Tiny went up to that puddle and scratched at the linoleum nearby with one front paw, as though he were scratching in the litter box. I sighed, replied, "All right, I guess it's a fair request," grabbed an old towel from the laundry hamper, and took care of the puddle. Tiny sat back on his haunches and pointedly licked at his front paw, then shook the paw back and forth as though it were wet. "No," I said. "It's gone. Look, I'll show you." I extended my hand to Tiny's nose, and as usual he stretched out his nose to meet my finger. Then I moved my hand to the place where the puddle used to be, and Tiny followed, sniffed at the ground, satisfied himself that the puddle was gone, then turned and left the bathroom, brushing my calf with his tail in acknowledgement on the way out.
Scenes like this are common in my apartment and probably in the homes of pet owners everywhere. Tiny and I had a normal, everyday conversation, and it hadn't seemed unusual to me until I thought about it later on. Despite the species barrier, despite that Tiny does not talk and I do not have whiskers, a tail, or a long, flexible body, we've hashed out a way to get ideas from cat to human and back again. Of course, it took a while to work out that system. When Tiny first came to live with me, he was a nine-month-old gangly adolescent cat who had lived on the street for a long time, probably since being dumped as a kitten, and he didn't know what people were all about. We had to learn each other from the ground up. Now, we're partners. We share space. We understand each other pretty well.
That's one of the best experiences of owning a pet--getting to know someone whose mind is very different from yours. I find Tiny cute and engaging. He probably thinks the same of me. We both find each other useful--I feed him, brush him, and scoop his litter, and he wakes me in the mornings and keeps me company. People love this part of having a pet; pet owners will tell you that their cat or dog (or guinea pig, budgie, or lizard) has his own personality and his own way of communicating, and they delight in learning how their pet thinks and learning how to relate to him. That is because people expect animals to be different. The best animal communicators are people who know that animals are animals, not small furry humans, but still don't underestimate them for being animals.
There are also people who are different--people who are from different countries or who have different minds, who love differently or have different concepts of themselves and the world. There are people who are different in religion or philosophy, in age, in ability, in interests, talents, and preferences. We love animals for being different; why do we not love people for being different? Prejudice has its roots in this xenophobic tendency of humans to be afraid of things they do not know. And yet it seems like we could approach this more like I approach my cat--love them for their differences, rather than minimizing the differences.
Maybe it's because when I talk to my cat, I don't expect my cat to talk back. I don't expect him to learn my words--though he does learn some of them, especially when they're said in the right context. I don't expect him to think the way I do, nor prefer the same things I prefer. I find no particular virtue in catnip, for example, and he thinks coffee smells perfectly terrible. He thinks eating salad is odd, and I eat very little meat. He notices moving things; I notice shiny things, colors, and patterns.
But when people talk to other people, they often do so with the expectation that these other people will be the same as they are--superficially different, perhaps, but still essentially the same. In fact, people who are trying to get rid of prejudice often make the argument that other people are "really the same, deep down". We may proceed on the assumption that a black man is a white man with more melanin, a woman is a man with a female gender identity, a person in a wheelchair is the same as their identical twin who never used one, or a man from China is the same as a man from America would be if he had a different citizenship. We talk about how people celebrate different holidays, eat different foods, or have differently-arranged families or lifestyles. But at the bottom of it all is, "Hey, we're really all the same. They're not so different. We can accept them."
It's a noble endeavor, but we're going about it the wrong way. We shouldn't try to minimize differences. Like I do with my cat, we should say, "These people are different--and that's wonderful." Rather than pretending the differences are not there, pretending they don't matter, or pretending that being unprejudiced means ignoring differences, we should look at those differences head-on, understand them, and treasure them. I don't want my cat to turn into a human; I want him to stay a cat. We shouldn't try to treat other human beings as though they are just like us, either. That same joy we find in connecting to animals who are different from ourselves, we can find in connecting to humans who are different. If we take those differences as an enhancement to our relationships rather than an obstacle, we may discover that we can now look at ourselves and the world from a new, exciting perspective we could never have discovered if it weren't for getting to know those who are different.