Today, I’m musing about imprinting. The cat on my shoulder in the picture is Bassui. Cutting-edge science—what we now know about cloning—says that there will never be another Bassui. Research shows that genes alone don’t determine who a given animal is, how it is formed, or how it behaves. I say what many say about their beloved animals, “_____ (in this case Bassui) doesn’t know he’s a cat”. He was separated from his mother in the first week of his life. His “mom” was Jody Bennett, the animal-loving foster mom who bottle-fed, groomed, and cared for him during a critical formative phase of his development.
It is not a Mother Goose Story for one animal to think it is a different animal. The med-speak for this phenomenon is “filial imprinting”. “Filial” means the relationship of child or offspring to parent. “Imprinting” conveys how this is a rapid and lasting self-impression. To me, birds provide the most striking example of filial imprinting. The movie “Fly Away Home” is a fact-based tale about a young girl who becomes mother to a number of geese. One gets to see film footage of actual imprinting; from eggs hatching, to the training of the goslings, to the dramatic feel-good conclusion of the girl leading the geese with her ultralight aircraft on a migratory trip to a bird sanctuary.
As I consider the challenges that one sees in rehabilitating rescued dogs and cats, as I wonder whether various methods of raising farm animals are “natural”, the following children’s story comes to my mind:
Once upon a time there was a baby elephant who heard someone say: ‘Look, there is a mouse.’ The person who said it was looking at a mouse —but the elephant thought that he was referring to him.
Now, there were very few mice in that country; and in any case they tended to stay in their holes, and their voices were not very loud. But the baby elephant thundered around, ecstatic at his discovery, ‘I am a mouse!’
He said it so loudly and so often, and to so many people that —believe it or not —there is now an entire country where almost everyone believes that elephants, and particularly baby elephants, are mice.
It is true that from time to time mice have tried to correct those who hold the majority belief: but they have always been put to flight.
If anyone ever wants to reopen the question of mice and elephants in those parts, they had better have a good reason, strong nerves and an effective means of educating people.
There is no doubt that Bassui is a cat. He is an extraordinary athlete and predator. In an earlier “One Veterinarian’s Musings” I wrote about cats and a cornerstone of philosophy, Plato’s Cave. Therein I described how Bassui and his sister Mia morphed into totally new animals when I let them outside of my hermitage in the woods of the UP. Bassui’s “inner cat” awakened. I witnessed the emergence of innate hunting skills and an ability to evade low flying eagles and cunning weasels. These days, Bassui spends a significant portion of each day plotting how to escape out into the wilds. My wager is, no matter how strong my nerves, no matter how I might think I might “help” Bassui return to his feline roots, I suspect he will always want to launch up onto anybody and everybody’s shoulders. Why is this? Like the photo above, perched on one’s shoulders is a familiar safe spot for Bassui. Human shoulders are the perch he came to prefer when he imprinted and went room-to-room on his “mom, Jody Bennett.
Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper, 12/22/11.