Crazy Over Cats

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Cat: One Hell of a nice animal, frequently mistaken for a meatloaf.

—B. Kliban, cartoonist

Muhammad cut the sleeve from his robe rather than disturb his friend, asleep on the Prophet’s gown. Samuel Johnson daily pampered his spoiled companion Hodge with meals of fresh oysters. Victor Hugo cherished Gavroche. Cardinal Richelieu left a generous legacy for the 14 he owned. Napoleon is said to have broken into a cold sweat at the sight of one. In his childhood, Smerdyakov, in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, was fond of hanging them. Thomas Hardy and Thomas Gray wrote poems to them; Hemingway shared dinner with his. Physician and Scholar Albert Schweitzer favored two ways to take refuge from human misery: playing the organ and delighting in the play of his cats.

From deification to demonization, and every stage in between, attitudes toward cats have been confused, variable, peculiar, consuming, jittery and, ultimately, baffling. Those sinuous forms represented in Egyptian art, valued as rodent-chasers by farmers, or draped luxuriously over an apartment radiator have elicited the best and worst from mankind in the 5,000 years since their domestication. The dog may be man’s best friend, but the cat is his most perplexing one, if, indeed, he is one at all.

A prodigious number of Americans have become smitten with cats. Others continue to bad-mouth felines. Are cats stouthearted companions or unresponsive curmudgeons? Or are they, as Cartoonist Bernard Kliban suggested in his bestselling album Cat (1975), merely whimsical meat-loaves? While the fur flies in this battle, one cat gives folks a humorous peek at both armies in the controversy. The most famous feline to express this perplexing relationship between man and pet is Garfield, a comic-strip cat. His creator, Cartoonist Jim Davis, has three books on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list, a first for any author. Garfield Bigger Than Life, Garfield Gains Weight and Garfield at Large, which has been on the list for an amazing 84 weeks, have sold more than 2 million volumes, and a fourth compilation of the daily newspaper comic will appear in the spring. Three other cat books also grace the list, including 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (on the list for 27 weeks); together they account for an additional 1.2 million kitty-cartoon albums (see box).

Garfield and his top-selling feline pals are but one example of the cat boom in the U.S., which now goes well beyond book and comic pages. There is, for example, Cats, an opulent, energetic rock musical adapted from T.S. Eliot’s volume of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The production has been a smash hit in London for nine months and will stalk onto Broadway early next year. Signature lines of kitty sheets, towels, ceramic cat planters, calendars, mugs, watches, umbrellas, T shirts, sweatshirts, stationery and housewares move swiftly at gift stores and specialty shops like Purrfection in New York and the Cat House in Los Angeles. Mimi Vang Olsen, 43, a New York portraitist, will immortalize an owner’s beloved cat in vibrant, primitivist oils for $2,500. There is a pet motel in Prairie View, Ill., that offers apartments, roomettes and imperial suites to guest cats for up to $6.50 a day: letters sent by the vacationing owners are read to the animals. California, as always a seismographic chart of late-breaking obsessions, now has a cat resort, a cat department store, a cat rest home, a rent-a-cat agency, a cat dating service, cat psychics, cat acting coaches and a special annual contest to judge cats’ meows. And, of course, there is television, with its commercials featuring cats in caterwauling unison or solitary hunger. The ads offer a sufficient variety of pellets, powders, pablums, nibbles, munches, crunches and chomps to drive conscientious cat chefs into catatonia.

Cats, love ’em or hate ’em, are a hot number. Plain or fancy, pampered or ignored, barn mousers or apartment pets, they have captured the American imagination. They are becoming a national mania. In fact, cats are even gaining on dogs. Thirty-four million cats—often in multiples—inhabit 24% of America’s households, an increase of 55% in the past decade. The dog population, meanwhile, has stabilized in recent years at some 48 million. In Washington, D.C., and New York, feline adoptions from animal shelters have zoomed 30% in the past three or four years. Cats are also becoming a factor in the American economy. Owners will shell out $1.4 billion for 1 million tons of cat food that carry such whisker-licking names as Meow Mix and Tender Vittles. These processed delights consist largely of soybean, corn and wheat. One hundred eighty-nine million dollars’ worth of cat-box filler will inevitably follow. Revenues to veterinarians, animal psychologists, pet shops and grooming parlors will add even more millions. All of this must be added to the initial cost of buying the beast.

