(CW: Harm to animals, skip the first paragraph)
Growing up I only ever had dogs as pets. And by pets, I mean friends…well, brothers… Look, if you’ve ever had a pet dog you know exactly what I’m talking about. Dogs are so affectionate, friendly and just…so lovely, they’re much more than pets, they’re an active, central part of the family. Cats, conversely, might as well have been aliens from an undiscovered galaxy. We never, ever had a cat in the house, nor did my neighbours. Just before I was born, a beloved family dog was attacked by feral cats, and its wounds became infected. Not wanting to have a newborn baby (a.k.a. me) around the infection, they had to put poor Scotty down. So from birth I was engendered to not be fond of cats, and my environment as I grew didn’t provide an opportunity to find out for myself.
My low level of interactions with kitties is relatively unique when compared with people throughout history. While wolves were domesticated as hunting companions (and later became dogs), cats were likely adopted into human society for their ability to hunt small, pesky vermin. The wolf-dogs, over time, were domesticated, but cats essentially preserved the symbiotic nature of the relationship between mankind and themselves up until now, with them hunting the mice and rats we didn’t want eating our food supplies, and with us providing shelter and a steady food/hunting source for them.
Burial practices can tell us a lot about how long-gone societies lived, and what they valued in their day-to-day lives – in some instances we even know what they ate for breakfast on the day of their demise. While essentially not so common now (at least in Ireland), this is a consistent motif throughout history: people wanted to carry the things they valued most in life into the life beyond. One of the first archaeological examples we have of the shared lives of cats & humans was found in Cyprus in 1983. The grave was dated to the Neolithic period (circa 7500BCE), and alongside the person buried were his tools, some seashells, and the body of a cat. What’s notable about this (other than how old this find is, of course) is that cats were not native to Cyprus – they were so important to these people that they brought them on their travels from their homeland, and so important to them that they wanted their furry companions with them in the afterlife.
The culture arguably most associated with cats was ancient Egypt. Cats, or mau, were sacred in ancient Egyptian culture, being closely associated with the gods Isis and Bast, two of the most central deities in that pantheon. Killing cats was expressly forbidden, and Greek historian Herodotus wrote that when cats died in Egypt, the family mourned as if a parent or child had died. Cats were usually embalmed & mummified in the same fashion as people were, such was the respect & admiration that the ancient Egyptians had for their felines.
When I was very little, I really wanted to be an Egyptologist. Partly because it’s such an interesting culture, and the burgeoning internet was a plethora of information for me to devour, and partly because of the French animated series Papyrus that used to air on RTÉ in the mornings. And while the show doesn’t feature the Egyptian cat love as a central point, it certainly is there, but it never really occurred to me how strange it was that there was a kitten-shaped hole in my life.
It was not until the 23rd year of my life that I properly interacted with a cat. I had just started going out with a wonderful person that had two cats: a distinguished elder cat called Bruce, and a shy, sometimes scary young man named Loki. I was sitting in a chair, when Bruce jumped up onto my lap, and I froze. And then I realised: “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here.” I didn’t know how to pet it, I didn’t know if I could pick him up and put him on the ground. I had no idea how to act around cats. Let me remind you, I had only ever had dogs for pets (well, and a few fish, but let’s be honest, they’re fairly low maintenance). And dogs are outwardly full of love for everything & everyone – aggressively so – and they don’t care where you pet them as long as you pet them loads, with all of the love in your heart. I was terrified.
Months go by, and the furthest I get with the cats is the mutual respect you have with the sound bouncer in a nightclub, or that person in work whose name you’re not quite sure you ever learned; we would do nothing more than exchange a nod when we passed each other in the hallways of my girlfriend’s house, like ships in the night, or another relevant cliched simile. That was until my girlfriend’s family went on holiday, and I offered to mind their house for a week or so. With the house came, of course, taking care of the fairly low-maintenance cats, but also their two miniature schnauzer puppies, Lily and Spike. Puppies are fucking great. They’re so tiny, but filled with so much love for just anything. I swear, if puppies could understand the concept of complex taxation, they would hyped as shit to deal with that. So I was fairly excited to spend my days chilling with these little balls of affection and positive vibes. In retrospect, that was an incredibly naive viewpoint.
That week I learned two important life lessons: you can only be the cool uncle for so long, and too much of a good thing isn’t always good. The first few days were fine: the weather was good, walking these pups through the streets of Cobh town was delightful if not a bit of a workout (Lily in particular just wanted to friends with everything, especially passing traffic, to the point that picking her up and carrying her home was more efficient). But as the days went on, the onslaught of love took its toll. There’s nothing more frustrating than a pure, sweet pup looking at you with admiration in its eyes when you’re just tired and n’able for anything. By day five I just couldn’t deal with how demanding they were. They didn’t know they were doing anything – they’re dogs – but it was wearing me down. I was breaking down, physically and mentally, as sad as it is to say- when suddenly, Bruce the cat walked up to the couch I was sitting on, hopped up and curled into a ball on my lap. It was exactly the kind of low-energy affection I needed at that time, and I will never forget the relief that washed over me; y’see, dogs always want to be with you, because that’s their nature. Cats, on the other hand, are assholes, and usually don’t want anything to do with you unless they want something. Maybe Bruce just wanted to be pet in that moment, or figured out that I would gift him copious amounts of ham if he feigned love for me, but him coming in to just hang out brought me back from the brink I didn’t fully realise I was on.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love dogs, but in the months since then (and since getting my own wonderful doofy furball) I’ve gone through a complete 180: the other day a dog ran up to me, and I froze – I didn’t know what to do anymore. I might’ve been a teenage dog person, but, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m now firmly a cat person.