From 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, you may check out an animal for a week from the Sulphur Creek Nature Center’s Small Animal Lending Library, part of the Hayward Area Recreation & Park District in California’s Bay Area. It’s one of the few of its ilk, and probably the only animal lending library currently extant. No, they inform you when you ask, you can’t renew your guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, or rats. For twenty dollars, you may “find out about the responsibilities and enjoyment of having a pet—feeding, cleaning, grooming, handling, and exercising—without the long-term expense and commitment of purchasing an animal.”
Isn’t long-term commitment what we want a pet for? Don’t we want an amiable ghost to haunt our house, a beast to sop up our care and desires and prove itself a companion for more than just the week? Don’t we want a creature with enough there there to address as “who,” not as “that”? Isn’t what we want connection? I don’t think a week will cut it, but it’s a start.
The director doesn’t know exactly how or when the library originated, but it’s not the first. Several popped up in midcentury America, including one run by the Wisconsin Humane Society and one in Sacramento, created by John Ripley Forbes and made famous by an article in Life. It lent blackbirds, magpies, rabbits, rats, hamsters, mice, turtles, lizards, snakes, and porcupines, just to name a few. Skunks too.
“A child’s response to any living thing is emotional,” said Forbes. Let’s remember that. It’s harder to ignore a purring cat, even a boring one, than it is to slip a dull book back on the shelf. Blame Forbes for that mid-century boom in lending animals. Though conservation was his life’s work, it often manifested itself in animal lending libraries and “nature muse- ums.” His thought: get living things into kids’ hands and watch them come alive. And so they did.
Because it’s a small-animal lending library, it’s easier to disregard the creepy equation at its heart. Do we believe animals are ours to lend? Are they here for us, to instruct or entertain, to do with as we will? What does it say that animal lending libraries don’t lend dogs or cats or horses or chimpanzees, animals with longer lives and more complicated brains? It’s not just logistics that get in the way. Evidently we believe hamsters suffer less and get less attached, that they’re less likely to mind being lent or moved, to have a theory of mind—that they are less there, less potentially themselves—than, say, cats. Thus it doesn’t bother us to reduce them to the equivalent of a book, something to be lent and returned without much thought to the preferences of the beast. I’ll be straight with you: I believe this too. I’m not just saying it to troll you here. Yet I find myself uneasily weighing the relative disposability—or lendability—of different animals. If there is a line between the lendable and not, where you locate it is in part a matter of your own comfort with ethical ambiguity.
Even if we are not dog enthusiasts, for most of us, dogs are not disposable, though when my neighbors’ hound yowls out its apostrophe to the night, I wish they were. Dog lovers love each other’s dogs. They want to talk to others who love their dogs. They want to socialize their dogs. They want to socialize with others who want to socialize with the sort of people who want to socialize their dogs. To accomplish this, dog lovers congregate at the dog park, where their animals cavort and check each other out, as do the humans, if with less obvious sniffing. But where do cat lovers go to connect? Cats do not relish opportunities to meet new, strange animals, even if their caretakers might want to prick their own lonelinesses with a pin of shared light. Thus Scott Stulen, Internet Cat Video Festival producer, theorizes, “The internet is a cat park.” So instead of going out, we go to YouTube to check out videos of cats and check out each other in the comments sections.
I don’t use the idiom “check out” idly. Or, like most idioms, at first I use it idly, but then, thinking about it, I get excited at its permutations. It can refer to acquiring a circulating something from a library or assessing a potential sexual or intellectual partner. It can also mean to leave, say, a hospital, or life itself. Yet it accrues more meaning: to seek out and investigate a phenomenon, like a trending cat video a friend mentioned in passing. And on top of that, it also means to absent your brain from an irritating pastime (such as disambiguating idioms). You can start to see connections, right? Each of these instances involves some sort of circulation, a departure from a place or train of thought (we won’t even get into disambiguating “train of thought”), an entrance into another state.
Asterisk: Some cats do like to circulate. I think here of Three, my neighbor’s unimaginatively named three-legged cat, and how he would jauntily make his rounds about the neighborhood, collecting food and affection at each stop. He was a good-natured, well-fed animal who just died this year. Now he’s only here in the hall of memory.
Most cats do not want to be lent or circulated, but posting a video’s not so hard. It’s really an exchange without losing anything (except perhaps your self-respect): I have a cat. It does something fun. You evidently want to see a cat doing fun things. I post a video. You watch the video. You have fun. You experience an emotional response. In this you are again like a child (a rare pleasure, this kind of occasional disarming). Maybe it’s enough that you laugh out loud and show or send it to a friend. The database registers your click and the span of your attention and punctuates your interest with commercials. The view count goes up. If it goes up enough, I may try to monetize your interest. With each view our territory, such as it is, expands. My cat treads through your bedroom digitally. The cat itself is not aware of this.
