Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Carnivorous By Nature

Felis Cattus, is your taxonomic nomenclature,
an endothermic quadruped carnivorous by nature?
Your visual, olfactory and auditory senses
contribute to your hunting skills, and natural defenses.

I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
a singular development of cat communications
that obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
for a rhythmic stroking of your fur, to demonstrate affection.

- From "Ode to Spot", a poem read by the android Data in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, 'Schisms'

A few years ago, while visiting Matt's parents (Matt being my Significant Other; his parents live locally to us) I witnessed a scene that probably plays out all the time in nature, but which I don't see all that often when I click links entitled "cute kitten video!!" In the back yard, a tiny (probably 7 weeks old at most) feral kitten was gleefully flinging an object around. Initially my reaction was typical: along the lines of "aww, how adorable!" But then I got a closer look at the object...and saw that it was a partly-eaten dead bird (most likely a house sparrow). Which I have to admit gave me a bit of a jolt. But that jolt was only momentary because I remembered, hey, this is a cat. Cuteness does not equal vegetarianism, after all!

So yeah. Personally I tend toward a vegetarian diet and prefer plant-based foods for myself whenever feasible. However this does not mean I would ever be tempted to impose my preferences and choices in this regard on my cats. Moreover, while I certainly disagree with factory farming practices and don't think I could stand hanging around in a slaughterhouse, I do accept that nature includes carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores, and somehow I doubt things would go well for life on Earth if all the carnivores suddenly disappeared!

But on to the main point of this post, which is to discuss a weird thing I've noticed looking around in the "pet" sections of grocery stores and the like. And that is the way products (especially food) for dogs and cats are marketed, formulated, and made available. I don't want to take the time right now to go around photographing display shelves and ingredients labels, so take this for what it's worth, but I suspect most people who've looked at these items will be familiar with what I am describing here.

Basically it looks to me like there's this perception of cats as being these dainty little creatures whose sensibilities might even be described as "delicate". Whereas dogs (with the exception of the "toy" breeds) are associated with a sort of rough-and-tumble "outdoorsiness" (or something along those lines). Dog food cans and bags tend to employ "strong"-looking or blocky lettering and dark or bold colors; cat food packaging is heavy on the pastels and the flowery script. Dogs and cats can of course be either male or female, but in many cases it seems like cat products look stereotypically "feminine" whereas dog products look stereotypically "masculine".

Now of course I am not claiming that the observations above are universally or 100% true for all foods and other products. For instance, foods marketed as being "natural" or "holistic" tend to use similar (frequently neutral or "artsy"-looking) packaging colors and designs for both cats and dogs. And there are certainly exceptions to the "all dogs are boys, all cats are girls" imagery; i.e., the archetypically masculine tomcat and the fluffy pink-beribboned poodle both show up repeatedly in popular culture. But I still think the overall trends otherwise I am describing here are at least prevalent enough to be worth mentioning.

All that said, I want to specifically focus on food here. Biologically speaking, cats are obligate carnivores (meaning they must consume the particular nutrients found in the flesh of other animals in order to survive). Dogs, while also technically carnivores, can eat a more omnivorous diet and tend to have less digestive trouble with grains than cats do. Yet the marketing and available selection of cat and dog foods and treats in many of the stores I've visited would suggest the exact opposite!

To illustrate what I mean, I was in one store recently (a local hardware store that is really more of a "general household goods" emporium, i.e., they carry lots of gardening equipment and rugs in addition to nuts, bolts, and tools) and in their "pet" aisle I noticed several things. One was that the selection of dog food was about twice as large as the selection of cat food. Another was that the dog food selection included at least one of the "natural" brands, noted as being high meat/low grain. The cat section included no such option; if I'd been restricted to buying food there, I'd have been completely out of luck as there was nothing Brodie (who gets severe stomach upset from corn and probably barley as well) could safely eat.

