Laser-like Permanence

Flat Amelia

37, day seven.

I do not know if Amelia is the most intelligent cat that I have ever met. Everyone thinks their cat, or their dog, or their toddler is brilliant and special. I do know that Amelia’s intelligence is different than that of other cats. Amelia has something most of them do not. Or rather, they have something she doesn’t, and it makes her special. Most cats have a rear right leg. Amelia does not. The umbilical cord wrapped around it and it had to be amputated immediately following her birth. She can run around just fine, but she limps when she walks. She likes to sit on steps or ottomans in such a way that supports her rear legs. Sometimes she tries to scratch her ear with the leg that isn’t there, in what a top weapon-systems designer has described as “weaponized cuteness.”

We have two cats. One of them is sitting on my lap right now. We got the two of them from a shelter at the same time. We got a three legged cat and a black cat – the least commonly adopted type – because we are suckers. Tazi, the black one, spent the drive home from the shelter meowing her feline lungs out. Amelia whined for awhile, and then adapted. Once we got them home we let them out into a room we cordoned off specifically for that purpose. Tazi ran under the rolling desk and hid for two and a half hours. Amelia, on the other hand, immediately began to run over, climb, sniff, and lick everything. Like a kitten does. We named her Amelia because she liked to explore. She wasn’t, strictly speak, named after Amelia Earhart, but she was named after a character who was named after Amelia Earhart.

Once Tazi came out of her hiding place she also came out of her proverbial shell. She proved to be an even more adventurous explorer than her adopted sister. She could leap further and climb higher than Amelia. She had the feline naturally ability to always land on her feet, which her poor three legged sister did not. Tazi immediately undertook risks Amelia had earlier avoided. Sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they weren’t. It never stopped Tazi from trying again. And again. And again. Often times, Amelia stopped whatever she was doing and just watched.

Over the next few weeks, we naturally sorted our two new kittens into categories. We had the brave one, Tazi, and the cute one, Amelia. It also seemed like Tazi was the smart one. She was far more likely to try new things. Amelia often just stared at her. She spent a lot of time staring. Tazi had so very much energy. She chased feathers with twice the enthusiasm of her sister, and would jump three feet into the air in an attempt to catch them. That is not something Amelia could have done no matter how much she wanted to. She did not seem to want to. If Tazi was a ball of kitten energy, Amelia seemed to be comparatively energy-less. It was worrisome, especially compared to the amount of energy she displayed at the shelter. Amelia’s size, handicap, and general demeanor makes it hard not to worry about her disproportionately. So we took her to the vet , something that needed to be done anyway. The vet said she was fine. Cats just have different energy levels. She was probably just adjusting to her new home.

Both of the cats developed problems with their eyes, and needed eye-drops. Tazi was first. She did not like it, and she responded like a typical cat. As a brave little girl, she was easy to approach, and purred whenever I held her in place to administer the eye drops. The action contact of the eyedrops, of course, make her freak out and try to get away. The treatment lasted a week, with two doses per day. Tazi reacted the same way every single time. At the end of the week, she was just as likely to purr and settle down if I held her in place than she was at the beginning of the week.

Amelia’s reaction was very different.

At the beginning, she let us hold her and pick her up just as she always had. My wife described her as a very chill cat, and she was. She did not exactly like being picked up, but she tolerated it without squirming. After a couple of days of eye-dropping, Amelia started to tense up when we tried to hold her still. A few days later, whenever we tried to approach her in a certain way she ran away. It was the inkling we had that there was something else going on inside her kitten brain. It was not the last.

I remember the first time she successfully leapt onto our bed. The bed is several feet off the ground. Tazi could leap up there with no problem, even though it was a fairly high jump for a kitten her size. She made the leap exactly the way cats normally do. She just leapt. Amelia often watched her do it, and like so many things Amelia did it was endearing and every so slightly heartbreaking. Until the day she did it. I was sitting on the bed, watching television when Amelia walked in and stared. She clearly wanted to come up on the bed. I wanted desperately to pick her up and put here there, but I knew her well enough from our limited time together to know she would not like that. I thought she would just sit there and stare longingly like she always did, and it would be adorable and a little bit sad.

Then she leapt.

It did not look anything like when Tazi did it. Amelia was closer to the bed. Her leap was more vertical and less horizontal than a typical cat leap. She only made it half way up, but she was ready with her front claws. They gripped tightly onto the mattress. Then her single rear leg claws found purchase, thrust down, and propelled her upwards, onto the bed. I was a new kitten owner, so I responded into the only reasonable way.

I flipped out.

I congratulated my kitten over and over. I pet her copiously and vigorously. I texted my wife, and used more exclamation points that would be strictly necessary in the average three hundred page novel about excitable hyperactive people who yell a lot and find themselves in endlessly stressful situations.

