Recently two stories about cats were in the newspapers here and they provide a strange contrast in the way people interact with cats.
The first case is the more sensational and sad. An old man rented a trailer and lived in it a year with his cats. No one knows how many or why. He was “skint” as the English say, “broke” as the Yanks say, “impoverished” as the multisyllabic say, and stopped paying his rent. Therefore he was sent an eviction notice and left. But he didn’t take his cats with him -- just locked the door and left them in there with no way to escape.
The owner didn’t come to check for a month. In that time the cats increased to about thirty (it’s hard to count panicked cats), surviving with no food or water. Expert opinion was that they ate each other’s kittens. They also say the feces were six inches deep. The cats were sick, gaunt, inbred and freaked -- all were euthanized. There was no report on the owner. Everyone is mad at him.
The other story was quite different. It was about a program to spay and neuter cats, either pets in homes or captured feral cats or cats of ambiguous status. The idea was a day of sterilization with several veterinarians -- mostly women -- working in assembly line fashion. The photo showed volunteers, each sitting in front of a little pallet of blankets, each occupied by a cat recovering from anesthesia. Again, the volunteers were women who watched the cats for bad reactions while petting, reassuring and keeping them warm. It was easy to see ghosts of “Nurse Nightingales” hovering over victims of a catastrophe. (Sorry for the pun -- well, maybe not.) They were clearly tender, mothering women whose hearts went out to their “babies,” conked out with their tongues hanging sideways from their mouths, both appealing and comic.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: why wasn’t there a committee of women who went to investigate and help that feral old man? Because he would probably have fought and evaded them in the same way a feral cat would. The law won’t allow people to set livetraps for ornery old men. Anyway, what do you do with them after you’ve caught them? Cats can rustle their own grub if they can get outside. They can even solicit membership in a family. That old man will simply be found dead some day unless he can do the same.
No one’s child says, “Hey, Mom! This old human followed me home -- can I keep him?” Even if that happened, Mom wouldn’t say, “Well, don’t feed him or he’ll never go away.” She’d just call the cops. The two stories get at the difficulty our society has with the question of “what is human?” and “what is an animal?” What is the status of species -- ours and others -- and what relationship is there between the two. What are our obligations?
With animals the situation depends upon the concept of “owning.” That old man “owned” the cats and therefore ought to have limited their number to as many as he could take good care of. This is the premise of the laws that curb animal ownership. But no one “owned” the old man so no one offered him care. We don’t “own” humans, or at least in theory we haven’t since slavery was outlawed, but in truth the saying that one’s “soul” is owned by one’s employer or the government and the antique but persistent conviction that men own their children and wife are still there in terms of obligation and control. Needy people are considered the obligation of their families, even if you haven’t seen them for years.
As a society, we “own” our soldiers, don’t we? Aren’t we part of the same “family?” So what care of them are we taking? Damned little once their use is over. Amputees, the traumatized, are on the streets. But if we were to try to round them up and put them in institutions to be fed and sheltered, they’d fight. They fought for our freedom and most of them would no doubt fight for their own. Like cats.
As a society we are supposed to at least extend care to children, but one-fifth of our children live in poverty, some with parents trapped by economics as surely as that old man in a trailer, and some with parents deranged, never matured, or criminally violent. There isn’t enough money to help them, let alone volunteers to sit by their cots as guardian angels. Does this mean we shouldn’t sit guarding recovering cats? Absolutely NOT. It’s all of a piece -- the same continuum. Humane societies and investigating scientists have long known that we likely treat our human relatives in the same way that we treat our animals. Animal abuse is a good indicator of human abuse.
In the counseling community, people speak of “owning the problem.” Not people or animals -- the “problem.” It appears to me that there are two major components to this “owning” problem. The first is sheer numbers. Limiting populations is clearly important: we will extend care to individuals that we would never legislate for in great numbers. This small town watches out for our old men, even the prickly ones who have no relatives. We might not exactly hover over them, but if someone were in enough trouble even the other old men might intervene -- and have. In a city that might not happen.
Those who start wars should carefully consider -- among all the other costs not reckoned in advance -- the cost of veteran care, which the health industry had pounced upon with great glee. Think of the profit in all those expensive microchipped prosthetic arms and legs! But who will pay out enough money for people who can’t find a way to support themselves? Who will build enough of the right kind of housing for physically challenged people? How long will it take before we all succumb to “compassion fatigue?”
What answers are there? Affinity groups -- veterans taking care of veterans; cat-lovers taking care of cats. Clear legal standards for when intervention is justified and what sort of intervention it ought to be. Careful economic planning so people can afford shelter and pets. (Not necessarily charity.) Most of all, some careful and thorough thinking about what it means to be human on this planet. If we “own” this planet, shouldn’t we be attentive to it, responding to its needs?
Have we let ourselves by “owned” by corporations and politicians who have locked us in and left? Like poor people in New Orleans or starving children in predatory foster care or aging and damaged veterans on the streets?
There’s another component. Those women who took care of cats had a great time, made friends, built community, and went home feeling the glow. Taking care of each other feels great, and that’s hard-wired into being human. There's a reason why a cat's meow sounds like a human baby's cry.