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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

People must have renounced, it seems to me, all natural intelligence to dare to advance that animals are but animated machines…. [S]uch people can never have observed with attention the character of animals, not to have distinguished among them the different voices of need, of suffering, of joy, of pain, of love, of anger, and of all their affections. It would be very strange that they should express so well what they could not feel.
–Voltaire

In the popular imagination, there are dog people and cat people, although one rarely encounters them in real life. Me, I’m leery of anybody who dislikes dogs, although it’s necessary to make allowances for people with bad childhood experiences. Cat-haters are almost invariably men. Probably cats are properly spooked around them.

But do domestic animals love us back? Most pet owners find it an absurd question. What could be more obvious than a dog’s joy at welcoming us home after an absence? Than a cat’s curling up and purring in our laps?

For the longest time, strict behaviorists clung to pseudo-scientific fundamentalism claiming that talking about animals’ emotions was sentimental nonsense. Psuedo-science, as Carl Safina points out in his wonderful book “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” precisely because it required ignoring almost everything we know about their anatomy, evolutionary history and observed behavior.

“So, do other animals have human emotions?” he asks. “Yes, they do. Do humans have animal emotions? Yes; they’re largely the same. Fear, aggression, well-being, anxiety, and pleasure are the emotions of shared brain structures and shared chemistries, originated in shared ancestry.”

Enter now one Prof. Paul Zak, advertised as something called a “neuroeconomist”—a term hinting at mumbo-jumbo to me—who recently undertook an experiment to determine which domestic animal loves us best. Dogs? Or cats?

Judging by his Wikipedia profile, Zak is a handsome rascal who makes a handsome living advising corporate clients that we’d be better off if we went around acting like a bunch of Italians, with lots of hugging and kissing each other’s cheeks. He’s probably right too, although your mileage may differ.

Zak’s book, “The Moral Molecule” expounds upon the wonders of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that gives people the warm-fuzzies when people they love (or attractive Italians) embrace them. He goes on TV a lot.

Anyway, at the request of BBC-TV, the professor set out to determine which species got the biggest oxytocin boost after ten minutes of being dandled by their owners, dogs or cats. So he assembled ten of each at his laboratory, took saliva samples, instructed their owners to play with them, and then took more saliva samples, which he analyzed for the happy hormone.

According to Elyse Wanshel’s summary in the Huffington Post, “Canines were proven to love us Homo sapiens five times more than their feline counterparts.”

That’s right, cat lovers, dogs rule!

Except, you know what? I don’t have a Phd in neuroeconomics but I do have an unusual orange tabby cat named Albert. His nickname is “The Orange Dog,” on account of how he’s the smallest member of our security team—consisting of two Great Pyrenees, a German shepherd, and Albert.

Albert has many unusual personality traits. Besides preferring canine company, he’s been known sit atop fence posts to let Mount Nebo the horse nuzzle him. The other horses, no. He wanders among cows as if they were as inert as hay bales. He’s totally devoted to me, perching on the arm of my chair watching ballgames, and lying on my chest at bedtime purring.

Then he retires to the bathroom towel closet, fishes open the spring-loaded door and lets it thump shut behind him. Around 5 AM—thump—he’s up and out the door. Many afternoons he accompanies my wife, five dogs and me on an hour-long walk around the pastures to my neighbor’s hay barn, rubbing on the dogs’ legs and panting like a little lion. Sometimes he stays the night out there hunting mice. A country cat, Albert’s wise to coyotes.

I’m absurdly fond of him, and the feeling’s clearly mutual.

However, Albert has two significant phobias: cars and strangers. He vanishes when company comes, keeps the house under surveillance from an undisclosed location and materializes after they’ve gone.

So carry him to a laboratory, let a stranger take a saliva sample, play with him for ten minutes and then let the stranger mess with him again?

Our basset hound Daisy would be fine with that. She loves riding in the car, has never met a stranger and pretty much drools all day anyway.

Elevated oxytocin levels? Albert would be a week forgiving such an indignity. He might bite. So would most cats.
What a farcical experiment. The moral molecule indeed!

So what does Albert feel when he’s lying there on my chest? I think basically what I feel: security, contentment, and deep affection.

Photo: A cat is seen in a window of a mud house. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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