Last night, I poured myself a bowl of cereal for a late snack. As I sat down at the table to devour it before the bran got soggy, Milla, our cat, sat on the floor next to the table. She usually likes to smell whatever my wife and I are eating but this time she was more interested than usual. She lifted her head a few times in a nodding fashion and took in some deeper breaths. I lowered my bowl so she could smell what I was eating, only this time she didn’t just take her customary quick smell and turn away. Instead, she kept smelling it and almost went to lick it. Then she lifted her head up, looked at me, licked her ‘lips’, walked over to where she normally eats and sat down quietly.
Normally, Milla enjoys a steady diet of grain-free, organic kibble and occasionally some fresh fish from our dinners as a “special treaty.” But she has never asked for milk before, yet by carefully observing her movements and actions, I could tell that was exactly what she wanted. I poured her a tiny bit of milk. She instantly went over and enjoyed a few licks. A few minutes later, as is her customary procedure whenever my wife or I do anything for her, she came over to brush up against my leg to show her gratitude.
Learning to Relate with Respect
Milla and I did not always have this kind of relationship. Milla is my wife’s rescue kitty whom she has had for more than a decade. I’ve only been around for the past four years. When I first met Milla, it was under what I later realized were some pretty scary circumstances for her. I was just finishing up my Masters degree in Sustainability in New York City. My wife moved into my 450 square foot apartment in downtown Manhattan with Milla.
I spent very little time with a cat before. My one experience was in college when I lived with a roommate who had a cat named Ashley. To this day, I have regrets about how I treated her. Ashley was declawed and had no ability to protect herself, making her an easy target. Like most house cats, she hated getting wet, yet I thought it felt good when I was bored to scoop her up and put her in the shower and drench her. I can’t tell you how difficult it was to admit that.
I lived with Ashley nearly twenty years ago, and in that time, I have become aware of so much. I have become aware of how much the stories we tell impact everything. The story that I inherited was that human beings are far more important than animals, that animals are emotionless, purposeless beings akin to a machine who are here only to serve us in whatever ways we wish – as our food, as our work slaves, to entertain us, to comfort us, or in my case, to be an outlet for my desire for control and power.
For me, Milla disrupted this story, and I am eternally grateful to her for helping me to learn about my inherent, natural desire to exhibit compassionate and empathetic behaviors. When she first moved into my apartment, I picked up again with a tamer, albeit still less-than-noble intention as when I was in college. I would chase her around the tiny apartment trying to trap her underneath the bed with pillows, or I would be like the annoying little brother by capturing her tail between my fingers and moving it around.
Milla would respond with fear. Sometimes she would run to her kitty bed on top of our bed and submit to whatever I might do to her. Her vulnerability and submission gave me a unique feeling – a feeling of power, and, as a result, a momentary reprieve from my everyday experience of not feeling like I mattered or had a purpose. She would just look at me with the most vulnerable, fearful eyes. I could feel her saying “Please Chris, I am so little and fragile. You are so much bigger than me. I don’t want to hide from you or fight you. Please love me.”
Enabling Mutual Love
Little did I know, Milla was rewiring my inner circuitry. She was giving me an experience that did not fit my previous story of what animals were. She was communicating with me both her fear of my programmed intentions and her desire to move our relationship into one of mutual respect and love and offering me a chance to choose. This is some serious intelligence. By trusting me, Milla enabled me to feel our inherent, naturally-existing connection to each another and that we have the ability to communicate with each other all the time.
Milla has taught me how to communicate using my behaviors and intentions instead of words. I have found that this kind of communication is also available to human beings, only we have become lazy since our development of the spoken word. We expect human beings to be able to communicate their every feeling, desire, and need using nothing but words, which are in themselves simply abstractions of the real world.
It is no wonder that many of us feel so disconnected from each other and the world. We have lost touch with the subtler forms of communicating, of understanding intuitively the needs of another being, and using our actions and behaviors instead of our rhetoric to meet those needs. The words “I love you” are meaningless if the corresponding behavior does not back up those intentions.
Real Communication Does Not Rely on Language
What if we took the time to have real communications with each other and our animal brothers and sisters? What if we made the attempt to understand their needs, their pain, their joy, and their love? What if we stopped thinking they were dumb simply because they don’t have the ability to speak our language of abstraction?
I can only tell you what I found – a grounded, feeling of oneness with all of life. Milla and I have replaced control with trust as the foundation of our relationship. And now when I encounter a wild animal, I make every attempt to communicate with my movements and intentions that I mean no harm, that I am sorry that I used to see and treat you disrespectfully, and that so many others of my kind still do. My hope is that we can take a cue from the species that have inhabited the world sustainably for far longer than we have been here, that we can learn how to communicate with them using our common language, and change our own stories concerning our relationships with the rest of the web of life.