The Internet showcases a cat fascination
Not that cats care, or would let on if they did, but America is having a cat moment.
The cat’s enhanced status was recognized this month when it beat out a robot and a helicopter to replace the iron as a game piece in Monopoly. That validation, combined with feline domination of the Internet, cat TV shows, and thronged kitty film festivals, raises a question: Who seems crazy now? The cat lady? Or the person not charmed by “Surprised Kitty,” a YouTube video with 68 million views and counting?
Thousands of years after cats were worshiped by the Egyptians for protecting crops from rodents, among other attributes, the Internet has changed modern cat ownership from a solitary affair into the most social of relationships. With its endless appetite for cat videos and Facebook posts and Instagram photos, the Web has become the dog park of the feline world.
As Lisa Billowitz, a Boston lawyer and the owner of Suzie Yang, an obese shelter cat with a Facebook following, put it, “It’s no longer creepy and pathetic to be obsessed with your cat.”
Their pop culture rise is so pronounced that Animal Planet executive Rick Holzman acknowledges that felines have achieved parity — on his channel, at least. “Cats and dogs are now equal for us,” he said.
That’s a big change for the network. With one exception, Animal Planet didn’t run domestic cat-specific series until 2011 — 15 years after its founding. But the ratings for “Cats 101,” “My Cat From Hell,” and “Too Cute! Kittens” were so good, Holzman said, “that we found we tapped into this never-before-acknowledged-on-TV passion base.”
More Americans own dogs than cats — 62 percent of us own dogs compared with 33 percent who own cats, according to the American Pet Products Association. But due to multicat homes, pet cats (86.4 million) outnumber pet dogs (78.2 million).
And even people who aren’t cat-obsessed can’t help but click on cat videos. Why? Because the animals remind us of human babies, according to Michael Newall, an instructor at the University of Kent.
“An important part of the attraction we feel towards cats depends on their large eyes, small button noses, and little mouths,” he said in an e-mail. “These are features we have evolved to have a preference for, because they are characteristic features of human infants.”
Perhaps, Newall added, “we can expect more cat moments in the age of the Internet, since the attraction to cats is something shared, and readily understood, across cultures.”
Billowitz, Suzie Yang’s owner, says cats make the perfect video stars because their aloof nature allows their owners to project whatever they like onto them.
“It doesn’t demean them,” she said. “You can’t really demean a cat.”
But not everyone is thrilled for the felines. “Damn you, Internet, and your insatiable love of cats,” Jon Stewart railed on “The Daily Show,” mourning the robot’s loss in Hasbro’s search for a new Monopoly game piece. “I’m serious,” he continued. “If the presidential election was held online, this would be our new commander in chief,” as a picture of a cat flashed on screen.
But Mieshelle Nagelschneider, a cat behaviorist, and author of the forthcoming book “The Cat Whisperer : Why Cats Do What They Do — and How to Get Them to Do What You Want,” says the Internet is helping to dispel negative stereotypes about cats and their owners.
Perhaps future generations will find it hard to believe that we once thought black cats brought bad luck, or that cat ownership was a step toward spinsterhood. “The Internet is bringing to the surface what the truth is.”
But what happens on the Internet doesn’t stay on the Internet. Cat fans are leaving the privacy of their own screens to share the love at cat video festivals. Last year, when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosted the Internet Cat Video Festival, an estimated 10,000 people showed up — about double what the museum was expecting.
Closer to home, organizers of this past Sunday’s Somerville Copy Cat Festival — which featured cat videos, stories, and limericks and a slideshow of local cats — added a second show after the first show sold out. “They sold 300 tickets in the first 15 minutes,” said Jef Czekaj, the emcee and author of “Cat Secrets” , among other children’s books.
All this is proof that cats are starting to get the recognition they deserve, said cat-centric writer Clea Simon .
“People treat cats in this country like they treated dogs 50 years ago, but they’re finally catching on that these incredible animals are domestic animals and they need our care,” Simon said, referring to a time before dogs were treated like full-fledged family members, and the beneficiaries of high-end health care, special diets, and mental-health treatment.
Indeed, in a region dominated by upscale dog hotels — Fenway Bark and Urban Hound, to name just two — cats have finally gotten their own place. At Chez Mieux, which opened in Natick in 2011, the “condos” go for $24 per night per cat. And as is the case at all luxury lodging establishments, the guest is always right.
“We defer to them,” said owner Patricia Dowd. “We don’t make them come out of their condos if they don’t want to.”
With her inn often at capacity — that’s 32 overnight guests — Dowd is planning to add locations. “I think people are realizing that cats have a lot more emotional needs than we thought.”
But perhaps nothing says you’ve made it in America more than having a high-profile enemy, and the cat has one in Whitey Bulger.
Sitting in prison, Bulger lamented the chain of events that led to his June 2011 capture by the FBI, according to the new book, “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice,” by Boston Globe reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy. After 16 years on the lam, Bulger was nabbed after his girlfriend bonded over a stray cat with a stranger who would eventually tip off the authorities.
“A cat,” he wrote, “got me captured.”