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Saturday, 15 March 2014


Cat photos
“If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember.” 
Terry Pratchett

You can guarantee that right now somebody, or more likely quite a few people, are wracking their brains trying to write a scholarly essay on the phenomenon of cats’ domination of the internet. Statistics, those ever trustworthy numbers, indicate that several thousand cat videos are uploaded to Facebook every minute. People who wrote blogs about poetry and had three viewers a month have discovered that if they write one about cute cats they can get thousands a week. The irony for the scholars is that cat videos are essentially anti-intellectual. You are supposed to sit at your desk for a couple of hours struggling over a difficult issue, every so often switching to a cat video because it relaxes the mind. The other thing to point out is that cats were considered furry little bundles of joy long before we had computers, let along an internet. The difference is that in the old days we sent each other postcards, of someone else’s cat. As for our own little parcels of feline sweetness; we took photos, put them in albums and soon forgot about them.

Another postcard, from prehistory so far as computers are concerned, and a question: who would send this postcard? By that, I mean, which occupation? Librarians, obviously, love cats, so much that most must own at least two, a black one with a personality and a tortoiseshell that thinks life is about lying on cushions. They would have definitely sent this card to each other. Professors of ancient Greek or Medieval history also own cats, but they wouldn’t have sent a postcard like this to their friends, because, back in the day when the arts were valued, they went for whimsical but not cute. Unless of course the recipient owned a dog. Police officers, on television anyway, often own cats. How many have wearily returned home after a long, sordid day dealing with society’s worst and the first thing they do is pour a saucer of milk for their Siamese sweetheart? My experience with hired assassins is limited, but you’ll notice how in novels most of them own cats. It is a clue to their humanity. They might send a card like this, but it would contain a veiled threat: ‘you, and your family, are dead’.

Some postcards of cats may be interesting but most snapshots are; and not always because of the subject. One can understand why someone would want to take photos of their cat – we all do it; most cat owners probably have hundreds – but when said animal looks like this; hateful and diseased, an animal that owes nothing to humans because, frankly, what have they ever done for it, you have to wonder; are there people who just assume all cats are cute. Here's one who isn't.

According to some recent statistics cited by National Geographic, cats in the U.S.A kill “between 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion mammals in each year.” I assume rats figure highly in those astonishing numbers, so I am not too fussed, but that said; the humble squirrel, the innocent groundhog, the neurotic but otherwise non-bothersome chipmunk – which I always assumed was a squirrel but may be more closely related to the plague carrying Rattus rattus, so maybe we’re better off without them – it would be ironic and pathetic if the real blame for the sixth great extinction fell on those dear little soft balls of gentle lovingness, who gaze up at us so expectantly each time we go near the fridge. 

Case in point: a creature with the smug expression of one who has just killed an endangered species for no other reason than it could, yet it is also confident its owner (primary carer?) will ignore the pile of feathers behind the shed because his or her tortoiseshell treasure is the sweetest, most loving thing on the planet.

But an insatiable capacity for murder may not be the most sinister aspect to cats. They have an array of forms of communication at their disposal yet the only time they meow is in the presence of humans. These meows have been measured and amazingly, they fall within the same range as a baby’s cry. Evolutionary biologists are beginning to think that cats developed the meow to mimic a baby’s cry, knowing they would get a positive reaction from humans. Cute? Maybe. Downright deceitful? Absolutely. 

Part of the passage from childhood to adulthood is coming to the realization that cats have no strong feelings regarding being photographed, but they’d rather they weren’t. Also, they don’t like children. Adults feed cats and leave them in peace when they want to sleep on the sofa, which is all cats ask for from humans. Children think cats are better than teddy bears because they can pull their ears and get a reaction. Mother cats love their kittens; watch them care for their newborns and you realize there is no other word for it. This emotion does not extend to other species.

When my cat was in the best of health, an active day meant moving from the bed to the kitchen, with a couple of spells in the lounge room, and time spent on the windowsill or the balcony. Some of us believe this shows an innate curiosity in the outside world. Animal behaviour specialists differ. Cats like high places to view the world because it puts them at an advantage. As hunters they can track the movements of their prey. As prey themselves, they are in a protected place. Imagine a drug dealer who enters a bar, immediately cases the exits then has to face the doorway at all times in case the police make an appearance. That’s how cats think too. 

A few claims have been made lately regarding the difference between cat and dog owners. The basic formula is: cat = introvert, dog = extrovert, which falls apart as soon as you think about the cat owners you know V dog owners. Apart from the determinable detail that most of us hover around the centre with a preference for one state or the other depending on what is happening in life at the moment, quite a few dog owners I know tend towards the introvert, having little in the way of a thrilling social life while looking forward to that long walk with Spot on the weekend. A more accurate equation might be: dog owners value loyalty, humour and generosity while cat owners are content with sophisticated elegance. 

A troublesome photo, because it appears to make a distinction between cat owner and sheep owner that may be a matter of circumstance rather than a generalization, and one I am not well versed in. Notice how she holds the cat, preventing it from making any sudden moves. I don’t know what cats think of sheep, and vice versa (and incidentally, sheep aren’t that dumb; they know very well what they can get away with) but it does seem the relationship here is a little complex. Imagine our drug dealer again, meeting someone who posed no threat whatsoever but bored the pants off him and didn’t look right to boot. Sometimes you just have to put up with stuff you’d rather not.

Dear little things. Wouldn’t you like to pick them up, say, ‘live with me forever, my soft little sugar balls’, take them home and make a litter? Unfortunately, these examples of feline gorgeousness may be dead. It was very common around the turn of last century to photograph cats and dogs or even chimpanzees in all sorts of beguiling positions, made possible because they’d been to the taxidermist first. Far from being scandalous, this was acceptable, because how else would you get cats to pose? It isn’t that they resist behaving for us; they just have a different way of looking at the world.

Speaking of the dead; there are volumes worth of accounts of people who have been obliged to send their little one off to the great beyond, only to see or hear them return a few days later, and what’s interesting is that when you look at the accounts, it seems the number of cats returning considerably outweighs the stories of dogs. Why? I don’t think these cats are ghosts; it seems more a matter of the owners’ psychology, yet it points to something about cat owners we can almost put our finger on yet remains allusive. 

It is like another mystery about cats. When our cat’s health is good, which is becoming less frequent these days, we can play one, particular Bach CD and she will immediately jump on the sofa and nestle down. No other music gets that response from her. I’ve searched on the internet and found owners who swear their cat does the same to just one Black Sabbath LP. Obviously, cats aren’t hearing a structured composition of musical notes but something else. With dogs it doesn’t matter. Play any music and they will lie down, dribble out both sides of their mouth and wag their tails. Cats are different, and how they respond to music is intriguing. They are enigmatic.


1 comment:

  1. I'm still laughing, thank you!! And my cats enjoyed the photos, too.
    (I'm Nancy S. Ellis on facebook.)


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