Rethinking Our Bargain With Cats by Jessica Bart-Mikionis

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1992:

Growing up, I always wanted to be a cat. My
very first pet was a dog, though, named Heather. I
don’t remember her, nor the accident that killed her. I
was in my stroller, I have been told, with my mother,
when Heather bolted into the street perhaps in pursuit of
a cat and got hit by an oncoming car. A while later,
when I was three or four, came Mehitabel, named after
Don Marquis’ tale archie and mehitabel.. I remember
Mehitabel vividly. We used to explore the world togeth-
er, sleep together, and play hide-and-seek and tag, until
one time she ran under my legs, I stumbled and fell on
her, and broke her leg. I don’t think I was ever the same
after that. Mehitabel sported an elaborate splint for sev-
eral months, and my mother and I would support her
when she used her litter pan in the beginning of her recu-

I suspect my parents believed I would outgrow
what became a veritable obsession with cats. At school
I’d write the word “cat” all over the blackboard before
my second grade teacher arrived, and I’d challenge my
classmates to correctly spell Mehitabel’s name. At
home, Mehitabel, unspayed, had litters. My family
didn’t know better back then. Personally, I was ecstatic.
After I watched Mehitabel’s labor, I made colorful
posters announcing the arrival of her kittens, and I’d
very carefully tend to her, and watch her, and put my
face close to her warmth and the nursing kittens. I’d put
my nose against the wet fur where she’d just licked her-
self and her kittens, and I’d smell. I decided that this
was the most wonderful smell in the whole world, just as
I decided that my favorite colors were black and red
because I had never seen anything as beautiful as the
shiny jet blackness of Mehitabel against my parents’ red
paisley bedspread.
Growing up, I always wanted to be a cat. You
can guess what my costume was every Halloween, and
how eagerly I waited to dress up. I always wanted a cat’s
ears and whiskers and tail, to have their fur and softness,
to pretend I could wear, at least for a day, the perfection
I knew they had.
But then I came to humane work and saw the
things we all know. I went out to rescue a cat who had
taken up residence in a factory for several years, who
came and went, was intermittently patted and fed, but
then got sick and finally so sick that after several months
no one wanted to touch her—for fear of contracting dis-
temper, they said. She had never been given a name,
not by any of the dozens of factory employees who saw
her almost every day, who opened a door for her when
she appeared, or meowed to go outside. By the time we
were called, she was too far gone to save. I did just what
most of you would have done: I stroked her head and
smelled her rotting, wasting flesh, and heard her so
quiet, plaintive cries as I drove her to her death. I’ve dri-
ven a lot of cats to their deaths, especially ferals. Once,
when we weren’t called to collect some unwanted cats,
we eventually received over 20 of them all at once,
stuffed into a single dog crate that stunk from days’
worth of excrement and vomit. We didn’t want to think
how they had been caught and thrown in there, or how
long some of them had waited in the crate until they were
all rounded up. And I’ve received the mother cat and
kittens, time after time, just as all humane workers
have, and asked the person surrendering them, “Can
you tell me the mother’s name?” But the queens don’t
have names. They’re strays; they showed up about a
year or two ago, or more. “I fed her once and she
wouldn’t leave, but she’s not mine,” we’re told. The
kitty we came to call the painted cat never was named,
either, though everyone in the neighborhood knew him.
He had been wandering about for two years, begging
from different homes, until either by freak accident or
cruel intent, his long orange coat became covered from
head to tail with green oil-based paint.
Our shelters are full of stories like these. We
usually see feral cats only when their supposed self-suffi-
ciency, their perceived ability to fend for themselves,
has at last failed them. And so we see the worst. We see
broken, beaten, damaged cats. We see cats without
limbs or eyes, or because of frostbite, with only half
their ears, or so diseased they can barely breathe or are
just skeletal wisps of what they’re meant to be; we see
them when they’re close to death. At our shelter, the
Bennington County Humane Society, we’ve an isolation
ward for ill and injured animals. We’re always utilizing
the part of the ward for cats, but we rarely need it for
dogs or puppies. Of course we also see healthy, robust,
beautiful kittens and cats, too—those who come to us
because they shed, or keep having litters, or jump on the
counter, or are too vocal, or claw the furniture, or climb
the drapes, or pooped or peed one time outside the litter
box. Because there are not enough tolerant, loving,
responsible homes, we kill these animals in great num-
ber too.