Eighty percent of U.S. cats are common shorthairs and mixed breeds—”alley cats” of little dollar value. But the price for grand-championship-quality Abyssinian kittens and some others of the 33 recognized breeds in America can be as much as $3,000. Nearly 400 cat shows were held in the country this year, and some breeders believe the number may reach 450 next year. Last season the tony Empire Cat Show in Madison Square Garden—the “Westminster” of catdom—had to turn away thousands of enthusiasts.

The shouting and spending, the shows and services are lavished on an extraordinary mammal. Weighing in at an average of 10 Ibs., the cat has a uniquely flexible backbone. When dropped from a height of less than one foot in an upside-down position, it will land on its paws in an incredible 1.8 sec. Its whiskers transmit complex information about its prey and surroundings to nerve bundles beneath the skin. According to one parapsychologist, the cat may even harbor a trace of E.S.P. A feline named Pooh, for example, who wandered off before the owners moved some 200 miles from Newnan, Ga., to a small town near Spartanburg, S.C., turned up at the family’s new back door a year later.

The cat’s sensitive ears are precisely tuned to discern the scrabble of paws beneath the ground. It even has its own self-cleaning service: cat saliva may contain a deodorizing detergent-like substance. Asleep, a cat may resemble a throw pillow or a Kliban-style meatloaf, but, awake and hungry, the average feline, one of the most highly evolved predators in the natural world, is capable of dispatching a dozen mice at a brief sitting. Alarmingly, it tends to dawdle before administering the coup de grâce. Behavioralists believe this happens because cats are programmed by a primitive, vestigial stalking mechanism. Cats toy with their prey because they may be teaching kittens to hunt or may be exhibiting their prowess; instinctively cats do not always relate killing with the need to eat. When they finally do away with a mouse, it is with Darwinian perfection. The cat’s teeth are so arranged as to sever a rodent’s spine with surgical precision.

The brain structure and nervous system of the cat are also special. The divided feline cerebrum offers tantalizing clues to right-brain, left-brain investigations. The highly developed feline “flight-fight” mechanism may provide insights to the response in humans. So useful are cats that tens of thousands of them disappear into the nation’s labs for experiments each year. Although researchers have studied cat brains with infinite care, none have discovered the secret of the cat’s singular sound. The apparatus and meaning of purring remain a mystery of feline behavior, one of many unexplained traits that remain as folklore.

It is an almost unbudgeable popular belief—and a false one—that cats and dogs have an instinctive rivalry. Animal owners, however, are often more partisan than their pets. “I’m not a cat person, I’m a dog person,” is a frequently expressed predilection. The cat is sly and fickle, say canine lovers. It is cruel, indifferent and, well, catty. Such deprecations may mask a deeper dislike.

Investigators have never reached a consensus on ailurophobia—extreme fear of cats. Some postulate a traumatic childhood experience with felines, while others blame the cat’s galvanizing stare, or disdain for affection, or even its slippery, furred coat and unfriendly, arching backbone. Traditional superstitions still exist: cats suck the breath from sleeping infants, sour fresh milk, forecast the phases of the moon and serve Satan. A black cat is bad luck. According to old belief, a cat, through necromancy or something even more unfathomable, has been given nine lives. Such Draculatic positions, however, are rare. Cats themselves often seem instinctively to regard fear or hatred in people as a signal to antagonize visitors. Many owners report that their pets will purposely force their unwanted attentions on squeamish guests.

Cat haters delight in announcing that a Siamese will not faithfully drool in your lap for a kind word like a Labrador retriever. Even the most fervid owners of felines can be surprised—almost to cardiac arrest—by their pets’ peculiarities. Your cat lurks in the dark attic just when you thought you were alone. As a form of endearment, he may jump on your shoulder from the top of the refrigerator. He may refuse all food until you cook the same kind of bacon-and-cheese sandwich he enjoyed a week ago. He will, in the meantime, deposit a variety of dead and near dead things at the back door and stalk away for a nap. He may shred the antique silk draperies or decide that the shower stall is a Bauhaus litter pan. Whether the cat is friend or foe, many would agree with the prominent 18th century naturalist, the Count de Buffon. The cat, he wrote, “appears to have feelings only for himself, loves only conditionally and only enters into relations [with people] in order to abuse them.”

