In the average lifetime, the list of things you cannot do tends to grow rather than diminish. Some of the restrictions we have witnessed were long overdue, and were widely welcomed. Many can remember the days of smoking in cinemas and planes. When smoking was banned in such places, the sigh of relief was audible. Here, at least, the imposition of a restriction served to bolster a right – the right to breath untainted air.
Other restrictions have been more controversial. Restrictions on where motorists can take their cars, although prompted by congestion issues, are less popular and have been resisted by shopkeepers. Similarly, restrictions on freedom of speech, which make people think twice about their choice of pronoun, worry those concerned with liberty of expression. A slip of the tongue can cost you your job even if you did not mean to cause offence, or may cause you to be hounded by those who disagree with your views. Silence is undoubtedly safer.
And now it’s the turn of cats.
Cats have had a lengthy run of the curious, one-sided bargain they struck with us when they consented to domestication. The Egyptians certainly pampered their vanity by deifying them: Ra, the Great Cat depicted on their temples, must have smirked with feline pleasure – and arrogance. Then there was Christopher Smart’s extraordinary ode to the cat that includes the line: “For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the Spirit.” The poet goes on to praise the way in which cats move about: “For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupeds. For he can tread to all the measures upon the music. For he can swim for life. For he can creep.”
And that, it seems, might be the catkind’s undoing. People are beginning to resent the way cats creep about. Restrictions are in the air for cats, and the freedom they have enjoyed up to now is in the balance.
It’s over, cats. I feel uncomfortable in saying that, but the writing is on the wall on which you yourself, in all your feline independence, are currently sitting, enjoying the morning sunshine.
These trends often start in the United States, but in this case the threat to cats comes from Australia. Australians are increasingly protective of their environment and the wildlife that inhabits it. This is not surprising: Australia is a continent of physical extremes, used to drought, sweeping bushfires, and the damage that can be caused by introduced species. Camels and rabbits have done well in Australia, but so have cats, and there is now a massive feral cat population. These cats have to eat something, and nature provides an attractive smørrebrød of small creatures, many of them endangered. Birds, in particular, are threatened by cats. In Australia feral cats are thought to kill 272 million birds a year, while domestic cats are estimated to dispose of 61 million. That means that Australian cats kill about one million birds a day.
Painful statistics such as these have led to increasing demands for restrictions on the keeping of pet cats. In South Australia such measures have proved surprisingly popular with the public, and there has been broad acceptance of rules requiring cats to be kept indoors or in cages if allowed out in the garden. The same thing is happening in New Zealand, where one municipality is proposing to ban cat-ownership once the current generation of domestic cats dies. The anti-cat movement is catching on.
We take it for granted that the cats living among us can move about freely. We are used to seeing them prowling around, enjoying their freedom, and there are many, I suspect, who will argue that we do not have the right to imprison them in the house. One can see the force in that argument, and yet don’t we already do that with dogs? Dogs are not meant to stray, and we accept that they are kept in or only go out under our control – at the end of a lead or within beck and call. Of course, you can’t herd cats.
For cats in Scotland this might at present be a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, but it is still a cloud. The argument, when it reaches these shores, is likely to be an intense one, but the cat lovers – amongst whom I count myself – will probably win. We like cats and there is probably not much enthusiasm for ending their freedom.
Another issue to divide the country.