January 31, 2013

The things cats endure for us! (Christophe Simon/Getty Images)

What have cats ever done to you, New York Times? What bone have you to pick with a creature that even Shakespeare’s Shylock called “a harmless, necessary cat”?

Against birds and any creature whose cage needs lining, I could understand your complaint. Any newspaper has a grievance with birds. But they are not birds. They are cats. They are our allies.

Yet you insist that they are “cold-blooded killers,” who are responsible for a median of 2.4 billion bird deaths and more than 12 billion “mammal deaths” each year — while admitting these are extrapolations and the range might vary.  Next you’ll be reporting that they steal the breath from babies and start publishing slide shows of “More Than 101 Ways To Skin A Cat.”

Don’t you realize that cats are the only thing standing between journalism and certain collapse? Write about cats, post a slide show of cats, and you can create, for a fleeting moment, the delightful illusion that you are a well-read and ardently cherished publication. Cats, the mammal the builders rejected, have become the chief cornerstone of outlets like Buzzfeed, where they subsidize Actual News Writing with their variable expressions of joy and disapproval.

And yet you publish this piece, highly defamatory to housecats. As Binyamin Appelbaum pointed out, you did not interview a single cat.

There are a lot of cats out there. Do not think you can weasel out of this by saying that cats do not understand human speech. They may not come when you call them, but that in no way indicates that they did not understand you. If you don’t believe me, just ask those people who are always showing teenagers PSAs about how uncool it is to smoke and bully. Also, there are people who will communicate with cats on your behalf. These people understand their complex vocalizations and “mysterious body language” and will gladly explain that when you go up to a cat and make what sounds to you like a meow, it often strikes the cat as alarmingly racist. But the New York Times did not think to inquire of them!

This is a scurrilous attack, really. It merits a response.

But a cat would never respond. Cats do not read the New York Times. They could if they wanted. If anything, cats read the Journal. Some of them are inactive on Reddit.

Only defective cats care what you think about them. Regular cats are too busy slipping out of your yard to eat rare, endangered birds. Cats could give a partial rat what you think of them. It is your fault for naming them after characters from “Boy Meets World” and legislative reforms you would like to see enacted. Of course “Filibuster” will not come. “Chief Cat Inspector Cat-Javert” keeps trying to jump into the Seine, but you will not let him.

And now we torment them with bad press.

They have put up with enough indignities from us, with our insistence on dressing them, making them leap into boxes too small for them, taunting them with lasers, and using Garfield as their public face for decades. Garfield is only one cat, and he does not speak for all cats. Most of them are as indifferent to coffee and Mondays as they are to all other human preoccupations.

And do not get them started on that musical in the 1980s. Cats are content, as most humans now are, to imagine that it was all a horrid hallucination, the result of overindulgence in some substance that is now justly banned.

If cats are capable of reading, they no doubt are bewildered at our stance toward their literacy. They have never requested a cheeseburger in their lives. They are engaging in complex vocalizations. Their popularity no doubt bewilders them. They have not sought this, as dogs have.

Their total indifference to our wants is exceeded only by their love of fish. We took them into our bosoms initially for their prowess as contract killers of small mammals. We kept them because they were cute. All in all, it would make for a deeply unsettling romcom. At heart, they are still hunters. To this day, their way of showing love is to bring us something disgusting that is dead. All the Good Cat PR is entirely our doing. They have made no effort to hide who they are.

Dogs are the wolves whose lack of independent self-worth left them crawling behind us demanding to be our best friends. You never see a dog who is dignified and reserved. If you do, it is because the dog is trying to impress someone. They are appallingly servile. Their tails wag. They have no poker faces whatever.

Cats, meanwhile, are sleek, elegant, and emotionally distant. Tape bacon to one, and you have everything unhealthy we crave.

I do not have cats for the same reason I avoid drinking alone: I fear that I would enjoy it  and that it would be a gateway to other, darker things. You so seldom see people with just one cat. You try a kitten, once, because your friends think it is a good idea, and then one morning you wake up surrounded by 17 yowling toms and something terrible has happened to your teeth.

Perhaps there is some merit in the attack, if this piece enhances cats’ prestige and stops us from forcing them into cute tiny hats.

Too long have we hoped they were other than what they are, at heart: cold-blooded sociopaths. “Nice vase you have there,” they say. “It would be a pity if something were to happen to it. Pity my tail is so clumsy. Yes, excellent. Produce me some tuna.”

Also, can we pause a moment and give thanks that there are not literally billions more birds and mammals overrunning our landscape? That is nothing to shake a stick at. Besides, if you shake a stick at a cat, the cat will probably ignore you.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.