By Alan Dean Foster
Okay, let’s get the title of this column out of the way fast. Pussyfoot is the name of a small black kitten that features in five Warner Bros. cartoons directed by the great Chuck Jones. Arguably the best one, “Feed the Kitty,” features the kitten subduing an enormous, ferocious bulldog by the name of Marc Antony. Pussyfoot accomplishes this via a combination of unrestrained love, impossible cuteness, and general indifference.
I am moved to mention this by way of providing proof that the Beatles’ song “All You Need is Love” may have more than a little scientific truth behind it, at least where domestic cats are concerned. I am further impelled to bring up the subject because the internet has been inundated by a flood, a veritable tsunami, of videos featuring cats. If some sources are to be believed, when ranked by subject matter cat videos draw the most views of anything on the net. In turn, this popularity has given rise to an entire subset of articles and scholarly treatises that attempt to explain the phenomena, such as “The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism” (Ethan Zuckerman, 2008). It is worthy of note that there is no corresponding “Cute Dog Theory of Digital Activism,” or Horse Theory, or even Baby Theory.
Disclaimer: Just as programs on ABC promoting Disney have to add a proviso that the ABC network is owned by Disney, I need to mention here that we have (currently) seven cats. Or the seven cats have us. I’m not going to go into the chronological history of why people love cats (Hint: it’s not telepathic control … I think), or how the interdependent relationship between small felines and susceptible humans got started. Plenty of information on such matters is widely available elsewhere.
What I’m exploring here is why we primates seem so fascinated by the ordinary actions of what, after all, are the relatives of much larger kin who spent millions of years treating us as not friends but potential prey. Our relationship with dogs is arguably older and stronger, but cute dog videos come nowhere near dominating the internet in the manner of cute cat videos.
Speaking from the standpoint of psychology, could the cat/human prey connection have something more to do with it? Does some ancient, tucked-away corner of the human brain still secretly fear that one day we could conceivably be attacked and eaten by cats? But we have a similar history with dogs. Until recently, our species maintained a visceral fear of being eaten by canids such as wolves (not to mention, in an earlier time, dire wolves).
I think it’s the contrast between the cute cat and the predator cat that deeply fascinates us. Dogs have teeth; cats have fangs. Both have claws, but dog claws scratch while cat claws are talons. Maybe the relief we instinctively feel at seeing a creature equipped with such exquisite killing gear using it to play with a ball of twine or a toy mouse is emotionally reassuring. Especially if one adds in the distinctive feline stare.
A dog can stare at you, even an angry dog, but a dog either stays or charges. It might want to attack. The feeling when a barking, growling dog comes at you is that it maybe wants to injure you. You never have the feeling that it is doing so because it wants to eat you.
On the other hand the aspect, the look in the eyes, of a stalking cat implies that it exists in full possession of all the desires of its larger ancestors. At that moment you are not a friend, you are not an enemy. You are not being assaulted, you are being stalked. You are … food.
So when instead, this downsized perfect carnivore tosses around a plastic straw, or a lump of crumpled aluminum foil, or hides behind a pillow, it is using its inherent cuteness factor to disabuse us of the notion that, were we to suddenly expire, it might commence gnawing on our face. It is demonstrating a survival trait par excellence, and there seems to be no end to it. Nor with our need to willingly, even enthusiastically, participate in the comforting fiction. Hence the popularity of the seemingly infinite supply of cat videos on Youtube.
Hence the recent arrival of the TV show, “Meow Manor.”
I kid you not. This show is nothing more than an extended cat video, accompanied by suitably goofy music (cue the cat falling off a platform) and painfully earnest attempts at comic narration. Narration of what? Well, cats being cats. That seems to be what we all crave, and nothing more. Something cute, furry, and reassuringly non-predatory.
Maybe Congress would function more effectively if everyone had to break every half hour to watch five minutes of cat videos. But then, “Meow Manor” takes place in a cat house, and if history is anything to go by, some of our Congressmen might get the wrong idea.
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.