Cats and dogs occupy a unique place in the animal kingdom’s vast menagerie. Unlike other domesticated animals, like chickens or pigs or lab rats, they’re not treated as identity-less means to a human end; and unlike wild creatures, they’re not counted as populations or viewed as units of biodiversity.
Instead, dogs and cats are individuals. They’re our friends. Some of us even consider them family. They’ve come out of the wild and into our living rooms, an extraordinary evolutionary and sociological journey that now raises profound questions about what it means to be a person.
“Part of our growth and evolution as a society is our changing relationship to the beings around us,” said David Grimm, author of the newly published Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. “The changing status of cats and dogs forces us to confront some very complicated questions of how inclusive we want to be.”
Does our respect for companion creatures herald a new way of relating to non-humans, rejecting centuries of misbegotten thinking about animals as unfeeling biological machines? Or do we keep on the blinders, acknowledging what science says about our pets’ minds while ignoring the implications for other species? And if we do consider some animals to be persons, what are the legal and political consequences?
WIRED Magazine talked to Grimm about the history
of cats and dogs and the future we’re making with them.
David Grimm: For dogs, there’s still a lot of mystery about the when, where and how. Estimates range from about 15,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago, depending on what archaeological evidence you believe. Some people believe that humans basically grabbed some wolf puppies, and over time actively domesticated them. Others — and this is the more popular theory — think it was a more passive process: wolves hung around our campsites, and over thousands of years those who were tamest got closer to us.
Passive domestication is more firmly established with cats. Archaeological evidence points to a human and a cat being buried together about 9,500 years ago in Cypress. It’s also not known exactly how this happened, but scientists are converging on the idea that cats came in to catch rodents around our crops, and realized that if they got along well with people, we might throw them some table scraps. The theme is that cats domesticated themselves.
WIRED: The relationship wasn’t always so salutary, though. Things got pretty dark during the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, didn’t they?
Grimm: Once cats and dogs become domesticated, then for the next few thousand years they’re on a roller-coaster ride. They have high status in antiquity; among the Egyptians, cats are deified, and Romans buried their dogs in human cemeteries and talked about them like children.
But in the Middle Ages, society enters a dark period. When the plague starts going around, cats and dogs become scapegoats. Dogs are viewed as filthy animals. For cats, the incident that sticks out is when Pope Gregory IX linked them to Satan. That’s the first instance of cats declared to be evil creatures. There followed centuries of cats being thrown into bonfires and stoned to death. They were nearly exterminated in Europe.
Then, a few hundred years ago, the famed French philosopher René Descartes says animals are just machines. There’s evidence that he cut unanesthetized, living dogs open and fiddled around with their hearts; he had no problem with that. He saw them as collections of gears. If a dog cried, he’d say, ‘There’s something wrong with the gears.’ Which really helped dogs become a model animal in scientific research until the late 20th century.
WIRED: You write that Pope Gregory wasn’t simply an animal-hater. He also canonized St. Francis of Assisi, renowned for caring for animals. What was it about cats that inspired such loathing?
Grimm: It’s not clear why he picked cats. Some people have theorized that cats are mysterious, and have these glowing, shiny eyes, so they were seen as having witchcraft. Cats are also not very submissive. They’re not like dogs or farm animals. Church dogma is that man shall have control of all animals — and cats do their own thing.
WIRED: Where did that independent streak come from?
Grimm: That’s a really interesting question, and it may relate to the history of their domestication. After dogs entered human society, we started actively manipulating them, selecting them to be better hunters and guardians and companions. Whereas with cats, there maybe came a point where they were okay to have around killing mice in our fields, they were doing what we wanted them to do, and we were content to leave them be. So dog domestication happened for tens of thousands of years, but cat domestication just stopped.
WIRED: Is it possible to say which traits are intrinsic — shared with their wild relatives, rooted deep in evolutionary history — and which resulted from human-guided breeding and domestication?
Grimm: A lot of the dog cognition research is really fascinating. Dogs are attuned to our gestures: they follow human finger-pointing, which seems like a simple task, but chimpanzees and wolves can’t do it. A dog doing that is, in a sense, reading our mind. He knows we’re trying to show him something important. The same experiment was also done with cats, and they follow finger-pointing, too. This suggests that these two pets, by living with us for so long, have become attuned to our mindset in a way that no other animals have.
In the last 15 years, there’s been an explosion of studies. It’s not just about pointing. Dogs also have jealousy, morality, a sense of right and wrong. They enforce concepts of justice. When one dog plays too aggressively, that dog can be ostracized. They have complex ideas of morality and ethics.
The unfortunate thing with cats, though, is that they’re probably capable of many things, but their mind remains a black box because they’re so hard to study. Dogs don’t mind being in a laboratory, whereas cats really don’t like it. I think that cats get a bad rap for not being as smart or capable as dogs, but the real truth is we just don’t know. My gut feeling is that they’re just as capable. Their minds are just harder to probe.
WIRED: Cats might be hard to study in a lab, but they’re certainly easy to observe in our everyday lives. What about our observations?
