The tiger lunged at me and roared in astonishing fury, roaring and roaring, his giant incisors ready to crush my skull, his enormous claws slashing through the space between us, six feet and a thick steel mesh. It was an incredible display of violence, just marvelous. He lunged at me again, louder and angrier. But for the steel mesh, that big cat could kill me in seconds, I thought, crush my skull with one chomp, scoop out my insides with a swipe of that paw. A docent came up and drew me to the side, in front of another pen and another tiger, a tigress lolling lazily in the sun and paying me no heed whatsoever. Rajah doesn’t like great big men, she said. Your size is threatening. I’m threatening him? It’s a territorial thing, she said. Rajah got another glimpse of me and snarled viciously. Slash. The docent pulled me back into a corner, out of view. Rajah settled down, but I couldn’t stay hidden in there. Maybe it’s the blazer, I said. It was sandy brown and perhaps in it I somehow looked like a tiger’s worst enemy back in the jungles of Malaya. Maybe, she said, so I took off the coat and walked past the cage in a bright Kelly green shirt. It fooled Rajah for a minute. But just for a minute, and as I walked away he let out an absolutely blood curdling murderous roar and lunged one last time, all huge teeth and gigantic claws and rippling tiger muscularity. The children watching screeched and scattered, their mothers running after them. Wow. That was the coolest thing, and I felt strangely pleased with myself, a week shy of 62 and intimidating a man-eating tiger.
Cool stuff….appears that cats were domesticated twice–once in the middle east, and later and independently in China. The Chinese cats, which were domesticated leopard cats, disappeared once the middle eastern variety was introduced to China, so that today’s domesticated cats, even those in China, are descended from the middle eastern wild cat. They believe that those wild cats from the mid east developed vocalizations (or kept up kitten sounds into adulthood) that appealed to us, while leopard cats have fewer vocalizations for interacting with humans. They might not have been as affectionate and easy to tame either. You play too hard to get and you’re back out in the cold. You know how you cat people are.
I suspect that the exponential increase in the pet cat population led to the exponential increase in urban and suburban coyotes which led to the decrease in the time cats spend outdoors which has caused the exponential increase in the urban and suburban brown rat population which has caused an increase in the amount of rat poison used which has dramatically increased the number of dead and dying rats which has led to the increased mortality in owls I read about today.
Neighbor’s cat stuck up in our back yard tree for the third day now. So far all attempts at rescue have failed. All it has to do is climb down six more feet and it can be rescued. So of course, being an idiot cat, it climbs up another ten or twenty or thirty feet. From there it could also go another six feet and leap onto the roof. Nope. No one ever said cats were smart. Cute, OK, but not smart. Natural selection in house cats eliminated that sort of thinking in favor of snookumsness a long time ago. Hell, the dumb things can’t even conjugate a simple verb intelligently. I can haz cheeseburger, sheesh. And so there we are, three days of standing around the trunk of the tree and looking up as the stupid if adorable little beast looks down and cries at us like it’s our fault. Perhaps it is our fault. We domesticated them. Leopards don’t get stuck in trees. Then again leopards eat people. It’s important to keep things in perspective.
Tonite we will wind up picnicking around the tree, eating pork loin, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and drinking wine, just to torment the little dope into coming down for a morsel. Not that it will work. Instead we will probably be attacked by raccoons. They, at least, are smart. And annoying. If cats were smart they’d be just as annoying, and we’d never have domesticated them. Problem solved.
Incidentally, here is a margay. A margay can climb down a tree, headfirst. Obviously we domesticated the wrong species. Of course, margays are from South America, and we are from Africa. One of us was on the wrong continent. Hence, there is a descendant of an African sand cat–native to deserts and Sahel, treeless all–stuck far up in the branches in our backyard, meowing its little sand cat heart out.
(an early draft of Cats, 2012)
Mockingbirds are strafing one of the neighborhood cats. A whole little mockingbird community, who spend all night and days shrieking at each other (at 3 a.m. it was a battle of car alarms) have banded together to dive on the hapless cat, who is frantically looking for cover. The birds are all fired up, having just driven off a pair of nest robbing ravens. So much violence.
