they find a female and a family of their own. I was flabergasted when I read that. But it makes sense. There is not such a thing as alpha male amongst wolves… So it’s an error (more or less… you will understand if you read the book) to consider oneself (like in that TV Show) as the alpha male of a “dogpack”… If you are interrested in having more information about dogs, cats and other tamed animals, you can read ALL the books by Temple Grandin, but especially the one titled “Animals Make Us Human”… It is a beautiful book and the lady (who has Asperger) gave me some new hints how to conduct mylesf aroung animals… If you are bolder, you can also read about thelepatic communication with animals. I KNOW THAT IS STRANGE!!! 🙂 But it works… We are only at the beginning of understanding our 4, 2 or even 6 or 8-legged companions. I can only tell you that recently, I had a very interresting conversation with… a fly…LOL… OK … Here is one title for you: “Animal Talk: Interspecies Telepathic Communication” by Penelope Smith… And all my apologies for any bad English… I am French Canadian! 😀

    • Regarding wolves, AIUI current research says that the strict dominance heirarchy is characteristic of captive bands, where unrelated wolves are thrown together willy-nilly. So, the analogy would be to modern workplaces and suchlike, where the rules of family and tribe don’t apply. Even so, note that there is still a dominance ladder in a family! It’s just that the pecking order is based on family roles and age/size, rather than some essentialist quality of “dominance”.

      For cats… I beg to differ. Anyone who’s had more than one or maybe two cats will see that they certainly form pecking orders among themselves. It’s just that humans are not on the same ladder — cats don’t expect to fit into the human pecking order, and they don’t try to force humans into the feline order. Also, humans may be bigger, but they’re also soft and slow. 😉 If a human gets grabby, a cat doesn’t have to be able to kill them or even beat them up: Generally a few scratches, or the threat of same, will convince the hairless ape to cease and desist. Cats are pretty good at evading attacks, too.

      • I am very interrested by what you are writing, David. I’m fascinated too to see many people beginning to see differently the “animals”… I have 3 cats and I am practicing inter-species communication. I can tell you that I find it easier to communicate with dogs or even with flies than cats. 😀 But I’m only beginning my practice. Maybe with time, my reflexion will differ. I think cats are the most difficult animals to understand… and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because cats often don’t care… or at least they seem to… well o well….

  2. That sense of egalitarian companionship is exactly what attracts me to cats. I love dogs too, but as a fiercely independent spirit myself, I am more at home with a fellow creature who doesn’t need my unwavering approval.

    • I completely agree. I am a very non-heirarchical person, and I find dogs tiring to relate to, to train, and so on. I have met some individual dogs that I quite liked, but have very little desire to have one. Cats, OTOH, I find very relaxing, more like fuzzy little friends.

  3. This is similar to what cat behaviorist John Brashsaw says: cats don’t treat us differently than they treat other cats. “We’ve yet to discover anything about cat behavior that suggests they have a separate box they put us in when they’re socializing with us. They obviously know we’re bigger than them, but they don’t seem to have adapted their social behavior much. Putting their tails up in the air, rubbing around our legs, and sitting beside us and grooming us are exactly what cats do to each other.”

  4. Marianne’s quote from John Brashsaw is great. Some people are confused or offended when a cat treats them as a cat, and some feel honored.

  5. A dog can be a slave, under control; a cat cannot (or will not?).

    The cat says, “I am not a slave, I am a prisoner.”

  6. There are some great analyses and studies out there showing that dogs do not naturally have a strong hierarchy. Feral domestic dogs live in loose groups according to available resources, but only live closely together if they are a mother and pups. My own feeling as a dog owner is that dogs have a unique relationship with humans, which is quite different and I would say deeper than the relationships they have with other dogs. It is something like parent/child and something like being in a working cooperative.

  7. My husband, the Cat Whisperer, says our many cats prove his theory that much of their interaction with each other is political.
    I guess he means they compete with impunity for first bites at the food bowl, and for the coveted spot on his lap – from which they make him scream like a girl when they inevitably claw his leg to get his undivided attention.
    I’m too distracted by unrequited desire as they more often than not shun attempts to cuddle their irresistible catness (sending me back to the comforting acceptance of our dog) to understand their social interactions.
    But, even as I note they mostly tolerate the other cats and prefer my husband over me every night, I also note how how responsive they are to affection and touch, when they want it, of course. Cats are sensitive creatures; they respond to love, in their own time and in their own way.