It’s only too easy to spot a dog person. Their canine predilection bounds right up and licks you on the face, often unsolicited. Cat people are appropriately sneakier. A person might be a devoted cat lover their whole life without anyone ever knowing it. Lenin. Lennon. Weirdly, Snoop Dogg. All secret cat lovers. How many of these closeted cat people walk among us? They go to class with us, talk with us, eat lunch with us…before secreting away to hidden, probably subterranean lairs to dabble in the dark arts with their feline familiars by moonlight.
You’ll forgive me if my view of the whole human-cat relationship sounds a bit medieval, but I’ve always been a foreigner to the world of cats. I’m not “not a cat person”—in fact my feelings toward cats have always mirrored their feelings toward me: general disinterest. That’s why cat people are so perplexing. How can so many otherwise rational human beings feel such strong affection for creatures who obviously care so little for their owners’ existence? And why do their cats stick around, anyway? There must be something I wasn’t getting.
I’d need a guide to help me understand these creatures, a native of this strange culture who knew its ways and customs—someone who could be my cat-Virgil and lead me through the secret feline realms beyond. And so I talked to my friend, whom I’ll call “Daisy”; she cares for two cats with her three roommates, mostly successfully, and agreed to be my point person for the duration of my study. Daisy’s cats are Lucy and Luna, identical in appearance but somewhat different in personality.
Lucy is the more energetic of the two, and proved the more open to questioning. (Lucy is this cat’s real name, included at the behest of Daisy, who wanted Lucy to be “famous.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this piece would only be running in Grey City.) Lucy likes jumping on chairs, knocking things over, and creating general chaos in Daisy’s apartment. I must admit I had trouble understanding why someone would want to have Lucy around.
Daisy was unhelpful. Like many cat owners, she was mostly unable to tell me why she likes cats the way that she does (“They’re soft and cute and cuddly,” she explained), and she seemed confused that I would even ask that question. “No, look, they’re so cute—you haven’t cuddled yet!” she said, draping a cat over her shoulder to show me how. She held Lucy up close to my face, as if the increased proximity would make her virtues more plain. I was unconvinced. Daisy was insistent.
“How could you not love them?”
Historically speaking, it has been relatively easy for us to not love cats. In the old days, before we knew about things like the vestibular system and proprioception, the cat’s incredible agility and apparent intelligence seemed uncanny and devilish. So we devised all manner of cruel and hilarious torments for cats: They were drowned, buried alive, impaled, strung up above bonfires, and thrown out of high tower windows in large numbers, presumably as some form of ironic punishment for their annoying tendency to land on their feet. The wacky Belgians still celebrate the festival of Kattenstoet in this way, although lately the kitties they’ve thrown have been of the stuffed variety.
But even within the most enlightened spheres of society—our own campus, for instance—people are still wont to treat cats poorly, and that’s where cat-friendly organizations like Hyde Park Cats come in. The cats of Hyde Park may not regularly be set on fire (and good thing, too), but plenty of cats are subject to neglect and abandonment every year. As one Hyde Park Cat–er put it to me: “Irresponsible people don’t care about their cats. It’s our job to clean up after them.”
Dr. Ruth Abbey lives with her husband and several cats, fostered and adopted, and when she’s not teaching at Notre Dame or spending time in her native Australia, she acts as Hyde Park Cats’ medical coordinator. First things first: Hyde Park Cats (HPC) is not an animal shelter. Instead they use a foster system, wherein volunteers temporarily take in homeless cats until they’re adopted into their new, permanent (or “forever”) homes. HPC’s current network of cat fosterers is extensive—about 20 at the moment—and widespread. “We’ve got cats dotted all over Hyde Park right now,” said Abbey, pointing to the apartments of three or four fosterers visible from the window of her parlor. Pretty impressive, particularly so for a non-profit volunteer organization composed largely of busy academics.
Although the lack of a centralized shelter and a base of volunteer fosterers necessarily limits the amount of cats they can take in, says Abbey, those that HPC can help get the kind of special attention that shelter cats miss, and the adopters benefit. “One of the great things about the foster system is that the adopter gets the opportunity to meet each cat in a home setting instead of at a shelter or in a cage. That way they can get a real sense of what the cat’s going to be like when they take it home, and can talk to someone who knows that cat very well,” said Abbey. Here, cats who wouldn’t do so well in shelter environments or who might not stand out to potential adopters get more of a fair shake, and formerly homeless cats can get accustomed to being homebodies again.
This system also works well for cat lovers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to take a cat in full time. “We draw a lot of fosterers from the University; for students and grad students who want a cat in their life, but who can’t commit to adopting, or who can’t afford medical bills”—Hyde Park Cats fronts all vet visits free of charge—“for them, fostering is perfect.”
Note: The fostering application is stringent. HPC is not a cat-handout service, so if you need a cat in a pinch (we’ve all been there), you’ll need to look at other adoption organizations. HPC does all of this to ensure that the cats of Hyde Park are well taken care of and well loved. “We work out of compassion for cats and because we believe that a community is happier, healthier, and safer without homeless cats running around.”
Not to say that cats are necessarily fearsome critters, says Abbey. “When they’re not looked after, they’re more a danger to themselves than anything.”
Daisy’s cat, Lucy, seems hell bent on expending her nine lives as quickly as possible. She makes overly daring leaps, she scampers around on objects that can’t support her weight, and she slips and hits her head against a bannister three times in two minutes. At least once she “tried to touch fire.”
“I never know when to help,” said Daisy, cautiously extricating Lucy from the space between the wall and a folding chair in which she had gotten herself trapped. If Lucy’s at all grateful to Daisy for saving her life, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she looked at her keeper for 10 or 15 seconds, as though discovering Daisy for the first time, before wandering off down the hallway, resuming the invisible mouse chase that would end, inevitably and always, with her head stuck in a mason jar. Daisy seemed pleasantly perplexed by this sort of behavior. And then she poses what is perhaps the question one must ask about cats: “What are they thinking?”
In his well-researched and thoroughly fascinating book on the subject, Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet (the e-book of which I bought for $14 and now own forever), John Bradshaw tries to answer that question, with varying degrees of success. Bradshaw does his level best to get inside the head of a housecat; one imagines him crawling around on all fours and drinking milk from a saucer. And what he eventually deduces is that, yes, in fact cats do have their own personalities, and they do probably feel something like affection for their owners.
Or for their owners’ food, anyway. Unlike dogs, writes Bradshaw, “Most cats do not find human attention rewarding in its own right…. We therefore train cats using food as a reward, rather than affection.” It’s an exchange, then: We give cats food, and they reward us by letting us rub behind their ears. It seems cold, sure, and maybe your feelings for your cat aren’t exactly reciprocated in the way you want them to be. But your cat isn’t your girlfriend. It’s your cat. And I can dig that.
As for Lucy’s apparent need to destroy herself? According to Bradshaw, she’s probably just acting on ancient cat programming, programming that makes her enjoy exploring “new” territory. Cat brains are rewarded when they learn new stuff about their environment—it’s advantageous for the hunter to know her territory—and with Lucy’s short memory and the constantly shifting terrain of Daisy’s apartment, it’s all new to her.
I ventured far south of the Midway on a sunny, unfairly cold Sunday in late March on the tail of cats who’d long since left their apartments behind. More than 500,000 feral cats call the streets of Chicago home, but unless you frequent back alleys and vacant lots more than is usual, you’ll enter this University and graduate without ever catching sight of one.
For good reason: Feral cats are wild animals and fearful of humans. That they’re rarely seen is a testament to how well they manage to avoid us. As Abbey of HPC had explained to me, in the complex world of human-cat interactions, “feral cats are a different cup of tea, and they require a unique approach.” Hyde Park Cats takes a trap, neuter, and release (TNR) mitigation approach to the feral cat problem, and generally tries to make their lives as comfortable as possible.
Che Nadel, who manages feral colonies in conjunction with HPC, described the process to me: First, they feed the colonies daily, which both keeps the cats healthy and trains them to show up for food at regular intervals. This in turn allows the cats to be lured into humane live-traps, after which they’re taken to a local clinic to be neutered, vaccinated, and microchipped to keep track of them. Providing the cats don’t have any terminal illnesses (in which case they’re euthanized), they’re then released back into the colony, good as new as a feral cat can be.
This may or may not be the best approach to the feral cat problem. And feral cats are a problem: They kill copious amounts of wildlife and spread disease. Cat advocates like HPC would argue that TNR programs are more humane and provide better results than euthanization efforts—that getting rid of colonies wholesale will only allow others to take their place.
But it’s a hardscrabble life for street cats on the South Side, especially with winters like the one we’ve just been through. Feral cats live less than half as long as their domestic brothers, and are subject to torment by disease, dogs, coyotes, and unkind humans, too. One wonders if the kind of lives that these animals lead—starving and freezing to death amongst the bones of South Chicago’s neglected neighborhoods—are really worth preserving. But, if you believe in the kind of human-cat relationship that John Bradshaw subscribes to, of love and care exchanged for the means to survive, a deal that we broke with the parents of feral cats, then you might say we still owe these animals something. Even if it’s only a can of tuna now and again.
After an hour or so of hanging around, as the sun began to set and the cold shadows deepened, and I’d just about lost hope of meeting a feral cat in person, something small and dark scurried out from under a nearby dumpster to stand in the adjacent lot. It was a small black cat, barely grown, its coat as fluffy and stroke-able as any housecat’s. He paused, stark still, waiting for me to go so he could return to his cover. I stood there and stared him down for a long moment before I noticed he was shivering.
This is a scientific fact: Study cats for long enough and you will start to become one. As the days dragged on, I became grumpier, more temperamental and vindictive. I napped insatiably and at odd hours, punctuated by bursts of activity when I was hungry or when one of my roommates could be heard entering the door of my apartment. Once, while walking to class, a car across the street backfired, causing me to panic and scramble up a tree, where I remained for several hours until a neighbor called the fire department. Was I finally and truly becoming a cat person? Had I caught the “cat bug”?
