Among implacable cat-haters --
People who look at these whiskery creatures and think ANNIHILATION --I'm in the back ranks. I don't see cats as one of the gross errors in animal evolution, nor do I define cat owners with dog owners, as lower variants of homo erectus. Cat people are marked by a more benign madness, much of it flecked with justifiable pride. Mark Twain believed that the difference between a cat and a dog is that you choose a dog but a cat chooses you. The chosen know the other difference: dogs are filthier, germier, noisier, lazier, costlier and dumber.
Still, the cats must go. Their relations with man aren't working out. It is our fault, not the cat's.
It wasn't the cat's choice that when man domesticated himself seven or eight thousand years back he made a two-for-one deal and domesticated the smallest feline as well. There has been trouble since. When European colonists settled the island of Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar in the 17th century, they brought along their pet cats. It took only 40 years for the cats, along with roaming dogs and feral pigs, to kill off the island's unique nonflying bird, the dodo. Pet cats helped kill off other species, from the small rail bird, native to Samoa, to the Bonin wood pigeon of Japan.
As domestic cats were unwitting executioners in man's wiping out of entire species, the larger members of the family were themselves disappearing: the Barbary lion (gunned to extinction by European settlers in 1922), the Cape lion (extinct 1865), the Bali tiger (1937) and the Arizona jaguar (1905).
These desecrations to the natural order are more noticeable than the kind that occur when humans give themselves the right to turn nonhuman animals like cats into house pets. A pet cat, it is claimed, provides company and amusement. But for all the seeming harmlessness of pethood, owning a cat is animal slavery nevertheless.
This is not the common view of man-cat relations, as I can vouch from having been verbally clawed and scratched by countless cat owners whom I've called slave-owners. And it requires, for sure, a different understanding of the sacredness of life to look on a pleasant living room scene--a well-fed cat in full snooze before the fireplace and with a silver-plated ID chain around its neck--and see something ethically out of whack.
The pet cat may appear to be doing well in the human world. So did some of the 19th century field slaves plucked out of shacks and placed in the master's mansion as house servants. Freedom can be taken away from humans and nonhumans, and large benefits result in the trade-off. But the distortion created when man gives himself absolute power over the cat has led to so many nonbenefits that the trades aren't worth it, neither to us nor the cats.
A major nonbenefit is toxoplasmosis, a devastating disease of newborn babies that can cause brain damage, blindness and death. The toxoplasma germ gets into humans orally either through direct contact with cat feces (perhaps by cleaning the litter box or gardening in soil used by cats for defecating) or by eating the meat of livestock that consumed feed or drank water infected by the oocysts from cat feces. Humans are the final hosts for the germ. Infected pregnant women can pass it to their unborn babies.
The dangers of toxoplasmosis do not generate the kind of publicity given to other animal threats like rabies. The rabid dog--and lately the rabid raccoon--evokes images of terror, even though statistically rabies, causing but one or two deaths a year, is a minor and remote threat compared with what cute and cuddly Tabby is delivering. It is mostly in low-circulation medical journals that thorough discussions of toxoplasmosis can be found, and even then only a few specialists in American medicine are knowledgeable. Among them is Dr. J. K. Frenkel, of the department of pathology and oncology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
In the October 1981 American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Frenkel cited "disquieting, if not alarming" data from an earlier paper in the journal that estimated that more than 3,000 toxoplasma-infected babies are born each year in the United States. The yearly cost is $222 million, with an average lifetime cost per child of $67,000.
Frenkel's paper drew on research he published in the June 1973 issue of Bioscience magazine in which he cited figures that would dampen even the fun-filled capers of Garfield. Based on an infection rate of one per 1,000 pregnancies in a year with 3 million deliveries, Frenkel concluded that 150 to 450 babies die annually, 240 to 300 children have severe brain and eye damage, 300 to 390 children suffer moderate to severe visual handicaps and 1,700 to 2,150 children "will be asymptomatic at birth with a proportion developing active retinochoroiditis as children or young adults."
