The strange and frightening tale of one city’s fall, near destruction, and ultimate redemption — all because of cute cat memes.
It is difficult to get a complete picture of what happened. Source documents that have been recovered, however, do offer some clues. Consider this excerpt from a piece of correspondence that Angela Millweather, 22, sent to a friend:
lol that cat is sooooo funny! and cute 2! send MORE!!!!!!!1
While this piece of correspondence can clearly be dated some time after the infection had taken hold, it does still offer some insight. For example, notice the final command: “send MORE!” Not only is this sentence about something other than the contents of the cat picture, the word “more” is also spelled in the traditional way, not “MOAR,” as it would come to be written later. This is one of the first signs outsiders saw that proved the infection was degenerative, not instantaneous.
Data gathered in a census only months later found this kind of communication impossible. More than 90% of the populous identified their race as “kitteh” and their income level as “cheeseburgers pleez.” At this point it was obvious that something terrible had overtaken the city, and the government was quick to both become involved and keep the story quiet. Their first attempts to research the condition and provide aid proved unsuccessful, as the researchers became infected themselves. As one official reported:
Our researchers and aid workers were sent in with the best intentions. None of us believed that they would truly be in danger. No threats had been made, no deaths reported, no mysterious bodies discovered; all of the scattered communication coming from the city was stupefying, almost incoherent babble about cats, cheeseburgers, and “fails.”
The reports our agents initially sent back confirmed our suspicions: the entire population had inexplicably gone mad for cute pictures of kittens. Not only had they destroyed their own infrastructure and real estate, they had also used the materials to build giant idols of cats doing amusing things. People were starving but unwilling or unable to accept the aid we offered, demanding only “cheeseburgers.”
As our agents persisted in their efforts to help, their own transmissions became more and more erratic. Grammar started to break down. Their descriptions of pictures of “cute kittehs” became prolific, detailed — all-encompassing. We hadn’t realized how much danger they’d be in. Soon the reports stopped altogether, and we knew that they were gone.
We now know that the government considered many plans of action before authorizing their response. The chief concern was that the infection would continue to spread beyond a small geographical area — that it would, as one pathologist put it, “go viral.”
A surgical military strike was obviously an attractive option. Captain John Vorch, who would ultimately be a pilot in what came to be called Operation Cute Overload, said in his book Whisker Twilight,
At first we wanted to bomb the hell out of them. We all did. Most people, myself included, didn’t believe this was a disease; we thought it was a bunch of uppity [expletive]s with too much time on their hands. I remember thinking, “A cure? You want to find them a cure? I got a cure for you right here: big precision pills called Mark 80s and GBUs, administered from above. Once.
Quarantine was another option, but without any way to get supplies to the infected — at least, supplies that they could be trusted to use and not turn into “lolcat idols” — it seemed just as cruel as the military option. Without food, water and medicine, the population would starve.
The ideal solution was one that prevented the spread of the infection while avoiding casualties, and also led to rehabilitation if possible. The problem with finding a cure for the infection was that no one could get close to it without falling victim – becoming, as one military doctor put it, “a drooling amalgam of cute phrases and insipid iconography, held together only by poor grammar.” With no choice but to watch via satellite asthe conditions in the city deteriorated and the infection spread, a decisive strike became more and more likely.
MIDNIGHT IN THE LOLCAT CITY
Dr. Ingrid Malcolm, now the esteemed president of the National Psychiatric Association, was at the time a poor and relatively unknown psychoanalyst working out of a tiny office in Washington, D.C. She enjoyed occasional employment by the government as an analyst, valued for her keen insight into the psyches of both friendly agents and foreign adversaries. She’d heard whispers about this so-called “Lolcat City” while working at the Pentagon. In a recent New Yorker piece called “Can I Has Survival: The Kittie-Crazy City That Was Almost Wiped Out,” she recalled her struggle to find the truth:
I’d always dealt with secrecy, of course; it was part and parcel for working with the government. I had my certain little sliver of access, they had their state secrets to keep. I rarely asked for more than I was allowed. This was, after all, some of the most lucrative work I’d ever had. Something about this, though, stuck in my ear. I think words like “infection” and “quarantine” and “strike” and “casualties” will do that. From what I heard the situation sounded dangerous, and it seemed like the only going to get worse.
I went to my superiors and told them what I’d heard. It was kind of a gamble, the type of thing that can get you fired, but I knew if I admitted to having some information already they would only have two choices: disavow it and risk me going public, or tell me more. I pressed them and pressed them and finally gathered enough information from reports, mostly redacted, to get a picture of what was going on.
Dr. Malcolm saw that time was running out for the infected, and she was determined to find them a cure, even if she could only attempt it from far away in Washington. She buried herself in the science and history of outbreaks. She called acquaintances and strangers in any field she thought might be relevant — from medicine to psychology to history to veterinary science — at all hours of the day and night. One morning, before dawn, she had a breakthrough. She was struck by a theory so radical that at first even she couldn’t believe it: What if the infection was purely psychological?