I’ve seen the things you all see, and have done
the things you all do. I have decided I no longer want to
be a cat.
I recently visited the Massachusetts SPCA shel-
ter in Boston. What I saw there is typical of what I’ve
seen happening in my own shelter, and indeed in most
shelters I’ve been to. There was exactly one dog avail-
able for adoption that day. At the same time, a bank of
maybe 25 cages was fully occupied with cats and kittens
of every imaginable type and color, cats and kittens in
cage after cage after cage. There wasn’t an available
place left in the bank for another. Last year the MSPCA
received close to 10,000 dogs and pups —and 23,000
cats and kittens. The Animal Rescue League, also in
Boston, received 2,500 dogs, plus 11,000 cats. At my
humane society, at least since 1987, the number of dogs
coming to us has steadily declined, while each year
we’ve had to euthanize cats and kittens in greater num-
bers. Last year we received a new low of 591 canines,
compared with 1,137 felines. American Humane
Association shelter survey statistics confirm that more
cats than dogs are relinquished by their keepers, fewer
are placed, and far fewer are redeemed by their
guardians: cats and guardians are reunited only two per-
cent of the time, compared with a 16% return rate for
dogs. This is largely because cats are rarely collared,
tagged, tattooed, or identified with microchip implants.
Consequently, 82% of the cats who arrive at shelters are
euthanized, compared with 63% of the dogs.
After my visit to the MSPCA, I headed back to
Vermont on I-90, thinking about the treatment of cats as
second-class pets, about why they’re denied the level of
responsible care they need and deserve, about why
they’re so often ignored, misunderstood, maligned, and
abused. Tired, I paused at one of those huge highway
rest stops with a gas station and fast food. It was dinner
time, dark and cold, with cars and trucks pulling in and
out, tractor-trailer units idling, and heavy foot traffic
between the parking spaces and the buildings. As I got
out of my car, I saw a dim orange flash off to one side,
and then another. I crouched down to see two adolescent
kittens scurrying under and around the cars, one of them
with a nubby, bare tail. When I called to him, the kitten
looked at me with a flash of fearful, feral eye contact,
then ran to a garbage can overflowing with burger wrap-
pers and paper cups. I saw another kitten, then a calico,
and then a fourth kitten, a tortoiseshell. They took turns
jumping to the rim of the garbage can, balancing there,
foraging, disappearing, reappearing in the headlights of
cars, then darting down and jumping up and dashing
away to dodge the traffic. People in the parking lot
seemed unaware of this feline family living on discarded
french fries and hamburgers. They might as well have
been flies, or not been there.
I didn’t have any humane traps with me. Unable
to do anything else to help, I went into the restaurant and
asked the young woman behind the counter if she knew
anything about the cat and kittens. “Oh yes,” she
replied. “It’s a mom and her babies. They showed up
about four months ago. It’s sad, but there’s nothing we
can do.” The manager appeared. I explained that I
would contact the closest animal shelter and have some-
one come and trap the cat family and take them away.
A family of dogs living on garbage at a busy
rest stop off a major highway in the middle of
Massachusetts would likely have been noticed. They
would have stirred some interest, some concern. People
would have worred about children being bitten, or the
possible transmission of rabies, or of automobile acci-
dents. Authorities would have been called. At the very
least, a police officer would have reluctantly shot them,
because virtually everyone agrees that for whatever rea-
son, it’s unacceptable for a family of dogs to live that
way. But somehow, in some way, it is acceptable for
The sad fact is that there are a lot of things peo-
ple believe are okay for cats, but not for dogs. Dogs are
expected to be given rabies shots, identification, licens-
ing, leashing, and restraint. Virtually every community
has some public institution designed to prevent homeless
dogs from wandering, if only a part-time dogcatcher.
Few communities make any provision for cats.
Why is the distance that separates cats from
dogs in our hearts and minds so huge? Rudyard Kipling
had one explanation:
Hear and attend and listen, for this befell and
became and was, when the Tame animals were wild.
The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the
Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was
wild—as wild as wild could be—and they walked in the
Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones. But the wildest of
all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself,
and all places were alike to him.
Eventually the dog, the horse, and the cow
each surrendered wildness in return for food, care, and
safety, but the cat did not. Instead,
He waited to see if any other Wild thing would
go up to the Cave, but no one moved in the Wet Wild
Woods, so that Cat walked there by himself; and he
saw the Woman milking the Cow, and he saw the light of
the fire in the Cave, and he smelt the smell of the warm
white milk.
