Sometimes when I want to have a better understanding of an animal mentality I study the animal closest at hand — my cat.
Morse is 10 pounds of instinct, whiskers, claws, sense of smell and a clear order of priorities. Named after Colin Dexter’s ale-drinking, opera-loving crossword puzzler Chief Inspector in Oxford, England, Morse keeps his paws clean and his bowl half-full at all times. Unlike the majority of cats with whom I’ve shared my home, I’ve never had to attempt to “teach” Morse not to wake me for breakfast. If he’s hungry at some ungodly, early hour, he simply nibbles on what’s left in the bowl from the night before. He does NOT wake me and rarely informs me that it’s morning before my radio alarm clock announces that it’s time to start my day.
This is not to say that he is un-catlike. In all the true animal in-the-wild respects, he is a respectable feline. He has a temper — backed by sharp teeth and even sharper claws — and like all big cats, sleep occupies a good part of his daily routine. He likes to sleep on my pillow and often curls up by my side when I use my laptop (like right now). Morse enjoys scattering kitty litter all over the bathroom floor with enthusiastic abandon and insists that we play when I’m on important business phone calls.
His relationship with the fierce and powerful big cats is more a matter of scale than one of quality. He will put his full and formidable (if time-limited) focus on his prey — an empty shopping bag, an insect or a fat pigeon outside on the fire escape across the courtyard — whether the quest is realistic or fanciful. The ON & OFF — full throttle — of a hunter is present in his ten pound body. His response to any given stimulus is complete and completely instinctual. You can’t negotiate with a house cat (or a lion or a MONSTER) but you can work within the context of their mode of communication.
Morse responds to my “fat pigeon” call (my best imitation of the over-sized pigeons he so admires) and to me taking a seat in the sofa spot he likes best. I would not keep a tiger in my home and I wouldn’t tug any cat (including mine) by the tail. Cats and other animals don’t have to be anthropomorphized in fiction in order to give them interesting roles in a story. They are fascinating characters without humanizing elements.