Even though cat-schlepping is mostly about the sheer giggling joy and wonder and well-being we take from our wanders, make no mistake – it is also a serious undertaking, with the seeds of genuine, trans-species revolution.
Any discussion of cats, of what they are like, of what they are capable of, and you will unfailingly come up against one fact over and over again:
Cats are not dogs.
Can’t argue with that. No, cats are not dogs, in the same way that apples are not oranges. And we know that even in their relative simplicity, you can’t rightly compare apples and oranges. They both fall into a similar category of organism, and are both brilliant, but very much their own lovely thing.
Yet cats are perpetually judged in comparison to dogs. And dogs are Man’s Best Friend. They claimed that title first, and have held it beautifully, assisting and obeying us for about 100,000 years. Cats have only been skulking through human settlements for around 4,000 years or so, and almost entirely in the role of free-range murderers. Cats, second to the party, have continued to be held up to the dog’s gold standard, no matter what they do or don’t do, no matter what they are like in their own right.
Talk to any person who doesn’t like cats, and chances are they will tell you straight-out that they don’t like cats because they like dogs. As though it were impossible to like both. One of the first, definitive ‘cat books’ of the 20th century, Carl Van Vechten’s The Tiger in the House, was published in 1920. Wasting no time, he begins his tremendous survey of the history of the human/cat relationship by denouncing the notion that if a person loves dogs, they must loath cats. He rejects the logic as outright garbage, and includes a fantastically old-timey quote on the subject from James Branch Cabell:
“to the philosophical mind it would seem equally sensible to decline to participate in a game of billiards on the grounds that one was fond of herring.”
Almost a full century later, and I’ve encountered many people who are still stuck in the same mindset. Dogs are friendly, dogs are fun. You can take dogs on adventures, and train them to do cool tricks. Dogs are straightforward and brave and devoted. Cats are only what dogs are not – their opposite, their shadow, their nemesis. Thus cats are unfriendly and no fun. You can’t take them anywhere or train them to do anything. They are willfully mysterious and don’t actually give a shit about their owners.
The thing is though, I’ve lived with both cats and dogs. And hung out with friends’ animals. And worked with them in shelters. And talked to veterinarians, trainers, enthusiasts, and plain old strangers. And just paid a little goddamn attention. And travelled halfway around the world with my cat in fucking bag. And I know that this idea that cats and dogs exist in diametric opposition is outrageous. There is at least as much variation within each species as there is between two, and members of both often actually have quite a lot in common.
For example; my mom has a dog, Roxy, who is a Dachshund/Chihuahua mix. Mom adopted Roxy shortly after I adopted my tabby Aífe, so whenever Aífe and I stay with my mom, we have a cat and a dog in the same house. I have watched them side by side over the course of several years now, in several different houses, and I can tell you, they have at least as many similarities as differences. They’re both roughly the same size and age. Both love their owners fanatically, yet remain fundamentally suspicious of all other humans that come near them. Both go on alert when there is a stranger at the door or an odd sound out the window, and each rushes to greet its respective owner when we come home from an outing. Both beg at the table, sleep on top of their owner, and vie for the best warm spots in sunbeams and near fires. Both go diving for cover at the sound of the fire alarm, and both loath getting bathed in the sink. Both look at their human with big, mournful eyes if ignored for too long, and paw at our legs for attention. Both sniff around the back yard, the kitchen, and each other’s butts with great interest. They do have some real differences, yes, but they’re both idiosyncratic, neurotic, hilarious, adorable, playful, companionable little creatures, who will do almost anything for cheese.
Many fellow cat owners I’ve encountered while taking my Aífe out praise her good nature, remark how wonderful it is that she’ll sit in my backpack and not run away, and state with dead certainty that their own cats would never tolerate being taken around town in a similar fashion. As a proud cat-mom, I was happy at first to accept their assertions that my fur-baby is a terribly special and gifted anomaly. And she is a particularly awesome kitty, to be sure. But it really did take a lot of work to get her to tolerate going outside on a leash. A lot of time and effort indeed. After hearing woman after woman discount their own cats, I finally started to wonder at their claims that their cats could never be taken out like mine; “Really? Have you ever actually tried training your cat? At all?!”
Nope. And why not?
Dogs certainly don’t learn to walk on leash without training. I’ve lived with dogs, and worked at the SPCA, and met them everywhere I go, and I know for a damn fact that puppies do not come pre-programmed. They are slobbering, stumbling, skittish idiots, overjoyed to tumble around in each other’s piddle. They require extensive training to be able to walk on leash, follow commands, not be afraid of/ overexcited by the many sounds and smells of the modern world, to not crap indiscriminately around the house, and to play well with others. Many of them never really get the hang of even these basics.
