Tuesday, December 15, 2015

COLUMN: Murder Cats

In the grand list of hobbies you can pursue in order to most effectively show the world that you're something of a jackwagon, nothing does the trick quite like owning a dangerous animal as a pet.

You know the type. Everybody's got one weird friend who keeps a snake or a tarantula in some glassed-off habitat in their bedroom, and lording over this potentially lethal creature is that person's crowning achievement in life.

I'm a strong believer that a person's home should be a palace of escape and recharge. The best part about your home is that it's YOUR home. Within those walls, you call the shots. You don't have to prove anything to anyone. You don't have to put up any fronts or act any certain way other than whatever you want to. If you want to spend your evening in a ratty t-shirt and baggy jeans sprawled out on your couch writing a newspaper column while watching "Survivor" and eating cold Chinese leftovers, that's my -- I mean, YOUR -- prerogative.

I suppose, then, if your idea of inner peace is feeding frozen rodents to a fanged reptile, I guess that's your prerogative, too. But I can't imagine being able to truly escape and recharge knowing that I was sharing my inner sanctum with a carniverous predator.

So what exactly IS the appeal, then? It's not as if these creepers show you any affection. Spiders aren't waiting for you at the door after a long day's work -- and if they ARE, you need to RUN. Pythons don't snuggle up with you at night. If taming danger is the only lure, why not just keep tuberculosis germs and anthrax spores as pets?

I, on the other hand, have normal pets: two housecats who love me as much as I love them. Two housecats who cuddle and purr and play, who mewl and meow and beg for tummy rubs. Two housecats who have my back at all times and would never sit around thinking of ways to kill me. Or so I thought.

If a new research study is to believed, my adorable fur babies care for me about as much as your weird friend's pet python cares for him. I, too, am sharing my inner sanctum with carniverous predators. Mine just happen to be cuter.

Thanks, Journal of Comparative Psychology, for wrecking my domestic bliss.

The study in question comes from researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Bronx Zoo. They set about comparing the personality traits of the common housecat with those of various large and dangerous wildcats. The researchers rated feline behavior based on the five big human personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

According to what they observed, domestic housecats share most of the same traits as wild African lions, just on a smaller scale. The traits that most govern our feline roommates? Dominance, impulsiveness, and neuroticism.

To which I say, with all due respect, DUH. I could have told you that.

From MY research, I can tell you that my cats spend their days doing two things: sleeping and fighting. Bez is the alpha of the house and demands to be at my side most hours that I'm home. Should my other cat, Isobel, try to interrupt, Bez will raise all her fur up, issue a hiss or two, and sometimes chase her off into another room. Don't feel bad for Izzy, though. Any chance she can get to sneak up on Bez, she'll pounce, bat her in the head a couple times, and run off gleefully. Dominance is a never-ending struggle at my place.

Are my cats governed by impulsiveness? Well, let's see. The minute that I walk in the door, Bez usually flips on her back and starts issuing meows like her entire life hinges upon the immediacy of the next available belly rub. This causes me to drop everything I'm doing, bend down, and issue about three solid skritches -- until she suddenly bristles, looks at me like "how DARE you, sir?" and nips angrily at my hand like I'm some kind of date pet-ist. Impulsiveness, thy name is Bez.

As for neuroticism? Come over some night at 2 a.m. and I'll show you. That's about the time Izzy will jump out of a dead sleep, run concentric circles around the living room and then upstairs, jump on the teeny tiny ledge two stories up and then proceed to taunt death with a series of weird howls before casually coming downstairs like nothing's happened whatsoever. Neurotic is indeed the proper adjective for my cats. It would be like me jumping up from my desk in the middle of the work day, screaming into the air for thirty seconds, and then sitting back down nonchalantly. If humans acted like cats, we'd be locked away in padded rooms and observed by the Journal of Comparative Psychology ourselves.

So, yeah, my cats are dominant, impulsive, and neurotic just like African lions. But that doesn't mean they're evil and plotting my demise. After all, that would be kind of foolish, and I don't raise dumb cats. They need me. I'm the Food Giver, Water Giver, and the Poop Taker-Awayer -- and based on meow-expressed feedback any time I slack off on my duties, they're well aware of the services I provide.

Maybe I've become one of those insane cat people who invents personality where there is none, but I swear my cats know when I'm having a bad day. If I'm upset or stressed-out, they hover around me. They let me pet them longer than usual. If all I am to those cats is a food-giver that they constantly have to resist the urge to kill, why are they both laying on me while I type this very sentence? Their food and water bowls are full and the litterbox is clean. Their needs are met. There's a zillion warm spots in this house they could curl up in. So why is one in the crook of my knee and the other draped across my feet? Is it because they like me? Or is it because they don't want to be bothered to walk very far when they finally decide to murder me?

If my cats were as big as lions, I'd reckon that, yes, they might try to eat my face off at some point. But honestly, I think the more interesting question is this: If giant humans existed, would lions flop on their backs and demand belly rubs from them? We can argue the murderous intent of cats until the cows come home (and the cats presumably kill them.) At the end of the day, I don't really care if my home is full of carniverous predators, as long as those predators purr when I scratch behind their ears. Try THAT with a snake and see what happens.

They don't even HAVE ears.

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