Friday, March 20, 2009

Lost cat

What's the difference between a street cat and a pet cat?

People definitely think of street cats as a mass, a horde. They lump them all together, can't tell them apart, see them as pests. I think the ways we view street animals are windows into the way we view anything and anyone whom we have dismissed as "other." They are also windows into what we fear or despise about ourselves. I am especially intrigued by the sense of street cats as indistinguishable from one another. What makes distinguishing possible? What sets one creature apart from any other?

The fact that people have pet cats here in Jerusalem is for me a fine lesson in the constructedness of social reality. It's the same species, but somehow I designate this one (or ones) "mine"and those others as "nothing." And let me be clear that reality's constructedness doesn't necessarily make it any less real. I certainly feel differently about my own kitties, safe at home in Sag Harbor, than I do about the dozens and dozens of cats I see here everyday.

Which brings me to the sign I saw on a parking meter for a lost cat. When you make a "LOST" sign, it's always good to include the creature's distinguishing characteristics. Let's look at these features one at a time:

"Grey with white paws." Again, while many people tend to claim they can't tell street cats apart, this marker is relatively obvious. None of the five or six cats I saw in the alley where the sign was fit the description.

"Fat." It's not surprising that a pet cat would be fatter than a street cat, though I have to say the cats here cover a pretty normal range of cat size and very few look like they are actually starving.

"Skittish." The Hebrew word here פחדן/pachdan/"fearful one" is actually probably best translated colloquially as "scaredy cat." And really, who wouldn't be?

And then came the most striking descriptor: Clearly the cat's most distinguishing feature as far as the people missing it were concerned and yet an attribute that would be hard to see just by looking. Here in a city (and a world for that matter) teaming with the abandoned, the ignored, the uncared-for, a posted adjective to remind me of what really makes the difference, an attribute that I think we ought to try applying to more and more of those we encounter. This gray and white, fat, scaredy cat was also described as "Loved."

An added note: It sounds like it is mating season for the street cats of Jerusalem. I find myself actually looking forward to seeing lots of kittens. Whether feral, wild or somewhere in between --pigeons, for example...are they the descendants of domesticated birds used in the Temple service?-- the animal life of the city helps me connect with innocence in a place where purity seems in short supply. So even though I know that the streets are full of cats (some people would say "overrun" or "overpopulated" but I would not be those people) and those cats are often in rough shape and seem as if they are not well taken care of, even so I look forward to seeing fresh kittens.

No comments: