Molly Fisk: The Human Animal

I woke up this morning thinking about fairness. It was nearly 5 a.m., and three cats were on the bed with me. A fourth sleeps only on the internet router, which I’ve finally learned to cover with a small pillow because its heat burns the hair off a little patch of her stomach and she still won’t stop lying on it. A cat’s normal body temperature is 104, which is one reason they’re always trying to get into your lap: they’re perennially colder than they want to be.

The fifth cat, who seems to be at the bottom of the pecking order — if you’ll pardon a chicken metaphor in a cat story — sleeps on the loveseat in the living room. He tries to sleep on the bed, but he has a bad habit of wanting to nurse on everyone’s neck, mine included, so whoever he snuggles up to eventually gets mad and starts hissing at him, and he hangs his head and trudges out to the cold and lonely living room. There’s actually room for him on the bed if he felt like staying and just not biting and kneading us all, but he doesn’t seem able to figure this out.

Fairness is not part of the feline universe. It’s not fair that Sid always gets to sleep on my ribcage, but he does. He’s the king. Gracie ends up eating any small mammals the other cats bring into the house, because she’s more tenacious about stealing them than the others are about keeping them. Black Jack, who just cost me a huge amount at the vet, gulps down everyone else’s wet cat food if he can, which is why I don’t leave them alone to eat together. Once a day they split a can of food five ways and I stand by the kitchen counter humming until Jack is finished. Then I scoop him up and waltz around the house for a few minutes until the rest are done.

It’s not that they aren’t empathetic. I’ve seen them give each other head baths and curl up together. They’re very aware when I’m sad: they even lick the tears off my face. But cats live by the rule of taking what you want and hoping you’re stronger than the other guy. It’s not about fairness, it’s about desire. However, cats also live in the moment. They don’t go around piling up dead gophers for next year. They don’t even save half a gopher for tomorrow’s breakfast. They eat until they’re done and then take a nap. It’s about immediate desire.

Which brings me to the subject of the current state of our nation. Humans are animals, too. We take pleasure in our senses, in how our bodies work, and in the natural world. We follow our own desires, of course. But is that all? Are we only animals? And if not, if there’s more to be said and done about considering others, how can we accomplish this? What’s the best way to proceed?

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  • Julia January 28, 2017 at 11:18 am

    If cats’ natural temperature is 104 F, aren’t they all trying to keep us warm (speaking of empathy)? Garrison Keillor calls them heater-cats, many of whom reside in Lake Woebegon.