Slip your intellectual leash

Cato, the feline friend of Dan Cohn-Sherbok, puts the cat among the pigeons and says don’t be a mutt, keep a moggie

March 4, 2010

Credit: Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Last Friday, I was enjoying my afternoon nap on the sofa when I was rudely awakened. The door crashed open and Dan stormed in.

“You’d better listen to this,” he said. “My old friend Felipe Fernández-Armesto has written an article in Times Higher Education about why dogs are better than cats!”

Well, I woke up pretty quickly. The piece was called “A dog’s dinner of an idea” (18 February). Dan read it to me and I was outraged. I could not believe that a human being could be so RUDE. I had to have an extra snack before I could recover my equilibrium.

Apparently, a University of Bristol research team investigated cat and dog ownership and discovered that graduates were 36 per cent more likely to share their homes with cats than with dogs. Professor Felipe was appalled. He embarked on a tirade of abuse. He said cats were “creepy, secretive and nocturnal”. He went on to castigate cat-owners. He maintained that people who loved cats were “morally indifferent or actively evil”.

Then he praised dog-owners. He argued that dogs were the choice of the socially well adjusted. Human beings who liked people chose dogs because they met other dog-lovers when they took their pets out for walks. He went on to extol the whole race of dogs. He said they were intelligent and helpful. They served the blind and deaf, and they worked with the police and armed services for the good of human society.

By contrast, he insisted that cats were totally selfish, concerned only for their own comfort.

Professor Felipe has insulted the entire cat population. More importantly, he has failed to ask the right question. He asserts merely that dogs are preferable to cats, rather than pondering why it is that graduates in fact prefer cats. The conductor of the research project, Jane Murray, did this and more. She speculated that graduates were more inclined to be cat-owners because they were more likely to work long hours outside the house. They chose cats because they were self-sufficient and could be left on their own.

That may be so, but there is a more obvious reason and it relates to the life of the mind. My friend Dan tries to encourage his students to think for themselves, to develop their own ideas and make their own judgments. He says that they do not come to the university just to write down everything their teachers tell them. Most graduates do achieve some degree of critical awareness and independent thought. In other words they become like cats.

As everyone knows, we cats are independent. Unlike dogs, we can be trusted to go out by ourselves. We make our own judgments. We do as we think best, and we enjoy periods of contemplative solitude. That is not to say that we do not appreciate the small comforts a thoughtful human being can provide for us - nice food and a warm place to sleep. In return, we offer exceptional beauty, undemanding companionship and gentle devotion.

Our human friends know that they cannot train us to fetch balls, sit at command or slavishly roll over. Even the allure of food will not entice us to walk at heel. In a word, like the successful graduate, we have achieved independence and self-determination.

Professor Felipe tells us that he and his dachshund walk on the towpath together in amiable companionship. I can just imagine it! That fat little sausage trotting along on his lead, trying with his short legs to keep up with his master. It is pathetic how dogs adore their owners. They follow them about, gaze at them with soppy expressions and perform all sorts of undignified tricks. They are like students who cannot think beyond pleasing their teachers.

So of course, the more intelligent human beings prefer cats. It is the ill-educated among the youth who choose to keep ferocious and savage dogs who reflect their own values. On a more civilised level, the kind of people who like orderly dogs are those who believe in obedience and hierarchy. They like to keep everything in their lives on a lead. They reject independence and freedom of thought. Very possibly if Murray and her team had confined their study to the pet-keeping habits of university administrators, the results may have been very different…

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