A harmless necessary cat

orange kittenIt’s a little daunting contemplating finding something novel to write about cats, the unofficial mascot of the internet. But we’re thinking of getting one (or two), to add some fun – and a few hair balls – to our household. There’s a lot to think about. What to get and how to get it? We’re looking online because there seem to be so many cats in need of re-homing.

This guy on the left is cute, even though he’s not neutered. Good with other animals, apparently. But then there’s these two below, dumped by the side of the road and nursed back to health. Could be good… There are, in kittensfact, pages and pages of cats needing homes on the site I looked at. It’s not surprising, though. The United States population of cats (in 2017) was estimated by a national pet owners survey to be 95.6 million cats living in households across the United States. Add to this an estimated another 70 million feral cats, and that’s 165 million cats in this country alone. Worldwide, their population is estimated to be 600 million pet cats and another 100 million feral cats, of which the vast majority live in the US. (However, it’s easy to imagine that data from many parts of the world is scant – there may in fact be many more uncounted feral cats.)

Not surprisingly, one of the biggest questions for us is whether we can manage to have cats and keep them indoors all the time. Those 700 million cats are eating a lot of birds. The US Fish and Wildlife service estimates that one pet cat may kill up to 34 birds a year, and a feral cat will kill as many as 46 birds a year. That’s 20.4 billion birds from from our pet cats and a further 4.6 billion from feral cats, for a total of 25 billion birds every year. When we hear that almost a billion birds in North America die every year from crashing into the windows of our buildings, it’s a shock. But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what cats do. And it says nothing about the small mammals and reptiles. In fact, it was recently reported by National Geographic that the standing population of birds in North America has declined by almost three billion individuals. National Geographic also lists “keeping your cats indoors” first in the list of Six Things You Can Do to Help Birds.

Ambrosius Benson, Portrait of a Woman with a Cat, 1540-1550

So, we’re pretty forgiving of the damage that cats do to wildlife. In fact, they’ve been celebrated for this very thing for millennia and have found a permanent place in our lives and culture as a result, from being worshiped in Ancient Egypt through the popular story of 14th century Dick Whittington and his probably apocryphal cat, to the stratospheric popularity of Grumpy Cat (potential net worth $100M).

But why are they so popular? I just got on YouTube and typed in “cute kittens doing funny things.” I put up a staunch resistance to the urge to laugh for quite a while, through kittens crashing into boxes and chewing on the tails of beleaguered dogs. Then one video got me – a cat too lazy to get up off the floor to drink, but dipping its paw in the water repeatedly to lick the water off. There was something ridiculous and compelling about it. I was no longer a scientist, but an unabashed cat lover.youtube-e1569722548737.jpgI’m sorry I missed the exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image a couple of years ago – How Cats Took Over the Internet. It told “the history of cats online, examining phenomena like Caturday, lolcats, cat videos, celebrity cats, and more to unearth why images and videos of the feline kind have transfixed a generation of web users.” There are many theories about why cats so engaging, including our desire to procrastinate, cats’ seemingly utter unselfconciousness, and the idea that they are easier to objectify than dogs. For me, there’s something in the behavior of cats that’s close enough to that of humans that we can recognize ourselves in it, with all our frailty and occasional nobility. Harder to find this in, say, to goat. And yet, cats are far enough removed from us as a species that, unlike perhaps apes, we don’t see a grotesque version of us – they’re not ‘almost-but-not-quite-human.’

Whatever the underlying reason, the idea of having the personality of a cat or two in our lives at home is very compelling. Whatever cats we get we get will have to be happy being indoors all the time but there is, I’m convinced, a way to balance the fun and joy of cat ownership with responsible stewardship of our environment and its wildlife.



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