Friday, 27 September 2013

Are Cats Better Than People?

We took Nibbler to the vet. Nibbler is one of our five cats, specifically the one the vet had erroneously registered as being called Burton, and just Burton - as in Burton the Cat. This was because nine months earlier my young stepson, when asked by the same vet as to the name of the mangy looking kitten he'd just brought in for his jabs, said it was Brave Burton Buzzini, giving the cat both our surnames; so they had assumed the first part was purely adjectival, like saying he was cute or inquisitive.

Junior found the cat known to our vet as Burton beneath a car in the parking lot near San Antonio zoo last summer. He was with his grandmother who, having at least twenty cats of her own, was hardly disposed towards discouraging the kid from crawling under the vehicle to rescue yet another pitiful ball of mewling fluff, this one distinguished by black fur and a bald patch on his head. Junior, having found the cat, named him Brave - purportedly in reference to the courage the kitten had demonstrated in being motherless in a San Antonio parking lot, although it seemed something of a coincidence given how much Junior had recently enjoyed the similarly named animated film about a mediaeval ginger girl triumphing against Celtic adversity. I never warmed to Brave as a name, uncharitable though that may seem - it struck me as pretentious, and reminded me of my former neighbour Gary who would make announcements regarding the proposed titles of pets he was yet to acquire.

'I'm gonna buy a husky,' he once told me wearing the grin of a man with enormous plans. 'I'm gonna call her Snow!'

Brave was small and energetic, spending much of the day launching himself claws out at my trouser leg, then hanging there meowing like something from one of those games where you hurl a ball of velcro at a wall of felt - assuming such a game exists and I didn't just imagine it. Aside from the lack of an antenna, he resembled Nibbler, the diminutive alien from the Futurama cartoon series, and the nickname stuck because it was funny and seemed to fit. He grew up to be large and muscular whilst retaining the personality of one of the Bash Street Kids, and a patch of white grown to the shape of a skull and crossbones would not have looked out of place in the black fur of his underside.

I tend to think pets find their own names by virtue of what ends up as most popular amongst those present with the vocal apparatus required to form the necessary syllables. Certainly this had been the case with the two senior members of our cat family. My wife had lived with Gus for more than a decade before we met - a stately grey tabby named Asparagus after a cat in a T.S. Eliot poem, shortened to Gus like the crystal meth tzar from Breaking Bad because it seemed to suit her character, the name rather than the profession.

Next came a Maine Coon kitten whom Junior named Scarface after a Native American culture hero he'd been studying at school. The choice startled me as I had quite independently written a novel in which a boy names his Chihuahua Scarface after the Houston rapper and former member of the Geto Boys. I was glad that neither of our Scarfaces were directly inspired by Als Pacino or Capone because I'd always hated the film and it seemed like a terrible name for a cat. As Scarface grew, briefly suffering an unfortunate bowel problem which caused him to fart out huge eye-stinging clouds of bum gas at regular intervals, he picked up the nickname Little Fluff, which abbreviated itself to just Fluff or Fluffy for use on less formal occasions. We'd worked with the idea that he was just a regular hairy cat until someone noticed that he hadn't stopped growing at the usual age and has since come to resemble cats pictured on the internet and identified as Maine Coons - named because early and presumably simple Europeans settling in Maine believed these huge moggies had resulted from the improbable union of raccoons and domestic felines. He's now three years old and, just as the internet promised, is still growing.

Maine Coons are described - rather sappily in my opinion - as gentle giants on at least a couple of websites. Sure enough Fluffy is big, and it's difficult not to feel sorry for him when he's bullied by pushy kittens at feeding time. We'd initially kept Nibbler in isolation when he first arrived, fearing that the mighty Fluff would smite him with a single blow of one huge oven-glove sized paw; but it turned out that Fluff was more scared of Nibbler than the other way around despite being about ten times his size; which also served to cast doubt on the other truism, that these cats are exceptionally intelligent. Bess scoffs at this claim and points to Fluff as he sits facing a door left only a little way open, patiently swishing his raccoon tail. She tells me that, unlike every other cat in the world, Fluff hasn't yet grasped the mechanics of pushing a door that's already a little way open when he wants to go through. I tell myself he could open the door if he wanted to; he just doesn't see it as his job.

With the arrival of Nibbler, we drew a line. Three cats were enough for anyone, and we didn't want to end up on one of those TV shows. Inevitably, mere weeks later at Brackenridge Park as we were about to climb in the car and return home from watching Sid on his weekly run, a tiny grey kitten emerged from the bushes. She was skinny but like Siamese cats often appear skinny, and certainly older than Nibbler had been when we found him; and friendly with a glossy coat, so we told ourselves through gritted teeth that she seemed healthy and happy and almost certainly lived in the park, and in any case we really didn't need another cat. Neither of us slept very well that night, and my wife announced having something to confess as she arrived home from work the next day. She'd been back to Brackenridge to see if the kitten was still there, reasoning that if not, then she really did live in the park and could look after herself.

'Thank God for that,' I said. 'I've been worried too. So did you see her?'

Bess opened the passenger door of the car and the kitten emerged from beneath the seat blinking huge golden eyes.

'How do you feel about Grace as a name?'

I liked it, not least because it was a real name and it meant Junior couldn't barge in and formally christen the kitten after some horrible Pokémon or Skylanders character; and yet even Grace didn't stick. Being roughly the same age, she and Nibbler took to each other immediately, playing with such vigour that there were times when we wondered whether we shouldn't separate them. Nibbler didn't seem to know when to stop, and Grace had effectively become his squeak toy right down to the bat-like noise she made when they were wrestling; and so she became known as Squeak Toy, Squeaky, or occasionally Bunnymouse after Bess addressed her as a bunny-mouse-bushbaby-fennec-fox-thing or whatever the hell you are, these all being creatures to which she bears passing resemblance with her soft grey fur, big eyes, and large rounded ears.

