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Jack Smith

If you knew Suzie like he knows Suzie, oh, oh, what an intelligent dog!

November 27, 1985|Jack Smith

I have never been one to anthropomorphize animals, even for philosophical purposes, though I admit that some useful precepts may be learned from Aesop's Fables.

I do not agree with the folk idea that "some dogs (or cats or horses) are smarter than some people."

Animals are of a lower order of intelligence than human beings and even the brightest of them is far below a moron.

However, our new puppy seems unusually bright to me. She was left in our yard a couple of months ago and we have taken her in. I named her Suzie after my wife's sister.

I have an idea that Suzie is brighter than any dog we have ever owned, including my pedigreed Airedale. She learns quickly, she is responsive to commands, and she has already found the hole under the fence and got out twice.

What really caught my eye, though, was an incident the other night. We let her in before dinner, when I had the television on, and she was trotting through the house when she saw the screen. She pulled up short, cocked her head, pricked up her ears, and actually watched the picture.

Her interest lasted only a few seconds, however, and then she turned away.

I had never before seen an animal react in any way to a television image.

Coincidentally, I have received a letter from James E. Wilson, a doctor of veterinary medicine, on that very subject.

"I have been a veterinarian for over 50 years," he writes, "and during that time . . . never have I observed any dog or cat showing evidence of recognizing another animal or human either in a still picture or on television.

"I have wondered about this for a long time. Owners have said to me, 'Oh, my cat (or dog) sits before the television and gets a big kick out of watching the cat or dog food commercials.'

"But the truth is that they are only noticing the flickering of the television picture."

Dr. Wilson suspects that the vision of dogs and cats, unlike that of human beings, is not assisted by imagination. He quotes Jonathan Miller on that subject:

"What one sees goes well beyond what the eye provides. What the mind sees is not what there is but what it supposes there might be. We should regard perception not as pictures of reality but as hypotheses about it. Belief determines the significance of what is seen."

All of those conditions, Dr. Wilson points out, go well beyond the mental capabilities of dogs and cats.

"And then," he adds, "perhaps animals are surrounded by an aura that only the more primitive mind of other animals can be aware of. Naturally, a picture could not give off this aura and so would not be recognizable by a lower animal."

Though I don't believe that I have ever underestimated the intelligence of cats, I evidently underrated their tractability the other day when I said a cat could never be broken to a leash.

A condominium home owners' association in Tarzana, you may remember, had ordered that its members leash their cats, or they would be picked up.

"If you put a leash on a cat," I said, "it will spit, hiss, scratch, bite, roll up into a ball, vomit on your leg, and, as Penny Ward Moser pointed out recently in Discover magazine, if really irritated it will pee in your shoe."

Several readers have written to deny this:

"We've had Siamese cats for 40 years," writes Mrs. Robert P. Felgar of Malibu, "and find them easy to train with harness and leash. . . ."

"From the time we obtained our then eight-weeks-old kitten from the Burbank Animal Shelter," writes Viola Carll of Burbank, "she has been accustomed to wearing a harness 24 hours a day. . . . When she wishes to go outside, she comes and speaks to us (yes, they talk), then goes to where the leash lies and waits most patiently for it to be attached."

Mrs. Carrl encloses snapshots of herself and her husband walking this remarkable cat, whose name is Choo-Choo.

Linda Dacon of Montrose writes that she lived in a condominium and has an 8-year-old cat who never goes outdoors without being on her leash. "The key," she says, "is early training."

Laurie Lambert of Cherry Valley also sends a snapshot of her cat on a leash. "When we first started using the leash he balked and yowled," she says. "Now he loves it. When my husband says, 'Let's go out,' Muffy runs to the door and sits down so the leash can be put on."

George R. Giroux of Laguna Beach has the rather naive but fascinating idea that cats are more intelligent than dogs or people because they are more successful at being what they are.

"Cats are extremely good at being cats," he points out. "They are never confused about that. Every facet of their physical and social environment is used to that one end and that alone. . . .

"Dogs are confused. They are never sure what they are. Sometimes they think they are people, or wolves, or trained seals.

"We needn't discuss how poor people are at being people--or even human. A glance at the morning paper is sufficient proof of that. . . ."

I think Giroux is probably right about cats; and if so, a cat that allows itself to be leashed has betrayed its species.

I only hope that our new dog Suzie learns to watch football on TV. She could be a wonderful companion for my old age.

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