Alien Intelligence

Every morning I wake up and commune with an alien intelligence. On the one hand she's an ordinary housecat; on the other hand, I think she gives the most realistic impression of what it might be like if we ever encounter space aliens.

Our communication channels are extremely limited. She can meow; she can purr; she can move towards me; she can try to lead me places; she can bash her head on things; she can bite; she can scratch. I make that 2 bytes of information, between creatures trying to live together.

I'm not entirely sure that I can interpret any of these communications correctly. I understand that purring usually signals pleasure, but it's possible that sometimes it means something else. When she (thankfully rarely) bites or scratches, I assume it means "go away", but it's possible that she's trying to play.

Meowing sounds like a baby crying, to the point where anyone I'm on the phone with who hears her in the background immediately asks "WAIT DID YOU HAVE A BABY?!?!" I'm told that cats don't usually meow at each other much. It sounds barmy, but it seems they've evolved their yowling specifically to target humans, because baby-cries are the sound that best captures human attention.

The head-bashing (technically called "head bunting") I definitely misunderstood at first. I thought she was trying to scratch her face, and unable to do it because she doesn't have opposable thumbs. She would often hit my glasses, and I wondered if that's what she was aiming for, if they were somehow the right size/shape for scratching. But it turns out cats have glands in their cheeks, chins and foreheads with some kind of pheromone in it, and she bashes her face on me to "claim" me as her own. I have no idea what she thinks about the glasses, whether she finds it comfortable or painful that my face is partially hard plastic.

Initially, when she meowed I assumed she just wanted more food. (We are in a terrible power dynamic, where the humans in her life have total power of how and when she gets fed). But often when she meows she seems completely soothed by petting, or just being able to sit on my lap or chest. So I think probably she just really loves touch, but I do always fear that what she actually wants is (still) food, and that she has just somehow got the impression that in order to get food she has to first come hang for a long petting. As much I love to pet her, I do also rather need to work, so my fear is that we might have behaviourally conditioned each other in a way that is completely inconvenient for both of us.

Once, she saw me in the bath and started meowing like crazy. I didn't understand what was happening, but apparently cats drown easily in water (their fur gets waterlogged, I guess?), and she may have been desperately warning me of the danger, like she was screaming to a young kitten who doesn't yet know about the world. It broke my heart to think that she was standing there worrying for me, and there was nothing I could do to convey to her that I was ok.

It strikes me that I have no idea at all if she's happy or unhappy, whether moment by moment or day by day. When she yowls, on account of the baby-crying-sound, it feels to me like she's in agony – it breaks my heart to leave her yowling, even if I'm in the middle of something, I guess because evolutionarily "humans who go check on the baby when the baby is crying" survive better than those that don't. But frankly I have no idea how it actually feels to her, whether she's feeling desperate or just patiently but happily trying to get hold of me.

All these strange interactions and uncertainties? I think if we ever meet aliens, these are the kinds of interactions we'll have.

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