By Jon Cogburn
The Cogburn menagerie currently contains four humans, two dogs (one wiener and one chihuahua mix), two cats, two mice, and four fish. Since I am the person in the house most allergic to cats, it's inevitable that our cat Reilly decided that I am her person. She expresses this by a couple of times a day smushing her ears into my face while purring. If I'm really unlucky she'll follow this up by licking my goatee. It's kind of gross but it seems to make her very happy. As long as I wash my face and hands afterwards the allergies aren't too bad and my goatee doesn't smell like cat food.
We have a small dog-door leading to our fenced in back yard. Reilly particularly likes this because she can bring dead or (rarely) stunned prey into the house and show us. When we first got her two years ago it was mostly rats, but after a few months I think she had wiped out the local population. We get a bird about every three months, though those have thankfully declined as well. Anymore it's mostly large insects (if you've been to Louisiana you know just how large) and reptiles, mostly lizards but sometimes snakes. For some reason she puts the snakes in our tub. This is not that big a deal if the snake is actually dead. But it's pretty horrifying to be about to step into your shower in the morning to see a living snake in there. They are only garter snakes, but they get pretty big. For some reason when it's a lizard she gives it to our chihuahua, Charlie, who proceeds to chew up the lizard corpse and leave dead pieces around the house. As a result of this we have finally removed the last vestiges of carpeting. Partly because carpet is bad for allergies, but mostly because the dead lizard part stains were just too much. Reilly loves Charlie second only to me, and when he's napping she'll lick his head and purr. I think he's even less excited about this than I am with my goatee smelling like cat food. But the dead lizards make him very, very happy. As far as I can tell (and I'm no expert), as far as he's concerned a steady supply of dead lizards more than make up for having one's head licked by a cat.
A recent Netflix documentary on cats makes an interesting claim about varieties of feline lethality. The filming takes place in rural areas where there are three distinct cat populations: (1) mostly feral cats that never go inside human houses, but gather around human places such as farms, where there is vermin to eat, (2) cats like Reilly who are given food by humans but also spend time outside, and (3) cats who live inside and only receive food from humans. The first and second populations presented interesting differences with regard to hunting. Cats that live outside and have had to fend for themselves for sustained stretches of time are, as expected, much more lethal in terms of how many smaller creatures they kill. They also, unsurprisingly, eat what they kill. Surprisingly though, they don't do the horrifyingly sadistic thing we associate with cats where they bat around and otherwise play with their victims for extended periods of time before and during the killing of them. If Netflix is correct, only cats who are domesticated do that. Though my cat Reilly doesn't eat what she kills, she doesn't waste too much time getting the job done. I suspect she's retained that from her time on the streets.
I wish I knew why the cat populations divide along these lines. It's not that surprising that outside cats are more businesslike. The more one plays with one's dinner, the less likelihood that one will end up eating it. Too many things can go wrong. The question is rather, why, when cats have a steady source of human produced cat-food, do they torment their prey? Why not just not hunt? Maybe it's innate sadism to which comfort gives free reign? Maybe being fed by humans regresses them back to the level of kittens where they are just learning to hunt? Maybe they still have the hunting instinct but only get the killing instinct when they are hungry?
And what does this tell us about human beings?At first glance one would think that cats are a validation of Hobbes' view that the state of nature is a war of all against all. To the extent that feral cats are similar to feral humans, then we would expect humans to become ruthless killers to the extent that they are removed from the moderating effect of society. And unsentimental readings of history certainly seem to bear Hobbes out. What human beings get up to during wars, revolutions, and famine puts the animal kingdom to shame. And, if you have an appropriately unsentimental view of nature, you'll realize that that's saying a lot.
As a religious Hobbesian I'm loathe to admit that the Netflix documentary about cats might actually give Hobbes' Rousseauean opponent a little bit of succor. Truly feral cats make a quick business of their killing. The inventive sadism only comes about when cats are socialized with humans and still allowed into environments where they can kill. Perhaps, then, there is a big difference between what humans would get up to in a "state of nature" and what already socialized humans get up to when the constraints of society are removed?
Perhaps our experience with domesticated cats allows one to keep a vestige of Rousseau and still be open-eyed about about the levels of rapine brutality of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria? To be fair, these levels of brutality are only the least bit surprising to a generation of people fed a whitewashed version of World War II and its pax Americana aftermath. But all I'm suggesting is that human beings at war and during famine level catastrophes (and don't forget for a second that the Syrian war is a result of global warming caused drought) should perhaps not be understood as regressing towards a state of nature. After all, getting human beings to engage in war has itself always required quite a bit of socialization. When you turn creatures so socialized loose during a famine, revolution, or war itself you reap the whirlwind.
In any case, it does seem clear to me after watching Netflix that Trump voters can only be made sense of in terms of non-feral cats playing with their dying prey. It's surely no accident that the most dangerously unqualified Republicans always get elected during economic expansions bequeathed by Democrats. If the only people who voted for Trump were white, downwardly mobile, blue collar workers, he would have lost in a landslide. You had to pair these people with the usual Republican suspects who want their tax breaks. But, somewhat ironically, those people only vote for a W. Bush or D. Trump because they have massive faith in the stability of the system. Trump will cut their taxes and ruin the economy and foreign relations, and then a centrist Democrat (Clinton/Obama) will come in and save the system. The Republican voters' taxes might go up just a little bit while Democrats fix the mess, but the seventy year run of hoovering up wealth from the working classes will basically continue as before without too much civil unrest. Like the cat torturing its prey, Republicans only vote Republican because they know that whatever happens they'll get their next meal. The "moral hazard" of Obama bailing out the financial sector was the can of wet food and the rest of us the half dead, infinitely suffering, mouse.