Monday, August 20, 2012

What Genealogists Can Learn From Cats

I’m a cat lover. Those who have taken genealogy classes from me get an idea of that because the wallpaper on my computer consists of pictures of my cats, and you see them before I start any slide shows associated with the class. Granted, I first got into cats because they came as a “packaged deal” with my wife, but somewhere along the line I turned a corner and now I’m an official, card-carrying cat-person all on my own.

The other day Nelson (my rough and tumble SPCA cat) and I were on the patio together--he was training me to scratch him in just that right spot—when all of a sudden he went “on point.” He tensed up; his blink rate went to zero; he focused his attention entirely on one point by the door some six feet away. Then he darted out of my lap, and before I could react he had a chameleon captured in his mouth.
For the next week, whenever he was on the patio, he stationed himself at that same door and waited patiently for the chameleon he was sure would appear there. After all, if he saw one there once, surely there would be others.

And there you have it; three things genealogists can learn from cats: focus, persistence, and patience. All of these qualities that serve cats so well in their hunt for prey, serve genealogists well in their search for ancestors.
We have all see articles about focus being a necessity in our research efforts. They typically deal with the value of a research plan to give focus and concentration to our research. It keeps us from becoming side-tracked and ultimately over-whelmed by data as we set off on a research task.

Persistence is also a necessary quality, and we realize that early on in our hunt for family information. When we first start out collecting data from our living relatives and our basements, attics, and old trunks; we find the information coming fast and furious. Pretty soon, however, that flow of information slows to a trickle, and it’s a trickle that requires hard work to sustain. The “easy” information has been collected. Now we have to deal with the information that is hard to come by. Now we have to write to courthouses, make research trips, fight through the misspelled names in published records, and otherwise do battle to breakdown any number of brick walls we encounter. Nelson’s persistence in hunting for that next chameleon serves as a good model for what our own persistence should be.
Patience is also something that all researchers need to have. This is especially clear to me as I use the Internet in my research, which increasingly we all do. As you know, the information available on the Internet changes daily as more people publish or update their family trees on sites like, and more sites make vital record indexes and images available. You can search a particular site one day and come up dry, and the next week you can revisit the same site and find a piece of information you have been pursuing for months. Sounds a lot like Nelson going back to that same spot where he captured that first chameleon, doesn’t it? In our world of research it is profitable to revisit sites, knowing that another “genealogy chameleon” may appear at any moment. We should keep track of our research successes, but also our failures as well. Recording those failures gives us an idea of when to revisit a previously searched site and what to look for. That sounds like an element that should be included in a research plan to me.

So there you have it—a few things that genealogists can learn from cats: focus, persistence and patience. I already knew that those characteristics were important, but it took observing Nelson’s behavior to remind me of them. Like so many other things in research, I need to be reminded of what I already know at some level because there are so many things to keep in mind.
By the way, just to keep the peace, I’m sure there are things that Genealogists can learn from dogs, too.

First published in Largo Leader, April 2010.

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