Votaries of the cat take a different view. From Cleopatra to Colette they have praised Felis domestica in stories, songs and poems for grace, independence, intelligence, perseverance and fastidious ways. Unlike the dog or man, cats do not form Soviets or pyramid clubs to achieve dubious pack goals. While they may pick a top cat, felines do not seem to require rigid hierarchies when a number of them live together. If human, cats might play solitaire, but they would never sit around with the gang and a few six-packs watching Monday Night Football. Their aloof singularity lies at the heart of human fascination with the animal. The cat’s wild ways endure and charm. In Japan the cat is called “the tiger that eats from the hand.” In her authoritative compendium The Cat, Author Muriel Beadle postulates that the feline’s alliance with humans is a dramatic biological decision to swap solitary life in the wild for “the company of men.”

Many people believe that cats are so biologically programmed for survival in the wilderness that they cannot be trained. While unaltered cats are almost impossible to work with, say the experts, food and affection—heavy on the food, please—will help teach most house cats to forgo clawing the couch and spraying. With the patience usually given only to holy men—plus more food—felines can also be tutored in the arts of sitting on command, lying down and rolling over. Some proud owners have even instructed their cats to eat daintily with their paws directly from the food can.

Did man domesticate the cat or did Tabby decide to share life with us? It is, it must be admitted, an intriguing, unanswered dilemma. Ours is not the first age to wrestle with that issue. Some Egyptians, for instance, reluctant to regard their cats as mundane animals, buried them with great ceremony. In 1888 a bumbling farmer dug up an ancient Egyptian cat necropolis at Beni Hasan. The cemetery contained thousands of mummified cats that had been interred, sometimes with embalmed mice for afterworld meals. Enterprising workers unwrapped the cats and sent a consignment of 19 tons of bones to England for conversion into fertilizer.

By the 10th century, cats were established as mousers. The Welsh defined the legal worth of cats: a seasoned mouser, astonishingly enough, brought four pennies, about the worth of a lamb. By the 17th century, however, the devil, unwelcome and omnipresent, had been doing his worst through the feline. In 1699, for instance, at the Swedish town of Mora, 300 children were accused of employing demon cats to steal butter, cheese and bacon. Fifteen of the children were killed, and every Sunday for a year, 36 were whipped before the church doors. By the mid-18th century, the cat was back in favor. Frederick the Great thought so highly of cats he made them official guards of his army’s stores and ordered conquered towns to furnish supplies of cats. The Industrial Revolution greatly expanded the middle class and accelerated the re-entry of felines into social acceptance by employing them in rodent-infested cities and celebrating them in prose and popular song.

Nowadays Americans lavish little art but elaborate care on their cats. It may have been a technological breakthrough that made cat tending less onerous and fueled all this attention. Explains one close observer of the animal universe, Boston Veterinarian Jean Holzworth: “When you talk about convenience, the advent of cat litter is comparable to the invention of the electric light bulb.” Litter boxes are now big-selling staples in pet stores. They cost from $2.50 to $34.95. Some of them are kick-proof and odor-proof. The latest behavior-modification device is Kitty Whiz, a potty trainer that purportedly teaches Puss to use the bathroom toilet. Cost: $14.98.

The feeding of finicky felines, an age-old agony for owners, has its own sophisticated new hardware. A gravity feeder—available with cute cat graphics—supplies fresh vittles for a feline left alone for a weekend. There is a timed feeder that mechanically portions out the chow. An enclosed bowl called Step ‘n Dine encourages precocious felines to step on a pedal to get at the kibble. For cats who accompany their owners, there are carrying cases that cost as much as $420 for Louis Vuitton versions, and for $33.98, a caring cat owner may invest in a tiny, burglar-and rat-proof door that can be installed at the bottom of a regular house door; the cat opens it with a magnetic device worn around its neck. At Animal Kingdom in Chicago, there is the Cat-A-Lac rolling bed that sells for $34 and a kitty rocking horse to calm the freaked-out feline ($49). New York’s Felines of Distinction expects to sell more than 2,000 scratching posts this year; among them is a $179 carpeted feline Xanadu called the Kitty Playground. In Los Angeles, home of the stars and the stars’ excesses, one store offers the ultimate in laid-back purraphernalia: a kitty water bed at $35.99. A shop owner in Chicago estimates that it is not uncommon for customers to spend $400 to equip their new cat.

