Lucy, our cat, was a weakling. She was the runt of her Devon Rex litter and Devons are on the runty side to begin with. Plus she had suffered an allergic reaction to a vaccine as a kitten. This left her with a chronic nasal condition. She was a snuffller. When we bought her sister Evie, the breeder asked us to take Lucy as well (for free) on the basis that she was “special needs”.
Lucy and Evie joined Mackie to make three Devons. Evie and freebie Lucy were acquired after Mackie’s own sister Molly had died quite young from mysterious causes, possibly a spider bite.
Lucy was the most intelligent of the three, or perhaps it just appeared to be that way, as she was the most human centred. I would tell her to “speak English” and she would stare back at me and respond with meows of various tones, as if she was attempting to do so. If I tried the same thing on Mackie or Evie they just would stare down at the floor, with a cattish look of “these humans are mad” disdain.
Lucy weighed just 3.5 kilos- a miniscule proportion of the total weight of the world’s domesticated animals. According to historian Yuval Harari, if we weighed all the world’s domesticated animals, including farm animals, the result would be around 700 million tonnes. Next heaviest are all the human beings in the world. Our total would be about 300 million tonnes. Coming in a long last are the world’s remaining wild animals, including elephants and whales. They would weight just 100 million tonnes. This ratio of seven (domesticated) to three (human) to one (wild) cannot be good, can it?
Don’t get me wrong. Though I try to eat very little meat nowadays, I am unashamedly guilty of what the Australian philosopher Peter Singer describes pejoratively as speciesism …”a prejudice or bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species”.
Philosophers generally like thought experiments. So here is one. Imagine you were told you had to kill a being. Your choice is between killing an average human being or an average member of any species of non-human animal you pick. What would you choose? To me the answer seems clear. I would favour killing the average non-human animal over the average human being every time. And it seems to me that anybody who answers this question in this way demonstrates a bias for their own species.
But, perhaps more importantly, whatever the ethics of the matter, as Harari says, we are living in the age of the Anthropocene. Like it or not, human domination of the planet is a fact. It shows no imminent signs of abating. But even from a human centred point of view, I think the world would be a better place if we ate less meat. Our health would not suffer, and in many cases would likely improve. We could diminish bacterial resistance to antibiotics and animal methane emissions. And we could achieve a more balanced ratio as between domesticated animals, human beings and wild animals.
Perhaps it is my speciesism that makes me feel slightly uneasy. Uneasy that in the last week of her life the $700 or so we spent on vet bills for Lucy is a year’s income for people in some parts of our world. And uneasy that I feel the loss of Lucy more intensely than daily news received about the death of strangers, or even the occasional news of death of people I know. This later tendency is surely both a weakness and strength in the human condition. From the greediest capitalist to the most saint like of socialists, we cannot help but feel most deeply, the loss of the beings, human or non-human, that we are closest to. Companion animals insinuate themselves into our lives. In our daily life we get used to seeing them around our homes. When they die we look at the places where they used to be and these places appear empty to us in their absence.
Domestic pets often get good deals when owned by a childless couple or a single person. Not that people with children do not love their pets. It is just that they often have more two-legged distractions. Plus, in our case, the cats get to sleep with Mischa in her bed. Evie and Mackie (when he was alive) slept on top of the bed clothes. But Lucy would nestle into Mischa’s shoulder and sleep there under the doona, letting out a warning meow should I visit, for fear of being squashed.
Every night I would go into Mischa’s bedroom and engage in rituals with the cats. Rituals give comfort to all of us. Conservatives are obsessed with maintaining the same rituals. Is it a lack of imagination that leads them to so often feel threatened by difference or change? More imaginative people are open to diversity and even enjoy creating their own, new, rituals. They are expanders, not contractors.
I am proud that my rituals with our cats might make conservatives blush. I confess that I have sometimes kissed Lucy’s hairless, pink, fat little tummy.
