Top Cat

“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

-William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

I was having a discussion the other day, when the term “alpha cat” reared it’s head yet again in reference to a cat I hadn’t met yet. I’ve never been sure why classifying a member of a group this way irritates me as it does. And I’m still not sure, but the ensuing rant helped me get closer.

Some cats are definitely born to lead. From the moment they nuzzle up to the most favored nipple on the milk line to the daily times they boot others from the prime sunny spots like clockwork (sometimes with a nudge, sometimes with a swipe – whatever it takes). My issue comes when you take this cat and lump him in with all others who occupy vaunted territorial positions – it’s too convenient, and in the course of analysis (and in my case, problem solving), often detrimental, leading us as behavioral interpreters down the primrose path.

“You’ve tainted my meeting!” I half-explained and half-chided. The discussion (really at this point more a monologue) continued to become more animated, complete with flailing arms and sweaty-faced proclamations. I insisted that as detached observers we’re given an excuse to not explore deeply and open our available empathic channels when we’re spoonfed terms that wrap entire mini-societies in easy-to-digest packages. Yes, many groups of cats defer to a leader. But just as many are much more frustratingly fluid (at least from the human perspective). Is there a “pariah” in every group? Not in my experience. Can you tell me, in your home of 5 cats, who occupies the top and who the other 4 rungs of the ladder day in and day out? Honestly if you say yes I’d have to say that you were being a bit lazy and a bit anthropomorphic. But that’s just me.

I just want to be surprised every day, and my job depends on the fascination I experience from observing. When I take all of the scientific behavioral knowledge I have and stick it in my back pocket when I meet new cats or observe the ones under my own roof freshly, I remain surprised and fascinated as well as daily moved to moments of “Aha!,” shock and “Aww.”

The person I was having the conversation with, I think in an attempt to get me to breathe a little, asked if I would just prefer referring to the cat we were discussing as “top cat.” I thought about it, could feel myself blushing a bit and nodded, sheepishly. As long as some of the stigma was released from this cat, I was OK. Besides, how could I remain so brow-furrowed and quasi-scholarly when I started picturing a purple-vested cartoon character?

I’m just saying – keep your eyes soft. Humans and animals, no matter what you think you know about them, individually and as a group, will spin your head around when you least expect it.