Staring in the animal world is almost universally perceived as a threat. It makes dogs crazy and likely to attack. It makes prey species like rabbits and gazelle really, really nervous and likely to run. Most people don't much appreciate unbroken eye contact, either. Engaging in this activity is a good way to get beaten up.
Some people think there are forces at work that signal telepathically when somebody's looking at you. Ever stare at somebody in a crowd and within a few seconds find them staring right back at you?
Try it; it's weird. Nevertheless, I don't so much believe in the telepathic stuff as the instinctual hard-wired stuff we can't even begin to understand. Animal instincts, if you will.
We, like our animal ancestors, are programmed to react on a visceral level (that is, hormonally, neurologically - with "gut" instincts) to perceived threats like an unbroken stare.
We are both hunters and potential prey species, so it is in our best interests to be cognizant of potential dangers as soon as they make themselves known.
Sometimes, I think, we are not conscious of this, but the primitive parts of our brains are reacting to a stimulus we picked up in our far peripheral field of vision, and we get "a feeling" somebody's watching us.
Thus was the feeling my parents, sister and I had when we'd walk quietly through our house and get an eerie sensation as we passed our Christmas tree in the years our cat, Murdock was alive.
Murdock was a universally sweet cat. He loved Christmas. When the decorations came out and the tree went up, he was on alert. He waited patiently through the meticulous opening of each box of ornaments and each bag of this and that until ... the stuffed, hand made, felt ornaments came out. Then, he was on task. His mission? To kidnap any and all stuffed, felt things and take them to the corner.
We tried putting them toward the top of the tree, but it enticed him to leap directly into the tree or try to climb it from the inside, resulting in, well, disaster.
Putting them on the bottom of the tree was no challenge, and he'd swipe them, but then continue to look longingly up through the branches of the tree, wistful for more of a game. He took to knocking every glass ball off that he could find, just for kicks. So we ended up putting the stuffed ornaments halfway up. This was apparently satisfactory to him.
You may ask why we bothered to put them up at all. Would it not have solved all the cat problems if there was no temptation to snatch these specific items?
To that I can only say, because it was funny. The ornaments, made by my mother and us kids had some sentimental value, and the fact that Murdock enjoyed absconding with them, despite his rough treatment of them (some were missing various appendages and his favorite had a nearly severed head) gave us some distorted sense of pride that he should love them so much.
Murdock would climb carefully deep into the middle of the tree, find a comfortable bough, and rest, lying contentedly on the branches.
This was especially easy in the artificial tree, since year after year, his spot was the same.
He would then stare silently out of the tree, most of his black and gray tabby face obscured by his excellent camouflage, completely creeping us out as we walked by or admired the tree.
It would really freak out visitors when we forgot to warn them of "the Christmas tree with eyes."
Contemporary with Murdock was our devoted Golden Retriever, Ashley, who was born to retrieve. He felt it was his mission in life to make sure nobody went empty handed.
During the holidays, Ashley would help retrieve all the ornaments Murdock so carefully and clandestinely picked off the tree throughout the season. Occasionally he'd chew them a little before relinquishing them, but thankfully, he had a very soft mouth.
His gentle nature came in especially handy when he decided to retrieve the glass balls - he never broke one, seeming to know how fragile they were, as he laid them in our hands.
We always had something fun in the pets' stockings - yes, they had stockings - and they all seemed to know it was very special on Christmas morning, gathering around at the designated time to receive their gifts. Here's hoping there's something special that your pets will enjoy this year.
Keep them warm and safe and healthy this season, and you will be rewarded ten fold with their affection (or, in some cases, tacit appreciation).
And if there are delicate ornaments retrieved for your pleasure, or eyes staring out of the Christmas tree, or cat whiskers burned to a crisp by the menorah candles, count yourself among those who find warmth and love and humor in such things.