At the same time, there are YouTube videos and news items galore featuring cats that walk on leash, open doors, use human toilets, join their owners on bicycle and motorbike rides, perform in cat circuses, skateboard, swim, skijorn, go sailing and kayaking, and even surf. And even my chatty little butterball of a cat, who was once petrified of the sky, can now be taken on a hike with a husky. So it is entirely possible to train cats, to have adventures with them, to communicate and bond with them in a variety of ways and settings that we persist in thinking are the natural realm of canines alone. It’s just that few cat owners bother – or even think – to try.
Sadly, while I know these adventurous kitties are out there, I’ve never had the good fortune to encounter them in person, and Aífe and I continue to get a lot of strong reactions from strangers in the street. Even in Portland and Berlin – cities with no shortage of weirdness – people literally stop in their tracks and stare at her, with mouths open, and point. Some are delighted. Others just snicker. A few holler insults and chastisements. And it got me thinking about how strongly species-specific stereotypes are emblazoned on people’s brains. Dogs go for walks, not cats. Dogs are welcome participants in the public domain, but cats only really belong in the private. Dogs should be trained to do things; sit, stay, speak, etc. Cats shouldn’t be expected or encouraged to learn anything, except to shit discretely in a box (a practice which many of them take up on their own before they get adopted). All that we really expect from cats is that they keep themselves clean and pretty.
Which sounds kind of strangely familiar, doesn’t it? Don’t our stereotypes of ‘Dog’ and ‘Cat’ graft weirdly well onto the traditional gender roles we’ve been drilling into little boys and girls for most of history? Lads were expected to head out into the public domain, delve into the cities and wilds, while nice girls stayed at home. Men were supposed to be strong, dominant, rational, while us poor women were supposed to be weak, submissive, hysterical. Societies have enforced many restrictions to education, enfranchisement, professions, athleticism, and pleasure to make these stereotypes seem true, to make women seem in every way less capable than men, and justify their being housebound. Conversely, societies have perpetuated the idea that men have fewer feelings than women by systematically encouraging that they beat the crap out of each other for showing any.
We now know that when little boys and girls are trained to be different from each other, they tend to act and appear more different than they truly are at heart. And we know that everyone’s lives are the lesser for it. What if we’ve been doing a similar thing with our pets, too? Enforcing and exaggerating a binary that isn’t really so distinct, and doesn’t really need to be there in the first place? That isn’t doing any good, and may actually be doing real harm?
Last summer, just as I was getting into schlepping Aífe around regularly, I finally got around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. It’s an amazing book of essays about walking (Reading and walking? My two favorites!), which I found really fascinating and inspiring. Towards the end of the book, she addresses the fact that there have been very few women in the many histories she’s been recounting:
“Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality.”
There are lots of societies, still, where women’s movements are still tightly restricted. Countries like Saudi Arabia, where they aren’t allowed to drive, and can’t go anywhere without a male guardian’s say-so. Or India, where gang-rape and assault on transport and in the streets is endemic. But women in supposedly nice, ‘liberal’, ‘modern’, Western countries still haven’t quite nailed down the freedom to walk, or to go about their business in public. Women still get all kinds of shit hollered at them simply for walking down the street in the middle of the day, breastfeeding outside the home is considered ‘obscene’, women are being sent home from work for not wearing high enough heels, students on American campuses have been raping with something like impunity… I’ve had the great pleasure of living in several of the most liberal, wonderful, modern cities in the world (London, San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, Dublin, Berlin, etc), where women live in a widespread culture of “text me when you get home,” because there is this always hovering idea that we very well might not make it home.
Around the world, women are coming up with all kinds of interesting ways to try to change the way public space is gendered. FEMEN, based in the Ukraine, are encouraging feminists to run around topless, protesting the absurd belief that women’s bodies are obscene. In India, women are rebelling just by simply loitering en masse (#WhyLoiter). And I think this is where the real frontline of feminism is – out in the streets. Not the shouting group protests of waves past, but in the laughing, thoughtful rippling along of individuals. Because as long as we can’t all feel free to simply be seen in public, as long as aren’t fundamentally entitled to the freedom to exist, all other social progress is tenuous.
Wandering is, therefore, a feminist issue – arguably even the ultimate feminist issue. And the projecting of bullshit, binary, hierarchical, inexplicably-gendered paradigms onto other species is right up there with it. Cats have been associated with females throughout history, from goddesses to witches to spinsters, and they have often suffered terribly because of it. If feminism does begin at home, as the saying goes, it absolutely ought to include the so-called house-cats we’ve forced into becoming housebound (against their nature) with us. If we are to truly liberate ourselves, we must take ourselves out into the open air, and we ought to try our best to bring the creatures we love with us.
For I ask you, what will it profit us if we gain the whole world and forfeit our pussies?