Cat said, “O my Enemy and Wife of my Enemy,
where did Wild Cow go?”
The Woman laughed and said, “Wild Thing out
of the Wild Woods, go back to the Woods again, for I
have braided up my hair, and we have no more need of
either friends of servants in our cave.”
Cat said, “I am not a friend, and I am not a
servant. I am the Cat who walks by himself, and I wish
to come into your cave.”
Woman said, “Then why did you not come with
First Friend (dog) on the first night?”
Cat grew very angry and said, “Has Wild Dog
told tales of me?”
The Woman laughed and said, “You are the
Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to
you. You are neither a friend nor a servant. You have
said it yourself. Go away and walk by yourself in all
places alike.”
But the Cat and the Woman struck a deal. If the
Cat could get the Woman to speak three words of praise
for him, he would be allowed to drink the warm white
milk three times a day for always and always and always.
The cat caught a mouse who had entered the cave,
soothed the woman’s fretful baby, and amused him by
chasing a thread,
till the Baby laughed as loudly as he had been
crying, and scrambled after the Cat and frolicked all
over the Cave till he grew tired and settled down to sleep
with the Cat in his arms. And the Cat began to purr,
loud and low, low and loud, till the Baby fell fast
Then the Woman laughed and set Cat a bowl of
the warm white milk and said, “O Cat, you are as
clever as a man, but remember that your bargain was
not made with the Man or the Dog, and I do not know
what they will do when they come home.
Wishing to always walk by himself, with all
places alike to him, the Cat refused to surrender his
independence to either the Man or the Dog, angering
them so that from that day to this,
three proper men out of five will always throw
things at a Cat whenever they meet him, and all proper
dogs will chase him up a tree. But the Cat keeps his side
of the bargain too. He will kill mice and he will be kind
to Babies when he is in the house, just as long as they do
not pull his tail too hard. But when he has done that,
and between times, and when the moon gets up and
night comes, he is the Cat who wallks by himself, and
all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet
Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild
Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone.
Though Kipling seems to have observed that
more women than men appreciate cats, and that men are
more often cruel toward them, his fable reflects the
widely held misperception that cats pursue lives of enig-
matic and aloof solitude—that they must go their own
way to be happy, are autonomous, self-ruling, and self-
sufficient, equally at home in barns, alleys, or rest stops
alongside busy highways. We know now from an ever-
increasing body of behavioral research that cats are high-
ly social and sociable animals, heavily dependent upon
humans for habitat and sustainance even when we prefer
to ignore their existence. Yet as Kipling recognized, the
history of the cat is extraordinarily different from that of
any other species. None have had the kind of love/hate
relationship with people that cats have known. The inten-
sity and variability of human attitudes toward cats is
illustrated by the contrast between the reverence which
which they were treated in ancient Egypt, and the hostili-
ty they met during the High Middle Ages (the epoch of
the great plagues), when they were tortured and killed as
suspected agents of evil incarnate. Similar inconsistency
is evident in any community today, where adoring and
indulgent ailurophiles come into frequent conflict with
inveterate cat-haters.
Even within the humane community, we can’t
even begin to agree upon what we should do about cats.
Debate smoulders over how long stray cats should be
held before being euthanized, whether the criteria for
defining a stray should be the same as for dogs, whether
a cat who has ever been a pet can be considered feral,
how to define and recognize true ferals, whether cats
should be adopted out to people who will allow them to
go outside, whether and how cats should be licensed,
and perhaps most divisive at present, whether or not we
should endorse and support neuter/release programs.
What about restraint laws for cats, similar to require-
ments that dogs must be restrained or confined? What
about declawing? What if someone will have a cat euth-
anized if the cat can’t be declawed? Should adoption
fees for cats be less than for dogs, and if so, why? Do
we require any less of cat adopters than we do of dog
adopters? Does your shelter, or your community’s shel-
ter, reflect new ways of thinking about cats?
The range of emotions we hold toward dogs is
so comparatively narrow that we don’t even have a word
for a strong dislike or fear of the species. And our asso-
ciation with dogs has been more than twice as long,
more than 10,000 years, compared with about 4,000 for
cats. Yet the distance that separates the cat from the dog
in our culture, indeed in all human culture, is not solely
a matter of chronology. One of the commonly under-
stood requirements for the domestication of a species is
that it must possess a social nature. The dog is a perfect
example of this; the cat is not, and may actually be the
least social of all “tame” species, perhaps still in the
process of being tamed. While cats may be gregarious,
often dwelling in colonies as ferals, the social structure
of cat colonies seems more designed to enhance the sur-
vival of kittens than to enhance the survival of individual
cats. Related queens may share kitten-rearing and pro-
tection, and some cats may hunt for others, but except
when queens teach their litters to hunt, cats never hunt
or forage together in groups, combining abilities as
dogs, coyotes, and wolves do to bring down prey other-
wise inaccessible to them.
