Today’s indoor cat is a tiger robbed of his dominion, a Lamborghini left idling in the garage.
By David Grimm
Mr. Grimm is the author of “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs.”
About 13 years ago, my fiancée and I started to go for walks in our neighborhood. When we’d step out of the house, cars often lingered at the intersection out front a bit longer than they should have. People would stop us to ask questions. And the patrons of a restaurant across the street framed by large, plate-glass windows would occasionally run outside and shout, “It’s you — we’ve heard about you!”
Perhaps this wasn’t so surprising. We were walking our cats, after all. On leashes.
We weren’t trying to start a movement. And we weren’t the only people in the country who had the crazy idea to buy a small dog harness, strap it onto a nonplused feline, and pray that the tens of millions of years of evolution that separate dogs and cats would suddenly evaporate. We just wanted our two kittens — Jasper and Jezebel — to experience more of the world than our cramped 800-square-foot apartment in the heart of Baltimore. We also wanted to keep them from running out into traffic.
In the past two decades, there has been a growing movement to confine our feline friends indoors. Veterinarians argue that this significantly extends their life spans, protecting them from disease, cars and predators. Wildlife advocates contend that outdoor cats are a blight on ecosystems, killing countless birds and small mammals every year. Increasingly, it seems, no one wants to cross paths with an outdoor cat.
Yet cats belong to a proud race of savanna kings and nomadic carnivores. Their ancestors slunk out of the deserts of the Near East 10,000 years ago to hunt mice in our early villages, and they have been free to roam our backyard jungles since. They have not evolved to slumber in our living rooms.
People began to keep dogs as indoor pets in large numbers in the late 1800s, thanks to the invention of flea and tick shampoos. And yet, cats remained outside. Even the advent of Kitty Litter in 1947 could not contain them completely; tomcats still prowled alleys at night, in search of a mate — or a fight. Today’s indoor cat is a tiger robbed of his dominion, a Lamborghini left idling in the garage.
So how do we honor cats, while protecting them from the world — and the world from them?
The solution lies in what we’ve already done with dogs for decades: We need to start walking our cats. I’m not saying that you should put your cat on a leash like we did. They don’t like you telling them where to go. But we should let our cats outside for 30 to 60 minutes a day to rove yards, stroll sidewalks and disappear into shrubbery.
And we should be there to watch them. We should pick them up when they head for the street. We should whistle or clap our hands when they begin stalking a bird. And we should have a bag of treats ready when it’s time to call them back indoors.
We don’t let our dogs wander unsupervised or destroy whatever they want. We should exercise the same responsibility with our cats.
I’m not going to lie to you. Walking a cat is not easy. You’re going to spend a lot of time just standing there while they chatter at squirrels. You’re going to lose track of them when they double back on you under a bush. You’re going to get some questions from your neighbors, concerned, that perhaps you might have finally lost it. Bring a magazine — and a sense of humor.
You may not get any cardio, but you’ll most likely make some new friends. And with each day, you’ll see your cat come alive in amazing ways, bolting, scaling, leaping and becoming one with the wild world around him. And you’ll marvel at the miracle of this once fearsome and solitary predator who decided to be your best friend.
When your cat does return home, I think you’ll find, as we have, that he comes back a complete being, one who has salved his savage heart and who is now perfectly content to be the lion in your lap. Sure, you’re going to get some strange glances from other people. But it will be nothing compared with the look in your cat’s eyes when you open the front door.