Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Word About Cats

When I got married I inherited four cats. That's right, four cats. Count 'em. Now, I like cats as much or more than the average person does. I grew up with a cat, and he was one of my best pals as a kid. But that was one cat. One cat will pay attention to you, and isn't that much trouble. If you have more than one, they prefer to spend their time with each other, and of course the amount of "cat upkeep" increases exponentially. Did I mention that we have four?

The relationship between cats and human beings is ambivalent to say the least. At our best we love them as pets, buy them expensive food in little cans, and even freeze dry them when they die so we can keep them around. At our worst we curse their shedding, let them live overpopulated and homeless on the streets of our cities, and worse. But more about that later.

Perhaps one reason for the love/ hate relationship we have with cats is that they are smart enough that we can attribute all kinds of human characteristics to them, but inevitably, since they're cats, they always let us down. A few months ago I was unpacking a new electronic gadget in the living room. All the cats got very excited and gathered around to watch.

"It's got dual power supplies and discrete circuitry," I told them, taking the gadget out of the box and holding it up. They really didn't care about that, of course. What did fascinate them was the plastic wrapping and the box half filled with Styrofoam peanuts.

Oh, cats. They have such strange taste. Every time our cats bring some poor bird home in their mouths I'm reminded that these are vicious carnivores. Back to the wild, I think. How can we humans ever expect to get along with heathens who prefer catnip to watercress, cottage cheese to truffles?

"Care for a glass of Bordeaux?" you ask. "Perhaps a '61 Chateau Haut Brion?"

"Not interested," replies the cat. "But if you don't mind, I would like to bat the cork around the kitchen floor."

I suppose one reason cats were originally domesticated was precisely because they don't enjoy the same foods humans do. That way they could be trusted to protect the stores of grain from rodents. We've come a long way since then. Cats still have an economic value to humans, but in a much more grisly way—as laboratory animals for medical experimentation.

They do a lot of brain research on cats, and the mere thought of it sends shivers down my spine. Cats being who they are, it also makes me doubt the wisdom of the researchers. I mean, just how much can they expect to learn from studying the brains of animals who think it's fun to chew on houseplants and then systematically throw up on the carpet in five different rooms?

The other day I was at home working for several hours. For my own sanity I tried to ignore the cats, who were busy playing a game I didn't understand, but which seemed to involve chasing one another several times across every piece of furniture we own.

Late that evening I was very grateful when the house finally quieted down. That was when our little cat Henry jumped up on my lap and nuzzled against my hand. As he curled up in a contented ball I was reminded that, despite our obvious differences, we have a lot in common. Along with all the other animals of the earth, we share an innate need for physical and emotional comfort, freedom, dignity and peace.

Looking down at the furry body, now lost in sleep, the areas of antagonism between cats and humans—be they as trivial as shedding on the furniture, or as significant as death in a medical laboratory—seemed gratefully far away. Yeah, cats are pretty terrific, I thought. I could only hope little Henry might feel the same way about humans.

The holiday season is approaching, and with the help of a sleeping little cat in my lap I am renewed in the hope that someday the lion really will lie down with the lamb, and the peace so many of us have hoped for between our own species and the others on this earth will finally be realized.

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