Cats and Plato’s Cave

Today, I’m musing about cats and Plato’s Cave. Don Nelson, our pastor’s father, wrote to me after reading my last column. “I have always been a ‘cat’ person, so I see dogs and cats in a different light than you do.” One Veterinarian’s Musing gave Don the impression I am a “dog person”? I love all animals. Does that make me an “animal person”? Because of new research, I too now see dogs and cats in a different light. Our relationships with dogs are more intimate because of the similarities between dog families and human families.

This musing was catalyzed as follows. I was sitting on our bed at one end of the basement. When I looked straight ahead, I could see one of our cats through the doorway. Mia—named after the Mia Hamm, one of history’s greatest soccer players—was at the opposite, far end of the basement. She was looking out the screen door. She was in that crouching stalking FOCUSED position. A wall blocked my view. I was unable see over her shoulder. However, as I looked out the window to my right, I was able to connect the sightline. A small red squirrel was frozen, facing downward on the trunk of a large oak tree. Mia’s tail started switching back and forth. The squirrel went on its way. Regardless of Mia’s athleticism, regardless of just how ALIVE and ignited she was, the squirrel was safe. I watched the squirrel turn and zip into the woods. In a fantasy world, Mia might have written in her journal (as one sometimes sees in gift shops or catalogs) “Saturday, July 11, 2011. Today marks day +735 of my captivity… ”

Of my 50 scientific publications, 35 are about cats. Not all scientific publications are equal, however. In the lingo of science, 96% of my works that were published in high impact journals—including a first author paper in the journal Nature—involve Felis catus; cats are what I know. Since I graduated from veterinary school in 1980, if friends and family asked me a question about their ailing cat, I’d invariably hear myself say, “The single best thing you can do for the health and longevity of your cat is to never let it outdoors.”

In the late spring and through the summer of 2008, my life caught fire. Rather than fighting it, I put the bulk of my stuff in storage. I loaded Mia and Bassui (Mia’s unrelated brother) into my truck and we moved into a cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was confident that things would cool down, that my wife would realize she was losing a good thing, that time and distance would heal things. I was wrong. She immediately filed for divorce. In the end, I announced to one and all (scaring my kids) that I had “dropped anchor”, that I was going to “live out my life as a hermit” in that cabin in the UP. As Albert Soady says in the movie Escanaba In Da Moonlight “…and if your looking for Heaven, its north of da bridge”. In that magical setting on a pristine lake, I set about becoming a Yooper. In this phase of wildness and abandon, I decided to let Mia and Bassui enjoy the outdoors, to join me in being one with UP woodlands Heaven too.

Plato’s Cave is a 2,400 year old tale that is one of the cornerstones of philosophy. It involves people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe meaning to the movement of these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to reality. The protagonist of the tale manages to get free. He leaves the cave. Once outside, he quickly learns the shadows on the wall are not reality. As you might predict, the philosophical knot is this: can this liberated guy ever fit back in with his cave-dwelling, chained-to-a-wall-facing-a-blank-wall people—his people, his family—and their reality? Should he, could he, convince the cave dwellers that what they all believe to be real are nothing but shadows? How would the Elders, the authorities (those most skilled at knowing the “truth” of the shadows) react to this guy’s words about the world outside the cave?

I had assured friends and family that “If you do it [keeping your cat indoors] correctly, your cat will never experience the outdoors. In the event your cat does get out, it will be scared and will most likely simply run back inside”.  Serve up another slice of humble pie for Pete. Mia and Bassui morphed into totally new animals. It was like waking a slumbering monster. Something inside them was awakened. Each day they blossomed. Each day it seemed to me they were saying “thank you” by leaving me offerings of freshly killed creatures of all sorts. They also quickly learned to be on the alert, to skillfully evade low flying eagles and cunning weasels.

In my first column I mentioned Nancy and my wedding in “the humble Republic (MI) United Methodist Church” about how “my traveling is over. I have [truly] dropped anchor. My plan is to live out my life here north of Readfield, here in Waupaca County.” As we blended our families, I decided that henceforth Mia and Bassui would be indoor/outdoor cats. I heard myself say, “They’ll be okay. If you see a dead cat at the side of the road, it was likely ill. A healthy cat is too much of an athlete to be hit by a car.” The cats loved home, our Wisconsin environment, as much or more than they liked living “north of da bridge”.

Serve up another slice of humble pie for Pete. Two months into a second steady supply of thank-you offerings, I started noticing a healthy feral cat down by the pond. This Tom glowed with vitality! I received a call from my neighbor Phil. He wanted to know if the black and white cat that he saw dead on the side of County Road W was Bassui. My heart dropped. I zipped up to investigate. Thankfully, it was not Bassui. It was the aforementioned feral cat.

A number of people and organizations suggest that we use the term “guardian” rather than the word “owner” in discussing and describing the relationship we have with our pets. I’ve heard that a dog can be considered legal property, but a cat cannot. I digress.  Seeing that dead cat caused me to immediately go parental. I could not live with myself if either Mia or Bassui died because I wanted them to live their lives to the fullest. From that moment, almost two years ago now, Nancy and I (and our dog sitter, Marissa) have had to deal with (thankfully) short-lived “escapes” of the cats. I got tied up into that philosophical knot seeing Mia this past Saturday in that crouching stalking FOCUSED position, her tail switching back and forth.

Yes, the single best thing you can do for the health and longevity of your cat is to never let it outdoors. Moreover, cats are phenomenal predators. In the current climate of deregulation, the last thing our songbirds and other wildlife need are more threats to their health and welfare. Can Mia ever be happy again? Before I liberated Mia. Before her awakening, that squirrel had a certain dimension of artificiality to it. I’ve been the recipient of Mia and Bassui’s thank-you offerings. There is no doubt. Mia knows that squirrel is not just some shadow on the wall. On Saturday, I rededicated myself to building an outdoor enclosure for Mia and Bassui. Sunday (to the alarm of Nancy), I cut a hole through my office wall into the garage. I’m determined to follow through on building a Habitrail-like passageway, allowing Mia and Bassui to be outside, ALIVE, and yet be safe.

Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper,  7/14/11.


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