Critters Just Shelley

She loves me. She loves me not.

Zoë has a new place to sleep, against a pillow covered in flannel underneath the heat vent in my room. She snuggles in between the wall and the humidifier, under the table which holds my television, stereo, internet router, and various speakers. She’s out of the way but still near me, and warm against the wall.

zoe in new bed

She looked so sweet and trusting that I had to grab the camera and take pictures of her. I woke her up, but she forgave me.

Or did she? Can a cat ‘forgive’? Some people say that animals aren’t capable of sophisticated emotions, such as love or sorrow or, in this case, forgiveness. They believe that what we perceive to be ‘love’ is really an animal’s instinctive deference paid to us as both pack leader and source of shelter, nourishment, and tactile contact.

Can Zoë love me? According to Sarah Hartwell at the MessyBeast site the answer is yes and no:

According to many pet owners, the answer is “yes”. Cats display a range of feelings including pleasure, frustration and affection. Other feline behavior is attributed to jealousy, frustration and even vengefulness. Owners base their answer on observation of feline behavior, but without an understanding of what makes a cat tick, they risk crediting a cat with emotions it does not feel as well as recognizing genuine feline emotions. Owners who veer too far into the “Did my ickle-wickle fluffy-wuffikins miss his mummy then?” approach may not understand (or not want to accept) that a cat’s emotions evolved to suit very different situations to our own.

According to many scientists, however, the answer is “no”. They argue that humans like to anthropomorphize (attribute human qualities to non-human animals) and regard pets as surrogate children. We interpret their instinctive behaviors according to our own wide range of emotions. We credit them with feelings they do not have. Some scientists deny that animals, including cats and dogs, are anything more than flesh-and-blood “machines” programmed for survival and reproduction. Others, such as pet behaviorists, credit animals with some degree of emotional response and a limited range of emotions (limited in comparison to humans, that is).

In other words, many scientists believe all animals (including us) share the same set of simple emotions, such as hunger, contentment, and fear. As for the others, what we perceive to be a complex emotion may, in reality, be a combination of simpler emotions or even a survival mechanism.

For instance, embarrassment is a ‘complex’ emotion. So, do cats experience embarrassment?

A cat which clumsily falls off a shelf and acts differently according to whether the owner is watching or whether the owner is believed to be out of sight is thought to be showing embarrassment.. Embarrassment in humans is associated with potential loss of face, loss of status or loss of respect (these are all related, but modified by culture and circumstances). The loss of status may be permanent or temporary.

A cat is not only a predator, it is also prey for larger animals. In addition it is programmed to fight other cats for its territory and for mates. If it shows any indication of weakness, it may be challenged by a younger or fitter rival and ousted from its territory. For this reason, many cats hide signs of illness, injury and pain.

A cat which has fallen off a shelf in plain sight will pretend the event has not happened i.e. that it has not shown any weakness. A human may make excuses for why a similar human mishap happened (the ledge was icy or slippery); this is simply a human way of saving face. Cats speak with their bodies and an “embarrassed” cat will most often sit down and wash nonchalantly – cat speak for “nothing has happened”!

Ah, but I know many people who act in the exact same manner. Oh, they won’t sit on their butt and wash their privates with their tongue, but they will act as if nothing at all is wrong or out of the ordinary when they make a mistake. Most likely for the same reasons as the cat: to not show weakness; to survive.

sweet zoe

If embarrassment can be explained away as actions necessary for survival, what about a more tender emotion, such as love? We pet owners insist that our pets love us. After all, they greet us with joy when we come home, and they sit and look out the window when we’re gone. They sleep next to us even if the weather is warm, and will follow us outside when it’s bitter cold. Doesn’t this mean they love us? Or again, can this behavior be explained away as a set of simple behaviors?

We can’t specifically ask our pets if they love us, and they can’t let us know by sending us chocolates at Valentine’s day; nor sit in a bar with us until late hours of the night as we cry over some recent hurt. Do we only assume they love us because we love them? Do we need to read love in how they act toward us?

