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IDEAS

When pets kill

I was viscerally reminded of our cat’s catness when he bumped off another animal in the house. How was I supposed to feel about him now?

Photo illustration by Omar Vega/Globe Staff/AP

A few weeks ago, our cat killed one of our gerbils.

It wasn’t as if we hadn’t known it was a possibility — that was the reason we kept the gerbils’ cage in a room with the door always shut. But we were in a rush to leave the house, and both the cage and room were left open. The cat seized his chance; the gerbil didn’t have one.

It was devastating. In the immediate aftermath, there was me, hyperventilating with a dead gerbil cupped in my hands, trying to shield his little mutilated body from my distraught 7-year-old son; then both my husband and me having to tell our 10-year-old son that Kitty killed Pikachu. There was a lot of crying.

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Pikachu's killer.Courtesy of the author

The next day, after we buried poor Pikachu in a box filled with his favorite treats and letters from the children in a deep grave in the garden, the cat came to sit on my lap. Usually these moments are what make our lopsided relationship worthwhile: Though he’s not precisely friendly, he is warm and soft; petting him comes with little bursts of neurochemical reward, and it makes me happy to see him happy.

But not this time. This time, as I stroked his tiger-striped back, I pictured Pikachu’s red-stained fur. Those claws kneading my leg had just done some horribly instinctual things. The teeth that flashed white and evil when he yawned contentedly? Impossible not to recall what they’d just done. No oxytocin for me, no serotonin, not even a whiff of dopamine. I didn’t shift him off me, but I did stop petting him (he didn’t care). Obviously, I had known Kitty could kill, would kill if he was given the opportunity. It’s just that I never thought he’d murder one of us.

This, to me, was a weird reaction, especially for someone who thinks and writes about the animals around us as much as I do. But I wasn’t the only person who had experienced this disconnect between who I thought my pet was and who he actually is. One friend told me that she had a hard time looking at her dog for a little while after he startled a pet rabbit to death. Another told me that it took her daughter months to forgive their family’s goofy golden retriever when he killed her hamster.

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I reached out to Hal Herzog, one of the founders of the field of anthrozoology — which studies how animals live in human spaces — and author of a book called “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.” I explained to Herzog that our cat had killed our gerbil and that this had changed the way I felt about the cat, that it was jarring to be reminded so viscerally of his catness, that I felt betrayed.

What was going on, Herzog said, was that I was morally judging my cat — and that was a little weird. Moral judgment, some theories claim, is a two-part system: The first part is a non-logical and immediate reaction; the second is trying to reconcile that reaction. “You made this moral decision really with your gut. . . . Now you’re trying to make sense of it, so you’re doing it in a way that a reporter would: Calling experts in the field.”

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So the question is, why was I judging my cat for just . . . being a cat?

Unemployed and inedible

Over the last century or so, our relationships to the animals in our lives have changed dramatically. Animals in the 19th century had to work for their place in our homes, but by second half of the 20th, they didn’t. The result is a relatively new category of animal that is unemployed and inedible but, in theory, fun to have around. US expenditures on pets more than sextupled between 1994 and 2020, according to market researchers at Statista. According to the American Pet Products Association, in 2020 Americans spent $104 billion on their pets. Surveys consistently demonstrate that the vast majority of Americans who have pets consider their pet a “member of the family”; a 2015 Harris Poll put the figure at 95 percent, up 7 percentage points from when Harris first asked the question in 2007.

Compare that, as I often do because I’m fun at parties, with the attitude of New Yorkers caught up in a polio outbreak in 1916: Though city officials were clear that cats did not spread the polio virus, more than 72,000 cats, many of them pets, were surrendered and killed in July alone. Eight thousand dogs were also killed.

Concurrent with this change in how we live with animals is what Herzog and others call the “humanization” of animals. The more we — and by “we,” I most certainly mean “me” — think of some animals as family members, the more we expect them to behave like humans. (It is, I’d suggest, an open question whether it’s ethical to treat so-called “family members” the way we treat our pets — dictating what and when they eat and where they poop, removing their sex organs — but that is for another contentious article.) You might argue that no one really expects human behavior or morality from their animals, but the way we represent our companion animals would argue otherwise. Instagram is lousy with cute animals doing people stuff, like the duck “running” the New York Marathon or cats “dancing” to DaftPunk. Headlines on The Dodo, the eminently shareable website devoted to uplifting animal stories, declare “Grumpy Cat Meets Santa for the First Time and Completely Falls in Love” and “Thoughtful Cat Surprises Her Mom With a New ‘Gift’ Every Day” (notice the words mom, thoughtful, and gift). And then there’s the proliferation of pet-shaming sites, featuring guilty-looking poodles with signs reading, “I ate the toilet paper during a pandemic,” and unabashed shih tzus proclaiming, “When I have to fart I ALWAYS run and sit on Mama’s pillow before letting it rip!” Cute and funny, sure, but also part of an intensifying cultural narrative that implies the animals we like are just furrier and probably kinder people.

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Recent research into animal cognition acknowledges, rightly, that animals can and do possess rich inner lives. But research also demonstrates that we mustn’t assume that this inner life closely resembles our own (or that a dog might intentionally fart on its owner’s pillow). For example, though it’s funny and sometimes even satisfying to think that your dog feels guilty about eating the toilet paper, that hangdog expression isn’t a product of feeling shame, according to a 2009 study. Rather, it’s a product of being shamed — dogs gave the look when they were told off by their owners, regardless of whether they’d actually done anything wrong. (Notably, that still indicates a high degree of interspecies empathy.) What this underscores is that, though we may humanize the animals in our lives, they’re still playing by a rulebook that we’re only beginning to understand. Like, say, when they take advantage of an open door to kill another “family member.”

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“I’m a firm species-ist,” says Herzog. “The fact that you and I can have this conversation about your guilt associated with having a cat that killed the gerbil shows the difference between you and your cat. . . . The fact that you have to feel guilty about something like that, and your cat is never going to feel guilty about killing a gerbil.”

So who is to blame here? Who should feel guilty? “We have two mammals — one has a big brain and one has a relatively small brain and is a killer by evolution. You did not blame the real perp,” Herzog says.

Yes — the real perp is me. I am the person who brought both predator and prey into my house, who knew the risks but nevertheless wanted these creatures in my life, regardless of whether they wanted to be or belong there.

I knew that. But it was hard to shake my discomfort, however unreasonable it was. (My kids, despite all the crying, managed to shake those feelings within the day.) And then a week after the incident, I took a nap. When I woke up, I found that the cat had joined me. His head was resting on my arm, and he was purring. I hadn’t realized how much I needed that.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American writer living in London.