Does putting our cats online constitute a loan? Do we retain our clips? Will they or can they be taken from us or returned? Who owns these things: maker, viewer, or intermediary? YouTube says you do own your clip, and while you retain most of your rights, by posting it you grant YouTube non-exclusive rights to do with it whatever it wishes in perpetuity. You still own it, but you no longer retain exclusive control. The medium takes control. We all should know by now that sharing on the internet invites the readers’ participation with or without our say-so in the matter: My sharing courts your remix, not just your clicks. YouTube doesn’t let you download clips, but there are ways around that for those of us who would want to keep these things. (Does anyone download and maintain a library of cat videos? If so, drop me a note; I’d love to talk with you.)
Likewise, there’s no need to return these clips when we’re done with them. They are disposable—or maybe we never acquired them. At most we acquired an emotional experience and a memory of them. We might think they’ll always be here. And some won’t leave us anyway.
Let’s look at the famous Nyan Cat, a lesson in exhaustion: An official selection of the 2014 Internet Cat Video Festival, Nyan Cat is a looped, 8-bit, Pop Tart-bodied, animated cat flying through space, trailing rain- bows while an inane sample from a Japanese song plays. It goes on and on and on repeat; inane doesn’t cover it—add an s, and you’re maybe halfway there. Its charm is its reverse: a perversity, it exists to irritate. Conversely, its popularity is immense. The website nyan.cat (and just to hijack this sentence for a little while, nyan.cat hijacks the domain suffix .cat, designed to help spread the Catalan culture and language. Eliding the two, when I load the .cat domain’s registration page, Google Translate renders its first instruction from Catalan to English as “register a cat”—which in a way is what we do when we post our pet to YouTube: We check our cat into the database; now he is no longer only ours) tracks how long you can tolerate Nyan Cat’s numbing song with- out incurring vertigo.
I’d suggest you check it out, but I can’t recommend the experience. It gets intense real fast. Still, for this anthology—for science—I tried super hard. After several attempts, I must report that I can’t make it past 334 seconds without an intense feeling of having wasted my life. As if to acknowledge the pointlessness of your achievement, the website offers, “Tweet your record!” Sir, I will not. First, I’ll barf.
Calling it a “record” or an “achievement” mocks the trend of gamifying every little thing in our culture. It’s pretty funny, actually.
Watching cat videos is different than watching cats or petting cats or trying to pet recalcitrants who would nip your hand instead. It’s the least immersive interaction you can have with a cat. Like nostalgia or consuming porn, it’s not an interaction at all, but a kind of loop: it plugs you back into your own predictable desire.
Watching cat videos with other people is an interaction…barely. I consider it a nadir of the culture, which already has a lot of nadirs. (Perhaps, writer, you do not understand what nadir means?) When I am drinking at their homes, my friends insist on queuing up cat videos on their screens. I can’t take it. They know I can’t. I have to turn away. They coo and ohh and troll me gleefully, extolling the virtues of these cute pets and their sounds. My irritation rises with a flush. It’s like the doldrums of the after-dinner conversation in which we find ourselves recounting the antics of our pets: We’re exhausted; we’re not connecting; we’re talking to ourselves about ourselves. We might as well go home alone, our buzzes gone.
I’m not proud of this response. I’m not even sure I understand it. Even when I see it coming, I can’t seem to stop it. At the least it’s adolescent, this too-cool-for-schoolness with which I’m filled, this resistance to digital cuteness. It’s not as if I don’t enjoy watching other stupid things. But cute only allows for two responses: aww or irritation. Does my resistance mean I want to insulate myself from feeling? Maybe watching cat videos with ten thousand other people in a fairground or a field somehow would invert it, like doing anything with ten thousand other people in a fairground or a field does.
Like a crowd, the internet preserves and amplifies a buzz: We watch because others do, because we saw it somewhere or were told, because it was forwarded or linked to us, because we are susceptible to listicles. But leaving our houses and assembling by the thousands to attend the Internet Cat Video Festival shows another kind of faith. In what, I wonder: Pointlessness? Loneliness? Irony? Nostalgia? Are we opting out of our desires to biggie-size our glittering consumer-grade culture and fit it in our mouths by watching videos of cats instead? Are we engaging our shared mania for mania? Do we just join a loop? Or is it where the meta and the aww can meet and coexist, where we might meet someone to coexist with?
