All winter, Peter Marra’s children had been pestering him to get a cat. It was ironic, he thought as he walked up the snowy path to his modern farmhouse in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Especially now, when the country’s cat lobby had him pegged as the Josef Mengele of felines. In his years as a research scientist at the Smithsonian Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center, Marra had produced many studies on different threats to bird life, like glass buildings and wind turbines, but none received as much attention as those featuring cats. Since its publication in the January issue of the journal Nature Communications, his team’s paper, “The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States,” which placed the number of birds felled by felines at 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion per year, had been picked up by most major media outlets, including the New York Times. Marra was proud, although when he saw the front-page headline, “That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think,” accompanied by a photo of a tabby with its jaws clenched around the neck of a rabbit, he braced himself for an onslaught.
Sure enough, the reaction from Alley Cat Allies, the country’s most powerful cat group, was swift and furious. “This study is part of a continuing propaganda campaign to vilify cats,” railed the group’s president, Becky Robinson, in a press release that, to the Smithsonian’s intense displeasure, made use of an incident in which one of Marra’s researchers was accused of cat poisoning to bolster a long-running claim that his group’s work was “a veiled promotion by bird advocates to ramp up the mass killing of outdoor cats.”
Within hours, comments on the Times’ website numbered in the thousands. There were the unabashedly ignorant: “I’m sorry. I must have missed the news flash that we’re having a shortage of birds.” The crazies: “My best friend is a CAT. How dare you suggest that CATS are killers.” The conspiracy theorists: “This stinks of anti-cat sentiment.” And the truthers: “If this is so, where are the close to 15 billion eviscerated carcasses?”
All day, hate mail had been pouring in, and as Marra opened the door, he glanced cautiously over his shoulder. “You cat-murdering bastard,” a late-night caller told the author of a similar study. “We’ve got you in our sights.”
Inside, his children were watching television. “Daddy, look at the cute kitty,” his daughter said, twisting toward him as a kitten appeared onscreen, playfully batting at something with its paws. Ah, yes, America’s favorite pet.
People love cats. Always have. The remains of Felis catus, small carnivorous mammals descended from Near Eastern wildcats, have been found in 10,000-year-old Cypriot graves and mummified by the Egyptians, who worshipped them. They’ve been the subject of poetry by fourteenth-century Thai monks, Victorian etchings, and many an Internet meme. At first, people kept cats around for their hunting skills—the ancient Greeks used them to police grain silos for vermin the same way New York City bodegas use them to keep mice away from the cornflakes. But mostly, it was because they’re cute. Cats have those aw-inspiring pedomorphic qualities—big eyes, round foreheads, snubby noses—that trigger a nurturing instinct in humans, and they can convey an almost human intelligence, as anyone who has ever found themselves in a staring contest with one can attest. Still, for every person who sees mute understanding in a cat’s eyes, another finds them creepy. Cats are strangely polarizing beasts, as capable of inspiring hatred as love. Those who dislike them see them as sneaky, moody, manipulative, even off-puttingly feminine. But to the majority, cats are beloved. Currently, nearly 90 million occupy roughly one third of American homes, and while modern cat owners might not use the word worship regarding their pets, there are signs that we are again living in an age of cat deification, the most obvious being that we allow them to poop in boxes inside of our homes.
While people are clearly committed to their cats, it’s not always clear that cats feel the same way. While they may be coerced into wearing a baby bonnet or playing the piano, they generally defy direction—hence the expression “herding cats.” They tend to give the impression of having their own lives, and because cats, unlike dogs, aren’t required to be licensed or leashed, many owners indulge them, allowing them to come and go as they please.
Perhaps because the sight of a cat slinking around on its own is so common, a surprising number of cat owners feel free to abandon them when they become a burden. At the end of each semester, college towns regularly see an uptick in the number of cats on the streets, and economically depressed areas are literally crawling with them. “After the housing market dropped, we found a lot of abandoned cats,” says Ken Ross of the SPCA in Putnam County, which is currently struggling with a large population of feral cats. Ferals are the homeless of the feline population, the down-and-out counterparts to the purebreds peering out from behind lace curtains. Wild and unsocialized, they survive by their wits and the kindness of strangers.