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Everybody Wants to be a Cat (Person)

Lately, the world is looking a lot more like “Neko Atsume: Cat Collector.” Remember, the 8-bit iPhone game popular in 2016 where you collect animated cats? It was a no-thoughts- just-vibes app with no real goal except to attract cats with treats and feline decor. If you’re a real one, you’ll know I had a real-life Neko Atsume experience almost two years ago. But before I even said my eyes on the calico angel I now house, I already felt the mist beginning to collect. My recently-married friends were the trendsetters in my life. They adopted their cat-children Leo and Gemma during the thick of the pandemic, declared me their godmother, and the conversion process slowly began. My best friend/then-roommate started dating someone who has a beloved demon cat named Shrimp and his gorgeous sister Jennipurr. Cat adoptions appeared left and right on Instagram stories and up and down on my TikTok FYP. Even resident “cool mom” Noelle Palomento has a cat now. Last year, being a cat mom was the conversation starter during the interview for my current job, because everyone on my team is a devout cat parent. All social bubble-related things considered, it appears we have landed on a Cat-Obsessed Timeline.

The pandemic was a catalyst, spiking pet adoption rates (and many unfortunate returns to shelters) but why cats? Culturally speaking (as usual), the pet pendulum had to eventually swing away from the growingly insufferable “doggo” vernacular. The world had had enough, not of dogs themselves, but of our collective point of view toward them. For centuries of Western civilization, dogs have been celebrate over cats as the ideal pet. Loyal, social, walkable, we’ve been told dogs are the ultimate companion. The “man’s best friend” propaganda gave way to an era of people gushing uncontrollably over any dog they see. And a wave of cat people have risen up to say, Could you please quiet down? You’re upsetting me and my cat.

Cats have been beloved pets since basically the beginning of time, which for this story is approximately 7500 BCE. I’m sure we all know about how the ancient Egyptians revered cats but to recap: beyond the protective nature of cats as chasers of snakes, rats, and scorpions, they were also perceived as spiritual protectors in this world and the next, evidenced by tomb paintings. Many of the gods in the Egyptian pantheon took on the form of cats, big and small. Cats were often mummified to preserve them for their important role in the afterlife, including acting as an avatar for the human soul. While alive, cats were welcomed into the finest palaces in the land and treated like royalty. This wasn’t just a practice held by the royal classes; even the lower classes celebrated a feline presence in their home, albeit on a more modest scale.

The next important pin in cat history was medieval Europe. Cats were brought around the Eastern Hemisphere on trade ships where they dutifully kept the rodent population down. Records of domesticated cats start to show up in China, Greece, Persia, and Rome (including parts of Britain and Scandinavia). The rise of Christianity gave way to the mass eradication of localized Pagan cults, mostly female healers with extensive knowledge of herbal medicine. One of their subtly genius practices was keeping cats around their cottages to keep mice and rats away. Tragically as these “witches” were hunted and executed for their practices, many of their cats were killed by their side. So when trading ships docked in Europe, packed with flea-bitten, sick rats, eventually there were no more feline mercenaries to protect people from disease. If these male religious zealots keep their noses out of witches’ business, it’s possible the Black Plague never would have happened.

The negative association of cats with independent women (aka witchcraft) planted the seedlings of the “Cat Lady” trope we know today. These so-called witches were independent, land-owning women with valuable skills, making them the biggest threat to the Christian patriarchy as it expanded. In order to maintain its growing control, the Church had to stamp out this threat, and what better way than to convince populations not to trust these women or their pets? The mystical aura surrounding cats, instead of being celebrated as it was in the ancient world, grew to be condemned. Their independent, knowing spirits defied the all-important Christian tenant of obedience so surely they must be demonic.

While Europe descended into anti-cat madness, feline majesty continued to flourish in Asia, where cats remain a popular symbol of good luck. The maneki-neko (“beckoning cat”) has been a token of prosperity for tourists and locals alike in Japan since the Edo period. Two different legends explain the spiritual importance of cats: the first tells of a temple cat who saved daimyo Ii Naotaka from a lightning strike and the second, an old woman whose lost cat prophesized wealth for her if she sold likenesses of him. These statues were especially popularized in the subsequent Meiji period. Still created, sold, and used as a kind of amulet, lucky cats reflect a different kind of cat magic, one that embraces their supposed connection to another side. As an ancient Japanese proverb suggests, look after a cat (or many) and it will look after you. These stories present basically opposite beliefs compared to the West and reflect the importance of living in harmony with nature rather than trying to control it.

Cats’ token behavioral traits have also been commonly associated with that of women, from a clueless man’s point of view: mysterious/aloof, demanding of courtship, moody, and not always responsive (at least positively) to physical touch. The sitcom husband’s outcry “I never know what my wife wants!” could be easily said about a cat in similar circumstances. Cats, regardless of their anatomical sex, have been referred to as female in the Western world for hundreds of years. Their elongated eyes and tendency to strut amplified the associations. Cats are “more concerned with domestic cares” than dogs at least according to an 1881 book called The Cat: An Introduction to the Study of Backboned Animals, Especially Mammals. Its male author projects the values of female domesticity onto cats, just as medieval priests saw a failing empire in their all-knowing eyes.

The notion of a “Crazy Cat Lady” turned from life-threatening to pejorative by the Suffragette movement at the turn of the century and continued to be used as a threat to a single woman’s fate into the aughts, especially in romantic comedies. Certainly, there are individuals, female or otherwise, who take cat ownership overboard (think Grey Gardens) but are cats at all to blame? Studies on the correlation between cats with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii and human madness have been conducted by fringe scientist Jaraslov Flegr, whose findings you might remember from this viral (pun intended) Atlantic article from 2012. However, competing studies have disproven the same theory. Is it possible that the threat of madness was fueled by our culture’s continuous fear of spinsters more than any parasite?

Luckily for cats and cat owners (commonly referred to as an oxymoron), their reputation has evolved in recent years. More cats were adopted in 2020 than dogs and overall studies show cats being the most popular house pet in the US. The sheer existence of so many cat-related superstitions, both positive and negative, points to the simply magical essence felines bring into the lives of those who accept and nurture their distinct individuality. Closer to their wild ancestors than dogs, cats still retain a lot of their undomesticated spirit. Dogs are loyal to whomever trains them but cats are elusive hunters who like to think they will never be tamed, but instead consent to loving you so long as you respect their boundaries. They ask us to dissolve traditional hierarchies of pet ownership and question our own egos. In turn, we are given the chance to return to a symbiotic harmony with nature instead of over-bearing control. Despite their growing popularity and ongoing rich history, cats still retain a rebellious streak that defies oppression from patriarchy, organized religion, and heterosexuality. In short, the cat people who get it, get it.


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writer + pop culture Historian  

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