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Some cats get so excited about chasing a battery-operated laser pointer, the type that lecturers use on overhead screens, that they are known to break bones or dislocate joints in the chase. In Animals in Translation, author Temple Grandin retells the tale of two cats with a laser pointer in her friend’s New York apartment. “You could lead Lilly and Harley around the whole apartment at a dead run, jump them up on the counter, back down on the floor, up a bookshelf – you could shoot them wherever you wanted them to go. They were so frenzied I had to be careful not to suddenly reverse the motion, because I could throw Lilly into a back flip, she was so focused on that dot,” she writes.
Grandin, a prominent academic in animal research, was perplexed. Outdoor cats do not chase laser pointers, she writes; they clearly understand that laser pointers are not food. “Lilly and Harley aren’t allowed outside and were never taught to hunt by their mother, whereas a cat with a normal outdoor upbringing learns what to chase and when,” she writes. “Outdoor cats also learn to inhibit their chasing instinct so they can stalk their prey and get close enough to catch it.”
Grandin states that Lilly and Harley had gone into what behaviourists call hyper-activation of the predatory chasing instinct. “They were so mindlessly fixated they could have injured themselves,” she writes. “I think that happens with laser pointers because cats can see the dot but can’t catch it. Even when a cat puts his paws on the dot he can’t feel it or hold it. The laser dot probably becomes a super-stimulus that keeps on stimulating the chase because the cat can’t compete the sequence of chase and catch, so the chase instinct can’t get turned off.”
There are interesting parallels between domestic cats and humans who live in front of computers, television sets and handheld devices, chasing pixels, flicking stations with a remote control, and turning a blind eye to their health and wellbeing in preference for the chase on the screen. Like Lilly and Harley these humans are so stimulated by the chase of the new television show, email, documentary, film, news story, social media message, internet search– experiences that simply can’t be felt or held – that the chase instinct can’t get turned off. Sound familiar anyone?