Cats cannot be cruel as we know the meaning of the word “cruel”. The reason why I want to discuss this topic – and it is a discussion – is because people who dislike cats, and people who comment on the site who wish to criticise cats, sometimes say that they are cruel because they play with prey in a cruel manner.
The truth of the matter is that you cannot, for obvious reasons, compare cats with adult people. Although, it is more plausible to compare the domestic cat to a young child in terms of their behaviour.
The reason why I say you can’t compare cats and adult people is because the concept of cruelty is one which has been created by humans for, primarily, adult humans.
I say “adult humans” because the criminal law considers that children under a certain age (normally around 10) do not have the mental capacity or capability to behave in a criminal manner. This is universally accepted. It guides us as to how a child understands the meaning of cruelty. In order for a human to be cruel and to be culpable of an act of cruelty the person has to recognise that their actions are cruel or that they should have known that they are cruel (in criminal law this is mens rea).
If a person is unable to recognise that their actions are cruel or should have known it then in a criminal sense the behaviour cannot be said to be cruel.
It is useful to look at the word “cruel” in the criminal sense. It does require a certain mentality. The domestic cat does not have this mentality. The cat does not recognise the meaning of the word cruel and does not understand what it means to be cruel. When a cat is playing with prey then, perhaps, eating it at the end of the play, the cat is behaving normally and instinctively. Because the cat does not have the requisite mentality, the cat cannot be said to be acting in a cruel manner.
Cruelty towards other animals is not an absolute concept. It is heavily qualified in various ways one of which, as mentioned above, concerns the intent and mentality of the perpetrator of the so called cruelty. Another is the circumstances under which cruelty took place. In war and in certain situations it is sometimes permissible to be cruel.
We only have to look at the long-standing saga of Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and the detention of alleged terrorists in the American prison to see that under certain circumstances adult humans can get away with cruel behaviour.
When a cat plays with prey, the circumstances under which he/she is doing it excuses the cat from being cruel. Why does a cat do this when he/she is such an efficient killing machine that he could kill the prey instantly without indulging in a cruel game?
This sort behaviour is not the behaviour of a wild cat. It is the behaviour of a well fed domestic cat who has been starved of hunting activity because of the sterile environment in which he lives where rodents are normally hard to come by. For cats living under these conditions – human made conditions – when a mouse is caught it is an important event and the cat wishes to prolong it.
The urge to hunt increases without access to prey so the domestic cat overreacts and the prey suffers a slow death as result. It is said that in most cases feral cats do not indulge in this sort of activity. Sometimes female feral cats do however indulge in it and this behaviour can be explained. They wish to bring back live prey to the nest to demonstrate killing to their kittens during a certain stage in the kittens’ development. This is a teaching process and accounts for the willingness of a female feral cat to play with prey even though they have ample opportunity to hunt.
Another explanation for what we would regard as cruel cat behaviour is as follows. The cat is overreacting to the possible danger from the prey’s teeth. The cat is not deliberately prolonging hunting as mentioned above but is unsure of himself and therefore playing safe by batting the victim’s body around, watching and waiting to see if the prey retaliates with a bite and only after a long session of this sort of behaviour will the cat decide that it is safe to deliver the killing bite and eat the prey. This is the behaviour of an uncertain, unsure domestic cat with rusty hunting techniques.
Although this is a discussion document I believe that the arguments presented above adequately support the view that it is inappropriate to brand the domestic or feral cat as being cruel when they bat around and play with prey in a manner which cat haters criticise.
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