Wild Things

Cats’ Internet Antics Belie Their Inner Narcissism, and They’d Eat You if They Could

angry cat.

Photo by Thinkstock

Excerpted from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrongedited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz. Out now from Coffee House Press.

I don’t hate all cats. I like only one. Her name is Aligato.

Aligato is my neighbor’s cat, and even though she craps in my yard as if she owned the joint, I’ve come to enjoy her charms.

She stays out late, she prowls. One of her eyes is either gone or permanently shut because, well, she’s a bit of a brawler. When she does come on my porch, she always says hello and looks me right in the eye with her one good eye. She likes being petted, and she even comes when she is called. She is, in other words, a dog.

So my favorite cat—well, actually the only cat I like—is really a dog in a cat suit. The rest of them, the millions on the Internet, at my friend’s apartment in the city, in the cat lady’s house up the street, I do not like. It’s not that I hate them, it is only that I return their indifference. Cat owners lavish love on their pets and are convinced they are receiving something in return. What exactly are they getting back? A rub against the leg or hand? It means the cat has an itch, nothing more.

I asked Ben Huh, king of all Internet cats and the dark overlord of I Can Has Cheezburger, why, with all of the tropes, memes, and wild critters on the web, that cats came to rule. He said it was very simple.

“The Internet is a playpen for cats where you never have to smell or clean the litter box,” he said.

But why love something that won’t love you back, whether it is on the Internet or in your home?

“Cats are like having a teenager. They just look at you over and over and say, ‘Can I have more stuff?’ ” he said. “They don’t really do anything; they lay about, so it’s hard to tell cats apart from teenagers, except teenagers hang out at malls more. And yet people still love their teenagers. And their cats.”

I’m not unmoved by the sight of a cat on the Web playing the piano, but unless they are going to kick into a decent version of Chopin’s First Ballade, Op. 23, there is a going to be a limit to my amazement by this time.

All other domesticated animals that humans adore are working animals. It’s a historical fact that cats were once prized for their ability to eliminate rodents, their one domestic chore, but most cats I know are on strike, content with being on the Meow Mix dole.

Cats were domesticated not for their usefulness but because they were mooches and hung around humans, acting all cute and cuddly just for the snacks. Dogs save people, sniff out bombs, pull sleds, herd sheep, guide blind people. Cats are mostly good at finding a sunny spot in the apartment and doing a series of lazy stretches that would not pass muster in a beginner’s yoga class. On the Internet, the cat’s greatest hits usually show them doing stupid stuff involving aquariums, televisions, and mirrors, which aren’t really tricks so much as cats expressing their inner aggression and narcissism.

Yes, in most developed countries there are more cats than children, but as soon as we figure out how to train a 2-year-old to poop in a box and are able to leave them home alone for hours on end, you can bet those percentages will reverse.

Whenever cat lore comes up, their advocates will always mention that they were deified and mummified in Egypt, but let’s remember that those pharaoh cat lovers enslaved thousands to build cats’ pyramids, actual humans who were treated far less well. And throughout history, who were witches always hanging out with? Oh yeah, cats. The witch doesn’t want a friendly labradoodle around; she wants a black cat as a like-minded familiar as she goes about her evil deeds.

In popular culture, the first icons that pop to my mind catwise are Garfield, Catwoman, and Cat Stevens, all of whom have rather conflicted reputations. And who is the big star on the Web these days in the feline world? Oh yeah, Grumpy Cat has 8 million likes on Facebook, all for her specialty of giving mean looks to everyone, which frankly doesn’t strike me as remarkable—cats do that all the time.

I am not immune to the charms of the feline form. Cats, as the Internet has taught us, are cute because they are both ferocious and adorable. They are predators rendered in miniature with all the tools of a killer—fangs, claws, a mighty pounce when they are not too fat—but they are harmless because of their size. That means that their hunting instincts are now aimed at rodents, hapless amphibians, and bugs. But make no mistake: When they dream, they dream large, of the days when they and their ancestors ruled the earth, loping along, scanning for food and hitting the afterburners when they saw prey.