I find it hard to feel sorry for Fluffy. Fluffy (not his real name) is a friendly cat, yes. Cute even, on occasion. None of the people around here have any issues with him. But mockingbirds have damn good reasons for taunting him. Cats love stalking and pouncing on birds. People deny that their cat does — kitty would never kill a bird — but pet cats let outdoors have wiped out a lot of urban bird populations. They can’t help it. It’s what they do, cats. They’re hunters. And so are coyotes, and all those pet cats people let outdoors provide a steady diet for coyotes. I suspect we wouldn’t even have populations of urban coyotes if it weren’t for all the house cats people let outdoors. The more cats people have, the more cats there are outside, the more coyotes can survive living among people. You could probably graph the rise in the popularity of cats as pets with the increase in the urban coyote population. You could, but you’d have a hard time getting laid afterward.
We used to have a local population of feral cats. Some big mean toms. They’d fight all night, those eerie, annoying cries of their’s waking everybody up just in time for the burst of intense violence that followed. Sometimes you’d hear cat bodies being thrown against the side of the house with some serious force. Amazing how much energy a cat can expend in a fight. Not for very long. Cats are anatomically sprinters, not long distance runners, like dogs. All their energy has to be in astonishing bursts, since the oxygen in a cat’s blood is quickly depleted. Hence their contests are more build up than action, and size almost always wins. So the biggest, meanest cats ruled our neighborhood. Nearly all of them were feral. The pet cats would skitter home beat up and bleeding. It was getting to be a problem. Cats making a helluva racket all night. People yelling at the cats. No one getting much sleep.
Then a pack of coyotes moved into the neighborhood. End of problem. The endless war cries of cats were replaced by the occasional high pitched yelps of excited coyotes. You’d hear them running down the street on the hunt. It’s weird, a quiet neighborhood and the yelping of wild canines. Like all this civilization wasn’t even here. Like it has been stripped away for a moment and you could hear what it was once like. It’s so spooky it’s thrilling.
The coyotes ate all the stray cats. And they ate a lot of pet cats, foolishly let out by their owners. They ate a lot of little dogs, too, right in their back yards. Sad little flyers appeared on telephone poles. Rewards were offered. There’s one right outside now. I can see it from my window. The little dog is just darling. The reward is one thousand dollars. There’s a lot of money in Silver Lake.
I like cats. And I dig coyotes. And birds. Ours are indoor cats only, so off the menu, and birds are off theirs. They watch the birds from the window. My wife feeds birds. Sparrows, finches, a couple kinds of doves. Every once in a while a scrub jay drops in and scares off all the other birds. Not as often as before, though. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a lesser goldfinch, a hooded oriole, or a towhee. A long time. There were more bird species in Silver Lake when we moved here in the 80’s. Especially here near the river. The explosion in the pet cat population coincided with the disappearance of several species. Birds like the towhee which spend a lot of their time on the ground were just too easy for cats. There are far more cats now than there were twenty years ago. Everyone has a cat or three. Crazy cat ladies don’t seem so crazy anymore, merely eccentric. People leave food out everyday to feed the strays to feed the coyotes. Funny how coyotes might increase the bird population. I used to think they might. Haven’t noticed it, though. [I do now, in 2016. Even the towhees are back.] For every cat eaten there must be two more cats being brought into people’s homes. People are just mad about cats.
There are several theories about just why. The weirdest one is that cats have passed on a parasite that has altered our behavior and makes us pay lavish attention to our pet cats. Parasites can do that, nature is full of examples. The theory got lots of attention, a big story in The Atlantic, and the scientist behind it was all over television. The science is a little sketchy, though. Let’s just leave it now and agree that people are nuts about cats. And cats are nuts about killing birds.
Cats are natural killing machines, remarkable animals, though we don’t really notice. The design hasn’t changed much since it’s inception around 30 million years ago. That cat, the proailurus,or dawn cat, looks remarkably like your cat.
