A house cat is not really a fur baby, but it is something rather more remarkable: a tiny conquistador with the whole planet at its feet —Abigail Tucker
As part of its Annals of Obsession video series, The New Yorker invited science journalist Abigail Tucker, author of The Lion in the Living Room, to reflect on “how felines took over the Internet, our homes, and our lives.”
It goes without saying that cats and humans have co-existed for a very long time.
Most of us are acquainted with the high regard in which Ancient Egyptians held Felis catus.
An overwhelming majority of us have spent the last decade or so glued to online examples of their antics—riding robot vacuums, reacting with terror to cucumbers, and pouncing on humans, some of whom have had the temerity to write and record voiceovers that suggest they have insight as to what goes on inside a cat’s hat. (As if!)
It’s gratifying to hear Tucker echo what cat lovers have long suspected (and emblazoned on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and decorative pillows)—the cats, not the owners, are the ones running the show.
Forgive us. Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.
Cats took a commensal path to domestication, motivated, then as now, by the food they knew to be stored in our settlements.
Tucker describes it as a series of cat controlled takeovers—a process of artificial selection, undertaken on the cats’ own initiative:
House cats are supremely adaptable. They can live anywhere and, while they must have plenty of protein, they eat practically anything that moves, from pelicans to crickets, and many things that don’t, like hot dogs. (Some of their imperiled feline relatives, by contrast, are adapted to hunt only a rare species of chinchilla.) House cats can tweak their sleeping schedules and social lives. They can breed like crazy.
In certain ways the house cat’s rise is tragic, for the same forces that favor them have destroyed many other creatures. House cats are carpetbaggers, arrivistes, and they’re among the most transformative invaders the world has ever seen—except for Homo sapiens, of course. It’s no coincidence that when they show up in ecosystems, lions and other megafauna are usually on their way out.
Aloof as many of their number may be, cats have engineered things in such a way as to be physically irresistible to most humans:
Their big heads and big eyes are so cute!
Their fur is so soft!
We can carry them around!
Dress them in doll clothes (sometimes)!
Their cries mimic the cries of hungry human babies, and elicit a similar response from their human caregivers.
We may not love litter box duty, but with 1 in 3 humans infected by Toxoplasma gondii, we’ll likely be tethered to them for all eternity.
For better or worse, we love them. And so do dog lovers. They just don’t know it yet.
But do not ever imagine that the feeling is reciprocal.
They’re archcarnivores who cannot open their own cans. As Tucker wryly observes:
I think it’s fair to say that we are obsessed and they are not.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She loves cats, but most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse. Follow her @AyunHalliday.