Perhaps in consequence, our social contract
with cats seems to be negotiated one cat at a time.
Indeed, several studies indicate that nearly a fourth of all
cats who are claimed by people have chosen their homes
by simply arriving and hanging around; dogs, by con-
trast, are almost always deliberately adopted. Dogs, as
a species, came into our lives as welcome hunting allies,
quickly became defenders of family and property as well,
and have continually taken on additional chores, from
herding livestock to guiding the physically handicapped
to sniffing out contraband. Through selective breeding,
we have created specialized dogs for specialized tasks
(over 135 recognized breeds), displaying a range of
physical and mental attributes unmatched by any other
mammal. Dogs are integrated into almost every facet of
human activity.
Our contract with cats is narrower and simpler.
Only after we began to store grain did cats arrive. We
welcomed cats for their ability to catch mice and rats,
but found little else of a practical nature for them to do.
Because we could not train cats to perform other special-
ized tasks, we have not substantially modified the
species. The differences among the 41 recognized
breeds of cats are slight compared to those among dogs;
by and large, a cat is a cat is a cat. Most cats, regardless
of variations, are good mousers and ratters.
It is probably because cats have traditionally
had only this one outstanding task and attribute that we
have evolved the Myth of the Supercat: that any cat is
capable of caring and fending for and feeding herself, in
any surrounding. Thus cats by the million are turned
loose in woods, along roadsides, at shopping centers,
and on farms. The Myth of the Supercat is that cats can
triumph unaided over cars and dogs and disease. As a
species, they can and do; as individuals, however, they
struggle, suffer, breed quickly and plentifully, and are
killed, 75% of them within their first year of life.
But now, “The cat is no longer thought of as a
farm animal,” according to the recently published
Cornell Book Of Cats. “It has become a highly pam-
pered companion, satisfying the personal needs of mod-
ern living. Its perceived independence, contrasted with
its playful nature, is once again greatly admired. A cat
is beautiful to look at. It is almost always allowed in
condominium apartments, even where dogs are restrict-
ed. It is easier to care for than a dog. Like microwave
cooking and frozen gourmet dinners, it embodies the
word ‘convenience.’ Its needs are flexible and adaptable
to demanding schedules of busy men, women, and chil-
dren who still require a touch of nature’s grandeur in a
high-tech society. We are the ‘New Egyptians,’ and we
have rediscovered the cat.”
Cats are now the most numerous house pets in
the U.S., totaling 61 million, outnumbering dogs by at
least six million. Adding in feral cats, there may be as
many as 96 million cats living among us—and a mini-
mum of 35 million reasons why we need a new way of
thinking about cats. For one thing, cats are n o t l i k e
microwave cooking and frozen gourmet dinners, and
we’re doing them a disservice if we equate them with
effortlessness. The only difference I can see in the needs
of my dog and my three cats is that the dog is bigger, is
louder, has this thing about rawhide chews, likes to go
for rides, and needs to go for walks. My cats would go
for walks with me if I had some quiet trails about my
house, but I don’t. My cats shed, they leave dust and
dirt about, I have to brush and groom them and clean
their ears, they require just as much veterinary care
(which is a far greater ordeal than taking the dog, and
about as expensive), I have to scrape hairballs off the rug
from time to time, their litter pan needs daily cleaning, I
had to train them not to wreck the furniture, they walk all
over me when I’m sleeping and wake me, sometimes
they break things, they meow, and they too make them-
selves known, demanding my time, attention, and love.
At the shelter, I worry that we’ve a tendency to
adopt out cats and kittens as trouble-free, self-maintain-
ing creatures—as the pet to get when a dog won’t do.
We don’t generally talk about the way a cat actually is,
in our lives. Cats have a far wider range of needs and
behaviors, and more desire and ability to interact and
communicate with humans than we usually give them
credit for. Cats may not have all the same needs as dogs,
but they unequiuvocally have their own needs, equally
important to them, and we must take care that people
understand that cats suffer when these are not met. Cats
need people. They need people as much as dogs. The
prevailing attitude that they don’t is an illusion we must
not perpetuate.
