Letting the cat out of the bag

Op-eds Opinions
Klara Woldenga (graphic)
Klara Woldenga (graphic)


Many years ago, when I too was young, I went for a walk and met a stray kitten. He followed me home and I let him in, opened a desk drawer, and put in a blanket. Purring, he climbed in and slept. He and I discovered common traits, among them a shared predatory disposition. He’d attempt to stalk me from the nighttime shadows of our apartment, and, in that winter’s thick blanket of snow, we’d both creep in silence, tracking the snaking trails of raccoons.

So I feel I identify somewhat with cats, and I admire many of their characteristics: their alertness, agility, and self-sufficiency.

Yet, it is the very aloofness of cats, their silence, that keeps much of their behaviour a mystery to me. I didn’t always know what he was thinking, and he communicated it less clearly than a dog would. We had fun together, though, and I think we were friends.

Not once did I ever wish to give him a funny hat, film him falling off the table, or take pictures of him with a book and glasses, captioned “I READZ TEH BOOKS!” Because, you know, he couldn’t read, and he never did anything to make me think he liked hats. And while I might laugh if one of my friends fell over, I think if watching them fall down was my favourite thing, I’d be a crappy friend.

Just what is it with people who gush over cute animals? On one hand, it seems quite benign. Animals are cute and fuzzy and seem almost like people, except they’re not. People also gush over cute kids, these being pretty close to actual people except that they’re small and cute. The trouble is that the people gushing don’t seem to have a real interest in what they’re gushing over. They’re only interested in what they enjoy imagining their objects of affection to be.

Some adults genuinely like kids. They have conversations with kids, listen to their opinions and ideas, and spend quality time with them. Other adults profess that they love kids, but they don’t treat them as people so much as animated entertainment. They enjoy watching them but have no interest in finding out what they think.

Not only do such adults have no interest in finding out what kids think, but they are actually uncomfortable when kids tell them what they think. At best, these adults don’t know how to deal with the concept that kids have autonomous minds. At worst, if the kids object to being patronized, it ruins the adults’ fun.

Cats present no such problem. Cats can’t speak our language, and we’re pretty bad at picking up their cues, if we pay attention, which we often don’t. And, as the true thoughts of cats remain mysterious, we are free to enjoy dressing up our cats in memes and laundry hampers and imagining funny human voices written in funny spelling.

Does this hurt the cats? I don’t know. I never did it to my own cat, and I can’t read the expression of the cat in the gif. But even if the cat is unharmed, is there a point? If we supposedly like someone, I think it behooves us to take an interest in what they are actually experiencing, and not just lol at what we imagine they are saying as they dangle from a rope. And if we don’t care about what they actually think and just like to watch them for our own amusement . . . well, then we’re assholes, quite frankly, and patronizing assholes besides.

Almost a century ago a film was made about an Inuit man and his family. The film showed him hunting and kayaking and travelling around with his family. One scene has him watching a gramophone and clamouring about it all bewildered. He keeps peering into it, trying to see where the voice is coming from, but he just can’t figure it out! Finally, he puts the record in his mouth! LOL! Jolly music plays.

This is pretty harmless. The happy fellow wasn’t hurt, we all got a good laugh, and the loveable native people weren’t going to see it anyway.

It all breaks down when kids get bigger and learn to speak eloquently, minority peoples learn majority languages, and new voices of the quiet people we liked to watch drown out the comfortable narratives we chose to imagine for them.

I hated it then, hated it, and spent much time wandering outdoors, sick of the behaviour of adults, grateful for the company of a cat who shared my interests.

If and when cats learn to speak human languages, many professed cat lovers are going to find it uncomfortable.

And I can’t wait.