Grimm: The study of animal minds really begins with Darwin and one of his young collaborators, George Romanes. Their early studies were very empirical. He would say, ‘I saw a cat always bring home one kind of bird,’ and that was proof to him that cats were capable of distinguishing between species. Or, ‘I put a dog in a field, and the dog found his way home, so he must have a sense of navigation!’
In the first half of the 20th century, there was a lot of backlash against that. People said, you can’t just make observations. You have to test in the laboratory. Then came behaviorism, and the idea that it’s impossible to know what animals are thinking because we can’t get into their heads. That’s really changed with the recent research.
WIRED: What are the social implications of these scientific insights?
Grimm: In some ways, the science is just catching up with our hearts. We’ve known for centuries that animals are capable of love and a variety of emotions. Darwin had this famous line: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” What he meant was that if we find a certain emotion in chimpanzees, and dogs are not that distantly related, they probably have it, too.
Now that we’re discovering all this in dogs, is it true that mice can experience it? What about fruit flies? This has some people concerned. Cats and dogs are not used so much in research, but many other animals are. Many scientists worry about a slippery slope: If we ascribe something to cats and dogs, what’s to stop people doing so with lab rats? And then you have farmers: If people view cats and dogs like this today, does that mean they’ll eventually start seeing horses and chickens like that, too?
That fascinated me while writing Citizen Canine: the idea that there are unforetold consequences of turning dogs and cats into family members. It all seems positive: ‘I love my dog, and my dog should have certain rights.’ What happens when that starts bleeding over into other animals? Should a cow be a person? And if my cat is legally a person, does that mean I can’t neuter her against her will?
WIRED: Do you think we’ll develop new social and legal customs for dealing with animals?
Grimm: That’s the big question. Right now in the United States, cats and dogs are considered property. In a court of law, your cat or dog is no different than a toaster or a couch. A lot of people recoil from that, but some also worry that turning cats and dogs into legal people is a bridge too far.
The question is whether there’s some happy medium where we can acknowledge that these animals are not toasters, but not grant them as something as extreme as full human rights. Maybe we create a new class of nonnhuman rights. David Favre at Michigan State University has proposed an intermediate category of “living property“: dogs and cats could have some rights, even some responsibilities, but legally be like children. We’d have a responsibility to not mistreat them, to provide a basic level of medical care, but not constitutional or inalienable rights.
WIRED: So far we’ve talked about animals in our immediate domain. What about extending these ideas to animals on the landscape?
Grimm: That again gets to the slippery slope that a lot of lawyers are worried about. If we create this intermediate category, why can’t elephants in the wild be living property? If we let cats and dogs in, and open that door, does it open the floodgates? This is already happening. Late last year, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York, arguing that they deserve to be legally recognized as people.
You’re seeing a lot of discussions about this. What are animals to us? Whether in the wild, in our homes, or on farms, what’s the appropriate relationship to them? There are very heated passions on both sides. What I find most interesting is that this forces us to confront what it means to be a person.
This is a discussion we had to have 150 years ago as slavery was ending and blacks were considered property. There was a backlash: emancipation was going to put plantation owners out of business. But as a society, we decided that didn’t matter. Acknowledging that slaves were people was the right thing to do.
We’re not yet at that point yet with cats and dogs. But what does it mean to be a person? Who gets to be a person? What kind of rights should you have compared to all the other people who are already considered people?
WIRED: Sometimes the way our society regards animals seems contradictory. Some we consider persons, but others we use like machines.
Grimm: You see this a lot in animal research, where someone will perform invasive experiments on a monkey and have pets at home they treat like family members. There are also researchers who still experiment invasively on cats and dogs; they might not be treated like machines, but the researchers have a very different relationship with them. The cat with an exposed brain in a neuroscience lab is a means to an end of understanding how the human mind works — but at home, the researcher’s cat is part of the family.
That’s one reason I wrote about the feral cat issue. They take this bifurcation to an extreme. There are cats on the street that genetically are the same as the cat in your house, but many people view them as vermin. There’s actually a federal law that classifies cats around shipyards as vermin, the same as rats and mice — yet there are 49 felony anti-cruelty laws that say you can go to jail if you hurt a cat or dog or other animal. But even though those laws technically apply to all animals, they’re only enforced for animals in our homes.
In our hearts, we’ve made this bifurcation. The animals in our homes are family. They’re like children. But as soon as we leave the house, we have a different relationship with animals.
WIRED: So are we as a society locking the door behind us, so to speak, or expanding our attitudes about our pets to other animals?
Grimm: I think the latter is true. Surveys bear this out. It’s only in the last decade or two that it’s been broadly socially acceptable to say a dog or cat is a family member. And a survey just came out showing that, over the last decade, there’s been a rise in the number of young people opposed to using animals in research. It’s a generation of kids for whom cats and dogs were almost like siblings. When they grow up and start thinking about animal research and habitat destruction, they filter their emotions through the animals they grew up with. They don’t see the animals outside their front door as abstract things.