Cats vs. Dogs

It’s no secret that some people prefer cats to dogs, while other people wouldn’t let a cat near them for a second. My friends have asked me where I stand on the cats vs. dogs issue. Here’s my answer:

On the farm we had both dogs and cats. The cows were the ultimate rulers of our kingdom, but the dogs and cats got along just fine. And we humans didn’t do too bad, either (although we had to do most of the work–which means, I guess, that we were the peasants).

Anyway, just like you’d find among any group of people, we had smart dogs and dumb dogs, and smart cats and dumb cats.

Our smart dog was Howdy. Too bad he had such a dumb name, but that’s the fault of his previous owner, an army guy newly stationed overseas. We didn’t have the heart to go and change Howdy’s name, since he already responded to it, whether or not we said it with a drawl. Howdy was a cross between an Australian Shepherd and a Border Collie. He was a sheep-herding dog and, like most smart dogs, he needed to have a job to do.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have any really dumb sheep for a smart dog to chase around and keep in line. We couldn’t allow Howdy to chase the cows–at least not too much–because the more the cows get upset, the worse it is for their milk production. So poor Howdy stayed tethered to a long chain most of the time. We did find him a good, centrally located spot where he could constantly tell us what to do. Dad often took him out to the far field to chase the cows into the barn in the mornings, too. And whenever the bull got loose and headed for the neighbor’s manicured lawn, well, Howdy suddenly had the most important job on the farm: bring that bull back at all costs! But in most ways Howdy didn’t fare as well on the farm as two of our other dogs: Rex and Snoopy.

Okay, those are dumb names, too. But lovable dogs seem to need dumb names. The two go hand-in-hand. Rex, for example, was a lean and gangly Dalmatian, and dumb as a post. He had a habit of running around with his pointy tail stuck straight up in the air. On a farm with electric fences, that’s just not very bright. Any other dog scrambling under a fence would put his head, ears and tail down. Not Rex. Furthermore, he never learned. When he yelped, we could hear him clear across the valley.

We were all of one mind about Rex: big heart, but tiny brains. Snoopy, on the other hand, was a puzzle. He was a small, fat Dalmatian that belonged to my older sister, Didi, who petted and played with him. Snoopy followed her around everywhere. My Dad, who never liked dogs all that much (till Howdy came along later), insisted that Snoopy was the dumbest dog he’d ever seen. But I don’t think so, and the very incident my Dad cites as Snoopy’s worst transgression is clear evidence of his sheer brilliance:

One evening Dad got mad and was going to give Didi a spanking for something she’d said or done. (People of my parents’ generation believed that spanking was a child-rearing technique akin to attending Mass on Easter Sunday; we kids, of course, disagreed.) Threatened with a belt-whipping, Didi ran outside in a futile attempt to avoid punishment. My Dad followed on her heels, yelling at her to “come back, you little jerk!” Snoopy, hearing the racket, decided to intervene: he jumped straight up from a prone position and sunk his teeth into Dad’s arm. Now, some people would say that’s a really dumb thing to do: to bite the guy who feeds you. But I say that it’s pretty smart; old Snoopy knew who his main advocate was in the family, and it wasn’t Dad. At least Snoopy had priorities: Didi over Dad. Rex, on the other hand, couldn’t even figure out where his own tail was.

Mom didn’t like the dogs. She was more of a cat person. A dairy farm is a great place for cats, because there’s always something for them to eat: field mice, grain rats, pigeons, cow’s milk, you name it. We also bought dry cat food for the really dumb ones to eat. We had more than a few of those, mostly because of in-breeding. Our coven of cats was ruled by a brother and sister pair from the same litter–named Simon & Garfunkel (it was the ’60s, okay?)–who had their share of idiot kittens before we had them spayed and castrated. But at least one of their offspring turned out smart: Cal (short for “Calico”–for her beautiful orange, red, black, and white-splotched coat). Cal taught a lot of the stray cats to hunt.

We were a home for itinerant cats. City people and suburbanites were always driving out to the country to dump their unwanted cats near our farm. Some of these cats would die from starvation, some from predation, some from disease (city people can sure be lazy about vaccinations!). Some cats would stay and others would move on in search of a warm house, not satisfied with the life of a barn cat. Cal, however, was never lonely with new friends constantly arriving.

One of the strays that stayed was Noko Marie, a tiny, fat, grey tortoise shell kitten whom we named after a B. Cliban cartoon character (it was the ’70s, okay?). She had a squealy meow and was tougher than she looked–quick to claw you if you tried to pet her. We soon found out, however, why she was so fat: she promptly gave birth to five of her own kittens, and her hair fell out. After we caught her and had her spayed, she soon grew her hair back, weaned her babies, and learned to hunt with Cal. Together they lived in lesbian kitty paradise on the farm.

Now, Dad wasn’t much of a cat person. He thought house pets were a useless extravagance. But there was one stray cat that got under his skin–a cat so decidedly macho and full of brawny attitude that he couldn’t resist him. We named Holstein Kitty for his black and white coat, but we might as well have called him Terminator. Nobody could pet Holstein Kitty, or he’d take a chunk out of their hand–as the milk truck driver soon found out. But you could kind of nudge Holstein with the toe of your boot and he wouldn’t mind. His main joy in life, to my father’s delight, was the pursuit of pigeons. Holstein, Cal, and Noko had a cooperative system for hunting them: Holstein would climb high into the rafters of the barn to reach the pigeons’ nests, then knock the baby birds out, while Cal and Noko Marie pounced on them when they hit the ground.

Holstein Kitty exhibited other psychotic tendencies, too. His main form of entertainment (aside from sleeping in the sun) was to stare down cars. I think he had a strange notion that cars were really big dogs (because they kind of bark like dogs). Since Holstein had never met a dog he couldn’t rip to shreds, cars were easy pickings. Often we’d be seated around the kitchen table having lunch and suddenly hear furious honking; Holstein Kitty would be standing in the middle of the street with his back up, glaring into the front grill of the neighbor’s car. (To be fair, we didn’t have many cars going down our street on any given day, and since pavement retains heat, Holstein Kitty would naturally want to take his sunbath on the road.) But Holstein always got his way. No car ever made him budge–they always had to back up and go around him.

So the truth about cats and dogs is this: dogs are not meaner or “worse” than cats, because cats (fluffy and cute as they are) can be plenty mean. At the same time, humans have to recognize that by nature, neither cats nor dogs are suited to living in the city. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re meant to live in the country either: some can do it, most can’t. Our house pets simply adapt to situations as best they can. We’ve bred them to live with us. The best this kind of life can offer them is a mix of comfort and boredom in an urban home or a short, dangerous, but sometimes satisfying (although all too often nasty) life in the country as semi-wild creatures. It’s our responsibility to do what we can to make the lives of dogs and cats meaningful, because the fact that we shaped them for our own convenience has disconnected them from nature. For that reason I can’t hate either cats or dogs as a species: I love them both. And I love the dumb ones as much as the smart ones.