Rather than search for this answer in Hartwell’s general essay on emotions, I searched for the answer in her essay on cats and grief. In this she writes of her own experiences of cat behavior, observed during her animal rescue work:

I have personal experience of a pair of cats whose owner had died. The cats refused to eat while in the shelter. To reduce stress, they were fostered in a household and the vet prescribed appetite stimulants. One cat recovered but remained withdrawn for a long period of time. The other continued to pine and became critically ill until it had to be euthanized (prolonged fasting results in liver damage). Its behavior was so severely affected that the foster carer considered force-feeding unsuitable; the cat had no interest in life …

Cats may express grief through nightmares (quite possibly a dream of the missing person has been replaced by wakefulness and the abrupt realization that the person has gone). One of my rescue cats, Sappho, had repeated nightmares after the traumatic death of the owner in the cat’s presence. Sappho woke up whimpering and fearful from sleep and required physical reassurance from me. If this happened at night, she actually climbed into bed and hid as far down the bed as possible, crying out (initially at a rate of one vocalization per second) until her fear and grief subsided. As well as being clingy, she often woke me from sleep as though afraid that I had also died.

I don’t particularly want to die to test whether Zoë loves me. Does she love me? Of course she does. Look at all the photos I’ve published of her: how could there be any doubt that she loves me?

beautiful zoe

Sometimes, though, when she looks me closely in the face, I can see myself reflected in her eyes. The figure I see there is vague and indistinct, oddly alien. It is a reminder that we are not so very alike, her and I, though we happily share a life together.

In these moments I am aware of the cat within my friend. Aware, and respectful.

zoe up close and self portrait

Critters Photography Places

Zoo lights

I know that many people don’t approve of zoos, but the St. Louis Zoo is one of my favorite places; especially yesterday when there was only a handful of people walking about. The trees are decorated for the evening Zoo Lights, but on a dark and dreary day you can benefit from the lights almost as much but without the crowds.

With the cooler temperatures and the growing lack of people visiting, the animals come out more in the winter and take almost as much interest in the few visitors, as we do in them. You also have a better chance to talk with the keepers during ‘off season’.

It was from a keeper that I found out that the two grizzly bears are named “Bert” and “Ernie”. They’re now 15 years old and over 900 pounds each, but when the zoo got them, they were orphaned cubs from Yellowstone. The keeper was throwing them hard shelled nuts to entertain them, keep them active and foraging. She told me about standing next to the gate in their enclosure and how their heads were this big around, as she held her arms wide.

Bert was friendlier than Ernie, but he didn’t like the flash. That’s good to know if I’m in the wild and happen to run into a grizzly: they don’t like camera flashes.

Bert and Ernie

I was able to get a couple of fairly decent photos of American White Pelicans.


Yesterday I discovered the Cypress Swamp; an enclosed habitat featuring birds found in the cypress swamps in our area. I was able to get a nice photo of a heron while there–something I’ve not been able to do as well in the wild. I know that getting photos of animals in the wild have more ‘value’ than getting ones of those in captivity, but I do love taking pictures of animals regardless of location. Does it really lessen the photo?

Cypress Swamp

The transcaspian urial in particular were much more active in the cooler weather; climbing all about their duplicated mountain in their compound. At first, I thought they were statues when I saw them high up above the ground, on carefully crafted indentations in the ‘rock’. I was particularly taken with this handsome fellow and his curly horns.

Ram Tough

I haven’t been able to find out my favorite camel’s name, so I call him Bud. He was in fine, foamy form on Saturday and kept following me, hoping I would have a nice tidbit for him. The foam is natural for a Bactrian camel and results from their rather abundant saliva. So much saliva that desert dwellers sometimes capture it in a cloth for drinking.


The sea lions were in full voice, most likely demanding their own dinner. Yesterday was very cold and there was hardly anyone about and I imagine the afternoon feeding show was cancelled and chow hadn’t arrive yet. This disruption in their routine wouldn’t please this highly vocal crew.

I did it myyyyy way

Either that, or they also liked the cooler weather.

A Picture of Grace

I haven’t once been able to see any of the apes at their new Jungle of the Apes habitat. I think it’s going to take a good long while before they’re used to it; their previous habitat was enclosed.

Zoo Lights

I doubt I’ll go down during the evening for Zoo Lights. I go for the animals not the crowds. If I can get my tires replaced relatively soon on my car, I’ll also head out and see what I can spot ‘in the wild’. It’s almost time for the bald eagles.