Not all cats bask in such luxury. Every city, village and farm county has its share of strays and their drifting human equivalent: the cat woman or cat man. On the streets of San Francisco or Chicago or New Orleans or Podunk, loners in torn raincoats carry shopping bags full of cat food to provide for an estimated 15 million “public” cats, on the possibly erroneous assumption that these adaptive animals cannot fend for themselves. Occasionally, however, some bummed-out cats find safe havens.

One helper is Conrad Milster, 45, chief engineer of Pratt Institute, a school of arts, engineering and science in Brooklyn. Milster and his wife Phyllis care for, they believe, 40 orphan cats. The number keeps changing, but always the house seethes with prowling felines. They have taken over couches, chairs, beds, sinks and tubs. They perch on the stairway, roost on the bookcase, snooze in the laundry basket. They also occupy the dining room table, and the childless Milsters no longer eat there. Litter pans crowd the walls, the halls and the corners. Food and water bowls are set out in odd places. Cats suffering from infectious diseases inhabit the kitchen. A dozen of the menagerie are cripples, three are one-eyed, one is a dwarf, and one has been classified as a homosexual. Many of the stragglers are brought in by neighborhood youngsters who have heard about the Milsters’ cat colony. The cats’ names are chosen eclectically: Nanki-Po, Twiggy, Dick Deadeye, Pigpen, Anastasia, Violetta, Wilfred Shadbolt, Don Alhambra del Bolero and Mad Ludwig.

“We’re not exactly the all-American couple,” says Conrad, but they may be the all-American cat lovers. Indeed, Phyllis’ entire salary as a Pratt purchasing agent—$350 a week—goes for vet bills and supplies. The weekly delivery of 24 cases of cat food and 140 Ibs. of litter alone costs $300. Says Phyllis: “We’ve had to give up a lot of privileges. It’s like a trust or a duty.”

No cats are better cared for than the 45,000 highly bred and often exotic pedigreed cats on the books of America’s nine registry groups (see box). The Cat Fanciers’ Association, the leading agency, lists 38,152 cats. While this hardly compares with the 26 million dogs registered with the American Kennel Club, raising new feline breeds is becoming more than a cottage pastime. After one of their three children had grown up and moved away, Edward and Carol Harrison in Palatine, Ill., a Chicago suburb, remortgaged their white frame house to add on a $35,000 cattery, complete with breeding pens and outdoor runs. They raise Somalis, a long-haired variation of the Abyssinian. Their kittens of show quality attract a two-year waiting list of prospective owners and sell for $500 to $1,000. Says Harrison, 52, a structural iron worker: “We enjoy traveling around the country and making friends at cat shows.”

Although the resulting relationships may be heartening, the income is not. Few catteries provide their owners with livable incomes. Richard Gebhardt, 50, the most famous and respected cat judge in the nation, must raise dogs (Japanese Chins) in addition to championship Persians to make ends meet. Says Gebhardt, at his Denville, N.J., kennel-cattery: “Raising dogs can be big business. You can depend on it for your livelihood. Cat people have to love the animal, because there’s nothing to get from it but personal ego satisfaction.” Gebhardt’s glow is provided by Voodoo, a great black Persian champion who sired 200 championship kittens. Recalls Gebhardt: “Voodoo was the feline answer to Man o’ War.”

