Of What Good is a Cat?

Peggy and I were married in late ’71; our friends, Lynn and Christy, in early ’72. Soon afterward, Christy got a kitten that she adored. After giving birth, she said that her eyes had opened, and she realized that her beloved pet was, after all, “only a cat.” Maybe the same fate will befall the woman who insisted that her cat understood every word she said and loved her completely. This hints at the power imbalance between humans and creatures whose existence requires our love and loyalty. Cats, being solitary animals, might not understand that their lives are in the hands of an unstable species, but perhaps dogs do, and that’s why they’re desperate to please us.

I think most people marry a delusion, but time reveals the reality, and perhaps the same is true of my love for my cats. But again, how would I know when it comes to a creature so otherly? Dogs are easier to understand because, like us, they are a social species. Call a dog, and she comes running; call a cat, and the cat might or might not amble in, that is unless I have food in which case all five cats appear without being called. Count on it, when the cheese is unwrapped or the butter dish unscrewed, there they are.

I remember a day when our fifteen-pounder, Brewsky, was relaxing on the floor one moment and inside an open cabinet six feet off the floor the next. Such things must be seen to be believed, and even then it’s hard, but that’s the magic of cats. They’re little thin-boned predators that are easily injured, have no aerobic stamina, are impossible to know, and force me to accommodate them because they sure as hell won’t accommodate me, but they’re also loving, mysterious, have keen senses, and make Olympic athletes look like couch-potatoes.

Every night at 10:00, the cats and I pile into my twin bed where I spend the next two hours reading. While I read, they sleep; bathe; roughhouse; crawl under the covers; crawl out from under the covers; leave the room; return to the room; go crazy when a fly passes overhead; and sip water from the bowl I keep amidst my many potted plants. I sing to them, praise them lavishly, insult them cruelly, and tell them about my reading. I also introduce sundry conversational topics concerning the meaning and nature of Felis catus. Last night, I asked how they can stay so damn beautiful on a diet of corpses. The cats who happened to be looking in my direction continued to look in my direction; the cats who were looking in another direction continued to look in another direction. When I saw that my question was going nowhere, I asked how they are able to instantaneously go from deep relaxation, to leaping two feet in the air to kill a fly, to deep relaxation. There followed another awkward silence during which I became embittered by the suspicion that they were simply reviewing my words in the hope of finding a reference to butter.

So, you wonder, why do Peggy and I keep our butter in a stout container with a screwable lid? It is well you should ask. The reason is that our first-born, Brewsky, discovered that he could get all the butter he wanted by shoving the glass butter dish off the counter and breaking it. We objected for various reasons, among them the possibility of vomit everywhere and a 3:00 a.m. emergency surgery. He hotly insisted that our concerns were asinine, but when he broke another butter dish, we got a cat-proof container. He was livid but powerless.

If my cats weighed fifty pounds, they would eat all the butter they pleased, and if a mad scientist exploded them to 200-pounds, I’m not sure but what they would eat me too. But doesn’t this contradict my belief that they love me? It’s not their love I question; it’s their inherent wildness. In the mad scientist scenario, I can imagine the following sequence of events: cats tentatively toy with frail humanoid who once towered over them; cats’ paw-swipes knock humanoid to floor; humanoid bleeds; cats become excited by the combined odor of blood and hysteria; cats’ pupils become black saucers; cats flatten their pointy ears and lay back their long whiskers; humanoid tries to dial 911; cats knock phone from humanoid
’s hand; humanoid’s broken bones impede his desperate attempt to crawl to safety; cats take turns swatting humanoid; humanoid lies still; cats dismember humanoid; cats agree that humanoid tastes terrible; cats bathe themselves and one another; cats sleep in a kitty-pile; cats have happy dreams; cats sup on cheese and butter. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is that they would show humanoid the same gentle affection that cats have lavished on chickens, rabbits, and other prey animals with which they were raised.

But doesn’t the fact that large dogs treat their humans gently suggest that large cats would too? I think not. Dogs are a social species that have lain beside our fires for 23,000 years, during which time we
’ve genetically transformed them from dignified hunters into groveling slaves who would starve on their own. Cats are a solitary species that entered our lives a mere ten millennia ago, and have largely resisted our attempts to make them into freaks. Dogs love us because we’ve molded them that way. Cats love us because we mold ourselves.

How can we mold ourselves so cats will love us? First, we must provide food, shelter, toys, and treats, although these things alone can no more buy the love of a cat than they can buy the love of a child. It is therefore necessary to: move slowly, speak softly, touch gently, behave predictably, and be quietly affectionate. But how do we know that cats are even capable of loving humans? We know it because they offer us affection; seek our support; warn us of danger; grieve when we die; and sometimes risk their lives to save ours.

Dog lovers have allowed dogs to set the standard for what an animal’s love is supposed to look like. Dogs say, “What you love, I love. What you hate, I hate. Even if you abuse me, I will steal for you, kill for you, and, if I could, I would write bad checks for you.” Cats say, “I love you, but I have my own life to lead, and if you force me to choose between death and slavery, I will choose death.” 

I feel a commonality with cats. To illustrate. If I’m reading in bed and no cats join me, I’ll call them. If they don’t come, I’ll go looking for them. Like as not, I’ll find them sitting about the house, in the dark, staring at walls. I am hurt by the thought that they prefer doing nothing to spending time with me. Yet, there have been hundreds of times when I was staring at the computer, and it suddenly dawned on me that a meowing cat had left the room because I hadn’t heeded his repeated requests for attention. Might not such a cat be as hurt by my inattention as I am by his?

Ailurophiles praise cats for being clean, beautiful, polite, funny, honest, independent, honorable, and affectionate. Ailurophobes insist that cats are vain, stupid, cowardly, selfish, tyrannical, sadistic, and altogether disgusting. They argue that while dogs are out guarding children, guiding the blind, herding cattle, warning of intruders, sniffing out bombs, digging for avalanche victims, finding lost hikers, subduing criminals, alerting people to cancers, and making themselves indispensable in a thousand other ways, cats are home licking their asses and hoping for something to murder. While it is true that few cats serve a practical function, few dogs do either, yet we love them and other “useless” things (sports, TV, and babies, for instance), so why not love cats? Then too, how well does our species measure up to the unselfish standard by which we praise dogs? Given the number of unloved dogs that live miserably, die horribly, and are killed in shelters, not terribly well. I would even say that dogs and cats are better people than we are, but then that
’s not saying much.

Chevrolet is doing a series of highly realistic television commercials that feature a cat named Walter whose strength, courage, leadership, energy, fortitude, alertness, intelligence, and loyalty are, like those of most cats, ignored by his oblivious human. In closing, I will offer the most recent Walter ad for your elucidation, and perhaps, your edification: