"But I always change the sheets on Monday." (pet deer)
"Forget the fireplace and the commercial cat food---I dare you . . . ."
My mother used to quote this adage: "A place for everything and everything in its place." This philosophy governed weekly house cleaning, a task I was assigned every Saturday, like clock work, when I'd pull a bandana over my hair, and pull out the dust rags and the Hoover, and begin to rein in the messes of my four younger siblings. Order, the antidote to chaos. Toys where toys should be. Books back on shelves.
Which brings me to the topic at hand: immigrant deer and homeless cats, and what happens when we perceive other sentient beings as not being where they're supposed to be.
The vitriolic and often mean-spirited rhetoric around human homelessness and human immigration seem to spring from the same, or at least similar, panic about geographical space and, in this case, who (not what) belongs where and who doesn't belong here. (I won't go into the historic imbalances of private property allocations, etc.) "Home" in this country can mean "house," or "apartment," not a car or a doorway, not a cardboard box, and not a pad of pavement under an overpass. There is a particular kind of uncompassionate anxiety expressed around homelessness that results in blaming those without what we think of as "homes" or "places to go." "Home" can also mean "country" or "national identity," or "looking like an American" (which, for a long time, meant you know what), and is often launched like a grenade at immigrants, both documented and undocumented, particularly if they don't "look like you know what."
In addition, as we heard from our angry right-wing Tea Partyers, there's just way too much free-loading going on these days: by the homeless (many of whom are of course damaged war vets and the mentally ill) and by the "illegal immigrants" (you know the ones who come "in search of a handout," but on whom our economy depends, the shadow labor hired cheap to drywall our remodels and landscape our expensive gardens and care for our children). And, additionally, if you don't look like me (whatever the "me" looks like), you really need to go "back to where you came from" or, at the very least, "go home."
But what does that mean? Home, I mean. Globalization, human encroachment, overpopulation of people, long histories of colonization and imperialization, destruction of habitat all add up to a tectonic shift in notions of place: for better and for worse, animals and people are both moving around and being moved around, and more and more animals are showing up "loose" in urban spaces.
In Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, it's become increasingly noticeable how the same kinds of angry rhetoric gets deployed around nonhuman animals who are not "in their place." Consider specifically feral cats ("homeless") and, more urgently, the urban deer ("immigrants" ), both of whose very lives are endangered by fear and ignorance of human beings, and both of whom are perceived as being in the wrong place (deer don't belong in cities and cats belong safely ensconced inside someone's house). One is "wild" and one is "domestic." Or so we believe. And never the twain shall meet, which is why feral cats and urban deer defy these neat categories that help us humans organize our lives. Advocate groups like Feral Cat Friends or Alleycats, whose volunteers are devoted to the philosophy of TNR (trap, neuter, release), and defenders of the deer are dismissed as naive "bleeding hearts" (Bambi lovers, etc.).
"Go back to the forests," we say to these deer who (a) are actually "urban," having come from private preserves in the city that were then disrupted by development, and (b) would likely die of stress myopathy if drugged and relocated. "Go back to the forests," we say, as we destroy the forestland to develop more cookie-cutter houses (for profit), destroying habitat, and creating the perfect conditions for an edge species like deer, and other "displaced" wildlife. And of course who's to blame? Well, the deer, of course, who quietly wander in Bloomington, now well-adapted to urban life, going about their cervid business. They're the ones who are wrong, not us, we say. Not unlike the hate-filled language around the thousands of immigrants who flow into the U.S. (please note our economy depends on the labor of undocumented persons), the language around deer includes variations on "other," outsiders, "dangerous," "predatory" (deer are actually prey animals), "free-loading" (helping themselves to gardens or bird bath below-----and note, that bird bath is for BIRDS, not deer, how dare he?).
Below is a picture of a "homeless" cat. At least that's how he was described in Photo Bucket. How do we know he's homeless? He's taking a nap under newspapers. There's no evidence of human comfort around him; instead there's flora, maybe someone's garden, and he appears to be sleeping on a rock. Substitute a human being under newspapers or cardboard box and add a shopping cart, maybe strip away the foliage and put in a dumpster, and you've got all the signifiers. Human garbage. Cat garbage. Homeless.
He needs a human to take him "home" and domesticate him. He must belong somewhere.
However, take this same cat and put him here:
Transformation! House cat. Sofa. Where a human would sit. The status of each of these cats is calculated by the relationship each cat has to the human world. One is a pet, loved and doted on. The other is a nuisance, something to eliminate.
The refusal to spay and neuter domestic cats leads to their proliferation, increasing the feral population at astronimical rates (shelters euthanize cats at a much higher rate than they euthanize dogs, etc.)
Feral cats are not a cat problem, they are a people problem. Urban deer are not a deer problem, they're a people problem. And maybe instead of seeing them as "problems," we might start to think about them as urban companions, and contemplate what it means to share space with them.
The way we define ourselves in relation to urban deer and homeless cats is quite striking, and has material impact on their very flesh and blood bodies. We're happy to see cervids behind bars in zoos, or maybe off in the distance in a woods, or on a wintry holiday card, but not in our backyards. We love our pet indoor cat who is well-fed, vetted, and "pillowed," and may even match the sofa, but despise the "stray cat" who enters uninvited, a transgressor, threatening our well-organized lives, a disruption. He doesn't look clean (with the deer, people claim they look sick). We call animal control to take him away. Meaner people shoot or poison him.
These outsiders don't belong here. For one, we can't control them. They do things that interfere with the way we imagine our own lives. They interrupt what we think of as "civilized life," which includes gas-guzzling cars and cables and cell phones. It's annoying when you go to back out from the garage and there's the feral cat curled on the car hood. It's disconcerting when you set off on a stroll through your neighborhood, and a young buck is crossing the street in front of you. But what if we started asking different kinds of questions. Animals ask us to think deeply about ourselves. We, too, are animals. But we set limits. Why is it we enjoy these animals as represented on the Discovery channel at a safe distance (of course we can shut them off with the remote any time we want, and we don't have to deel with the inconvenience of their physical presence up close: their actual bodies, and the bodily evidence of their presence (scat, poop, marking by male cats, flower damage by deer, etc.), but fear or despise them when they move among us?
Homeless cats. Immigrant deer. This could be a poem. Fur, claws, hooves, antlers, eyes, noses, ears, one a predator, the other prey, though not of each other. Sometimes I imagine the deer and cats passing in the night. What would they say to one another? What are all these people doing here?
(More to follow)