THE MOUSERS OF 10 DOWNING STREET . . .
. . . presented in the manner of military and diplomatic history.
. . . presented in the manner of military and diplomatic history.
As a cat person (you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t), you alert to the sound of a crying cat or kitten as much as—or, if you’re me, more than—to the sound of a crying human baby. I didn’t choose to be childless, and I didn’t try or decide to have a full alarm response to the sound of feline distress. I can’t help it.
Neither could the sixteenth president. So strong was his visceral response to that sound that he heard it right through the din and human anguish of the Civil War.
It is reported that Lincoln was distracted by the sound of crying kittens at the Ulysses S. Grant headquarters in Virginia during the siege of Petersburg in March of 1864. Admiral David Porter wrote he was touched by the sight of the president “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”
Porter remembered Lincoln petting the cats and quietly telling them, “Kitties, thank God you are cats, and can’t understand this terrible strife that is going on.”
Before he left the officers’ tent, the president addressed a colonel and said, ” I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.”
You know he loved them. “Lincoln was the first president to bring cats to the White House, where he spoiled them shamelessly.
This photo looks fake. But the anecdote rings true.
Because Buzzy is seventeen and has imperfectly controlled diabetes, he gets very hungry very often, sometimes because his blood sugar is on the high side, and sometimes because it is on the low side. Because he has an anxious and doting—not to say obsequious—human slave, he is also “spoiled,” as they say (note to self: post on that word sometime), and it is fresh food he is hungry for, thank you very much. Put with less petulance (it’s 5 f*king a.m.!) and more compassion, his inconsolable hunger, which may also signal some enzymatic insufficiency that squanders much of his nutrition (chronic pancreatitis?), is only tempted and assuaged by the contents of a just-opened can. Because he is very bright, and very dominant (yet also sensitive and sincere: if I hurt his feelings his nose turns bright pink), he has figured out surefire ways to wake me at the first sign of dawn.
Just now, he knocked over a small but noisy tchotchke with a clatter of metal, then jumped with all fours on a large empty paper bag for a plosive crash. (If cats have you, you will not ask why there is a large empty paper bag on the floor.) When my hair is long, he walks on it; when it’s short, he grabs a hank in his teeth and yanks.
How bright is that? How mad can I be? He is a major contributor to my being sleep-deprived and broke (the insulin, the syringes, the test strips, the live-in vet tech cat sitter when I travel, the convoy of high-end food, the new filters for the water fountain he sticks his paw in right out of the kitty litter, the carefully triaged vet bills), yet I contemplate him with helpless admiration. This is a cat who once taught himself to pee in the toilet by carefully observing another cat who had taught himself by observing us; then (in what was unmistakably a higher-order observation and a masterpiece of reasoning) pawed half a roll of toilet paper into the bowl; and then, when I reversed the roll, was so offended—his nose flamed pink—that he never used the toilet again.
I know, this is a really tasteless takeoff on a long-ago CARE slogan that I vividly remember, paired with photos of sad-eyed, starving children:
I apologize. Now imagine a scholarly article in the Journal of Feline Psychopathology (which I just made up) titled “Boredom and the Indoor Cat.” Living alone with cats, with not even human horseplay to divert them—or me—has made me acutely aware of the problem, and it’s a real problem:
They’re bored shit out of their minds.
Cats need to hunt. It’s what they’re made for. So are humans, actually; that’s why we can dig it. This indoor life isn’t what we signed on for, either. But we can hunt in the virtual or imaginative worlds—writing is hunting, for me, stalking invisible prey with a net of words that will make it visible if my throw is true—and, of course, we’re free. We can walk out the door. We can hunt on the stock exchange, in the courtroom, we can hunt pockets to pick or people to con or mug, pictures to take, new species to name, diseases to cure, walls to tag; we can even get in the 4WD and go hunt for real. We can still find stimulation and challenge, with real, do-or-die stakes.
Indoor cats can’t. Their lives are safe and stultifying. When the rage for challenge comes over them they’ll do their best to animate some dumb toy, but you can see how frustrated they are that it doesn’t keep moving by itself. Not having hands makes it hard to get something convincingly airborne, and to get it rustling under cover? In your dreams. What’s a cat to do?
Well, there’s that. But what they mostly do is look to us for relief—as well they might, since we did this to them. Unlike dogs, who think if they’re miserable it must be their fault, cats don’t have guilt. They have expectations. They don’t have enough information to blame us for getting them into this pickle, but they do blame us for not doing something about it. Well? their look says, a certain exasperated incredulity creeping into it when we don’t scramble to comply.
For a cat, a human being is . . . an entertainment console. An all-in-one virtual-reality videogame, vibro-massager, Bowflex cross-trainer, and snack machine. Our wiggling fingers, which alone can produce a pretty fair mouse-in-the dead-leaves simulation under a bedspread, are further amenable to all sorts of attachments: feathered French ticklers, sidewinding strings, crumpled-paper balls, catnip mice. We can make things fly, and put them back into motion when they stop. With a gizmo like that, life in an upholstered prison cell ain’t half bad.
Except the damn thing itself comes to a stop for hours at a time! Hours when it does nothing but stare at a fat chunk of paper or a flat light source! Maybe that’s how it recharges its batteries?
I feel so guilty about holding these magnificent predators prisoner and failing to make it up to them in the style to which they know they’re entitled that I’m seriously thinking about . . . buying them some crickets.
Yes, crickets. I don’t have the heart to buy live mice, like you would for a pet snake. I couldn’t even bring myself to sacrifice the lizard I caught when we were living in Florida. But crickets? They’re alive, they move, their versions of pain and fear are sufficiently remote from us to be unimaginable, and if they got away, they’d sing to us from their hiding places. What’s not to like? The cats already get wildly excited when they have a silverfish or a fly to chase—they understand and are galvanized by the word “bug,” which I only use truthfully. A cricket a day could keep the doldrums away.
Cats are gravity’s Chosen People. And their relationship with gravity is as intimate and casual as Israel’s with Jehovah: they challenge it, defy it, disdain it, nonetheless bask in its grace and protection, and collaborate with it to create acts of breathtaking improbability. A human dancer or acrobat, perhaps cast out of Gravity’s Garden of Eden when we left the trees, has to toil unceasingly by the sweat of his or her brow to earn a grudging fraction of the favor*.
On another note, Icepick just wrote to me:
Cats tolerate humans for food and shelter, but they love us for our hands. Nothing scratches a cat better than the human hand. Those fuzzy heads just curl up into palms as though the palm had no other purpose. God may well be feline, and we’re only here to serve their interests. (Which would just show that the cat deity has no more ability to control reality than the ape deity.)
* With one exception—although he did work like a slave to attain such transcendence:
While Gene Kelly sparred heroically in a mighty battle with gravity — like Atlas, he held the world aloft, and you knew it — Astaire simply sidestepped the fight and actually came down upon gravity rather than trudging up it like most mortals.