The conditions in the city had been the subject of days of speculation as a physical disease, but she was the first to examine the conditions as a psychological phenomenon:
I knew they’d look at me like I was crazy, but it actually wasn’t the first time this type of thing had happened. In the 15th century there was a spontaneous psychological infection called “St. Vitus’ Dance,” or the “dancing plague.” People all across Europe danced compulsively, hysterically, until the collapsed from exhaustion. They couldn’t stop themselves. No physical cause was ever found. It was part mass hysteria, part social conditioning, and part fearmongering — in essence, the same thing that was happening with the lolcats. That’s when I became convinced that it was a psychological problem that needed a psychological cure.
Meanwhile, the government was allocating resources for a military strike that they were beginning to see as inevitable. News of the infection had made its way into the mass media. The public regarded the bizarre story with a dangerous mix of suspicion and disbelief that prompted many to head towards the city and investigate for themselves. As one young blogger from a nearby state posted:
These “infected” are either stupid or crazy, and so are the people reporting on them. A mental infection based on pictures of cute cats? I’m going to investagate [sic] for myself. Be back soon, I’m sure!!
His next post, some days later, read:
lol this pix are sooooo funny! rofl! click to see moar cute kitteh pix! omg omg!!!1
OPERATION CUTE OVERLOAD
Dr. Malcolm worked feverishly to compile her research and propose a cure. She felt certain that the problem existed because of the sheer “cuteness” of the lolcat pictures. Any cure would involve convincing the infected that cats are not, in fact, impossibly cute. From her mammoth report to the Pentagon:
Cats defecate. Cats throw up. Cats shed. While there’s no denying that cats can be quite cute, they are not infinitely cute or funny. To cure the infected, we must convince them of the finite nature of cat cuteness. There is only one way to do this: we must give them real cats.
It was a proposal that seemed illogical at best. To fight a disease that the media had taken to calling “Cat Crazy” with real cats would be a hard sell to both the public and the Pentagon, and Dr. Malcolm tried to cover all of her bases before she even made her attempt.
She argued to the Pentagon that at least trying her solution was the only humane thing to do. Any domestic casualties would weaken their power and the trust of the American people. Convincing the public turned out to be far easier, as Dr. Malcolm’s plan to show the grim reality of cat ownership would work best with the oldest and sickest cats they could find.
The Pentagon agreed to run just one small operation to test Dr. Malcolm’s plan: Operation Cute Overload, named for her diagnosis. Fortunately, most of the resources for the operation — save for the cats — had already been gathered. Quoting again from Captain Vorch’s Whisker Twilight:
They didn’t tell us anything. I was called to the base to fly the mission, which I thought would be a bombing run, and the first thing I saw was this airdrop crate filled with cats. The smell was horrible. I asked command if the mission was still on, and they said yes, but with one small change.
Airdropping thousands of cats on a city! I’d never heard of such a thing. I thought, “Cats raining down from the sky? Isn’t that one of those plagues Moses talked about?”
And rain from the sky cats did. For two whole days planes flew over the city, dropping tired old cats from above. At the end of the second day they dropped communication equipment, so that the populace would be able to communicate if the plan miraculously worked. If Dr. Malcolm’s plan didn’t work within a week, airstrikes would be deployed to stop the infection from spreading, and, as one senior Pentagon official put it, “The streets would run thick with fur and blood.”
They waited, monitoring television, radio, phones, and the internet for any transmission. Finally, on the eve of the sixth day, they saw a post on one citizen’s long-abandoned blog:
Ugh! Kitty won’t stop shedding. Almost all of my clothes seem to have disappeared somehow and been replaced by a fabric idol of a cat, so picking all this fur out is getting annoying. The idol is kind of cute but it’s also kind of stupid.
That post was a godsend to Dr. Malcolm. It wasn’t just an attempt at communication; it also used proper grammar and referenced something other than “fails,” “cheeseburgers,” or “pix.” And soon communication out of the city exploded.
Letters, internet posts, e-mails, phone calls, and local news reports blossomed from all corners of the city, all of them complaining about cat hair, cat poop, and cat barf — and, after a fashion, speculating on what in the world had happened to the city. The government was finally able to send aid in safely.
Operation Cute Overload was a success.
CAN WE HAS SURVIVAL?
“Cat Crazy,” like the “dancing plague” centuries before, has never been fully explained. What caused it? How did it spread? Was there any physiological aspect? Why lolcats, and not some other meme, like puppies falling asleep? These are questions that nobody has ever been able to answer. Maybe the phenomenon is best explained in a line of dialogue delivered by Anne Hathaway, playing Dr. Ingrid Malcolm, in the made-for-TV movie The Brave Never Flea:
Of course I like cats. Everybody likes cats. But too much of a good thing, even if it’s fuzzy-wuzzy cute baby kittens, is a road straight to Hell.
Originally published at www.smallstories.me.