Cats & Their Subtle Ways
of Taking Over Our World
The Internet may be the realm of cats. But Japan has been their unofficial land for 15 centuries. Out of its over 6,800 islands, 11 are felines-only places. There, as here or everywhere, an endless stream of news about cats seems to be always pouring. Our duty is to report them. Hey, it’s their world; we just work here.
For sure, they’ve been around way before catching rides on sixth century Chinese boats. And before Egypt and Tibet and New York City threaten to suit us for misrepresentation, they’ve occupied every pore of society, from houses to cafes, from offices to retirement homes, and the very social mores of our age.
The opening of Life of Cats, a two-part show of the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection‘s of cat woodblock prints by Edo-period artists at New York’s Japan Society, presents the perfect opportunity to jump at such an omnipresent, furry, and ever so gracious, subject. The heavy-handed commentary is ours, of course.
The exhibit of almost 200 prints, some popular, others very rare, covers the influential 17th-through-18th centuries period, through works by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Utagawa Yoshiiku, and many others, depicting cats in a variety of settings and situations, both playful and thought provoking.
Divided in five sections – Cats and People, as People, and versus People, Transformed, and at Play – the selections, from the most extensive collection of ukiyo-e prints in the world, offer a journey through pre-industrial and pre-urban Japan through the mid 1800s and beyond. It’s complemented with modern artwork.
In surprising, evocative scenery, the felines are shown as companions, stand-ins for humans, threatening, and just plain child-friendly playful. The technique allows to exquisite detailing and implied hidden contexts, expertly told as stories by the shows’s curator, and Japan Society Gallery’s director, Miwako Tezuka.
HOME & OFFICE PET COMFORT
Back to contemporary times, Japan’s arguably where the cat cafes first sprouted, but it’s in no way the sole sanctuary of our fascination with these small creatures, as the concept of having your morning beverage with a side of cats has spread out throughout the world.
Now, it’s come up with other ways of, well, petting them: meet the cat-as-office-companion, the same idea extended to business hours. It had to be in the mega-metropolis of Edo (Tokyo’s old name), with its untamed real estate, albeit gentle etiquette, preventing most residents from having a pet at home.
Cats seem fine obliging to all this adoration, of course, and have been adopted, in more ways than one, as living art ‘objects,’ and as part of people’s private obsessions. Speaking of sanctuary, some people will go as far as turning their homes into one, which serves the dual purpose of entertaining both species.
But while some see the opening in England of the ‘world’s first retirement home for cats,’ run by the posh-named Lincolnshire Trust, as a natural progression of our tireless efforts to please them, others prefer different outlets. Thus the ‘species specific’ site for ‘authentic’ Music for Cats.
SUBWAY ETIQUETTE & CAT LADY LAND
Scientists are happy to oblige to the trend too, and new research shows how cats perceive the mood their human companion is in, implying that if you want to have one around, you’d better be in a fine mood, or else (dropping glasses from the kitchen counter, anyone?).
Although the idea of using a cat as a poster pet for the New York subway system, as it was in the early 1960s, seems now surreal (to a grateful, and ever-growing, rat population), it’s predated by the ‘Cat Person’ concept, already popular in 1872, according to the New York Times.
Such concept’s still very much alive, and even if some people are crazy about cats, others are considered just plain crazy for having too many of them. Something to do with income brackets, apparently. But it shows how even our affection for them may betray a deeper strain of mental states. Or marital ones.
The number of single people skipping the marriage-and-family-building conundrum for the simpler, more practical decision of having a cat or two, continues to grow. Some even marry their two cats, and who’s to judge them? But there seems to be a consensus that if you want attention, you should get a dog, not a cat.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE BOOM
Naturally, all this cult-like devotion has dozens of shades of shame and reprehensible behavior, which is inherent to everything we love too much to the point of destruction. Case in point: the truckful of cats caught for human consumption, apprehended in Vietnam.
Cats and dogs are still considered food in large parts of Asia, and even those rescued may not be so lucky after all. The publicity about the apprehension having receded a bit, officials have admitted that they don’t know what to do with the cats, who may as well be destroyed.
Around the world, super-population (and indulgence) has affected us and every species, cats included, and the seemingly uncontrollable number of ferals in big European and Australian cities remains a troubling sign of our times. Cats are known to reverse to a state of near wildness when abandoned.
Recently, however, animal advocates have staged a minor victory, as the cruel and unjustified practice of declawing has been declared illegal in some U.S. and European states. Again, if you have to have a pet, and pristine furniture, get yourself a hamster. Or an interior decorator.
11 ISLANDS & A MANIFESTO
Despite being cute in photographs, most of the feral cats populating a dozen Japanese islands are not neutered and will probably continue reproducing and killing all other living species around, up to twice their own size. That’s far from a benign development but it’s obviously not the cats’ fault.
Everybody knows whose fault is it, and so does a charity in England, which is trying to pass a 10-point Manifesto of Cats through the House of Commons. Not unlike a proto-Declaration of the Rights of Man, it may serve as the base for a whole change in the way we see animals, starting, of course, by cats.
There are certainly those in the vegetarian, veganism camps, who may think that such measures are cosmetic and ineffective. But just as skeptics, who used to doubt that elephants would ever be banned from circuses, were recently proven wrong, that whole change just may be feasible.
TURNAROUND OF OUR KILLER INSTINCT
Yes, it took the Ringling Brothers 130 years to finally stop considering elephants as cheap performers, but it did happen. It may not be nearly enough to prevent their extinction, and the whole massacre of entire animal species does have to do with our extravagant tastes and culinary habits.
But we need to start somewhere, and should not wait until other species face the same fate too. Cats are far too abundant for that particular demise at this juncture, but just as any other animal, are subjected to our whims. That’s where the threat to their survival resides.
We’re doing a poor job as the world self-appointed managers. And no amount of exacerbated idolatry of cats prevents them from suffering harm in the hands of their keepers. Since Antiquity, and throughout history, they’ve been celebrated, have proved their worth, and even saved our behinds at times.
Now, more than sharing our riches and providing stress relief in our over-booked lives, they may need to be protected and safely left alone. The world sanctuary comes to mind again. After all, they do share something else with us: we both need to stop over reproducing.
* Suddenly, Last Caturday
* A Farewell to Furs?
* Caturday Tails