It was even about the size of your cat. Amazing how little things have changed in thirty million years. The head seems a bit larger now, which might be to make room for a larger brain. The proailurus’ jaws seem extended a bit, too, more dog-like, and the evolutionary transition to a modern cat jaw probably accounts for the larger head of the modern cat. The one pictured above has decidedly more weasel like proportions…or less kitten like. The tail of today’s house cat is maybe two thirds as long. Perhaps because modern cats use their tails to communicate and a longer tail could not be held straight up as easily. A tail straight up implies fear, for instance, and held aloft with the top few inches at a 90 degree angle shows friendliness. That larger jaw of modern cats also helps with communication, I’d guess. Small sounds resonate more inside a larger mouth, vastly increasing the cats vocabulary. House cats have an extraordinary range of sounds they make to each other. Some they make to us. Some they make for each other. They’ll call to each other and you’ll try to get their attention and they completely ignore you. Some kind of intense cat to cat thing going on, and we’re not supposed to know, like when two people break into a language you don’t know with you standing right there. When they want to talk to you they’ll let you know.
Felines have been compared to sharks as being perfect predators. Perfect hunting machines. And like sharks, once the initial design was laid out there wasn’t much alteration needed afterward. Of course sharks go back over 400 million years, but evolution in the open ocean, where conditions change vary little over enormous stretches of time, can proceed much more slowly than on land. The environment on solid ground is much more volatile. Species are under constant pressure to change or go extinct. Think of how humans have altered in just a few million years. Indeed, look at how much size variation there is even with our own species (writes the six foot five inch man). Not cats, though. All the small cats, from the cute, vicious little sand cat to the largest of the small cats, the cougar (which purrs just like the domestic short hair in your lap) come from proailurus, and all look very similar. Today’s big cats–lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, cheetahs–all descend from pseudaelurus, which itself descended from proailurus. Weird to think about, he says, a housecat staring at him as he types.
The action outside my window has abated, for now. The mockingbirds are back up on their branches, quiet, looking for threats. Fluffy is up on the neighbor’s porch, glowering. And as the sun sets a siren wails and the coyotes come to life.
Oh man, cat people….
Case in point, this article in Vox: “Japan just created a Google Street View for cats”. Basically, some cat fanatic in Japan made a Google Maps street view for cats. No I don’t know why. But now, it’s explained in the article, we can see what a city look in Japan looks like to a cat.
Of course, that is not what anything looks like to a cat. It is what a Japanese city looks like to a very short person. Because a cat’s daytime vision (see the photo below) is much more fuzzy, less sharp, less colorful (no reds at all), dimmer, and full of shadows. A cats cautious movement reflects that vision. What to us is a lawn in the late afternoon sun is to them a lawn with its western half it in deep shadow. And I also believe a cat’s vision would detect movement much more acutely, so that while we see a street, a cat would see birds in the bushes, a pedestrian walking on the sidewalk, a car passing, and a some littered paper blowing by. We would put the movement into the context of a street, but for a cat the movement is the context.
I realize that this is the least important thing you’re read all day.
And I’m not even finished. You’ll notice one of the stills from the map linked above shows a shop in the background, a bench in the foreground, and some fool calling the invisible cat from the shop door. We can ignore the fool, if only on principle, and the shop, and focus instead on the bench. I’ve always thought that a cat’s way of looking at space is much more modular than ours. That bench, for instance. We see a bench, and notice there’s room under the bench. To a cat there’s the top of the bench and, completely separate, there is the space underneath the bench. They are two different spaces, and their connectedness is meaningless and probably unrecognized by the cat. Because to a cat every opening big enough to get into is its own separate space. A box on the floor. A grocery bag. A cat will crawl into a bag and that bag will then be separate from the room it is in, to the point that a cat can crawl into a paper bag and fall fast asleep, feeling completely secure, no matter what is going on around it. And while a bedroom for us is one room and a closet, for a cat it is a whole collection of spaces independent of each other. The top of the bed and underneath the bed are completely different, the various cubbyholes and hidden places in the closet are completely unique spaces. It sees a bedroom the way we would see a large house. And I don’t think this map gets that across. But imagine an empty bag on the sidewalk between the bench and the shop. To us it would be a bag blowing across the sidewalk. To a cat it would be another modular space, just as much a part of the geography as the top of the bench or under the bench or that shop door beyond with the fool saying here kitty kitty in Japanese.
I once saw a map of a neighborhood from the point of view of a mockingbird, the block divided into various mockingbird territories that, property lines be damned, were all over the place. I’ve never been able to find that map again–those were analog times, when things popped up, blew our minds, then disappeared forever–but it got me to looking at the world from the point of view of different species, such as cats, or Argentine ants, or the rotten kids next door back then on their Big Wheels at eight in the morning. You can while away half your adult life thinking like that. I recommend it.