Oddly enough, there might actually be a “cat bug.” It’s no secret that cats can play host to all manner of nefarious, butt-seeking parasites and bacteria. Ringworm. Hookworm. Cat scratch fever (which was a real disease before it became the greatest hard-rock album of all time). Make no mistake: Your cat can make you sick. But could it also be controlling your brain?
Of late, the cat-borne parasite Toxoplasma gondii has gained pop-science notoriety for its purported ability to affect human behavior in subtle (and maybe not-so-subtle) ways, ranging from the intriguing to the out-there to the plot of next month’s Syfy original film. Among its possible effects: increasing one’s risk of developing schizophrenia, increasing one’s risk of being involved in a car accident, causing one to like the smell of cat urine, and—according to at least one (somewhat dubious) study—altering one’s sexual attractiveness. I know, right? As James Hamblin of The Atlantic reported last year, the parasite “seems to make men more introverted, suspicious, unattractive to women, and oblivious to the way others see them. Infected women, inversely, have been shown to be more “outgoing, trusting, sexually adventurous, attractive to men, and image conscious.”
I eagerly made an appointment to get myself tested. I also paid a visit to the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Toxoplasmosis Center.
Did you know that we have a Toxoplasmosis Center? We do. At the project’s helm is Dr. Rima McLeod, perhaps the world’s foremost Toxo expert (she wouldn’t admit to quite so much), who has been studying the disease for longer than any of us in the College have been alive. It isn’t too difficult to see why: Even as parasites go, Toxoplasma is an endlessly strange creature.
McLeod explains: “It’s a small parasite—about 3–5 microns across—that replicates incredibly quickly and can be contracted either in the dormant form, found in living tissue, or in the active, oocyst form, found in cats. Once inside, it invades and transforms the host cells very dramatically, and they’re able to invade any kind of cell.” But the weird part is, even after the parasite’s been ousted by a creature’s immune system, it still won’t quit; instead it moves into brain and muscle tissue, where it continues to live and slowly replicate. Forever.
This “forever” stage, the latent stage, is where the confusion really starts. Could persistent Toxoplasma be affecting our brains in any tangible way? The short answer is: Maybe. “There certainly are associations with having antibodies for the parasite and a variety of different diseases,” says McLeod. “One way of looking is that it’s like a Venn diagram: If you have the right genes, and you have the right parasite and the right pathology, then in that overlap you could see some of these effects come into play.”
Sensational “master puppeteer” theories aside, it’s important to note that toxoplasmosis is a very real disease, with very real and serious effects. It can be deadly to individuals with vulnerable immune systems—young children in particular—and can cause severe birth defects if transferred in utero: blindness, premature birth, and brain damage, to name just a few.
“All the stuff that people are concerned about with behavior: that there’re more accidents, more risk taking; that women are more promiscuous and kitten-like, and men are more curmudgeonly. That tends to distract from what we know for sure about the disease: that it’s serious, and devastating, and it affects people across lifetimes,” says McLeod. “For me, that’s what’s important about it.”
The good news is that screening for Toxo is incredibly easy, and there’s currently a vaccine in the works that could put an end to all of these toxoplasmosis-induced woes, imagined or otherwise. For now, I’ll take the parasite in my own fashion, and with many grains of salt. (I never did get tested.) Maybe Toxoplasma would turn me into an extreme sea kayaker; maybe my being a curmudgeonly introvert is my own damn fault. And if I am hopelessly attracted to Daisy and her catty charms, for now I’m going to believe that it’s because our love was etched in the stars, the kind of thing Lord Tennyson would’ve written about, and not because of the cat-borne parasitic cysts that are nested in her brain.
The transformation is almost complete. Two months is a very short time to get to know a species, hardly more than a first date in zoological terms, but I can say that, on the whole, spending time with cats and cat people has been good for me. Lately I tend to feel calmer, more balanced and at ease with my surroundings. Studying cats in motion, I’ve started practicing parkour again, albeit with less fear of missing my jumps. And I think I might finally respond to one of those Hyde Park Cats flyers by fostering a cat of my own. All of which is to say that I think I’m becoming a cat person.
Don’t misunderstand me; I still have a lot to learn. I may be starting to enjoy cats, but my mentor Daisy loves them. Watching her play with Lucy and Luna on my last visit with the three of them, it became thoroughly obvious to me that these cats make Daisy happier than just about anything in the whole world. I’m certainly not there yet. Case in point: While Daisy was busy playing with and cooing at her feline best friends, I had a powerful, intrusive thought in which I found myself wondering how well Lucy’s instinctive righting reflex would serve her after being tossed out of a second-story window. Where’d that come from?
But I ignored it. Instead I picked Lucy up and held her very close to my face, me staring into her weird cat eyes and her staring into my weird human ones, and that’s the moment I like to imagine that we both made up our minds about each other. “I like you,” I said, quietly so that Daisy wouldn’t hear. “Meow,” said Lucy.