bleep galore! How cats are taking over the world
As the Monopoly steam iron is discarded in favour of a cat game piece, the useless pet claws its way to world domination
Monopolised: 5,000 years after the pharaohs, we are heading towards a new age of cat worship
By William Langley
7:00AM GMT 10 Feb 2013
Beyond the hard-to-refute argument that they are the world’s most useless animals, cats appear to have everything going their way. In the past 20 years, they have overtaken dogs to become Britain’s most popular pet, relentlessly raised their social profile, and colonised the internet to such an extent that Google has now installed special programmes to monitor their advance.
For what can appear, at first acquaintance, to be a small, fur-coated, heat-seeking digestive tract that sleeps 16 hours a day, this is some achievement. Not that the cats show any signs of easing up. Last week they pulled off another significant coup in having the iron thrown out of the Monopoly set. To be replaced by… a cat.
Keen to refresh the image of its 80-year-old board game, Hasbro, the toy company that makes Monopoly, held a worldwide poll inviting devotees to suggest changes to the traditional line-up of tokens. The old flat iron, burdened with the trappings of domestic drudgery, was voted out. The cat, according to Hasbro, “will be a fantastic replacement” that reflects the interests and aspirations of modern players.
The crypto-capitalist nature of the game suggests otherwise. Over the past five years, sales of irons in the UK have risen by 5 per cent, while the cat population – currently around eight million – has suffered an uncharacteristic dip. It isn’t hard to see why. Ironing your own clothes saves you money, while cats, literally, devour it.
Not that their march towards global domination will be impeded for long. Cats have several key advantages in the modern era, and the evidence suggests that, 5,000 years after the pharaohs, we are heading towards a new age of cat worship. For a start, cats were well ahead of the game when the internet came along, and are now the world’s most wired pets. Out there on the web you can find cuddly pandas and dogs doing clever tricks, but cats come at you in serious numbers and from all directions, like some great cream-slurping tsunami.
Last year saw the launch of the first ever Internet Cat Video Film Festival in Minneapolis, which drew 10,000 people from all over the world. If this sounds bizarre, consider that the web’s favourite cat, Maru, has his own YouTube channel that has attracted over 188 million views – double the number of the official White House video page.
The cats’ conquest of the internet isn’t easily explained. Some experts believe cat owners – excused the responsibility of going for walkies or cleaning bird cages – simply spend more time on their computers.
Others see a deeper explanation. Michael Newall, a professor of art history and philosophy at the University of Kent, argues that cats are masterly manipulators of human emotions, and the internet gives them the stage they always wanted. Those annoying cat habits, such as going into deep-dither mode on the doorstep as an icy gale blasts down your hallway, or running up the stairs just as you are coming down them with a paint tray, look much more fun when they happen to other people. “Cats are very expressive, so they are a perfect canvas for human emotions,” says Ben Huh, founder of Cheezburger, one of the most popular cat-fan sites. “Which makes them awesome.”
And, to an extent, makes them scary. There’s no doubt that the cat ascendancy has many people worried. Some see the moggies as merciless stormtroopers – a kind of furred Reich – out to establish their superiority over dogs, budgies and hamsters. Not to mention their owners. What, they ask, did cats ever do for us?
It’s a reasonable question. Even the most active cat – a strictly relative term – is likely to spend about 85 per cent of its day doing absolutely nothing. Priority time allocations are made over to eating, scratching your furniture, mating, if possible, and standing close behind you as you step back from the stove carrying a giant wok of scalding Kung Bo lobster. Then it goes back to sleep.
The two most severe indictments of cats as domestic animals are that they are primarily attached to places not people, and that they lack what anthropologists call “a specific utility”. Which is to say they can’t do anything that couldn’t be done better by something else.
But overcoming this absence of a role is part of the cat’s genius. The creatures were around some time before us, but life in the wild was wearisome, and when the first human settlements appeared, wreathed in the whiff of roasted mastodon, the cats had the good sense to see their future.
Admittedly, this involved doing a spot of work. In exchange for scraps and shelter, the cats chased off the rats, mice and birds. Over many centuries, an uneasy accommodation developed, whereby the humans gradually took over most of the tasks allocated to the cats, and the cats responded by sleeping more.
By the time it became obvious – thanks to sanitation, pesticides etc – that we had no real need of cats, we had discovered an entirely new purpose for them. They entertained us, kept us company, treated us with healthy disdain, and made us appreciate that – as Freud famously said – “time with cats is never wasted”.
If cats are the coming species, it’s hard to begrudge them the moment. The times we live in are less sociable, more self-fixated than most of us have known before, but cats have known little else, and now we may have to look to them for guidance. This will be the “specific utility” the beasts weren’t supposed to have, and if they play it right it will be a big bonus for them. Like waking up and discovering you own a hotel on Mayfair.