About Cats

Everyone on the Internet, it seems, likes nothing better than to talk about cats. And it occurs to me I did that, once, at the front of a charity book concerning them.

This is, slightly updated, what I said on the matter:

For someone with a complete indifference to the joys of cat, I seem to have had the uncanny knack of acquiring them. A dead girl dropped one on my lap once, and he became Bonzo. We were all so much younger at the time - especially the cat - and more than one of us all was still alive, so the name seemed really funny and clever.

This was back in the days when writing involved typewriters; the physical business of winding paper round a platen … and Bonzo’s thing was to pelt around the room, dive onto a ream of A4 manuscript and surf it off the table in an explosion of loose sheets. This was very amusing. Bonzo’s favourite food in the world was CocoPops, and we made up a song about that.

When I shared a house with my sister in South London, we acquired a brother-and-sister pair from kitten. Mork was a bully and Mindy, being the smaller, was long-suffering … right until the point she’d had quite enough, and took him quite definitively to the cleaners. Thereafter, he followed her around like a puppy dog – if the term can be properly used in this context – and looked on as she trounced all territorial encroachments in short order. They ended out in the wilds of Suffolk, and went around beating up the local foxes, who aren’t a patch on the rangy little street-fighters you get in London.

Current-day Spoiler: They're both dead.

During a short and somewhat disastrous marriage, I and spouse were adopted by a fat, smug article who muscled his way in through the legacy cat flap and demanded to be fed. Said article came to rejoice in the name of Bilbo, despite every protestation at my command. This went on for a couple of years, before we learnt that the fatness and smugness had something to do with the fact that he was being owned and fed, under a variety of names, by half the neighbourhood.

Moving around a lot, one tends to remain functionally cat-free - until Head Office catches up with you and sends in the big guns. In this case, a long-haired, bedraggled and frenetically affectionate black and white-patched stray, on the very upper-end of kittenhood, obviously housetrained, and turfed out when he had begun to grow.

He contrived to squirrel around me and my partner of the time, on the walk back from the local Tapas bar, apparently having fallen in desperate love with my boots. (And don't get me wrong, they were lovely boots.) On reaching home, it would have been the act of a cold-hearted monster not to have let the specimen in. Unfortunately, my objections were overridden. Partner’s youngest son, who was five at the time, promptly gave him the name Minardi. Youngest son was and is an avid fan of Formula One.

Minardi was at just precisely the right age to be chipped and snipped without turning him nasty. There wasn't a mean bone in his body - no bones at all, when he lay there pointing in around seven different and totally unconnected directions. Copious quantities of kitten-mix and mackerel left him two and a half feet long and a foot wide, none of which was fat … and not counting the tail, which was bushy as a skunk’s and as long as his body again. Those measurements are approximate and mutable: when he lay against a door to take advantage of the draft, his body stretched the entire span, like a draft-excluder.

He was also quite clearly insane. He never lost the sense of mad amazement which seems to come as standard-issue with all kittens, and usually goes out the window second it’s done its job and conned them into a home. My boots still sent him into demented fits of joy, usually when I was climbing the stairs with a PowerBook in hand. His favourite place in the world was the bathroom sink, which he filled amorphously, and it was somewhat disconcerting to blunder in of a hung-over morning, and sit down to see two wide, bright eyes staring at you and asking what you were doing.

When he was thirsty, the cat would turn on the damn kitchen tap. Admittedly, the tap was of the lever-operated variety, as opposed to something that required actual thumbs, but a mindfulness of old jokes had one seriously considering hiding the tin-opener.

Anyhow. Again.

The reason I bring all this up is to make the point that cats are different from each other in the same way that people are different. They’re not like dogs, trying to join in with the pack; they’re individuals with the capacity for socialisation. Cats are, in some basic sense, people … whether you like it or not. And as such they deserve a specific and particular degree of consideration.

I've mentioned the various programmes of spaying and neutering feral cat colonies to a number of people, and got a reaction from one or two that I hadn’t expected. Of its sort, I believe, it’s akin to the reaction that guys of any stripe have when the fixing of any animal is mentioned: cross the legs and give a little whimper. The articulation of it, though, came in serious terms, and as such deserves a serious reply.

In a nutshell (as it were) the point of these one or two people was this: spaying and neutering feral cats could be seen as being more cruel than simply exterminating them. In a Darwinian sense, we have taken away from them the sole purpose of life - that of reproduction - without their consent, thus rendering existence meaningless for them. Better, morally, to leave well enough alone and let nature sort it out, or damn well bite the bullet and break out the gas canisters.

Well, no. The point about the Darwinian imperative - unless you really, really do believe in a Purposeful God - is that it is entirely value-free. The fact that an organism exists, or survives, or reproduces is neither good nor right in and of itself. It is a simple fact. How that fact is interpreted comes down to personal preference … and where people are concerned, what people say goes.

The purpose and meaning of life, so far as people are concerned, is to increase the sum of happiness and to decrease that of suffering. By that yardstick, extermination-programmes fail for obvious reasons, and letting ‘nature’ take its course fails spectacularly - unless a Malthusian nightmare of starvation and disease are anybody’s idea of a good time.

In the here and now, the only option one can face with equanimity is restricting the breeding of feral cats. One could issue condoms and instructional pamphlets, I suppose - but, frankly, cats don’t strike me as bright enough, whether they’re people or not.

In the end, rather like pluralistic democracy, the spaying and neutering of feral cats is not an ideal solution in any number of respects - it’s just the best solution that there is if one wishes to stay in some degree humane.

It’s a people thing, basically. And in dealing with people, with the choice of being cruel, or doing nothing, or at least trying to be kind - trying to be kind is what people are all about.

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