Cat Meows Exploit Humans?!

Fresh from the BBC in London comes this urgent news dispatch...and all I can tell you is, I'm not making any of this up.  Leading scientists have actually been studying this topic:   how cats manage to "manipulate" or maybe "catipulate" humans!

Oh, please. Your tax dollars are being spent this way?   We cats find this very amusing, especially when they could have just asked us.

Cats are domesticated animals that have learned what levers to push, what sounds to make to manage our emotions

Nicholas Nicastro, Cornell University

But they didn't ask us, so here goes:

Nicholas Nicastro, of Cornell University, believes cats are evolving into SUPERcats that are better able to exploit humans!   Oh my, I've always called it "persistent persuasion," and this awful man is calling it...exploitation?

He says "after 5,000 years of living with humans, cats have learned what buttons to press to please their owners. Apparently, it is all down to the meows they choose to get what they want." The rewards are clear - more pampering, tastier food and a seat in the comfiest chair. But not all scientists are convinced!

Dr John Bradshaw of Southampton University, UK is one such scientist. Bradshaw says there is no doubt that cats are good at handling humans. But, he says, there is no evidence to suggest that artificial selection is taking place. "Artifical Selection" is a term that was coined by Charles Darwin to explain how man has shaped plants, crops and domestic animals by selective breeding.

Learned response

"Cats learn to meow in ways that manipulate their owners but it's got nothing to do with evolution at all - it's a learned response," says Dr Bradshaw, an animal behaviourist.

Many cats seem to have a set of meows they use for different contexts, he says. For example, a cat might choose a particular noise to signal it wants to be let out and a different one to demand to be fed. But when you compare cats, there is nothing in common between these meows, he says. This suggests that each cat learns on its own, how to get its owner's attention...something that is nothing to do with genetics.

"There's a much more plausible explanation," Dr Bradshaw told BBC News Online. "Each cat tends in its own lifetime to learn the noises that interest its owner the most."

Not so fast, says Mr Nicastro, a graduate student in evolutionary psychology from Cornell University.

hunting cat
After 7,000 years of domestication, cats are very different from their wild relatives
Mr. Nicastro put together a sample of 100 different vocalisations from 12 cats. He played the cat calls back to 26 human volunteers and asked them to rate each one for pleasantness and appeal. The same set of sounds was played to a second group of volunteers who were asked to rate how urgent and demanding the meows were.

Humans seem to be able to distinguish between longer, raucous meows and softer, more pleasing ones. An urgent or demanding call is "the kind we hear at 7 am when we walk into the kitchen and the cat wants to be fed," says Mr Nicastro.   "The cat isn't forming sentences and saying specifically, 'take a can of food out of the cupboard, run the can opener and fill my bowl immediately', but we get the message from the quality of the vocalisation and the context in which it is heard," he adds.

Fickle humans

Mr Nicastro, who owns two cats himself, goes further. He says the pleasant sound is the one a cat might use, say in a rescue centre, to ask to be taken home. More demanding calls might cause a feline to be left behind to face an uncertain fate.

The psychologist says humans have long been selecting for the most pleasant sounding cats.
"For example, seven thousand years ago, when we think the ancestors of our domesticated cats began wandering into Egyptian granaries, offering to trade rodent-control services for shelter, it was probably the pleasant-sounding cats that were selected and accepted into human society."

It is this point that is the bone of contention for Dr Bradshaw. He says cat breeding is not under human control. And furthermore, "Cats don't have that sophisticated a level of communication.   The idea that a female would go up to a male in a back alley somewhere and say, 'could I hear your meow to see if the kittens you father will be appealing to people?' just couldn't happen (speak for yourself, Mr. Bradshaw).

But that conclusion doesn't wash with Mr Nicastro. "Cats are domesticated animals that have learned what levers to push, what sounds to make to manage our emotions," he says. "And when we humans respond, think about this...we too become domesticated animals!"

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