When we watch cats onscreen, we always watch the past. (And we watch ourselves watching the past, etcetera ad nauseam.) Do we understand that this library—that any library—is mostly ghosts? Many of these cats by now have died, starting with the historical ones (the stars of Thomas Edison’s 1894 video “Boxing Cats,” almost certainly the first cat video). Only a handful of these animals will outlive their lives as memes. Marty, Nyan Cat’s inspiration, died in 2012. Fatso, better known as Keyboard Cat (made famous for his undignified puppet pantomime), died in 1987, before the internet was born. In our way, we venerate his name. Colonel Meow died in 2014 before turning three. Dewey Readmore Books, the famous library cat of Spencer, Iowa, died in 2006. His obituary ran in more than 250 newspapers. Even Three died, though he was not obituarized (except in this parenthetical: RIP, Three; you were a good-ass cat, video or no video). If we have video, we can still hold them on our screens. They will perform their tricks on command. Like smoke, their view count will rise forever. Watch and rinse, repeat.
The most famous internet cat at the present moment (always that caveat when we speak of celebrity) hails from two and a half hours north of me in Arizona. Grumpy Cat, nom de guerre of the inexplicably misspelled “Tardar Sauce” (at the time of her birth, her owner was reportedly waitressing at Red Lobster), lives in Morristown, Arizona, not in fact a town, as the name implies, but a “census-designated place” (“a concentration of population identified by the United States Census Bureau for statistical purposes” to get all Wikisexy on your asses). Indeed, there’s little there in Morristown if you were to drive through. Space and cacti. While Tabatha Bundesen surely owns her pet (and has indeed registered the trademarks and made the requisite deals and monetized and merchandized and got an agent and so forth, to pin the point up on the wall and lance it like a boil), we have come to own her too, we viewers, we fans.
A cat video without a viewer is no cat video at all. Only via our viral likes does it earn status. Posting a cat video becomes a religious act, or at least one of belief. Fans feel so strongly about Grumpy Cat that they turn out in the thousands to see her (yes, she is a she) “in person” at her appearances at festivals. How else to raise the ante on our friends who’ve only seen her videos? Is it any different than the pleasure we take from attending concerts in the flesh? By so doing, we can bore our friends at later dates. We were there. We may not count for much, but we were there.
Grumpy Cat’s fans can be intense. They want to interface with Grumpy Cat so powerfully and constantly that Tabatha has had to stipulate that she will only be available a maximum of once a week for photo sessions. Of course you’ll have to pay.
If you want to interface with animals and won’t settle for a video and don’t have a pet of your own and don’t live close enough to the Small Animal Lending Library to use its services, you do have other options. You can think about adopting: In Tucson, make your way to the Humane Society, or to the Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter, or to the rows of cages at PetSmart that I find to be so singularly depressing that I close my eyes when I pass them (I can’t handle their collected neediness). The only thing that could be sadder than woeful pets in cages looking hopefully at me—dreaming of “a forever home,” to put it in the parlance of the times—is if my visit could be soundtracked, like the commercials featuring one-eyed dogs for the ASPCA, by Sarah McLachlan songs.
Here: just take all the money.
Actually, as all the earbudded or ostentatiously headphoned teens know, you can soundtrack, and thus better tolerate, any experience.
Today I want to get my hands on an animal, and mine will not comply. So I head to the obvious place, the International Wildlife Museum (IWM) on Tucson’s western edge. It’s so often confused for the Desert Museum that when you walk in, a placard on the desk reads THIS IS NOT THE DESERT MUSEUM. It’s just a museum in the desert.
It turns out the IWM is closing in an hour for the rest of the week to host the Fifteenth Annual Predator Masters convention. The Predator Masters are a bunch of internet friends (“the largest predator hunting organization in the world . . . almost 50,000 members worldwide”) who specialize in hunting predatory animals (and whose planned competitive coyote-shooting excursion for the weekend has generated quite a lot of local controversy, for obvious reasons). As I arrived, a disgruntled-looking group was being given directions to the Desert Museum, which, you may want to know, is about twenty minutes west if you keep following the road (and if you visit Tucson, you really need to go there first; it’s spectacular, and they have animals).
The IWM also has animals, even if they are pretty much all dead. Aside from the docents, eleven tourists, and the staff setting up for the Predator Masters, the only living things I saw were in three small terrariums in the entry room, which was otherwise devoted exclusively to glass cases of mounted moths and pinned beetles. They housed, respectively, a giant desert hairy scorpion, a bunch of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and an Arizona blond tarantula, none of which moved at all while I was there. As if to reassure us they really were alive, the signs read LIVE ANIMALS: PLEASE DO NOT TAP THE GLASS. Though I did not do so, I definitely wanted to tap the glass.