My wife saw Amelia make the same leap the next day. It occurred to us that maybe she wasn’t just staring. Maybe she was was studying. Maybe she was planning.

Once we thought of it, the signs were everywhere. I tried to remain skeptical, but the logical interpretation continued to assert itself. Over the next few weeks, Amelia did the same thing in many of the places she had previously stared at. The back of my computer chair, the bathtub, the couch, the green chair in the living room. Each time, she found a position, and tried something. Sometimes it worked, and she surmounted the obstacle. Sometimes it didn’t, and she came back the next day and tried something else. We watched, fascinated, as over the next year Amelia re-derived all of the skills normal, fully-legged cats take for granted. Suddenly so much about her made sense. She wasn’t low energy, she was just highly deliberate. Indeed, once she had her techniques worked out, she chased those feathers and climbed those stacks of boxes as vigorously as Tazi did. You expect to see this kind of learning in children, but not in cats.

Just as we got used to the distinctive way Amelia acquired new skills, something strange happened. Tazi started following in her foot steps. Tazi did not have to use her claws to climb up the bed, or up the green chair. She could just leap up there, and that is what she had done as a kitten. However, even though Tazi was bigger now, she used her claws more and more. Was she learning from Amelia? Was that possible? Once we saw Tazi limping when nothing at all was wrong with her leg, that theory was more or less confirmed. Tazi was big and muscular and athletic, but in her own reserved, pensive way, Amelia quietly moved into the position of alpha cat of the household.

I was reminded of Bigwig and Hazel, from Watership down. Bigwig is large and fit and dangerous in battle. He is the natural choice for chief rabbit. But the rabbits choose Hazel for their chief, because Hazel has something special. In my favorite scene in the book, Hazel seeks an audience with the enemy general Woundwort of the militaristic rabbit kingdom Efrafa, before the battle between them. Hazel is limping, then, from an earlier wound. He proposes to Woundwort that between the two of them they could create a truly great warren, something grander and safer than any rabbit had ever known. Woundwort is almost convinced. Even though he is obsessed with power, and believe is only in violence, he is almost swayed. He sees something special in this strange, handicapped rabbit who speaks as other rabbits do not. Because Hazel does have something special. Hazel has insight.

I think, just maybe, as much as a cat can, so does Amelia.

The cats are more than a year and a half old, now. Most of their learning is behind them. They still climb, and romp, and chase after feathers. But they have it all more or less figured out. At least, that’s what I thought until we got a laser pointer. Most cat owners know that cats love laser pointers. So do dogs. Chasing animals love having things to chase, and laser pointers are a great thing to chase. Tazi and Amelia have gotten fairly bored of the feather we usually use to play with them. They love the laser pointer. They both chase it with an energy I have not seen from them in months. It is funny to watch Tazi try to climb up walls to try to get it when it is high up. That’s not something we were ever able to get her to do with the feather.

But Amelia is obsessed.

They both chase it. They both love it. But their approach is subtly but fundamentally different. Tazi seems unperturbed when she can’t catch it in her paws. It drives Amelia crazy. When they were little kittens, Tazi used to play with chase objects the way kittens usually do. She caught things that were moving, but as soon as they stopped moving she lost interest. Not so with Amelia. She figured out early on that she was never going to be move as quickly as her prey. When she was small she used to wait until objects stopped moving and then tackle them with her entire weight and grip them in her claws. Once Amelia got something, it was hard to get her to let it go. As she got older, faster, and more sure of her movements, she started chasing things, and also attacking them when they got near her. Her goal was still the same: pin them down so they stop moving. Amelia developed a skill set different than the stalking predator tools of most cats, and more in line with those of an ambush predator. Like she has in so many other ways, Tazi has adopted many of Amelia’s techniques. Why shouldn’t she? They work better, with less energy expenditure. More than that, Tazi understands, on some level, that Amelia is a problem solver.

None of Amelia’s tricks work on the laser pointer. She is Not Okay with that. It is not a physical object she can pin down. It appears and disappears in a way that nothing in her life ever has. Both cats are confused when the laser point disappears, but Tazi is easily distracted. It does not take much to get her to forget her confusion and move on to something else. Not so with Amelia. She is fixed on it, with a focus that I have seen far too many times not to recognize it for what it is. I can’t help but think, as ridiculous as it might be, that she is searching for a new definition of object permanence.

You can call me crazy, if you want. You can call me a biased cat parent, and you might very well be right. It does change the fact that I think my kitty is grasping to understand a phenomenon her kitty brain is not really equipped to understand. If you think that makes me crazy, you will find what I am going to say next outright ludicrous. But I am going to say it anyway.

Whatever, exactly, Amelia is trying to figure out, I think she might just get it.


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