Sunday, January 25, 2015

Response to Joseph Stromberg and his article "What research says about cats: they're selfish, unfeeling, environmentally harmful creatures"

Dear Mr. Stromberg,

In response to your article about cats being, “selfish, unfeeling, environmentally harmful creatures” I feel the need to provide some perspective that your essay lacks.

Your first point compares cats to dogs in an attempt to demonstrate how cats do not show affection and do not form attachment to humans, at least not the same way dogs do. It certainly is true that cats and dogs show affection differently. I often tell people that if they suffer from any sort of insecurity they should get a dog and not a cat. A dog will always provide instant affection on demand at all times and all places. Cats on the other hand, are the more subtle animal. They demonstrate affection and attachment on their own terms. There are times when a cat seeks attention and there are times when the cat prefers solitude. This does not mean their affection is not genuine, even if it is demonstrated differently than dogs or even human infants.

As I write this, one of my own cats is pawing at my leg, looking up at me, and making direct eye contact. I know what she wants: physical contact. I reach down and give her a little scratch on the head, then go back to my writing. Here again is the paw on my leg. More head rubs which she clearly enjoys and then back to my writing. And again more pawing at my leg, and so on, and so on. If she is particularly insistent the only thing that satisfies her is when I pick her up and park her on the table just between my chest and the laptop keyboard. She will sit there, curled in a warm ball, for up to a half hour while I write. Mind you breakfast was served an hour ago so she is not seeking food.

There are many other examples I could mention such as my cats gathering near when I’m upset, vocally crying and watching out the window as I drive away in the morning, and greeting me at the door when I come home at night. Of course these are all subjective, and we really have no way to “measure” genuine affection. What I can tell you is that I am the author of a popular series of cat videos on YouTube, and I receive daily contact from my fans who express affection for their own cats the same way that I demonstrate affection for mine in the videos. My videos have been viewed over 17 million times. I’ve received tens of thousands of comments directly on the videos or through other social media where people from all over the world express love for their own cats. That love is real.

Your next point attacks cats for their environmental destruction. It is true that free-roaming domesticated cats do kill birds and small mammals in their local area. For fun. Well, so do some humans. And let’s be real here, the vast majority of harm that comes to birds, animals, fish, and so many other parts of the planet is due to human activity. Every strip mall, every McDonalds, every industrial beef operation, every new car, every cell phone, and every item purchased at Walmart represents environmental destruction in the long run that is incomprehensible to the average person. Overall, the destruction caused by domesticated cats is a tiny drop in the bucket compared the wrath of human greed. If you really want to help out animals around the planet perhaps you shouldn’t upgrade your cell phone when the next shiny new model is released. Cats in the wild are only doing what their natural instinct compels them to do. You can change your behavior, they cannot.

Finally you report on the devastating effects of a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that can be found in cats. According to your report, the parasite can cause “altered behavior, neuroticism, schizophrenia, lower reflexes, traffic accidents, and suicide.” The same wikipedia article where you pulled this information also reports that the parasite is present in many other types of animals including pigs, lambs, and birds, as well as contaminated water, unwashed fruits and vegetables, and dirt. In fact the biggest risk factor to humans is consuming undercooked meat. You did give undercooked meat a passing mention but pegged most of the blame squarely on cats. If you really want to warn people about Toxoplasma gondii you might urge them to get their burger “well done” instead of “rare” next time they go out for dinner, but instead you chose to spread sensational nonsense about cats.

Further research on the topic indicates that people with a poor immune system (cancer or AIDS patients) are most vulnerable to the parasite but the vast majority of infected people clear the disease with little or no symptoms. Your same wikipedia article concludes the following: “Numerous studies have shown living in a household with a cat is not a significant risk factor for T. gondii infection, though living with several kittens has some significance”. This means that adult cats normally develop a strong immune response to the parasite and present no risk to humans, while young cats may pose a small risk for a short time before they develop an immune response. Overall, I would suggest the best way to avoid the peril of Toxoplasma gondii is education and the presentation of relevant and accurate information, something that is lacking in your poorly written essay.

I understand that your article might be “all in good fun” to some degree, and certainly a good-natured “dogs vs. cats” debate will continue. But your article and others like it can do real harm. Cats experience a disproportionate amount of suffering by hateful people who would torture or kill them for fun. Your article is clearly biased, lacks perspective, and only adds to the ignorance of people who would harm cats. If you lack the sophistication to appreciate the subtle ways in which cats express affection, it is unlikely that I will change your mind. You probably just won’t ever like cats. However some perspective and intellectual honesty would be welcome in your otherwise slanted and sensationalist writing.

Paul Klusman