Do Cats Use Computers?

Do Cats Use Computers?
Scientists take note -- important discoveries are often made by researchers who boldly go where others fear to tred. Do cats watch TV? Do cats use computers? These are among the burning questions that the professionals often ignore. As a result, the fate of humankind may hang on the work of 10-year olds and the neighborhood science fair. (Includes photographic evidence.)

Many years ago I offered to help a 10-year old with her science fair project. After stewing over the suggestions provided by her teacher, she tossed them all out and scribbled down her own topic -- Do cats watch TV?

My job, she said, was to create a short movie that might appeal to cats. We videotaped hamsters, mice, drawings of mice, wiggling strings, dogs, flying birds, fish in an aquarium, plus duller "filler" scenes. We videotaped ourselves, cans of cat food, and ourselves scooping food out of the cans. All this was edited onto a cassette tape and cued on the VCR.

Then came the hard part. Caitlin, the young scientist, positioned one of the family cats in front of the TV set. We quickly discovered that although the cat did pretty much nothing all day, it preferred not to do nothing when we wanted it to. Eventually, with some help from Little Friskies, we managed to get the cat to sit in front of the television set. I videotaped the cat's reaction to what appeared on the screen and Caitlin logged the results in a notebook second by second. We repeated the experiment a number of times with a number of cats until we ran out of Little Friskies.

Cats, based on our low-grade science project, definitely watch TV. Of course, we knew that before we started. But science fairs, like most TV, are mostly sizzle with very little steak. I taught my protégé how to pretty-up the stats into a color-coded chart. We rigged up a VCR and a big color screen and played the movie at the science fair while a group of stuffed toy cats stared at the boob tube. She built a provocative glitzy sign that shouted -- DO CATS WATCH TV? She dressed up like a little scientist and wowed the judges with her commanding knowledge of documented cat reactions to various forms of visual stimuli -- cocked heads (left or right, up or down), yawns, exposed tongues, blinks, paw action, eyeball dilation, etc.. The experiment won the prize.

At the time I thought we were bilking the judges at the science fair. They were such easy prey. But Caitlin went on to study animal behavior in college, worked with monkeys in the San Diego Zoo and may yet become a full-fledged veterinarian. So one has to consider the possibility that some form of education was actually taking place. If so, the judges may not have been bamboozled at all.

Come to think of it, my latest cat has been logging a lot of television hours lately. And last week she actually turned on the TV by stepping on the remote control. She likes to chase the arrow cursor around the computer screen. That, therefore, raises the corollary question -- Do cats use computers? Again, I'd have to answer in the affirmative, although my research, so far, is merely anecdotal. The fact that cats "use" computers in different ways than humans, does not immediately disqualify them as technology users, neither rhetorically or practically.

Which brings us down to the bottom of the page, and to another photograph I wanted you to see. It shows my friend's cat Phoebe sitting on a laptop keyboard like a hen on a nest. Is she simply warming her underside? Or is Phoebe actually "using" the computer in a nontraditional manner? Or is this, as the owner suggests, really a silent cry for help by a creature starved for love in an overly automated world? Is Phoebe attempting to warn humankind that our obsession with technology is edging us all toward the precipice of global annihilation? These are the weighty questions, I fear, that can only be solved by the next generation of 10-year old scientists.