Felis catus. Better yet Felis silvestrus catus. What scientists, in their more formal moments, call house cats. And lately, scientists have been studying cats and coming up with some interesting conclusions. In fact, I just read a piece on Vox.com: What research says about cats: they’re selfish, unfeeling, environmentally harmful creatures. And like any article that implies anything non-cute about cats, it caused a furor. It certainly did in the comments on Facebook after I posted it. But I think that article is pretty dead on. Cats do kill zillions of birds a year and do vastly more damage than the human hunters do on wild bird populations. And parasitologists are concerned about the effects of the parasite toxoplasma gondii, even if The Atlantic article cited pushes it a bit. (And not to creep anyone out, but parasites may have behavioral effects on us that we’ve only begun to glimmer.)
But I was most fascinated with the studies cited on a pet cat’s attachment to its owner. Or lack of attachment, actually. There is affection, but not attachment. Say everyday you come home and your cat jumps up on the couch and sits on your lap and purrs away. Then tomorrow you leave the country for a year, subletting your pad with cat to somebody. It takes a week or two, but eventually your tenant will come home from work every night and your cat will jump up on the couch and sit in her lap and purr away. Same level of affection. Same attachment. Same everything. After a year you come home. Your tenant is there on the couch, your cat in her lap. Does your cat leap out of her lap and run up to you, a long lost friend, like a dog? No, your cat ignores you at best. Or else it hides. Sit down on the couch and your cat might get up and sit in your lap and purr away. It might sit on your tenant’s lap. It might go back and forth. If it’s what we call a friendly cat it will sit in anyone’s lap on the couch, purring away. It’ll finally settle on your lap alone when your tenant is gone and there is no other handy lap on the couch. The cat is affectionate, yes, but there is no emotional attachment. Not like in dogs, not like in people. Your cat will not miss you if you die. It would miss your nice, comfortable lap. Your dog, on the other hand, would miss you. If you fell into a coma, your cat would seek out another lap. A dog might wait by your bed forever.
The human-cat emotional bond is strictly one-sided. We become deeply attached to them. They find us convenient. I’ve spent most of my life with pet cats, all but a couple years. I like cats. It never seemed to me that they have all that much use for us. Humans keep cats because cats have learned to exploit our instincts and weaknesses. They’re of very little use to most of us now since we don’t use them to catch rodents. In fact anyone who’s ever discovered that they and a neighbor each have the same adoring cat as a pet–with two names even–has realized just how loyal a cat is. We’re conveniences. Whoever feeds them, gives them a warm, safe place to sleep, some property and pant legs it can scent mark as it own, and doesn’t annoy them too much, well they’ll hang around. If a cat can have two families doing it, all the better. The cat doesn’t give a damn what you call it as long as you feed it.
Incidentally, the tiny dogs you see around, especially the ones sitting quietly in purses, also exploit our weaknesses. They look cute and tiny, they get table scraps. Pieces of steak while Rex outdoors guarding the house gets kibble. Unlike cats, though, we have genetically engineered them that way (in the old fashioned way, like Mendel’s peas). Kept their size and appearance developmentally stalled so even full grown they look like puppies and we just melt. Paedomorphosis they call that. The retention of juvenile traits even with adulthood. We have deliberately created dogs that look like puppies their whole lives because we love the feelings that puppies bring out in us. We turned wolves into yappy, squirmy little puppies. People love puppies.
