Why Humans Are Obsessed with Cats

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.

And we may know some­thing of their sea­far­ing his­to­ry, begin­ning with the Vikings and con­tin­u­ing on through Unsink­able Sam and oth­er cel­e­brat­ed ship’s cats.

An over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of us have spent the last decade or so glued to online exam­ples of their antics—rid­ing robot vac­u­umsreact­ing 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Preda­tor to Sofa Side­kick

GPS Track­ing Reveals the Secret Lives of Out­door Cats

In 1183, a Chi­nese Poet Describes Being Domes­ti­cat­ed by His Own Cats

How Humans Domes­ti­cat­ed Cats (Twice)

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.

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