Both phenomenal show cats and ordinary mousers can now receive thoroughly researched and specialized medical care. Today’s veterinarian handles that task with considerable sophistication and science. A decade ago most small-animal vets devoted only 20% of their practices to felines. So little research had been done in cat diseases that dog cures were often simply transferred to cats, sometimes to no effect. Currently, 50% of America’s small-animal practice is devoted to cats. The Cornell University Feline Research Center closely examines cat problems such as heart disease, unknown a decade ago, and drug-resistant respiratory viruses. Feline leukemia, a white-blood-cell viral disease, is communicable only between cats. It is usually fatal and can quickly devastate breeding operations. Now it is battled with expensive chemotherapy procedures. Care for cats has improved so markedly that over the past 30 years the life expectancy of a house-dwelling cat has jumped to the 16-to 20-year range, an increase of six to eight years.

The Cat Practice is a sunshiny New York institution that practices the latest feline medicine. The smell of incense masks cat aromas in a waiting room of wicker, blond wood, indestructible cushions and soft music. An office visit is $30, and a complete workup on a cat, with blood and other tests, can cost $100. Owner Dr. William H. Sullivan, 37, like many vets, credits the cat’s fabled healing power for its customary good health. The skin of the cat heals so fast that one common complaint is abscess: the skin is repaired before the infection beneath has cleared up. “Cats make animal surgeons look good,” says Sullivan. One other advantage in treating felines: cat owners, say some vets, pay their bills more readily than dog owners.

Feline psyches are a more complex and an even more crucial matter. For the disturbed cat, there are a variety of animal practitioners. Dr. Michael Fox, 44, a psychologist based in Washington, D.C., advocates massage—both Oriental and Swedish. “I know it sounds like snake oil at first,” says the mustachioed Ph.D., who has a California masseur’s license, “but it will give energy to old and sick animals and stimulate healthy cats.” In his home near by, Fox, who is director of the Humane Society of the U.S., demonstrates on his Burmese, Mocha. A chiropractic tail pull straightens the spine, Swedish kneading relaxes the muscles, and Oriental rubbing drains the cat’s sinus passages. Mocha stretches in ecstasy. Cats need such relaxation. Even subtle shifts in their owners’ life-styles can send kitties into tailspins. When Philadelphia Writer Marc Kaufman, 32, and his wife Lynn Litterine, 35, brought home their new baby, their cats, Yukon and Ted, became perverse—fighting, spraying and hissing. The couple sought out pert, brunet Ginger Hamilton, 45, a cat shrink, one of only a dozen or so such practitioners in the country. Her pet-psychology office in Silver Spring, Md., has quadrupled its business in the past decade. For a fee of $50 an hour, Hamilton began involving Yukon and Ted in play-and-affection sessions that gradually included the infant. The problem, however, was not solved. The couple had to give away one of the cats. Kaufman remains a bit embarrassed by the experience. “I had a feeling from my friends that perhaps I’d gone too far with the emotional involvement.”

Half of Hamilton’s practice is now devoted to cats. Many of their emotional problems stem from jealousy. Several of her clients are recently married women whose pets cannot share affection with the new spouse. One miffed feline regularly urinated on the new husband’s side of the bed, and another defecated each morning on the newlywed’s breakfast chair. Such formidable expressions of pique are called “aberrant litter behavior” in the animal-psych biz, and Hamilton, a Freud of felines, goes at a cure like the master himself. Says she: “I try to find out if the animal came from a household where the litter pans were clean, if the mama cat taught her kittens well and what the personalities of the mother and father cat were like.”

The world’s No. 1 celebrity cat, Morris, has no problems. He is the feline Burt Reynolds, and his large, complacent, orange tabby face graces the popular 9-Lives cat-food commercials on TV. Not only does Morris exhibit no discernible emotional disorders, he is unflappable. With dubbed TV lines like “Oh, really? Here, kitty, kitty, indeed! Dinner had better be very good,” Morris won the 1973 Patsy Award as the best animal actor in TV commercials. Adopted from a humane society, Morris became so famous that his “story” was told in Morris, an Intimate Biography. After he died in 1978, a 14-month search turned up a replacement in a Cape Cod animal shelter. This foundling, like his predecessor, lives on the six-acre kennel of Trainer Bob Martwick in Lombard, Ill. When Morris II flies—first class, of course—to Humane Society adopt-a-pet campaigns around the country, his popularity often leads enthusiasts to empty local shelters of felines. The cause is a good one. Although in New York City cat euthanasia is down 26% at the A.S.P.C.A., the society still had to destroy 25,000 unwanted cats last year. Morris’ laid-back presence is a reminder that spaying and neutering are the responsibilities of cat owners.