Everything past that point is dead or fake and mostly taxidermied with various levels of skill and realism. First there’s an odd display of animal skeletons: pigeon, rat, mink, cat, and barn owl. Then a box of furs that you can stroke. Here’s a whole room of horns and tusks and hair and teeth, some of which you can touch. And whoa, here’s a huge taxidermied ostrich positioned against an impressionistic painted panorama. I was excited to encounter an array of animals frozen in battle-posture dioramas: Leopard v. Chacma Baboon, Wolves v. Caribou, Unsporting Gray Wolf v. Eastern Gray Squirrel, Bobcat v. Overmatched California Quail, Mountain Lion v. North American Pronghorn, Two Honey Badgers v. Cobra, Really Irritated Ostrich v. Hyena Stealing Ostrich’s Egg. This seemed like a great use of taxidermy.
I petted all of this that I could reach. All of it felt cold.
It’s not actually clear what you’re allowed to touch and what you’re not. I figure if it’s not under glass and you can reach the carcass without falling over the barrier, it’s fair game to give it a stroke. So I ran my fingers through a wild boar’s coarse fir and the shellacked feathers of a bunch of large birds. I handled the leg of a bear and a lot of tusks and horns. I mean, I touched what used to be those things. Well, a tusk is still a tusk, but touching the leg of a dead bear isn’t touching a bear.
There is also an amusing room filled with arrays of poop that terminates with an image of an elephant’s rear captioned The End.
The centerpiece of the museum—and the room least invested in education and most obviously resembling an elaborate trophy case—is McElroy Hall, named after the museum’s founder, who accumulated many of the trophies. Enter it and be amazed, or perhaps nauseated. The whole room is stuffed (ha ha) with animals, dead and mounted, some whole, or if not, at least we have their heads. (Personally I might prefer a whole room of mounted hooves or eyes, which at least would feel a little more honest in their synecdoche.) I found it overwhelming. If the rest of the museum verges on parody, this room goes way beyond it into crazy colonial white guy, camo-face-painted, patriarchal farce. I only managed to stay in there longer than 334 seconds because I was counting parts of animals so you’d believe that I was there. On the far wall, for instance, there are 109 deer or other horned mammals in rows that disintegrate into bunches of animal heads toward the right end. Quite a few them are babies. I mean, they were fawns. Now they’re the equivalent of suburban lawns, glossy and well groomed and saying something about conformity.
Stunned by muchness, you may want to sit. Happily, in front of the wall of deer, there’s an alligator you can sit on to catch your breath. Behind you, there are ten great stuffed cats in macho poses, if animals can be said to have a macho pose. Three dudes in camouflage clustered around a really big moose, unsure of whether—or how—to touch it. A woman exclaimed at the number of taxidermied fawns: “Oh they’re all so small! Why they’re just babies!”
I checked out for a while after that.
As a coda, the last room you walk through is devoted to three fabricated prehistoric animals: the always-awesome woolly mammoth and the giant deer (which is exactly what it sounds like: a huge deer with an improbably large, twelve-foot antler span). Last, there is a wall-sized painting of a car-sized beaver inset with a case exhibiting a “modern beaver skull.” The exhibit is captioned, accurately, “Giant Beaver.” Though there is no way to pet the giant beaver, still I ran my hands along the wall. I had hoped to raid the gift shop for a complete catalog of the museum’s holdings, but it was decimated, or maybe all packed up to host the Predator Masters, with nothing to offer except for snacks. No one was there to take my money for a large Arizona Iced Tea, so I just stuffed it in my bag. Where might have once been educational materials and books and shirts and toys for kids, or even toy guns, there was now just open space, half-arranged chairs, and some sort-of-realistic savannah sounds leaking in from the room next door.
I felt very empty after. Not empty in the Nyan Cat way or the watching-cat-videos-with-friends way, but for sure a boggled emptiness. I wasn’t sure how to process the experience. For a wildlife museum, that sure was a lot of death. Was it real? Did it constitute an animal encounter? I wasn’t sure if I was having an emotional response or an existential one. I thought of writing a letter to Albert Goldbarth.
I watched a couple cat videos on my laptop to clean my emotional palate and drank my Arizona Iced Tea. It was sure sugary; it went down easy. Maybe this is what these things are for.
On my return, I did track down my three cats and give them each a serious petting.
A placeless place, Morristown, population 227, was called Vulture Siding until 1897, then Hot Springs Junction for a while, then eventually just Morristown, after its first inhabitant. Its only notable resident (who cannot, I note, be counted in its population) and by far its most popular attraction is Grumpy Cat. Her owners have spoken publicly about taxidermy as an option when she dies.
“The Internet Is a Cat Video Library” appears in the forthcoming book Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, published by Coffee House Press, 2015. Copyright © 2015 by Ander Monson.