What do you see when you look in the mir­ror?

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - SH­ERYL NADLER Sh­eryl@sh­eryl­nadler.com

Ev­ery morn­ing, I am awak­ened by the sound of some­thing bang­ing against the full-length mir­ror in my bed­room. (OK, most morn­ings. Many morn­ings.)

It’s the cat — one of the cats — stand­ing on his hind legs, front paws do­ing a full run­ning man against the mir­ror. He only ever does this at 5 or 5:30 a.m., prob­a­bly be­cause he knows it’s a sure­fire way to get me out of bed. Be­cause all I need is a cat cov­ered in cuts from a bro­ken mir­ror, es­pe­cially at that hour of the day.

Over the past month or so, I have spent A LOT of time driv­ing back and forth from the ve­teri­nar­ian’s of­fices with this cat (Os­car) for an un­re­lated is­sue we were, thank­fully, able to re­solve. A lot of time. So all I need is some­thing else, an­other ail­ment, some new rea­son to spend hours at the vet­eri­nary clinic, as much as I do like them. Be­cause at the end of the day, it’s all about me, af­ter all.

In any case, I’m telling you this not be­cause I think you care about the com­ings and go­ings of my cat, nec­es­sar­ily, but be­cause there are peo­ple — an­i­mal be­haviourists, I guess — who would ar­gue that when Os­car sees his re­flec­tion in the mir­ror, he thinks he’s see­ing a strange cat en­croach­ing on his ter­ri­tory. That he doesn’t and is not ca­pa­ble of hav­ing a sense of self. That cats and dogs are not ca­pa­ble of un­der­stand­ing the con­cept of self-aware­ness.

So I was ob­vi­ously in­trigued when I came across a Sa­lon.com ar­ti­cle, an ex­cerpt from a book by Mar­cus du Sau­toy with the head­line: Is your cat self-aware? At the top of the story was a photo of a kit­ten paw­ing at its re­flec­tion in a mir­ror, be­cause of course.

So of course I had to read it. Be­cause if Os­car re­ally does think the re­flec­tion in the mir­ror is a mean ri­val cat, why does the ri­val cat only seem­ingly ap­pear between 5 and 5:30 a.m., coin­ci­den­tally around the time he gets break­fast?

Why isn’t he tak­ing on the cat in the mir­ror at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. or any other time he walks past it? He’s ba­si­cally learned that bat­ting away at the mir­ror achieves the de­sired re­sult of me get­ting out of bed, so isn’t this kind of smart, learned be­hav­iour?

Any­hoo, the story is es­sen­tially about a study con­ducted by an­i­mal be­haviourist Gor­don Gallup in the late 1960s, which tried to de­ter­mine what an­i­mals see when they look in the mir­ror. I’ll spare you the sus­pense: most an­i­mals see ri­val an­i­mals, not them­selves, ac­cord­ing to his ex­per­i­ments. The whole ar­ti­cle had a fairly philo­soph­i­cal tone, ask­ing ques­tions like: as a hu­man, do I have a sense of “I” and how do we even be­gin to an­swer ques­tions like that?

At first I was an­noyed that Sa­lon lured me in with a photo of a cute kitty and a snappy head­line to read about a study that is, what, 50 years old?

But then I started think­ing about what peo­ple see when they look in the mir­ror. Is it dif­fer­ent from how a cat sees a strange ri­val cat in the mir­ror?

If we’re go­ing to get all philo­soph­i­cal, can I not ar­gue that there are days when I look in the afore­men­tioned full length mir­ror and see a six-foot Gla­ma­zon (OK, maybe not six feet, but at least five-foot-five) with flow­ing, shim­mery hair and there are oth­ers when I see a squat troll doll spit­ting back at me?

Isn’t ev­ery AXE body spray ad based on the premise that twenty-some­thing men look in the mir­ror and see Tom Brady when they prob­a­bly more closely re­sem­ble Danny DeVito? No of­fence to Danny DeVito, of course, but come on.

And do I ever want to take out the squat troll doll with a ham­mer but don’t, be­cause I re­ally don’t want to clean up shards of bro­ken mir­ror?

All this to say, that sure, sci­ence says my cat is not self-aware. I’m also told my pets are not ca­pa­ble of be­ing ma­nip­u­la­tive. That when I sus­pect they’re con­spir­ing to wake me up, to get me to drop food, to dis­tract me from my dinner plate, it’s just the troll doll in the mir­ror putting thoughts in my head.

Right. Well, I’ll re­mem­ber that to­mor­row morn­ing when Os­car de­cides to do his morn­ing Run­ning Man dance.

And if it’s a nice day, I’ll wear that dress that makes me look like a five-foot-five Gla­ma­zon.

He’s ba­si­cally learned that bat­ting away at the mir­ror achieves the de­sired re­sult of me get­ting out of bed.

EPSILON-ST, GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

There are peo­ple who would ar­gue that when Os­car sees his re­flec­tion, he thinks he’s see­ing a strange cat en­croach­ing on his ter­ri­tory. That he doesn’t and is not ca­pa­ble of hav­ing a sense of self.

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