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17 November, 2006

Running In Neutral

Watching Yuli, our cat, sitting perfectly still and staring vacantly at a blank wall just a metre from his face – as only cats can do – I was reminded of an interesting little episode from my past.

Wifie and I were hiking through a very beautiful part of the Arizona desert, an area of low hills covered in gorgeous cacti of various kinds. We were walking single-file on a narrow track and a strange hissing sound gradually edged its way into my awareness. Suddenly I realised what I was hearing and called out ‘Rattlesnake, darling!’

To my amazement, Wifie took off like a mountain goat, leaping and bounding down the track for dozens of metres before she came skidding to a halt in a cloud of dust. I looked down at where she had been just a few moments ago and there, writhing and spitting under a cactus bush, well within striking distance of the track, was the most angry and irascible rattlesnake you are ever likely to bump into.

I was a nice, safe, couple of metres away, so I edged gingerly around it and went down to join my belovèd. She was experiencing a variety of emotions. Somewhere in the mix was well-deserved guilt that she had cleared off and left me to the mercy of our vicious friend but her most powerful sensation was bewilderment because she had no recollection at all of doing a hundred-metre sprint down that rocky track. She remembered my warning and the next thing she knew she was at the bottom of the hill looking up.

One often hears phrases like ‘blind panic’ and one frequently realises that one’s mind has been ‘running in neutral’ for the past couple of minutes but what struck us both about this particular incident was that Wifie had, for quite a number of seconds, performed intelligent, purposeful, skilled, not to mention athletic behaviour with no conscious awareness of it. It was such a perfect illustration of the fact that animals like us can get by perfectly well in the world without having to be conscious at all and the imputation of conscious awareness to other animals is entirely unnecessary.

Which brings me back to Yuli.

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