I have noticed the same trend in most grocery stores as far as treats are concerned. Treats of course are not a necessity, but as long as one isn't over-feeding one's cats or dogs, they can be a nice little mid-day surprise or supplement. But ye gads. Dogs get all this nice jerky stuff -- essentially pure meat -- while cats get these little "Fun Shaped" crunchy or chewy things that are, of course, predominantly corn. What. The. Heck.

So yeah. I am not sitting here fuming in outrage over all this -- there are, after all, multiple local pet supply stores where I can easily find reasonably species-appropriate cat food -- but this sort of thing does confuse and annoy me. It just seems like there's this bizarre cultural stereotype of cats being dainty, girlish...salad-eaters, or something, that is totally incongruous with their carnivorous reality*. And I don't think it does anyone, much less cats themselves, any service to misrepresent or disregard this reality.

* Not that there is anything wrong with being girlish, my point is more that there seems to be a conflation of cats with feminine with needing-less-meat, etc., which makes no sense at all, and wouldn't if applied to dogs or humans either!


  1. Is it possible that girlie packaging on catfood is supposed to appeal to a stereotypical female cat-owner, instead?

  2. 403: Perhaps to some extent, but I don't think that accounts for all of it.

  3. I had to laugh when I read this because I've always separated people into two categories in my head: "cat" people and "dog" people.

    The "cat" people are always introspective, quiet, big readers, interested in the arts, mystically inclined, etc., and the "dog" people are....well, basically everybody else.

  4. "Cuteness does not equal vegetarianism, after all!"

    I've wrestled a bit with this ethical conundrum.

    (Admittedly not too much. Mostly I ignore the, so to speak, facts on the ground. In my case said ground happens to reveal regularly various cat-slain rodents and birds.)

    But I got very excited when I first read David Pearce's "Reprogramming Predators. Blueprint for a Cruelty-Free World"

  5. I should add that of course I care about the dead rodents and birds. For me, who's become very accustomed to feline companions, it's just better to look the other way because otherwise I would have to agree with these statements from a Vegan activist:

    Question: What is your viewpoint on having a cat as a companion?

    I try to avoid living with serial killers; of any species [...] Living with a cat, you seem to have to be prepared to watch it stalking other living beings. I don’t want to invite that into my life. Because dogs are metabolically omnivores, and there are plenty of dogs that need rescuing, I’ve chosen to live with canines over felines.

  6. Maybe this is solutions to several problems: Catios!

  7. FrF wrote:

    I should add that of course I care about the dead rodents and birds. For me, who's become very accustomed to feline companions, it's just better to look the other way because otherwise I would have to agree with these statements from a Vegan activist:

    Question: What is your viewpoint on having a cat as a companion?

    I try to avoid living with serial killers; of any species [...] Living with a cat, you seem to have to be prepared to watch it stalking other living beings. I don’t want to invite that into my life. Because dogs are metabolically omnivores, and there are plenty of dogs that need rescuing, I’ve chosen to live with canines over felines.

    Indeed I care about the dead rodents and birds too. I am not happy about pain or death for anyone. But I care more about the well-being of a companion cat than I do for the well-being of, say, a mouse (or a chicken or tuna fish chopped up to make cat food). The notion of "reprogramming predators", IMO, rates up there with the notions I had as an eight-year-old about reducing the Earth's gravity so that I could fly. Interesting philosophical thought-experiment, yes, but guide to practical living in actual reality, no.

    All that said, I probably come off here sounding more callous than I actually feel about this stuff. And if there were an alternative to actual dead animals to feed my cats (vat-grown meat, for instance) I would certainly go for it. But I have to pick my battles, and while again I don't "like" death, I think it would be pretty silly to figure that by not living with companion cats I was somehow "reducing the net amount of death and suffering" in the world.

    If my cats didn't live with me, they'd either (in the case of the three ex-feral siblings):
    - have died as kittens of parasite infestation (which would have meant suffering and death for them) or
    - survived and gone on to either live out their lives as ferals, wherein they'd undoubtedly be hunting small prey in addition to eating out of neighbors' feeding dishes, or
    - been adopted by someone else, wherein they'd be eating some form of canned and/or dry cat food as they do living with me.