But we didn’t do that with cats. Because cats, although breeding has mellowed them somewhat and perhaps made them a bit more “affectionate”, are highly resistant to genetic change like that. It can be done, to a degree. But not even the most selectively bred cat will look like a kitten in adulthood. Feline growth rates are simply not very flexible, indeed they change very little. A typical house cat looks pretty much identical to an African wildcat even after seven or eight thousand years of domestication. A tiger and a house cat look fundamentally alike, to the point where mothers at zoos tell their little children to look at the big kitty. Tigers look like giant cats. Even the most extreme examples of feline evolution–the cheetah for instance–are immediately identifiable as cats. Indeed, the “first cat” proailurus from about 25 million years ago looks remarkably like an ocelot or jaguarundi today. So the feline template was set at the beginning and has proven adaptable with very little dramatic change. There are three basic sizes (large, small and smaller), though unlike dogs you cannot breed a large cat into small cat or vice versa. If you have ever been to a pet show with dogs in one hall and cats the other, the dogs vary to almost unimaginable degrees–the Saint Bernard and the chihuahua are both descended from wolves (and can interbreed with each other and with wolves) while cats are remarkably similar–flat faces and hairlessness being the extremes. Cats simply don’t change much, in shape or behavior. Only in size to a very minimal degree. The Maine coon cat is enormous by house cat standards, but it pales in comparison to the size range seen among dogs. And while interbreeding is possible between many cats species, like between wolves and dogs or wolves and coyotes, it does not happen in the wild. Cat behavior does not allow for it. Behaviorally and genetically, they are set in their ways, and have been for 25 million years.
It may be that human behavior was easier to modify than a cat’s. Instead of turning a wolf into a puppy, a hominid was turned into a subservient cat loving homo sapien. When that first cat–proailurus–appeared 25 million years ago anything vaguely human had yet to evolve. Felines were fairly set in their ways by the time hominids appeared maybe eight million years ago. The genetic malleability of hominids resulted in more variation than among cats and in a third of the timespan. We change faster. We may not be as changeable as a dog is in body shape and appearance (though we can be radically dimorphic, with very large males and much smaller females, among other differences), but then we show incredible variation in behavior. Our cognitive skills make us infinitely more adaptable behaviorally than probably any species ever. If cats and humans first came together maybe ten thousand years ago because we attracted mice and rats, had warm fires on cold nights and found kittens adorable, then odds are the one who was going to adapt more to the other was the humans. Because we can. Unlike cats, our minds are incredibly adaptable and our behavior easily modified.
If you want to see just how this human behavior has been modified go to one of your higher end pet stores and look at all these things that people buy for their cats. And then look at all the things people buy to get rid of cat urine odor. Human beings are incredibly flexible mentally, live a long time, are highly social and since the beginnings of agriculture have preferred permanent places to live with plenty of warmth on cold nights. Plus we attract rodents. Pretty ideal set up for a cat. Given the chance, our cats will come and go as they please, and we’re hardwired to think of their behavior when they are with us as affection. A dog, on the other hand, will dramatically alter its behavior to live with people. Feral dogs behave much more differently from domestic dogs than feral cats do from domestic cats (though feral cats will not sleep eighteen hours a day). Feral dogs are scary, even deadly. Domesticated dogs are obedient and even protective. We shape dogs to us far more than they do us. There is always some give on both sides (people with dogs do adjust a bit to a canine lifestyle), but people with cats wind up doing far more for their cats than vice versa. Every husband has heard that he is bothering the cat. Cat food commercials–even cat litter commercials–are aimed our concerns about are finicky cat. People often will not even try to train or discipline a cat. People are convinced, for some reason, that cats can’t be disciplined at all. Dogs, yes, children, yes, but the cat gets away with just about anything. Why is that? The sight of adults in a grocery store carefully selecting the cans of food their cat will eat (“he doesn’t like salmon”) has always struck me as a little ridiculous. And somehow, most amazingly of all, they have us doing it with little complaint. There is some hard wiring in people that cats take advantage of. Think of that next time you find yourself calling your cat’s name and being utterly ignored. And when she begins crying and you jump up to feed her. People do that with babies too. In fact I sometimes wonder if the declining birth rate and increase in pet cats are related. Have cats taken advantage of our nurturing instincts to such a degree that they have us in permanent state of being parents to an infant, a time in which the urge to make another baby is repressed?
Even weirder, there’s a video racing about social media of a tyke–a boy maybe three years old–who’s crying next to a very angry cat. Obviously the cat just slashed the boy. The tyke then takes a swing at the cat. The cat leaps up and goes right for the child’s face, claws out, ready to shred. The kid, terrified, topples backward off the bed trying to protect his eyes. The response of viewers is nearly 100% in favor of the cat. The cat aroused greater parental feelings than the three year old boy. Imagine the exact same situation with a small dog. The kid, just nipped by the dog, takes a swing at it. The dog leaps at his face, teeth bared, knocks him off the bed and continues the attack. Viewers would have been horrified. They would too by the sight of, say, a six year old brother attacking the child, slapping him in the face, knocking him off the bed. And an adult doing so would have brought universal outrage and demands for the adult’s immediate arrest and confinement.
