“The way to get on with a cat is to treat it as an equal – or even better, as the superior it knows itself to be.” (Elizabeth Peters, Egyptologist and mystery writer)
The worship of cats by the ancient Egyptians is well-known. It has been surmised that this deification occurred because cats saved the Egyptians from starvation. The Nile River valley was amazingly fertile due to annual flooding so food could be grown in great abundance, but the granaries were infested by rodents. Enter the cat, hunter of rat. When the people of the Pharaohs befriended Felis sylvestris lybica, their days of belt-tightening were over. Now there was enough to go around the whole year. Hence the literal elevation of cats onto pedestals. This cultural reverence was carried down to the individual level: when an Egyptian household’s feline died, the whole family would shave off their eyebrows. Their tragedy was thus announced publicly and without shame to friends and neighbors in a fashion that was undeniably (pause) in-your-face.
Fast-forward a few thousand years and the cat’s worthiness was no longer as appreciated: During the Dark Ages in Europe the Church somehow got it into its head that cats were of the devil and needed to be eradicated. Perhaps bounties were offered; whatever the motivation, many people took up this ridiculous crusade (is there any other kind?), and cats were decimated. What happened next? Rats bred unchecked and spread The Plague, killing at least a third of the population of Europe. This is why cats look so smug to this day. “Not so fast,” they seem to be saying in response to any treatment that is less-than-deifying. “Remember what happened last time? We do…”
Yet superstitions about the cat persisted into modern times. I grew up with an orange tabby named “Katt,” and I have been told that she wanted to jump up into my crib when I was crying. My mother was warned by the elder women in the neighborhood to keep her away from me because “cats kill babies by sucking out their breath.” Though a Church-goer, my mother was skeptical about this old wives’ tale, and one day she let the cat jump into my crib when I was bawling. The cat proceeded to lick me until I calmed down – and made no effort to steal my oxygen! This marked the beginning for me of a lifelong love with cats.
The common house cat, Felis catus, is a direct descendant of the African wildcat befriended by the Egyptians, Felis silvestris lybica. As Elizabeth Marshall Thomas points out in her book, The Tribe of Tiger, when humans began storing grain crops, they unintentionally invited in other members of the grassland ecosystem with the harvest; namely, seed-eating rodents – mice, rats, etc. – and rodent-eating predators: cats. As agriculture spread out from the Middle East, cats followed. As ships came into use, many of them bearing grains, rodents and cats got on aboard, too. In this way, the African wildcat spread around the Mediterranean and into Europe, where it interbred with the Forest Wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris (after whom Sylvester the Cat, of “and Tweety” fame, was named). From the beginning, in other words, the driving force for the cat has been opportunism. This motivation has been unfairly maligned up to the present day by the more callow humans.
According to C.A.W. Guggisberg, in his classic, “Wild Cats of the World,” statues of women holding cats were found at an archaeological site in Ha ç ilar in Asia Minor that dates back nearly 8000 years. Guggisberg hypothesizes that cats arrived in Italy and Greece about 2000 years ago and moved north gradually, being still rare in England until the 10th Century. A dig at a Roman ruin in Austria, dating to the 2nd and 3rd Century, Guggisberg tells us, uncovered bricks with cat footprints on them: “The animal must have walked over the bricks while they were still soft and laid out to await burning, and in so doing it left the earliest evidence of the domestic cat’s presence in Central Europe.” If you have ever spent time with cats, you won’t have any trouble picturing this episode. Was the cat caught in the act by the brick-maker? Was the brick-maker angry or amused? The cat, we can bet, was surely indifferent.
Cats & Civilization
The independent nature of cats has charmed and confounded humans for centuries. For those humans who prefer the cloying devotion of an over-bred modern dog, subordinated by forced joblessness and a confined space (i.e., a house or apartment), eager to obey commands for treats, a cat can seem stand-offish, finicky, and even stupid. Feline appreciators are more charitable (and closer to the mark), describing their companions as discriminating, fastidious and free-spirited.
The truth is more stark than that, though, and it is this: Cats simply don’t need us. Their entrance into human civilization was of their own free will. If not physically restrained, cats choose their companions and their homes, staying – or going – of their own volition. As Alan Weisman has conjectured in The World Without Us, if humans suddenly disappeared from the earth, cats would find their own way, returning to their hunting ways with, if anything, even more success: “[C]ats will do very well in a world without people who took them to all the continents and islands they didn’t already inhabit, where they now outnumber and out-compete other predators their own size. Long after we’re gone, songbirds must deal with the progeny of these opportunists that trained us to feed and harbor them, disdaining our hapless appeals to come when we call, bestowing just enough attention so we feed them again.”
Not that individual cats are not truly loyal to individual humans. The literature is replete with “Amazing But True Cat Tales” (Bruce Nash & Allan Zullo, 1991) that feature journeys of hundreds of miles to be reunited with companions who moved, warnings of imminent danger from intruders or disasters, or simple comforting in times of distress. But such actions are expressions not of codependency but of self-sovereignty. Any love you receive from a cat is Free Love, and is there any other kind?
Hence the joy of offering Catnip (Nepeta cataria) to cats. They don’t need Catnip, but they want it. With Catnip in your hand you can engage a cat in a dance of playful teasing and flirtatious temptation. For a moment the tables are turned and the servant (the human) rises in rank, not to master, but to something approaching equality, which is to say, cat-ness. To be a “Nip Giver” is to attain one of the highest stations in civilized living.
And, but for cats, there would be no civilized living. The word “civilization” comes from the Latin, “civilis,” meaning “citizen,” and is in turn rooted in the Indo-European “kei,” which connotes “lying down,” “bed,” and “home,” all concepts that quickly bring cats to mind. “Civilized” life emerged from agriculture, and the success of agriculture, as we have seen, was dependent on cats. My heart is really with anarcho-primitivism (see Zerzan, Glendenning, et al.), but I recoil at the thought of life without cats. What civilization hath wrought – “the wheel, New York, wars and so on” (as Douglas Adams so neatly summed it up in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) – is truly a mixed bag, to say the least, and in the end will likely be viewed as an unmitigated disaster. In this way of looking at things, cats are both the enabler of civilization and our consolation prize for having to live in it.
These points are totally missed by those civilization-loving humans who now seek to bar cats from participation in it by imposing extermination, health codes or “catios,” are literally and figuratively trying to “herd cats” and in so doing are demonstrating nothing but their own stupidity. Though their attempts will ultimately prove futile, they are causing suffering for everyone involved in the meantime and are surely bringing on some bad karma for themselves and other humans. And, as I shall explain below, that karma could arrive from the heavens….
My Favorite “Mesopredator”
“Mesopredator” was a new term for me when I first heard it in the Summer of 2012, when my farming partner and I were traveling around the Pacific Northwest, looking for land to cultivate for our seed-selling venture. The term was used by a landowner we met in Southern Oregon who was offering acreage to young farmers. He was a smug intellectual who bragged about the famous people he met at the well-known annual Aspen Environment Forum. He was deeply disturbed by the fact that we had a cat who would join us wherever we settled, and aghast that the cat was not “fixed.” He’s the one who used the word, “mesopredator,” to describe cats. According to Wikipedia, “(t)he mesopredator release hypothesis states that if an ‘ apex predator ‘ is taken out of an ecosystem, the number of mesopredators (defined as medium-sized predators, such as racoons, skunks, snakes, cats, and foxes) often increase in abundance… Mesopredator populations will surge and the predation of smaller, more vulnerable prey species will increase. As a result, the shared prey may suffer more from predation than when the apex predators (or top-predators) were controlling the mesopredators. This may lead to dramatic prey population decline, or even extinction…. ” Wikipedia goes on to note that the theory is still controversial and not universally accepted. To me it sounded like a bunch of academic malarkey cooked up by egg-heads who have spent too much time in civilization, but I don’t have the scientific education needed to be welcome in the conversation anyway.
