Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods. — Christopher Hitchens
My friend Kabsat Kandu is not impressed with Hitchens’ insight. He cites a pithier one by Winston Churchill: “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”
“That’s why,” Kandu says, “I’d rather take care of my pigs, which bring me extra income, rather than cats, which steal food from my kitchen.”
I thought the same, once upon a time. When we were kids, it was alright to raise pigs in a backyard pen so long as you regularly hosed it down to remove the icky smells. We fed the pigs with thoroughly cooked slop (bugbog, in Ilokano) to fatten them.
Such were the class inequalities in the domestic kingdom of my childhood. The household members were first-class citizens. Pigs, believe it or not, were second-class (together with chicken). They enjoyed special food and medical care until we slaughtered them for the market when fiesta and Yuletide months came around.
Our dogs, although third-class citizens, remained much loved, fed, sheltered and taken care of. (Follow this point on Community of bitches, for example.)
Our cats of old, I must admit, were fourth-class and peripheral.
They were usually barred from the kitchen during meal preparation. Apart from that, they came and went for all I cared. We considered them semi-wild. Sometimes we kids sneakily grabbed them by the legs and tail, and swung them around a few times for fun. We didn’t cuddle them as much as the dogs.
Most of the time, they lurked about unseen—solitary hunters refusing over-domestication, always on the lookout for small prey. We didn’t miss them when we didn’t see them, which was often for days. They always came back (most of them, anyway), because there was always food.
The family store sold fresh fish and meat, and so our dogs and cats regularly shared juicy morsels and scraps. I became adept at cleaning fresh fish and newly slaughtered chicken, eyeing the cats as they gracefully circled around the kitchen yard like cheetahs closing in for an easy kill. No child should ever miss the messy fun of feeding cats with bloody innards and gills fresh from the chopping block.
Unlike our dogs, who led mostly public lives, our cats (and other neighborhood cats, I guess) enjoyed a secret but most active life on the roof of the house and those of neighbors. They prowled the complex of eaves and gutters linked by adjoining walls, fences, and trees and bushes with thick branches and foliage. This was their sanctuary, safe from dogs and irate kitchen cooks. On these commanding heights, cats could socialize, refresh their collective memory as predator species, and raise their young.
We kids had a tree-house adjoining the roof and were thus occasional habitues of this distinct ecosystem—a most educational opportunity to watch sex and violence long before we had National Geographic and Discovery channels on cable.
The cats, who were efficient killers, were of course at the top of the food chain. We quickly accepted the unending circle of life: cats ate mice and birds, which ate caterpillars, lizards and spiders, which in turn ate mosquitoes and gnats, with ants and tiny crawling bugs at the bottom of the food chain.
We also learned soon enough about the cantankerous caterwauling that kept the neighborhood awake all night. It was really nothing—just Ms. Molly in Heat meeting her Mr. Right Tomcat under the moonlight on a hot summer night, shooting the cool night breeze in a hidden corner of the leaf-shaded roof. If you know what I mean, and I think you do.
“You describe it like Paradise, this cat ecosystem of yours,” Kabsat Kandu comments. “But owners of expensive Persian cats would find it horrible if their pets left home to forage in trashcans, eat birds, and miscegenate with pusakals.”
True. Many owners neuter their cats and impose a house-bound regimen to protect them from their ancestral urges—something that I can’t accept on point of principle and practicality.
This leads us to a minor controversy among cat-lovers: on how to deal with stray cats. In many cities, a big number of domestic cats get abandoned or lost. Forced to live in the streets and outdoors, they gradually turn feral—that is, they gradually reacquire the habits of their wild ancestors.
Many strays will survive on food in garbage cans, around eating places and in public markets, supplemented by hunting small prey. But many will die in pitiful circumstances, weakened by injuries, malnutrition and disease, or killed by speeding cars and cruel people.
In wealthy countries like the United States, PETA deals with feral cats (http://www.peta.org/about-peta/why-peta/feral-cats/ ) by actively trapping them and finding them new homes. A few other cat-rights activists (http://www.neighborhoodcats.org and http://www.alleycat.org/StrayorFeral) implement another approach: the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program.
This TNR program recognizes feral cats’ choice to live in the wild state—by providing them a sanctuary, with adequate food and shelter, where they could “live among their own, to be free and to answer to their own unique natures”—while also taking steps to control their population by neutering.
While I tend to side with www.neighborhoodcats.org on this issue, it’s neither the perfect nor only option. There are many ways to attend to the welfare of stray and feral cats in the wider context of a well-ordered world, where a high premium is given to ecological balance, green cities, and urban forests that host their own feral wildlife and vibrant ecosystems. (Read A foray into urban forests, for example.)
But, come on, people, you know we live in the Third World. Let’s not get distracted too much with feral cats’ rights while playing blind and deaf to the millions of hungry, homeless and ailing people living on our streets—many of them sleeping and eating together with stray dogs and cats.
Being a social activist focused on people’s rights, I can only spend a fraction of my time and resources on animal rights. That’s why my two current cats, Miao and Liang, are proudly unspayed pusakals who are free to roam around. This is in addition to an alley cat (now pregnant) that I regularly feed. I don’t want them to live so they can be tame house pets that children can play with. I want them to live so they can rediscover their roots—to be independent, predatory to a fault, catty in a fierce way. I want them to live so I can learn learn some lessons about life lived on the edges.
If they survive the urban wilds long enough to bring up a new generation of street-wise cats, so will their genes. They will then have earned the right to be as catty as they get, with or without our permission.
May such cats live long and prosper. # Follow @junverzola