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JACK SMITH

Feigning Cats and Dogs : Firsthand Observation of Household Pets Suggests that Adam and Eve's Serpent Wasn't the Only Animal Capable of Deceit

October 25, 1987|JACK SMITH

WRITING IN THE Guardian, Nicholas Humphrey wonders whether animals have the intelligence to deceive. As he puts it bluntly, "to tell lies."

He notes that researchers have discovered behavior in chimpanzees that suggests deceptive intent. For example, one chimpanzee will lead his fellows away from a cache of fruit, then come back and eat it all himself. A female will deceive the dominant male of her tribe to do some private grooming with another male she favors.

He also points out that a certain moth, when threatened by a bird, will spread its wings to display a pair of enormous, terrifying eyes. There is no doubt, he says, that the moth has acted to deceive. "He has issued a false message." But later he suggests that, in fact, it perhaps has no intent to deceive; its act is simply instinctive, though it has a favorable result.

Being no more a scientist than I am, Humphrey bases his own conclusion not on chimps or insects but on his dog.

First he points out how he deceives his dog. Wanting to shut the dog in the house, he opens the door and rattles the dog's pan in the kitchen. Expecting to be fed, the dog comes in. "I shut him in and leave."

It is quite clear in that case that Humphrey is deceiving his dog.

But suppose Humphrey is sitting in his chair. The dog scratches on the door as if he wants out. Humphrey gets up to open the door. The dog runs around him and jumps into the chair. Has the dog not deliberately deceived him?

Humphrey observes that the answer is important because it can reveal so much about an animal's imagination.

Like Humphrey, I have never been deceived by a chimpanzee, but I have many times been deceived by dogs and even more times by cats. Cats are the most duplicitous of creatures, and they are capable of the subtlest deception.

Have you ever watched a cat toy with a mouse? The cat crouches, rear legs drawn under its haunches, front paws extended. The mouse, four feet away, is terrified.

The cat does not look at the mouse. Like the Sphinx itself, the cat looks bland, stony and uninterested. The mouse is deceived. It thinks the cat is not aware of its presence. Finally the mouse makes its move--a foolish dash for safety. The cat pounces and in one leap has the mouse in its paws.

Then begins a series of cruel deceptions. The cat plays with the mouse. It lets the mouse go. Evidently it couldn't care less. The mouse makes another tentative run for it. The cat makes one short hop and has the mouse again.

It is deceptive, deliberate and despicable behavior, and I think the cat must answer for it.

As for confiscating their masters' chairs, cats are even more duplicitous and adept than dogs. I have had numerous cats that loved my chair. They would hide quietly under a nearby table, waiting for me to get up for a moment. When I returned, the chair would be taken. I am positive that deception was a part of their strategy.

My Airedale, Fleetwood Pugsley, was Machiavellian in his duplicity. Many times when he escaped our yard I would chase him down the hill, calling for him to come to me, his master.

He would often trot toward me, head down as if in docile submission, only to wheel away, as I reached for his collar, and then bound into the yard of a neighbor.

I have never owned another dog that had so much ability to pretend he was interested in one thing, completely ignoring the thing that he really had his mind on, only to switch directions and go after the prize when you thought his intentions were innocent.

If my dog saw an open door or an open gate, his pretense of ignoring it was fascinating to watch.

Pugsley's deceptions were not as exquisite or sinister as those of cats. He was more childlike. But I have no doubt that his behavior was deceptive, that he knew he was distracting or fooling me, with the deliberate intent of getting away with something forbidden.

What this means to me is not that animals have more imagination than we have given them credit for.

On the other hand, it seems to suggest that human beings, like animals, are instinctively deceptive.

Deception is not necessarily an intelligent response. Perhaps Mata Hari was no more intelligent than the moth that spreads its wings to display a pair of terrifying eyes. Mata Hari was merely doing what came naturally.

It is interesting to think that we are patriotic and industrious for the same reason that ants are.

But I can honestly say that I never knew a moral cat.

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