Morris II works about 20 days a year and grosses $5,000 to $10,000. He often will patiently go through 40 to 50 takes to synchronize the split-second timing required for the commercials. The residuals from these ads have made a modest fortune for Morris’ sophisticated voice—Actor John Irwin.

“Sometimes Morris is just too blasé,” complains Trainer Martwick of his charge. “When some big Huskies came to the kennel, Morris wouldn’t get out of the way—he’s oblivious to danger.”

Morris I is buried in Lombard. There is no stone to mark the spot, in sharp contrast to the fanciful choices of many other grieving pet owners around the U.S. Kitty’s resting place is becoming more and more elaborate. At Paw Print Gardens in Chicago, sealable cat caskets range from $39 to $139, and granite grave markers begin at $79, while top-of-the-line custom tablet markers go for more than $500.

Some experts find in this obsession with felines a shift in the American psyche. Says Robert Perper, 48, a New York veterinarian: “There’s a lot of macho in dog persons. Dogs are bigger, they’re a display. People like to give them hearty slaps and decorate them with collars. Three years ago, about 5% of my men patients were cat owners. Now it’s 25%. The stigma is gone. They’ve learned a man can own a cat and still be a man.” Peter Borchelt, a behavioralist at Manhattan’s Animal Medical Center, wryly points out that you can own a cat and even be an American. While the dog may be the unofficial national pet, he says, “Americans are known for their laissez-faire attitude. These characteristics define the cat.” Chicago Pet Shop Owner Donna Dunlop adds: “It’s not just children and the elderly who have cats, it’s young professionals in their 30s who are getting them.” The inconvenience of owning a dog in a city, where apartment sizes have shrunk and pooper-scooper laws make the litter pan look like a less burdensome alternative, may also explain the recent upsurge in catomania. Says New York’s A.S.P.C.A. executive director, John Kullberg, about the guard dog-cat controversy: “If you buy a cat, you can always get an extra lock for the door.”

Perhaps, too, the cat, regal and precise, aloof and alone, reflects the preferred—or enforced—situation of the record 23% of American households where single adults dwell. “Cats are a perfect way out of urban alienation,” says Dunlop. And behind bars, the cat softens hard-time sentences. Some prisoners at the Lorton Reformatory in Virginia keep up to five cats at once. Says Charles E. (“Itchy”) Richardson, 30, who is serving ten to 40 years for burglary: “Cats teach you what some dudes down here can’t understand. They give you love. They don’t talk back, and they don’t steal from you.”

Whether cats represent a psychic revolution or merely engage our interest because they’re decorative and instructive or just a jet-set recognition symbol like Gucci luggage, the cat and its ways never fail to fascinate.

The cat’s very singularity, moreover, is the most important bond between man and animal. The wildness of the cat, its instinctual businesslike yet skewed version of reality, is more than enchanting. Behavioral research now postulates that while humans may ascribe to the cat a number of sophisticated genetic motives, the cat is fascinated with man because he appeals to the cat’s suppressed childishness. Kittens raised by humans associate man with suckling, warmth, mother’s milk and childhood learning play. While the adult feline is obsessed with reproduction, territorial battles and mousing, we remain large toys and surrogate mothers who possess such miracles as wall can openers, crinkly cellophane and electric blankets. Nor do cats, like Kliban’s cartoon meat-loaves, respond with interest to human grownup preoccupations. They pay no mind to politics, opera, opinion polls, fuel-stingy autos or nuclear proliferation. They remain unimpressed by est, Kiwanis, cocaine and PBS. Felines yawn equally at the reputations of Mick Jagger and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Cats operate in an exclusive and maddening parabola of reality that can frustrate our lives or demand our attention and tune our sensibilities to more graceful things. While people argue about their courage, usefulness and affection, the cat has its own game to play. Can it entice people to open their homes, refrigerators and hearts to it? The cat seems to be winning the contest. At half-time the scorecard reads: People 1, Meat-loaves 2.

—By J.D. Reed. Reported by Maureen Dowd/ Washington and Georgia Harbison/New York, with other bureaus

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