Visitors to Ephemerata Gardens inevitably ask, “So just how many cats do you have?” For years, Delphi was our official greeter and Mia did her hoop jump at the end of the Museum of Ephemerata tour. Cats lounge everywhere, throwing together temporary forts and bedding out of whatever's handy. Laps and bathroom sinks serve as improvised hammocks. The shed roof provides the perfect patio lookout. In the winter they seek warmth, discovering accidental passive solar junkitecture like Perlita’s greenhouse, a broken window leaned against a wall. There are also cats you don’t see who sneek away from the clutter of other felines to enjoy solitary catnaps, like PT’s burrow under the kitchen sink where we used to save plastic grocery bags.
The yard came with strays – a tatter-eared tom, a soon pregnant golden tabby kitten, and six or seven other felines who depended on scraps from the butcher two doors down. Every day an employee fed them in the alley, calling out “Here babies!” to summon the clutter. The colony was growing fast thanks to steady food and no sterilization. Over the years we “fixed” more than two-dozen (as if their reproductive capacity was something broken).
Our second winter at the house, the tomcat lost his left eye. As the cold came on he stopped roaming the yard and just lay there, missing eye suppurating a clotted yellow flow. We were letting him waste away. My stepmom, also an animal person, asked, “Shouldn’t you just put him to sleep?” Instead we used holiday gift money to take him to the vet. Tricked into a cat carrier with wet food, he was neutered, vaccinated, eye sewn up, body purged of parasites, gently “interpellated into the modern biopolitical state” under the aegis of love and care.* For three days he healed in our bathroom, saturating it with litter box smells and a polecat stench of spray from his oily coat.
The missing eye healed well, stitched skin dimpling into a little bowl of fur. We called him One-Eye. He became the guardian of our TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release) colony. He even began to purr. His territorial aggression to male cat strangers dwindled, but he still sprayed everything and fought off dogs by leaping on their backs despite his partial blindness. Then one cold November night we heard a dog growling in the yard and One-Eye went missing. He just vanished from our vulnerable cat preserve.
Cat characters like One-Eye saturate spaces with their presence. Cat fur finds its way everywhere. Purrs resonate bodies with healing frequencies.** Hints of spray or urine linger in the air for months, marking objects with pheromone messages about an animal’s sex, age, and health that humans, lacking vomeronasal sensory organs, can’t comprehend. It is an affective writing that is smelt and felt, not seen and read. Becoming a part of these atmospheres by caring for cats involves daily feeding rituals, close contact with wounds, suffering, and feces, and crime scenes: dead roaches, anoles, bird feathers, the occasional baby possum or squirrel. Sadly, caring for mortals inevitably involves burying dead cats or wondering if missing ones will ever return. Worrying about cats, slowing down and enjoying their company on your lap, stressing out over vet bills, being annoyed by nagging midnight meows or stepping in puke – a welter of feelings spins out of our self-imposed responsibilities to the felines. And you can’t care for an animal without caring for its life-support habitat. Like any form of life, cats need a certain kind of atmosphere in order to survive, but also emanate an atmosphere of their own. We cohabit that territory, a catmosphere crossed by little weather patterns of feline love, need, and aggression.
For cats, love, aggression, territory, and smells are not linguistic or symbolic statements, but relational atmospheres expressed through layered sensory patterns of purrs, meows and hisses, touches, bites, scratching, and phermones. As Gregory Bateson puts it, “the cat does not say ‘milk’; she simply acts out (or is) her end of an interchange, the pattern of which we in language would call ‘dependency.’ But to act or be one end of a pattern of interaction is to propose the other end. A context is set for a certain class of response.”*** Developing his cyber-ecological model of identities, Bateson argues that relationships between self/other or self/environment
are, in fact, the subject matter of what are called “feelings” – love, hate, fear, confidence, anxiety, hostility, etc. It is unfortunate that these abstractions referring to patterns of relationship have received names, which are usually handled in ways that assume that the “feelings” are mainly characterized by quantity rather than by precise pattern.****Feelings are not strictly internal events, but waver somewhere in between individuals, saturating a common atmosphere through repeated relational experiences. Each kitten's features, mewls, and purrs tug at something in us that wants to care for them, to become responsible for their lives.