Only the cat is seen as the victim there. Only the cat is seen as being absolutely correct in its actions. Only versus the cat would the child–a three year old child at that–be accused of abuse. Of deserving what he got. And only a cat, a large adult, most likely a male, would be discussed in the diminutive–the kitty–in the comments. An attacking adult dog would not be called a puppy. An attacking brother would not be called a li’l kid. An attacking adult male would not be called daddy. Only the cat, big and mean as it was, is still be a kitty.
That is weird, people. There is something wrong with you. You should not applaud that cat for trying to claw out a three year old’s eyes. You should not. You should be horrified. But all you see is an angry kitty and a big mean three year old child. Something has altered one of humanity’s deepest instincts. Cats have somehow turned you against your very own children to protect them, cats. Talk about Darwin Awards.
Many of you are angry right now reading this. Angry that I even suggested that this is a problem. But preferring to raise and care for another species over your own is a classic parasite technique. Even protecting members of that species against your own offspring (the vessels of your DNA) is a classic sign of parasitical behavior modification. You can find it among some ants. Among some species of birds. And among humans, apparently. Cat lovers have been altered.
The first time I ever read a book on parasitism (think it was Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer) I immediately began looking at our cats askance. I’d still feed them and pet them and clean the damn litter box, but I’d ask myself why I was doing it. And you know, I think it’s going to come out one of these days that we’re being had. Had by a damn cat. They’ve worked themselves into our cerebral cortex so deeply that we think cleaning cat boxes is normal. I overheard a friend at a bar recently talking about cats. Cat people, he said, don’t know that their houses smell and everything is covered with cat hair. We don’t. We notice human hair, and certainly notice when someone stunk up the bathroom. We leave books of matches atop the toilet. No one leaves books of matches near the litter box. That we tolerate. But then the human gastrointestinal tract isn’t full of pheromones. Indeed, there’s no surer way to kill a date. But cat urine is a pheromone cocktail. Is that why we don’t mind it so much? Are we vulnerable? I also suspect we notice that strong male cat smell more when it’s not our cat. When a neighbor cat has sprayed the porch, it is pungent and offensive. Is your own cat’s smell as pungent? If not, why not? It would contain the exact same chemical mix that makes that makes stray male urine so goddamn rank. But I wonder if perhaps we just don’t smell it as much. That we don’t smell it because we’ve been programmed, essentially, not to. My friend who pointed out that all cat lover’s houses smell…well, he hasn’t been programmed. He doesn’t like cats.
When I posted the kernel of this post on Facebook a couple weeks ago I got the angriest responses to any post I’d ever written. There was some really intense anger. Any criticism of cats whatsoever was not tolerated. My cat loves me, many people said. I love my cat, others said. It was all love, love, love. The problem with you, somebody else said, was that you don’t know how to love. The responses were sometimes ludicrously visceral, and nearly all involved the word love. You can criticize children and you will not get anywhere near the level of outrage that you will get by denying that cats love us in return. You can make ugly baby jokes and you will not get the instant anger you can get by criticizing cats. It’s not a lasting anger. It dissipates quickly. But it is instant and uncompromising. I can’t figure out why that is. What is it that makes people so instantaneously defensive about cats? Why are cat people so passionate about cats? Why is it that people will do almost anything for cats? They are just animals. They aren’t especially bright–squirrels are smarter–and they don’t guard our children or scare off prowlers. They don’t rescue the drowning or guide the blind. A cat will not die defending you. Cats do virtually nothing of use to human beings, certainly not since we used them to kill the rats and mice raiding our grain stores. And yet many of you just grew angry reading that. I don’t know why that is, but I suspect it’s something we don’t understand quite yet. Something parasitical perhaps, or something chemical, or maybe that hard wired behavior I suspect cats have exploited. That whatever it is that makes people so bizarrely nuts about felis silvestrus catus.
Anyway, it’s time to feed the cat.