    And since clearly it would be a BAD thing for cats to go suddenly extinct (rodent-borne disease would probably go way up, for one thing -- one reason the Black Plague had such a strong presence was thought to be due to lack of cats, who were killed for superstitious reasons prior to the outbreak), the way I see it, there is absolutely no way I would be doing a service to the world or to any animal by refusing to keep cats on ethical grounds sharing space with human veganism.

    Of course it is up to the individual whether they want to have companion cats or not, and not everyone likes or wants cats around, but I find it to be a bizarre example of "passing the buck" when someone refuses to keep cats ONLY because cats are meat-eaters and s/he thinks that fewer animals might suffer because of their decision. To me that kind of thing falls into the category of "lifestyle activism", of the particular sort that feels good to the person engaging in it but, on a large scale, does pretty much nothing to address whatever it is they are actually concerned about.

  8. Oh. And I should also note that sometimes it bugs me when people who clearly DO value one creature more than another refuse to outright admit it. The way I see it, no matter what I would LIKE to think about myself, clearly I MUST care more about my cats' well-being than about the well-being of whatever animal was slaughtered to make their dinner. Whatever that says about me, I guess I just have to accept that.

    And another thing. I am indeed VERY horrified by a lot of what the meat industry does, and I absolutely do not condone any ill treatment of animals raised for food. I think factory farms should go away completely, that all chickens and such should be free-range, etc. And I do not think the fact that an animal is being rasied to eventually be killed as food for something else excuses torturing them, or isolating members of a social species, or denying stimulation, and so on.

    What's more, I do realize that treating someone very nicely until you kill them has a certain creep factor to it (and that some might consider that an understatement) but I frankly just don't see a way around it short of wiping out all nature and "starting over", which is both impossible and in itself would obviously entail a whole lot of death in the process. As noted in my post I don't personally like eating animals, but the thing is, I have the luxury of making that choice due to how my digestive system happens to be configured. Not everyone does, and cats certainly don't, and to me a world without cats (or in which all living cats suddenly started dying off) is not exactly an "ethically better" world than one in which, yes, some animals are killed for food but until that point can live reasonably happy, abuse-free lives.

  9. Oh and one more thing, just...gah, I have to say I really object to referring to cats as "serial killers". I mean I hate it when I see people presuming cats (or dogs or apes or elephants, for that matter) are "just mindless bundles of instinct, basically animated zombie-robots", but anthropomorphism irks me as well. Cats don't hunt and kill because they're full of hate and malice and/or a desire to make themselves feel powerful by harming smaller creatures, they hunt and kill because they evolved to be meat-eaters and because it's fun for them. And it's not like the fun factor goes away when the kill doesn't happen -- my cats get plenty excited over pouncing on moving toys and such. If they were actually "serial killers" in mindset they wouldn't likely care about toy mice or rubber balls or little pieces of cardboard the way they do. And seeing as they've never literally tried to EAT any of their toys -- not even as kittens -- my guess is that they know full well the toys aren't alive, they're just very good at pretend play!

  10. Oh and yet one MORE thing (weird, apparently I have a lot to say on this topic, I never know when that is going to happen)...I have often wondered of late what bird enthusiasts (who are often the folks I see most upset about domestic felines hunting small backyard prey) would think of the fact that in my locale, by far the most commonly seen birds are house sparrows.

    Now I personally think house sparrows are cute and fun to watch. But apparently they are considered an "invasive species" and even a "pest" by some, as apparently after they were brought over from England they reproduced very rapidly and to this day tend to drive out less prolific and/or aggressive native species. E.g., I found a whole site once devoted to explaining how it is important to control (which possibly means "remove from area and kill") house sparrows in areas where bluebirds might otherwise nest.

    Anyway, none of my cats kill birds -- only Cora and Nikki go outdoors at all, and Nikki is completely inept at hunting (no timing, yells loudly at birds so that they're long gone by the time she gets to where she initially saw them), and Cora is never out unless I am physically there supervising. But if they DID, more than likely they'd end up getting house sparrows because there are far more of those here than any other bird variety.

