Friday, April 03, 2009

Thoughts on Saying "Uncle"

Since the kitten Smudge entered our home on December 27, 2008, I have observed quite intriguing feline behavior. Jack and Trixie, our 15 year old cats, do not like Smudge, who wants nothing more than a playmate. Apparently bad attention is better than no attention, so Smudge behaves like an obnoxious brat to the older cats. He will pounce on the cats' tails as they whip back and forth in annoyance; he will spring out from under the dust ruffle of our bed at an unsuspecting cat; he will leap up where another cat is settled peacefully and practically land them.

Jack has achieved an equanimity about it. He and Smudge play fight, rising up on their haunches and bopping each other soundly with their front paws, no claws extended. Jack towers over Smudge and outweighs him by ten pounds, but he's the one who usually walks away from their encounters.

Trixie is another matter all together. She is a very timid cat. Many of my friends have never seen Trixie because she stays on my bed or hides when we have company. After 14 and a half years of carefully cultivated association, she has sat on my lap three or four times maximum. She loves to be petted by me or one of our immediate family members, but if you pick her up, she leans away from your body as far as she can until you put her down. This said, Trixie is very attached to me and apparently very jealous of Smudge in addition to annoyed by him.

Trixie has gone overboard expressing her feelings. She hisses, snarls, lunges and otherwise threatens Smudge ... and Jack ... and us if Smudge is close to us. For years I have been protecting Trixie from Jack's aggressiveness - he outweighs her by nearly as much as he outweighs Smudge - and suddenly she has Jack on the run from her slashing claws and gnashing fangs.

Now comes the really fascinating part. Whenever the atmosphere gets too intense - Jack throws an extra hard punch or Trixie corners him - Smudge flops onto his side and presents himself helplessly, belly exposed, to their teeth and claws. And immediately, the aggression stops. I have heard of submissive behavior in animals before, but observing it is different. A snarling, hissing cat just stops, looks, and walks away? Yes, indeed.

This made me think about human relationships. As a naive 18-year-old from a small city, I vividly remember the first time I witnessed random violence. I was riding a city bus in St. Louis that had a short layover at a big stop in a seedy, industrial area. Two men were at the bus stop (among other people) and I saw one of the men attack the other. In short order, the second man had been beaten viciously enough to be on the ground and no longer even protecting himself. The winner - if that can be called winning - then proceeded to kick the other fellow in the stomach several times before deciding to quit.

Back on the bus, I practically vomited in disgust and terror, but no one else seemed to take much notice other than to walk in the opposite direction of the attack. I kept waiting for someone to intervene and help the injured man, but no one did. When my bus pulled away from the stop, the victim was stirring, but had not yet gotten up and still, no one helped him.

So, it would seem that cats (and other "dumb" animals) know how to say "Uncle and what that means, but human beings don't. How could we have missed out on such an important biological imperative?

Do you remember, as a child, that you could get a bully to stop beating on you by saying "uncle?" In fact, making someone say "uncle" often motivated the attack in the first place. But once you said it, the pain stopped; you might slink off in humiliation with taunts at your back, but no one kicked you when you were down. If they had, the crowd would have turned on them with derision for such craven behavior.

So kids do it and cats do it, but adults don't do it. Hmmm, could it be that we actually teach kids not to be merciful or relent in their assault on someone else?

This morning, when Smudge flopped over yet again into kitty submission, I tried to imagine Trixie then attacking his exposed underbelly and ripping it out with her fangs - the cat equivalent to kicking the s**t out of someone who is down - and the picture just wouldn't come together. It's not going to happen.

Wouldn't it be lovely if humans could be as evolved as cats?


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