Animals have amazing poker faces. Well, a lot of them do—the ones whose mouths remain in a steady position no matter their mood. Not monkeys or apes, and not us. But cats? If we were to judge by the look on their face, searching our memory banks for similes, oh, cats would beat us in poker every time.
Dolphins always look lovable, because they’ve got that friendly upturned grin. And dogs are big, floppy, open-mouthed panters. They look like they’re wearing their emotions on their proverbial sleeve. Or, in the event that you’re a pet owner who dresses them up like dolls, their actual sleeve. It is easy to look at fellow animals like these and think we know what they know, assume they’re feeling what their body language signals amongst us when we use it. Often, we’re wrong, which is why kids running to hug dogs may end up with nasty bites and young male dolphins get a reputation for being rapey.
Cats, we like to say, are a mystery. While their eyes can be doing all sorts of crazy things, their mouths are an even line. They always look so serious to us: sometimes serious as a hunter; sometimes serious and sympathetic. But serious. And the range of behavior behind that serious mask runs from loving cuddle bucket to mischievous knocker over of things to playful imagineer to psychotic killing machine with swipey claws. It’s hard for many people to relate to cats, which is why those who live with enough of ‘em are called crazy cat people. There are no crazy dog people, bird people, or fish people. Just cat people. No whacky lizard and snake people. Just cat people. Any adult who owns Super Sea Monkeys and expects them to talk and be civilized is a bit more than questionable, but we don’t label them crazy. Nope. Just cat people.
But are cat people crazy? Is that fair? Why single them out?
One could successfully argue that to be a pet owner of any critter but cats is to be just that: an owner. You can choose to objectify the beautiful, brilliant animal friend you’ve taken into your home. Animals we keep in cages and tanks can be seen as living toys. We interact with them and indulge or ignore their needs at our pleasure. The fact that we’ve imprisoned them to own them tells the story before it begins. And we think dogs are fine with anything we do because they love us and look up to us all the same. Dogs are often far better at reading our cues than we theirs because they care. All of this is to say that to “own” pets other than cats, one does not have to connect on a heart level. We may coexist in various grades of abusive ignorance.
Cats, on the other hand? Cats slink away. Cats hide. Cats scratch and bite. Just try putting a cat on a leash for a walk—Cats don’t play that. (Except in New York City parks, where, trust me, they’re biding their time before… you’ll find out.)
To be a cat person one must be something of a heart person. One must live in connection with cats to read their body language on its own terms, not by what our bodies do when we shift moods and express needs and desires. Cats smile, for instance, but they do it with their eyes. Not quite like we do, with warm squints, but with slow blinks. If a cat is slowly blinking at you, you’ve got a friend in that moment. The various stages of pupil dilation tell you whether they’re in hunter mode, at rest, just waking up—all sorts of stuff. And their tails tell tales of come hither and stay away.
To read a cat is to live in relationship with a cat, to understand their body language as it is. To connect with them like so, to be in tune with one another, is to be in heart relationship.
Plus, feeding them when they meow helps.