Frenkel stated he was not writing as an alarmist. But his facts nevertheless blared out that wild tigers and lions roaming throughout the nation probably couldn't spread as much death and disease as these lovable house pets. Frenkel discussed prevention. "First meat. Just as the cooking of meat kills salmonella and trichinella, so does it prevent toxoplasmosis. Enjoyment of rare steaks and hamburgers ordinarily carries a tolerable risk, but pregnant women should avoid them . . . Hand-washing is highly recommended, with soap and water effective against skin contamination by cyst organisms . . .
"Cats should be kept from hunting and be fed dry, canned or cooked meat only. Although a strictly 'indoor cat' would hardly have a chance to become infected, pregnant women should avoid caring for 'liberated cats,' and delegate cleaning of litterpans to someone else, or wear disposable gloves while doing so. Litter pans should be cleaned daily, before most of the oocysts have sporulated and become infectious .. . Soil and 4 sand potentially contaminated with the feces of stray or 'outdoor cats' should be avoided by women who are, or are about to become, pregnant."
In his 1981 paper, in which he called toxoplasmosis "a significant health problem," Fenkel argued against "spawning a governmental program of surveillance for three to four million pregnant women and a 'welfare program' for serologists and reference laboratories." Instead he said that "health education" aimed at prevention through hand-washing and thorough cooking was the better approach: It "can do more and cost less."
Frenkel's argument for publicity about clean hands and cooked meat as the best preventive is likely to prevail, though it isn't necessarily the most enlightened approach. If the health threat is so severe, why shouldn't government be involved? But it's unlikely that a penny of federal money will be given to an anti-toxoplasmosis program. Even less likely is that cat owners will pay. If the cause of the problem were correctly identified --not the germy and wormy cats but the people who insist on owning them--the money would be raised through taxes on cat food or through cat licenses.
Such a proposal, however reasonable and needed, would be met with catcalls from owners who already feel put upon by the high cost of keeping kitty. At one Washington animal hospital, with a staff of six veterinarians to provide every health need for cats from oral surgery to intensive care for diabetes to enemas, merely to get a cat out of kit- tenhood costs $60. That covers the required shots for good health--up to a point. As yet, no vaccine against tox- oplasmosis has been ap- proved, either for cats or humans. For adult cats, it's about $30 a year for shots, plus $8 per fecal exam.
If the public education is to be the method of alerting citizens to the health dangers of cats, few are owned as large a debt as Fran Lee. She is the 72-year-old New York reporter and activist who for two decades has been badgering politicians, the media and public health officials that irresponsible pet owners should not be allowed to turn cities into either filth-laden dog kennels or catteries. In 1970, she formed a national organization, Children Before Dogs (15 W. 81st St., New York 10024). Although she has concentrated on the dog menace, Lee has been raising her back for years that cat owners also have been getting off too easily.
One of her recent efforts has been to get hotels and motels to bar pets. "I travel a lot," says Lee, "and I am always noticing stained rugs, bedspreads and mattresses in the places I stay. Ask the maids what's the cause of the stains: cats and dogs. Sometime when there's a cat show, go to the nearest hotel and smell the odor in the corridors. Inside the cats and dogs are peeing and defecating. Sure, a lot of owners clean it up, but what's that do?"
Three years ago, the tireless Lee wrote to Dr. William H. Foege, the assistant surgeon general of the Public Health Service, to demand federal action against the possible health hazards of allowing cats and dogs in hotel and motel rooms. Foege, like Frenkel, did not want to overstretch the federal arm by bringing it to the barricades against cats and dogs. He said that catching a pet infection was "unlikely in establishments which adhere to conventional standards of hygiene."
That has been Lee's point all along, that anyone with a vested interest in pets --owners, hoteliers, the pet food industry, the pet accessory industry, the cat and dog psychologists--is likely to downplay or ignore the trouble caused when humans live with animals like cats.
Frenkel wrote in his 1973 paper: "When the risk factors are known (about toxoplasmosis) and in the public domain, people can choose. Unfortunately, not everybody is in touch with the available information, and few people give up consistent pleasures for infrequent diseases. In addition, broader ethical questions are also involved. An infectious cat exposes not only his owners, but neighbors who choose not to own pets."
The nonowning neighbor isn't alone. Cats are too intelligent and too independent to approve of the current arrangement either.