In Southern Oregon the “apex predators” – i.e., wolves, bears and cougars – have long-since been hunted to extinction or near-extinction by humans; hence this landowner’s concern: that no more “mesopredators” should be introduced. That he himself had removed a mesopredator from the land – a bobcat, to be specific, a native feline – didn’t strike him as at all incongruent. This man had at least one degree too many to think that anyone else could have anything at all to say about, apparently, anything, so it was a fruitless interchange, and soon ended. “Like one f—ing cat is going to make a difference,” were my own closing words, with a growl borrowed from the felines I was defending. He clearly did not like cats, and so was not to be trusted.
But what of those who claim to be “allergic to cats”? Isn’t that involuntary? My answer: no, not really. I consider the “cat allergy” to be a mental problem, not a physiological one. The condition is the unhappy consequence of cognitive dissonance for the frail, confused human ego: Cats effortlessly embody freedom, independence, and forthrightness, while most human culture institutionalizes coercion, slavishness, and deceit. Some poor humans experience a consternation at these contrasts and project their inner turbulence onto the blameless cat. This takes shape in a variety of ways: 1) Repressing one’s own desire for freedom, etc., from a belief that oneself does not deserve it, which is “neurosis”; 2) Oppressing the independence, etc., of others in order to dominate, which is “psychopathy”; and 3) Viewing cats as “just animals” with nothing to teach us, which is – clearly – “delusion.”
Not every neurotic, psychopathic or delusional human claims a cat allergy, but nearly everyone who does falls into one of those categories. I urge compassion for these suffering humans and encourage whatever treatment or practice will help them find their way back onto their rockers, which they are clearly off of. Because you know what cats love, and what it is that you lose when you’re not sitting down: Your lap!
The Return of the Cat Mothership
No eschatology can be proved or disproved unless it is so short-sighted as to include a specific, near-term date (i.e., “December 21, 2012”). “The Cat Mothership Prophecy” fortunately lacks such myopia. I say “fortunately” because it’s so fun to believe. The legend is a simple one: Someday, The Cat Mothership will return to Earth to rescue all the cats from the mess that humans have made of the planet. Only a few people will be allowed to board The Cat Mothership: those who paid appropriate respect to Felis catus in their lives.
Will we each be judged before a kitty-cat court, with tail-flicking cross-examinations by prosecutors, purring accolades from defense witnesses, narrow lidded glares from a prosperous long-haired judge and – over there on that sunny window sill – a napping jury? Or will we be scored by a massive maiow-frame computer that tallies every meal served (10 pts), head scratched (3 pts), and nip given (50 pts), as well as every late breakfast (-15 pts), calf-rub demurred (-8 pts), and claim of a “cat allergy” (-375 pts)? Or will the arrival of The Mothership ignite a transcendence of all cats into a single omniscient super-cat-consciousness (if this is not already the case, as some would claim) that will instantaneously beam up the lucky humans, directly into The Mothership kitchen where bowls stand ready to be filled? Whatever the scenario, we can be sure of one thing: Among those saved, there won’t be a single member of the Audubon Society.
And what of those people who have been actively cruel to cats? The petty cat-kickers? The vicious dog-sickers? The barbarous vivesectionists? Will they get batted around by a cosmic cat brigade ’til their necks are broken and their intestines spilling out? Personally, I wish for it to be worse: That these malicious people will be struck – in heart, mind and soul – with a full awareness of the suffering they caused, and that they will experience it as their own, inescapably, day and night, for the rest of their lives, lives they know will never now include any cat, and hence no chance of redemption. What worse Hell could there be? Oh yeah, and they’ll all have to sleep in dirty litter boxes. Forever.
Sometimes I find myself hoping that I will be invited on board The Cat Mothership. But then I remind myself that hope with cats, as with life, is an empty currency. I must simply put myself in their paws, trusting – nay, knowing – that their judgment of me will be fair. After all, who is an expert on knowing whether or not their own needs have been satisfied, if not a cat? Amen!