And if those dreams came true, if evolution reversed and they again became big and ferocious, the relationship with humans would both change and, in some ways, be the same. When you come through the door at the end of the day, your cat sees one thing: food. It knows that it is time to eat, and you will obediently get its kibble and put some nasty wet food on top because, well, you are its slave.

If cats suddenly woke up saber-tooth size, they would still see food when you walked through the door, except you would be dinner. You don’t like to dwell on it, but you know if they were big enough, they would snack on you as if you were a field mouse. They might toy with you a bit, letting you make a feckless attempt to flee before they gathered you back toward their hungry maw with a swipe of their paw.

Remember Timothy Treadwell, the guy who thought he was a friend to all grizzly bears in Grizzly Man? They were not his friends, as Werner Herzog, the director of the film, says in the narration. Looking at Treadwell’s filmed footage of his bear friends, he says, “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.”

There is no such thing as the secret world of cats, or if there is, they own you instead of the other way around. Be honest with yourself: How many times have you looked into your cat’s eyes and seen not the wonders of the universe but “a half-bored interest in food”? It’d eat you if it could, and seeing as it can’t, it just stares at you until you come up with something they can.

All the anthropomorphizing and speculating you do about what is in your cat’s little noggin? For naught. Your cat’s brain weighs under an ounce, is the size of an avocado pit, and contains just as many deep thoughts. Cats have mastered the art of looking wise, but that uses up all the gray matter they have—which reminds me of a boss I once had, but that’s a much longer story.

Cats are different than us. You and I might hear a songbird and delight in God’s creation. A cat will hear the same thing and do its best to kill and eat that bird, putting an end to the music and the creature that made it. Yes, they are expressing their inner, feral nature, but let’s face it, any animal that will kill a pretty bird singing a song is pretty damn gangster.

My dog Charlie, a blond lab and girl, by the way, chases squirrels but does not catch them, a perfect version of the suburban wild kingdom. Every night she waits by the door and has a single question when I walk in: “Am I loving you enough right now?” She stares right into my face as she all but breaks herself in wagging with excitement. When she settles down and I ask for a kiss, she will stop what she is doing—unless she is eating—and come over to me. She will look up at my face adoringly and slowly place one paw and then the other on my leg and hoist herself up and give me one delicate lick on the nose. And then she sits back down. When is the last time you saw a cat do that? Put that in your Internet browser and smoke it.

You could say it is because my dog has no taste in companions, to which I would say, exactly. What I want in an animal companion is blind loyalty, unconditional love, and steady adoration.

So, in my family, we are dog people. That does not mean that if someone dropped a box of kittens on our doorstep we would ignore their mewling or their helpless adorableness. We would find a way to help them survive and find homes, but not ours, because kittens inevitably become cats, and that’s where the problems begin.

I should say I don’t mind looking at cats on the Internet, in part because they are ubiquitous and can’t be avoided, and in part because I think that’s where cats should live, on the Internet, imprisoned by my browser and one click away from being banished.

So, my little furry friends, go forth and multiply. Infest every corner of the Web as is your nature. Chase that laser light, squeeze yourself into a glass bowl, freak out at the toy robot that your owner has set before you. YouTube is waiting, and people imprisoned in office cubes everywhere depend on you, cats of the Internet, to bring a moment of respite to the quotidian tasks that are on other applications minimized until the boss walks by.

We will continue to click because it is in our nature. We might even organize a film festival at a cutting-edge museum so that your splendors, your unique charms, can finally find the widescreen presentation and communal audience your charms deserve. But if we meet offline in the real world, don’t expect me to ask for an autograph. I’ve interviewed and written dozens of stories about famous people who are riveting on-screen. They are, with very few exceptions, huge disappointments IRL. And some are monsters, drunk on narcissism and transfixed by their own reflection in the faces of those who adore them.

You, cats of the Internet, may be hilarious and full of frolic when the camera is on, but once the lights go down and the set is struck, you are still a cat. I know who and what you are. As do you, Mr. Cat. Just don’t tell the others, and you will be fine.

This essay is reprinted by permission from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by David Carr.