This is the joke cat people share: The pets we pretend to own actually own us. Carlos Wong, an entrepreneur in the process of opening Catfe, a Los Angeles cat café, recognizes this. “Cats are really the master race here,” he says. With an establishment that will allow patrons to both dine with and cuddle cats, he says, “I am just trying to jump ahead of the curve.” It’s a curious thing: at a time when Americans own more cats than any other type of pet—they outnumber dogs by up to four million—there’s demand for feline-dominated spaces. Is our obsession a fad? And if cats are, as Wong jokes, our overlords, why do we abide?
Facts: “Ailuromania” means “a passion for cats.” A group of cats is called a clowder. A group of kittens is called a kindle. Calico cats are almost always female. When a cat "kneads" you with its paws, it is expressing happiness. Cat urine glows under a black light. Cats can drink seawater to re-hydrate themselves.
Marilyn Krieger, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant, puts it simply: “Animals, no matter the species, are sources of comfort and are wonderful companions.” Yet she suggests that our attachment to cats comes with a stigma: “Why is it that one does not hear the labels ‘crazy dog ladies’ or ‘crazy rabbit men’ bantered about? It seems that cats and cat people historically have been regarded by many people as second-class citizens.” Then there’s T. Gondii, the “cat parasite” believed to infect more than half of the global population—something thought to cause personality changes, poor driving, promiscuity in women, and aggression in men (though very few develop symptoms). With a reputation for being aloof, sour, finicky—and a transmitter of strange brain bugs—the common cat has a bad rap to shake. Cats are the underdogs.
But we’ve always liked a good underdog story, and ailuromania’s historical roots connect with our contemporary obsession. Tautvydas Bitinas, the owner of Cat Cafe Vilnius in Lithuania, says, “A cat is an immortal trend of human life… In Ancient Egypt cats were considered to be sacred animals and were even mummified after seven-day mourning. Today we feast our eyes on cats on the Internet—is it not that very modern form of cat cult?” It’s true: 10,000 people turned up at the Internet Cat Video Film Festival in Minneapolis last year. This year’s festival brought an even larger crowd.
There’s Grumpy Cat’s film debut. Karl Lagerfield’s cat, Choupette, with her feline lifestyle book and clothing line. Lil BUB’s fans shelling out one hundred bucks to meet her at L.A.’s Feline Film Festival. This worship is irony-free: instead, our contemporary love for cats is sincere and mysterious. Which says less about cats and more about us.
When Petrarch died, his beloved cat was put to death and mummified. Bukowski wrote an ode to “One Tough Motherfucker.” Sir Isaac Newton invented the “cat-flap” door. In her letter to Cat Fancy magazine, Ayn Rand wrote, “My subscription was strictly objective because I have an interest in cats. I can demonstrate objectively that cats are a great value, and the charter issue of Cat Fancy magazine can serve as part of that evidence.” Marie Antoinette sent six white Angora cats on the ship intended for her French Revolution exit.
Our cat passion manifests in various ways. Take the aforementioned cat cafés. Bernard, owner of Catmosphere Cat Café in Chiang Mai, Thailand, says that this concept makes sense: “Cats are destined for this kind of job. They love to chill out all day and…they also enjoy getting some attention from humans. Cafés and cats go together perfectly and if you ever visit one you’ll be asking yourself why this hasn’t been obvious from the beginning.” Then there are writers of “furry fiction”—a genre with its own dedicated presses and literary awards, like Mary E. Lowd, who explains that she knows cats well and identifies with them. “They make natural protagonists for me,” she says.
Others choose to immerse themselves more fully in the feline world, designing elaborate costumes and inhabiting cat characters. Fred Patten, historian, writer and founder of “furry fandom,” explains that “…today there are over ninety furry conventions around the world. The largest is the Anthrocon in Pittsburgh over the July 4th weekend, with 5,861 attendees in 2014, including over 1,300 in full-body mascot-like ‘fursuits.’ Estimates of the total number of furry fans range from 60,000 to 100,000.” Not to be confused with “plushies” (a term derived from the paraphilia involving stuffed animals—and a conflation he claims the media makes in order to sensationalize headlines)—Patten says that “furries” might be found everywhere from “Fans’ homes and public parks for picnics and BBQ cookouts, to outdoor camps of several days such as Canada’s annual Camp Feral! and Brazil’s Abando, or Zillercon, held each January at a lodge in the Austrian or Swiss Alps for skiing and other Winter activities (some in fursuits), to the conventions of hundreds or thousands held in large hotels.” Patten notes that, while furry fans are largely drawn to feral creatures, “the favorite pets of a furry fan are often one or more cats.”
There are those whose love for cats is reverence. Dennis Avner, a former Navy sonar technician, was known as “Stalking Cat,” the name he received in childhood from a medicine man of his Native American Huron tribe. With a belief in his responsibility to model himself after his totem, Avner underwent extreme body modification, becoming “part man, part animal,” in order to resemble a female tiger. Avner dramatically altered his appearance with elaborate tattoos, silicon facial implants, filed teeth, whiskers, and a robotic tail; he was also said to climb trees and eat meat every day. The inner and outer transformations made Avner famous for blurring the lines of both gender and species. Stalking Cat’s website claims that “Cat isn’t stopping any time soon, not until he realizes his goal to be the perfect blend of cat and human.” His Wikipedia page, on the other hand, says, “On November 5, 2012, he died alone in his garage in Tonopah.” His death was ruled a suicide.
Crème Puff, at thirty-eight, was the oldest cat ever. Mr. Peebles was the world’s smallest cat at three pounds. Stewie of Reno had the longest tail: 16.34 inches. Andy, owned by a Florida senator, fell sixteen stories and lived.
Our passion for cats is complicated—rooted in admiration and irreverence, the historical and the cyber-present—and it doesn’t seem to be abating, maybe because we need them. Uematsu of Cat Café Temarinoouchi in Japan says that cat cafés are healing, something people are seeking today. And maybe cats inspire us to be better people: Carlos Wong’s L.A. Catfe is an official business supporter of Best Friends Animal Society and will utilize adoptable cats that patrons can take home. He also plans to offer pet therapy nights and promote community events. “Kitty fun runs anyone?” he asks. “Cat dance flash mobs?”
These possibilities reflect devotion to animals both extraordinary and somewhat ordinary: sure, they’re T-shirt icons and Internet champions, but they’re also the pets we feed before we’ve had our morning coffee. Our connection is legitimate. Psychic Medium and Animal Communicator, Charles Peden, says that, “When you talk to animals they’re going to be very much like their humans. And part of the reason for that is the telepathic bond we have with them.” Maybe they’re not our rulers after all, but reflections of the best parts of us: independent, fragile, obsessive, gentle, affectionate, eccentric. Their prominence is earned. Cats might just make us more human.
Photo: Carlos Wong, Founder of Catfe Cat Cafe in Los Angeles, joined by the Catfe Maids.
Photographer: Lilly Ball at lillyball.com.