In the nightly ritual, first the cats would line up on the bed for their spanking. Do you think it is unusual for human beings to spank cats and for the cats’ enjoyment? Wrong- look here. Then a turn each with the back scratcher. Eccentric? Wrong again, look here. Well okay, perhaps calling the back scratcher a “love stick” is a tad eccentric.
We knew Lucy had developed heart failure a few weeks before she died. Mackie had suffered the same condition. Medication had given him an extra year and a half of very comfortable life. However soon after Lucy started the same medication she had a turn. We took her at 2.30am to the all night vet hospital in Kensington. But she lost consciousness the next morning and was put down.
Mackie and Molly were buried out in the backyard and we wanted to bury Lucy there. I seem to have, almost accidently, developed yet another ritual around the burying of the cats. It involves a plain looking light blue towel. After Molly died I took her out for burial wrapped in this towel. I cannot say why, but after burying her it did not seem right to wash the towel, or use it for another purpose. So I just folded it up and put it on a shelf in my room. Ten years later, after Mackie was put down, without giving it much thought, I placed him in the same towel to take him to his already prepared grave. Again, afterwards, I returned the towel to its folded position on the shelf in my room.
After Lucy died, Mischa did not want to see her body before I buried her. So, after she went off to her gym, I dug a hole at a location just behind the small plum tree. The soil was moist and dark and the hole was easy to dig. Then I drove to the vet hospital, settled the account and was given Lucy’s carry case. A white bag had been placed into it. This contained Lucy’s body.
After I was home I picked up the towel from my room and walked out onto the back porch. The morning sun was shining. I unfolded the towel and placed it onto a divan. I took Lucy’s little body out of the white bag and placed it in the sun on top of the towel. I looked at her body lying there. I stroked it. It felt as soft as always. I scratched her behind the ear and under the chin like I had done so many times before. She lay motionless without her normal purr.
Portuguese neurologist Antonio Damasio tells us the human brain contains a variety of islands known as cortices; Different cortices process visual, auditory or tactile information. They relay information to another part of the brain, the association cortex, which makes records of what went on in the image making regions. These records are our memories. We are capable of relaying information from the association cortex back to the image making cortices in the brain.
The “self” is located within a very specific part of the brain- the brain stem. The brain stem lies between our cerebral cortex and the spinal cord and houses the life regulating functions of the body.
The basic physiology of our brain stem is shared with other vertebrates. Accordingly they also possess consciousness and a “self”. The “self” exists in a very physical way and in a very specific location. Do enough damage to that physical part of the brain and the conscious self ceases to exist. So it is also upon death.
The other vertebrates do not have a cerebral cortex which is as rich as ours. Our richer cerebral cortex results in our having a far stronger sense of self, or an “autobiographical self”, because it is built on a larger base of past memories. But the richness that evolution has given to our cerebral cortex gives us no more “entitlement” to consciousness after life than is possessed by a cat or even a non-vertebrate mosquito. And even leaving aside this scientific analysis, is it not the case that loss of consciousness upon death is palpably obvious to simple observation by the senses? My dead cat no longer purrs as she did when she was alive and conscious. How is it that so many human beings believe consciousness somehow survives death in the face of this most obvious and distressing sensual observation?
Perhaps the answer is that many people find it better to live life with false hope than with no hope. So it may have been with many voters in the USA’s rust belt at the recent Presidential election. And so it is with religion and all its comforting rituals.
And yet, who am I to judge when I too am so obviously comforted by ritual? And, after all, it is the case that the senses can deceive.
I remember after Molly was dead and buried I looked out into the backyard and thought that I glimpsed her. But it was only the movement of a similarly coloured bird on the lawn. Was it false hope that led me, for half a moment, to see a cat in a bird. In that instant it was easy to understand how our animist ancestors could believe that a rock in the shape of an animal might contain an animal spirit within it, that animals could turn into human beings or vice versa and that there had once existed a golden age when people could talk to the animals. Such is the power of hope.
I carried little Lucy to the hole, lifted her off the towel and placed her onto the bottom of her grave.
It only took a minute or so to shovel the rich black soil over her body.
Then, she was gone.
Mackie, Evie and Lucy