We told ourselves four was more than enough, but then came Flappy the bird who, as the name implies, wasn't actually a cat

Recently I've come to notice much lip service paid to the received wisdom that selfish Nazis with domestic cats are responsible for the destruction of all birds on planet Earth; and so the internet is frequently ablaze with keyboard politicians reminding us that Adolf Hitler also preferred animals to humans, and that anyone who donates money to a cats home whilst there remains one starving orphan in the world should immediately be put to death.

Firstly, call me a dangerous anarchist if you will, but I'd politely point out that the idea that a person who likes cats - or indeed any other animal - must necessarily prefer them to humans, having presumably worked out some sort of comparative ratings system, is crazy. There may well be one or two people out there who prefer cats to representatives of their own species, but as a general statement it's like saying there are people who prefer lasagne to Poland, or magnesium to the Dave Clark Five. In the event of your framing my person within some comically improbable scenario requiring a choice made between the life of a cat and the life of a human I would have to ask what the hell is wrong with you? If you believe the dominant moral concern of such a situation to be which of the two I would save, then frankly you should seek psychiatric advice.

Secondly, hunting is a skill which cats are taught by their mothers, and those separated from parents as kittens simply don't acquire that skill. Birds caught by such cats are the exception rather than the rule, and are more often than not fledglings just out of the nest and at a major disadvantage. This doesn't in itself reduce gratuitous bird murder to a matter of no consequence, but it's hardly the avian apocalypse imagined by at least one finger-wagging old tosspot who, upon learning of a feline presence in my home, suggested and you wonder why there are no song birds in your garden.

I hadn't wondered, because actually there are a ton of songbirds in my garden, which hopefully serves to illustrate how one should take care when dishing out condescending platitudes based on what some bloke said on the internet.

But of course, there are always exceptions and Flappy was a fledgling sparrow caught by Nibbler. We managed to rescue him before any lasting damage could be done, or so it seemed. He was just one small bird, but it was still quite upsetting. We duly fitted the cats with collars, but they chewed through them, so we do our best to keep them in during days when fledglings are about. This generally works, although if Jurassic Park has taught us anything it is that nature is unpredictable.

Bess cleaned up the baby sparrow, disinfecting where Nibbler had drawn blood being as infection from bacteria in cat saliva is supposedly the most common cause of death in such rescued birds. We kept him in a large cage in our bedroom, regularly feeding him the recommended mixture of mashed up cat food and ReptoCal nutritional supplement on the tip of a drinking straw every hour. He did well, and began to sing and chirp, hopping about in the cage or on the bed when we let him out, learning to fly and flapping his wings with what looked like excitement each time we came to feed him. Junior named him Hawkeye because the Avengers movie had just come out, which we ignored, calling him Flappy, which is probably ironic in some sense, being inspired by when a much younger and less portentous Junior would name animals after their most obvious characteristic, Wriggly the snake, Swimmy the fish, Fuzzy Larry the caterpillar and so on.

After a couple of weeks it got to the stage where we were watching for the tell-tale signs of Flappy being ready for release back into the wild; and he was almost there until one Saturday we came home to find him dead at the bottom of the cage. There'd been nothing to indicate he was anything other than fully recovered and bursting with health, but mortality is apparently high amongst rescued birds because even temporary captivity is in itself simply too stressful for them. We felt terrible. I burst into big manly tears on several occasions. That was a horrible weekend.

On the Sunday afternoon, Bess and Junior went out for a drive so as to allow me to listen to my Joy Division album in peace, returning with a solace kitten. This was also how Fluffy first came into the picture - as a response to the sort of intense personal pain which drives some of us to self-medicate with cats. The kitten was tiny, grey and stripy, rescued by a friend of my wife from a psychotic neighbour who had taken the litter of three from a local feral cat and was keeping them in a bucket of excrement prior to throwing them over a drop of fifty or so feet at the back of her house.

Junior had already named the kitten Kirby after a character in a computer game, but for once it seemed to fit, and it was at least an improvement on Mario, his first suggestion.

So we now have five cats, and I probably do like them more than I like a great many people I've never met, and at least a few people I have met, or whose moronic utterances I've found myself reading on facebook. I live with these five cats, so if I didn't like them more than I like a complete stranger, there would be something wrong with me, something fundamentally lacking in my character.

What is the point of a cat?, one particularly toxic facebook twat asked, enraged presumably by the idea that other people might hold different views to her own, where are all the sensible people who know that the right place for a cat is in a sack at the bottom of the river Thames?

I suggested that as a joke, this one wasn't particularly funny, and she told me that she wasn't joking.

See, that just makes you a cunt so far as I'm concerned.

It's not even specifically about cats, as I see it, and certainly not about giving money to stupid moggies when there are kids starving innit; it's about the basic ability to empathise, and to be able to take care of something less able to defend itself regardless of personal investment. It's about not being a cunt, and not burning ants with a magnifying glass because you think it's funny. It's a fairly basic human quality, but one that is easily swept aside by even low-level bullshit like the drive to gain moral ascendancy over one's peers, the sort of thinking by which a deluded individual claims to know what is best for everyone else; people who ironically would seem in some small way to justify the choices of those who really do like cats better than humans as a general principal.

That said, five is definitely enough.

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