I’ve visited shelters—and these I hope to believe
are exceptions—to see cats and kittens available for
adoption in bone-bare cages in tiny back rooms, with no
bedding, not even newspaper to lie on, no toys, no food,
no litter pan. We must demonstrate all the things that go
along with keeping cats happy and healthy. We should
have fresh litter boxes, food and water, grooming brush-
es and combs, scratching posts, paper bags, toilet paper
tubes, soft things and sweaters, good resting places,
balls, catnip, perches, cardboard boxes—light! fresh
air! ventilation systems!—all the things that capture the
feline attention and imagination and help them do well,
and which also help keep down feline contagious dis-
eases. We need to demonstrate the same kind of care and
concern for the cats and kittens in our shelters as we
expect of the homes we adopt them out to.
This may mean overhauling our facilities. We
may need to reevaluate and redesign our shelters to
accommodate the increasing numbers of homeless cats
who arrive at our doors, and to get visitors to look at and
acknowledge them, as well. At our shelter the first adop-
tion room that visitors see is the cat and kitten room. No
one has to make a special request to be led through sever-
al doors and hallways, past the kennels and pup areas,
or around to the back of the building, where too often
cats and kittens have been put as an afterthought at facili-
ties constructed with dogs primarily in mind.
We need to hold stray cats as if someone may
be looking for them. In many states there is no holding
requirement for stray cats, as there usually is for dogs.
Combine this with the tendency of cat owners to wait
several days before beginning a search, because cats do
sometimes wander off for days at a time, and inevitably
shelters are killing many cats who do have keepers.
Stray cats need the same chance as stray dogs: a reason-
able holding period, not least because if there isn’t one,
cat keepers may not even come looking.
At the other extreme, many shelters may keep
cats too long. I once visited a shelter where some cats
had been kept for months in puny fiberglas cages in a
moist, dark room. They had nowhere to wander,
stretch, or even look out a window. A particular cat was
pointed out to me as being perfectly happy, just a lov-
able, lovely cat who was doing so well that he was, in
fact, occasionally used as a visiting pet in local nursing
homes. The cat cowered in the rear of the cage, show-
ing no interest in his surroundings, trying to make him-
self as small and unnoticeable as possible. The shelter
worker opened the cage door and the cat flinched. He
scooped the cat up, immediately turned the cat over, and
started to vigorously rub the cat’s belly. For a cat to
allow his stomach to be scratched is for the cat to show
enormous trust and affection. This cat lay stiff, eyes
dilated and unmoving, then struggled to be free.
Leaping back to his cage, he crept to the corner and
crouched all hunched up and looked at us in a distant,
defeated, miserable way. The shelter worker failed to
see that having kept this cat caged for so long had
induced severe depression.
Sometimes shelter procedures carry a hidden
message. Trying to move cats out, hoping to give them
a decent chance at life, many shelters charge a lower
adoption fee for cats than for dogs—conveying the
impression that cats are a discount item. Spay/neuter
deposits should be mandatory, if the animals are not
spayed or neutered on site as part of the adoption proce-
dure, and it is reasonable to vary the spay/neuter deposit
according to what local veterinarians actually charge,
usually less for a cat than for a dog; but keep this sepa-
rate from the adoption fee, which should be the same for
any animal.
In addition to the necessity of spaying and neu-
tering, and of getting rabies shots for cats as well as
dogs, we must urge cat-keepers to identify their pets—
with a collar, a tattoo, a microchip, any viable way, so
that we can return more than two or three cats of each
hundred we receive. In a very real sense, identifying
one’s cats makes them, too, part of the family.
Like thousands of other shelter workers and cat
rescuers, I go home each night, look in the mirror, and
wonder if I’m accomplishing all that I might to make a
difference for cats—to truly and tangibly improve their
plight. It’s hard to answer affirmatively when we see
and do what we must each day.
And so I’ve decided I want to be a cat again. I
want nothing more than to have a cat’s ears, and
whiskers, and tail, to have their fur and softness, to
pretend I can wear the perfection I know they have.
[Jessica Bart-Mikionis is executive director of the
Bennington County Humane Society, in Shaftsbury,
Vermont. This article is adapted from a presentation
given on May 21, 1992, to the New England Federation
of Humane Societies’ 55th annual conference.]
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