Catmospheres are inflated with feeling responsible for other life forms, but it is unclear where catmospheres and feeling responsible begin and end. The intimate little catmosphere balloons out to problematic landscapes of open pit bentonite and clay mines that become kitty litter, and landfills where bagged animal feces and litter make up around 4% of municipal waste. At the urban scale, ornithologists are concerned that feral and pet cat populations turn cities into “sinks” that suck bird species diversity out of the atmosphere.***** The American Bird Conservancy blames cats for 500 million bird deaths a year, arguing against TNR colonies as bottomless bellies.****** Cats are atmospherically judged as far surpassing wind turbines in their deadly impact on bird populations, while still falling significantly behind windows.******* Feeling responsible floats out of control. We want to do something for all the strays, but they can’t all live inside with us, and that makes us accomplices in the ecological crimes of our “subsidized predators.”********
We became crazy cat people. One winter freeze we had over a dozen cats inside, with temporary barricades to keep the eight indoor cats separated from the outdoor ones, each with their own food, water, and litter boxes. Every year we weatherize the back porch with sheet metal and plastic bags and set up a heat lamp bulb to warm them. Catering to the cats and their litters can become overwhelming and take over our lives, like the eight kittens one spring that all needed sterilization. Or chores back up, dried poop on the litter box room floor with empty 10 pound food bags (saved for some reason) falling over on top. Scenes that tire me with the recognition that I have hours of work to do.
A special voyeuristic fascination is reserved for people whose atmospheres become glutted with life forms, who can’t say “no” to animals or objects in need. Building on the morbid popularity of A&E’s Hoarders, Animal Planet’s Confessions: Animal Hoarding adopts the soundtracks and gritty aesthetics of horror movies. Shaky cameras maneuver houses swarming with cats or dogs or both, stacked floor to ceiling with animal cages and aquaria of captive life forms. We see catmospheres layered with scratch marks, walls browned knee-high with wreaking phermone graffiti. Cats give up on the moldy, overflowing litter boxes and use beds, couches, and piles of clothes. Feelings of nurturing, saving, and rescuing animals in need have tipped over into scenes of excess, transforming houses and people into overwhelmed life support systems. Watching these scenes, a sense of disbelief and the humor of excess mingle with pity and disgust. Something familiar and ordinary has taken an extreme trajectory, without the atmosphere’s inhabitants quite noticing.
Once we had two kids, the patterns of our relationship with the cats quickly changed. All the indoor cats now stay outside in the front yard. Our oldest cat Mia and three-legged Lacy get to come in for rainstorms and extreme temperatures. It wasn’t the occasional scratch, but the constant sweeping up of fur, one too many meows that woke the baby. Our son likes to eat the cat food and tip the moat that keeps out ants. He thinks the litter box is a sandbox. Maybe we were unfairly treating the cats as surrogate babies. Now we are a little hardened to the cats' neediness. Why change the litter box when they have the whole yard?
* Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2008), 281.
** Elizabeth von Muggenthaler of the Fauna Communications Research Institute in North Carolina studies the healing qualities of cat purrs. She patented a therapy device based on findings that frequencies from 25 to 50 Hertz – the cat purr range – help heal torn muscles and broken bones (von Muggenthaler 2009). Her research dovetails with claims that pet owners make fewer doctor visits and have lower stress levels. In a 2008 study, researchers found that cat people’s risk of suffering fatal heart attacks are 40% lower than those without cats (BBC News 2008).
***Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 2d ed., Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, (2000), 275.
***** Anne L. Balogh, Thomas B. Ryder, and Peter P. Marra (2011), “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats,” Journal of Ornithology, 152(3):717-726.
********Balogh, Ryder, and Marra, 724.