The Case Against Cats

November 14, 2016

New Zealand’s recent announcement of a plan to eradicate all invasive predators, including feral cats, sparked an immediate response—and not in defense of the stoat, up there with cats among the top 100 on the Global Invasive Species list. “Cat murdering New Zealand[ers] are for the birds,” one commenter vented on The Washington Post’s website.

“Removing cats from an area is a futile effort—one that cannot succeed,” another warned. When Australia announced a plan in 2015 to cull 2 million feral cats, the singer Morrissey declared them “2 million smaller versions of Cecil the lion.” The actress Brigitte Bardot called the cull “animal genocide.” Needless to say, no celebrity outrage or online indignation has greeted New Zealand’s or Australia’s expensive and long-standing rat-eradication programs.

What makes an animal a pet—a creature to which our emotions attach, sometimes in logic-warping ways—is surprisingly difficult to pin down. Cats are a particularly puzzling case. Domesticated some 9,500 years ago, they still don’t strike humans as completely tame. They live with us, but even indoor cats aren’t entirely dependent on us, certainly not in the emotional way dogs are.

They do many things that seem to defy rational explanation, which is no small source of their allure: the blanket-attack ritual, the full-body keyboard plop, the blank-wall stare, and perhaps most dramatic, the post-poop freak-out. One of my cats performs a ninja leap about three feet up one side of the door frame, then slides down, firefighter-style, to the floor.

Even the discoveries, in the past several decades, that cats carry a parasite that could contribute to schizophrenia, and that outdoor cats wreak ecological disaster, haven’t budged a curiously imbalanced relationship with this furry companion—or maybe cohabitant is more accurate. More than a third of all households in the United States now have a pet cat (the total count is estimated to be close to 100 million animals), which marks a 50 percent rise since the 1980s. Their owners feed them, stroke them, shovel their litter, spend ages trying to photograph their yawns from the cutest angle for Instagram.

They ignore their owners, mostly sleep, intermittently deign to serve as purring lap warmers, and occasionally drop a half-dead mouse on the rug. Mysterious as cats are, however, the greatest mystery about cats centers on humans. Why do so many of us love them so much when they are so bad for us, and for our planet? And if we could resolve this first mystery, would we be any closer to solving the world’s cat problem?

In Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, Peter P. Marra, the head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and Chris Santella, a widely published travel writer, take the easy way out. They’re so clearly not cat lovers that they can’t really begin to comprehend those of us who are. The best they can do in their otherwise informative anti-cat polemic is to tell us that cats have long been “tolerated by their human neighbors because of their supreme pet-like characteristics.”

Merely tolerated? Rat-catchers aboard colonizing ships in the 18th and 19th centuries, cats immediately inspired a craze when they were introduced to islands in the Pacific, the reporter Abigail Tucker writes in The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World. “A passion arose for cats,” according to the log of a ship that landed in Samoa, “and they were obtained by all possible means.”

Tucker takes an intriguing stab at accounting for that still-thriving passion. “Cats look uncannily like us,” she proposes, and locates their appeal not in their alien aura but in the spell their familiarity exerts and the protective fascination it elicits. “Even better, they look like our infants.” Given their baby-size bodies; large, front-facing eyes; and yet oddly predatory mien, it’s no wonder we find them “mesmerizing.”

Why do we love cats so much when they are so bad for us, and for our planet?

Tucker is certainly right to suggest that the current cat predicament is rooted in peculiarly fraught power relations between these cuddly yet opaque creatures and Homo sapiens. History reveals felines as the ultimate opportunists, biologically primed to exploit their human enablers—among many other creatures. As both books reveal, cats travel well, reproduce quickly, and are savage and omnivorous predators.

When Mark Twain arrived in Hawaii in 1866, some 90 years after cats had strolled down the gangplanks of Captain Cook’s fleet and conquered the hearts of the natives, he observed “platoons of cats, companies of cats, regiments of cats, armies of cats, multitudes of cats.”

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