Thursday, June 10, 2010

Furry Aliens in Our Homes

Reading Dean Koontz's A BIG LITTLE LIFE, the story of his first Golden Retriever, Trixie, I was struck by her almost preternatural level of intelligence and intuition. As described by Koontz, at least, Trixie was smarter than her master. If even half of the incidents are reported accurately, Trixie's behavior was often nothing short of uncanny. In one episode, this normally friendly dog shunned an acquaintance the Koontzes then had no reason to distrust. The man eventually proved himself to be downright creepy. This incident shows just one example of the way dogs (like all animals to varying degrees) see the world differently from us. Their extraordinary sense of smell, orders of magnitude keener than ours, must give them a very different picture of the environment. They also, of course, see colors differently from us and hear different pitches of sound, not to mention their lack of forward-looking binocular vision. And in the absence of verbal speech, they depend much more on body language for communication than we do. (Maybe that's how Trixie sensed the visitor's "wrongness.")

Yet dogs, as pack animals, understand us fairly well. They make the effort to bridge the communication gap, because they see human housemates as pack members and alphas. Cats, unlike dogs and Homo sapiens, aren't gregarious. Their view of the universe must lie further from ours than that of our canine companions. A cat with human-level intelligence would probably turn out like the feline Kzinti, among whom a father feels proud when his sons grow mature enough to try to kill him—or the completely solitary aliens of Jacqueline's pseudonymous novel HERO. Devoid of any pack instinct, they interpret "heroism" as "suicidal insanity" (if I remember correctly). Although I must admit I had trouble accepting this premise to its fullest extent—they're mammals! Infants must go through a period of helplessness while they're cared for by the mother. If females had no instinct to risk their lives to protect their young, the species would die out. Surely these aliens could understand the human protective impulse toward companions as an analogy with a mother-child relationship, even if they couldn't comprehend it emotionally.

Cats and dogs, of course, aren't the only nonhuman species we live with. The world-views of pet fish, birds, reptiles, and insects (e.g., the crickets kept for good luck in Asian cultures) must be even more alien to ours. Think of Granny in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series projecting her mind to "borrow" the bodies of animals and how strange it feels for her to share the hive consciousness of bees. We don't have far to go to find alien intelligence.

"To Converse with Dumb Beasts," a story in Vivian Vande Velde's collection CURSES, INC., questions whether we'd really want to know what our pets are thinking. A kindhearted peasant receives the gift of understanding the languages of animals. When birds and squirrels in the woods prove disappointingly one-track-minded, he goes home, sure the conversation of his cat and dog will be more interesting. The dog barks excited variations on the theme, "Welcome, Master, am I cute? Do you love me?" The cat wants to know only, "Is he here to feed us?" and "Do you really think he's sick? If he dies, do you think we should eat him?" Snoopy labels Charlie Brown "the round-headed kid." In the Garfield comic strip, Garfield thinks of his owner Jon as "the man who cleans my litter box." Maybe we're better off clinging to some of our illusions about the aliens in our houses.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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