neko cat: understanding symbolic representation

In my house, with the addition of neko two weekends ago, we have been shifting our patterns of life, as people do whenever we add a new person to our families. We have been learning, and re-learning, many of the patterns of feline-human personal interaction. One of the most interesting new learnings has been neko’s particular gift for understanding symbolic representation.

When is a mouse a mouse? This question raises a particular problems in metaphysics,  ontolology, language, and taxonomy. The question depends greatly on your perspective, of course. From the mouse’s perspective the question is at least about who I am comfortable around.

Cave - Mouse Nest 2

From the animal researcher’s perspective, a mouse is a highly controlled commodity often with genes that have been manipulated in one way or another. One interesting “strain” of “mouse” in this context is the “humanized” “mouse” whose genes have a human gene knocked in.

It seems like a mouse’s mouseness is in the last example is something that humans seek to control. A mouse in the wild is not a good “mouse” in the lab. And I imagine that representations of mice in art are often thought of as linguistic in this way. We arbitrarily call the thing that looks like a mouse a mouse even though we know it is not really a mouse.

Here are two of these mice. The one on the right is a SmartyKat Jitter Critter, which has been dosed with catnip, and is “intended” as a cat toy. And I’m pleased to say that it works pretty well. The main question that I’m interested in at this point is why it works well. Does it work because it is dosed with catnip? Because it is soft and open to feline destruction? Because it looks like a mouse? My guess is that most people are fine with positive answer to the first two questions. But most people think that this mouse’s mouseness is incidental to its success as a cat toy. From the cat’s perspective, this is probably not a mouse. On the left we have a metal mouse given to us as a decoration for our house. The only resemblance that this mouse bears to the Jitter Critter is in its shape. However, Neko likes playing with it just as much.

Now this video does show her playing with the Jitter Critter … but right after she had been playing with the metal mouse which is on the floor having been knocked off of its ordinary perch. It seems that for Neko, mouseness is all about looking like a mouse.

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