This essay first appeared in The Magazine, Issue 29, November 7, 2013.
On Tuesday night, I wake up breathing fur. It’s 3 a.m. and my cat is asleep on my face. I know the old wives’ tale has been thoroughly debunked, but the feeling remains: if I were a baby, I would be smothered. “I hate you,” I tell the cat. I mean it. He blinks at me. I notice that his cheek looks puffy. We both go back to sleep.
The next morning, his cheek has swollen to the size of a Hostess Cupcake. The mind gravitates toward cream-filled analogies when the cat’s head is suddenly pregnant with pus. It’s an infected puncture wound, probably from a cat bite picked up on his last excursion Out of the House.
In the movie constantly playing in my cat’s head, I am the repressive jailor of a Florida prison and he is Paul Newman. When he manages to escape my tyrannical regime, it’s often to fight with the cats next door, bullies who lounge on the stoop smoking e-cigarettes and playing mumbleypeg with their pocketknives.
(My insane cat-woman of a neighbor resists my characterization of her cats. “Oscar is gay. He’s very sensitive,” she explains of one marmalade-colored monster. My cat’s sexual predilections lead him toward fuzzy blankets and one particular pink teddy bear; there are as many kinds of cat lady as Saturn has rings.)
I cram my cat into his cat carrier, to his fury and my utter loss of composure (“It smells like pee because you peed in it!”), and it’s off to pay the vet $300 to shave his head and stick a drainage straw in it. It’s the second such procedure this year. I have credit cards.
My boyfriend and I talk about whether we’ll get another cat when this one runs out of lives. “You just love them and then they die,” I say. “Yeah, but so does everybody,” he responds.
In my lifetime, I’ve owned upward of 30 mammals, one reptile, and one Tamagotchi. The reptile was a Chinese Water Dragon, which is like a store-brand iguana; the mammals were mostly guinea pigs, which are like obese, screeching hamsters; and the Tamagotchi was a phase, when the little keychain critters swept my high school. All of them are dead now, except for my current cat and the Tamagotchi, which I think I gave to my little sister and which has, for all I know, spent the last 14 years building an elaborate system of tunnels through its own digital poop.
Despite certain obvious advantages relating to mortality and excrement, I’ve never been able to bond with a digi-pet. At best I’ve felt something of the protective impulse that develops toward a videogame avatar; I could never really believe the other kids at school cared about their keychain pets as much as they said they did, and though I’ve downloaded the recently released, nostalgia-baiting Tamagotchi app, I’ve hardly looked at it.
My inbox is currently incubating an egg from another pet app whose release date — er, hatching…day? — keeps getting pushed back. It’s seriously cute, promising to purr and cuddle up to the screen and shoot affectionate, Care Bear Stare-style hearts in my direction. But unless it’s one day going to come home from the vet in a blue Elizabethan soft-collar with a straw stuck in its head, I’m not sure it’ll ever really own my affections.
Gets your goat
In Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, writer Susan Orlean traces the way our cultural attitude toward dogs has changed over the years, as canines transitioned from primarily utilitarian creatures who helped guard the homestead to cherished family members who sleep in our beds and wear special jackets when they go for walks in the rain.
I think the same thing might be happening with goats.
In my city, Portland, Oregon, where silly things happen all the time, 12 goats have captured the town’s imagination. The goats live in a vacant lot where they were brought to keep grass and weeds under control, and they’ve developed a real fanbase. They pop up regularly on Instagram, grinning and bearded. They have a Web site and a Facebook page. Since Portland has recently weathered an influx of poultry — in many homes, chickens were quickly promoted from egg-producers to cherished pets — I can only hypothesize that goats are next. City code allows Portlanders to keep up to three pygmy goats without a permit.
My cat is a member of my family, and like most members of my family, he serves no practical purpose. But as our definition of pets has changed, so have the lengths we’ll go to in order to keep them alive and keep them “happy,” whatever that means. Last year, Americans spent $53 billion on their pets, on everything from food and grooming to vet care to more esoteric options like Neuticles, testicle implants the intention of which is to restore neutered pets’ sense of masculinity. (“Why wouldn’t the pet know a familiar body part is missing? Would he know if his foot was cut off? Of course he would — it’s only common sense.”)
But you’re reminded that it once was there
I read about Neuticles in Frankenstein’s Cat, Emily Anthes’ fun, clear-eyed book about transgenic animals, from Day-Glo fish (neat!) to glow-in-the-dark cats (what!). She makes a case that will be persuasive to anyone who has ever seen a pug: that the genetic modification of pets is nothing new, and that we’re likely to see more ambitious things in the future — cloning, for example, might allow families to reincarnate beloved pets.
Science fiction has long imagined iterations of pets that reality hasn’t quite delivered. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, animals are status symbols, affordable only to the super-rich. Grant Morrison’s heartbreaking We3 imagines the weaponization of cybernetic cats and dogs; Cowboy Bebop’s Ein is a super-smart (and super-adorable) corgi. In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” Ted Chiang imagines a near future in which digital pets can speak, learn, and even enter the physical world.
But I wonder how much pet ownership can really be improved upon — because ultimately, my cat’s design flaws are why I love him. In Chris Ware’s comic Building Stories, there’s a character who lives alone with a cat that she considers her best friend. As soon as she has a baby, though, the cat stops being a real member of the family; he’s a nuisance. He’s just a cat.
I don’t like that scene. My cat isn’t a surrogate baby; this isn’t some weird cat-lady maternal instinct displacement situation. He’s just a little guy in a big world, and it’s my job to take care of him when the neighbor cats beat him up, or when he won’t stop throwing up right next to my bed, because, unlike a robot-cat or a Neopet, he can’t do it himself.
Alison Hallett is the arts editor of The Portland Mercury, an alt weekly in Portland, Oregon, as well as the co-founder of Comics Underground, a quarterly reading series that showcases Portland’s thriving comic book scene. Illustrations by Dylan Meconis.
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