    So my query for the "omg cats are evil bird-depleting menaces!!" folks would be to ask if the cats are actually being a menace in hunting house sparrows, or whether they're actually helping free up resources for rarer, native birds. Of course the cat is not going to discriminate between a bluebird and a sparrow so I could see that as being a rationale why cats shouldn't be let out to hunt at all (in case they mistakenly nab the "wrong" bird), but still.

    (And I am not, of course, trying to claim that cats should be enabled or encouraged to kill as many house sparrows as possible, I just wonder sometimes whether native bird populations might actually be partly *sustained* by cats preying on more numerous species. Because if there were, say, 100 sparrows for every bluebird, it seems to me that any given cat would be WAY more likely to catch all sparrows and no bluebirds than to catch the one single bluebird every time. But I have never seen a study on this so obviously this is all just speculative conjecture. And of course as well I recognize that a sparrow doesn't feel any less pain than a bluebird if pounced on and bitten by a cat, but that is sort of beside the point for folks whose main priority seems to be the maintenance of particular bird species.)

  11. "To me that kind of thing falls into the category of 'lifestyle activism'..."

    Or it's the good old conflict between deontology and consequentialism! In this case: "Making animals suffer and killing them is bad, no matter what" vs. "Yes, killing animals is bad but caring for animals who kill other creatures isn't necessarily bad because it's an intrinsic value to let them thrive. Furthermore those animals who get killed by pets don't have themselves necessarily a benevolent influence on their environment if their numbers aren't kept in check". Nature is a sadistically balanced system! And that's why I find David Pearce's preliminary thoughts on the matter so alluring.

    You're right to call me on my "serial killer" quotation. The term "killer" with its implications (malice,...) doesn't fully apply to predators.

    "...whatever animal was slaughtered to make their dinner": I may be wrong but manufacturers of pet food make a point of using only offcut of meat, at least that's the case in Europe. I think it's part of mandatory regulation. That's also the reason why quite exotic meat(for cats at least) finds its way into our feline friends' canned food.

  12. Crap, Vienna ate my long comment.

    Okay. So... I wanted to add something that I know without using conventional abstract thought. So I can't produce arguments for it or anything. That's just not the way this kind of knowing happens.

    But I can perceive somehow, very clearly, that to attempt to make other omnivores and carnivores into herbivores is to embrace death on a scale completely unparalleled by the death caused by eating other animals. I can't explain how I perceive this. It's just there. Important things would collapse entirely.

    It's not too destructive for some humans to make such a choice for themselves. But even to make this choice for all humans, let alone other animals, can be destructive. And it's even more destructive to make the choice for other omnivores or carnivores.

    Why is it destructive for some humans even? I'm a good example. I love animals. I hate meat. Even on the level of taste and texture, I so much prefer fake meat to real meat. I was a deliberate vegetarian for many years and a vegan for a few, and I took all the available supplements that are supposed to help get the nutrients missing from a vegetarian/vegan diet. (This is to say, I was not "doing it wrong".) I was also a near-vegetarian for many years, not by choice, but by the fact that that's how my food happened to work.

    But even many years ago, I found that I needed meat in order to function. And now that I have a condition affecting muscular energy? Absolute necessity. I have to eat meat and/or take supplements that can only be derived from meat. There is no other way. If I fail to do so, I become as floppy as a noodle and can't even move myself in bed without resting immobilized for hours. (And even with meat I spend most of my time in bed conserving my energy for when I really need it. Meat just buys me a certain amount of wiggle room before the floppiness hits.)

    So I'm an obligate omnivore, despite the fact that certain animal rights activists love to make it seem like we don't exist and were just "doing vegetarianism/veganism wrong". Which is another example of ideology trying to force reality to fit into its neat categories. It's simply not possible to do so however. Reality is that some animals have to eat other animals. It's not always a fun reality but it's reality.


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