Cruelty covers a continuum from lack of empathy to mercilessness. Animals actually commit cruel acts. But are they really cruel? Do they torment and torture? Do they like to make others suffer? A familiar example of an animal torturing another is the cat with the mouse. On countless occasions a well-fed cat might be seen to catch a mouse that it does not eat. It may not kill the mouse right away. It might, instead, toss the mouse in the air, permit it to run off and almost escape—and then pounce once more. It may hold the struggling creature down with a paw, and view its desperate attempts to get away with an expression that surely looks like one of delight. A leopard has been discovered to play with captured jackals in the same manner.
The experiments of Paul Leyhausen’s group with domestic and captive wildcats indicate that a cat will continue chasing, catching, and killing mice even it has stopped to be hungry. Sooner or later it may stop killing them but would continue chasing and catching them. Then it might stop catching them, but would still stalk them. After a long while, it may give up on mice. But the point during which the cat is chasing and catching without killing and eating appears just like torture.
Note what the cat loves best: most of all to chase, then to catch, then to kill, least of all to eat. This might seem antithetical to survival, but this hierarchy of appetites equates to what a successful hunter needs to be able to execute. A predator may have to chase after a lot of animals before it catches one, isn’t able to kill all that it catches (some prey escape), and may have to catch more than it can consume (like when it is supplying for the young). It has been calculated that a tiger catches prey once in twenty attempts. A lot of kittens hone their predatory skills with the prey their mother catches but doesn’t kill at once. A lioness has been seen holding a live warthog in her paws while cubs watched with fascination, and cheetah have been seen bringing live gazelles to their cubs.
Does the cat who is gorged with killing mice take pleasure in their suffering? Hunters relish their marksmanship, their ability to find their prey. They might enjoy killing the pheasant or the deer, but most hunters will claim that they don’t enjoy the suffering of the pheasant or the deer. As to cats, how can this be examined?
Take into account a prey that doesn’t suffer. A cat can barely take pleasure in the suffering of a ball of yarn or a wad of paper. A cat is drawn in to particular attributes of prey—a scramble, an uneven gait. Mice generally show these attributes more in effect than balls of yarn. But if a wad of paper could squeak and scramble as well, it could be just as attractive to the cat. A few cats have been seen playing with paper balls while mice run around underfoot.
Besides the movement of prey, cats are often captivated by the idea of prey in hiding. Leyhausen reports that a captive serval (a tall, lynx-like African cat), when not anymore hungry, will catch a mouse, carry it carefully over to a hole or crack, and let go of it. If the mouse does not take the chance to hide, the serval will in fact push it into the hole with its forepaw—and then try to fish it out once more. This may not be good for the nerves of the mouse, but servals also play the same game using pieces of bark.
Alternatively one might ask whether cats take joy in the suffering of prey if it doesn’t involve flight behavior. Would a cat relish seeing a mouse beaten or stretched on a rack? It appears unlikely—injured mice in traps are of only fleeting interest to cats. A cat rapidly loses interest in a mouse who is badly injured to scamper away. Maybe the cat bats it with a paw to see if it can be made to run again, but when it doesn’t, the cat will be bored. The mouse might be visibly suffering, gasping and bleeding, but when it isn’t trying to escape, a well-fed cat is not interested. Death itself holds no interest.