Sunday, November 18, 2012

A place for everything: homeless cats and immigrant deer

"But I change the sheets every  Monday." (pet deer)

                (feral cat)

     "Forget the fireplace and the commercial cat food---I dare you to touch me . . . ."

My mother was fond of the old adage:  "A place for everything and everything in its place." This philosophy governed  weekly house cleaning rituals and the tasks 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 in boxes, books  back on shelves, dishes in the cupboard.

Which brings me to the topic at hand---what it means to be "out of place" in a much larger sense: e.g., urban  deer and feral cats. Or might that also be immigrant deer and homeless cats?  

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 governance of  geographical spaces 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, exclusion, etc.) "Home" in this country can refer to a  "house," or "apartment,"  but certainly not a car or a doorway, not a cardboard box, and not a pad of pavement under an overpass. There is a particular  uncompassionate  anxiety expressed around homelessness  that blames  those without what we think of as "homes" or "places to go" for their plight.  "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 regularly hear from  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, as well as those who have fallen on hard times) 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 who don't live with humans are showing up "loose" in urban spaces. 

In Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, it's become hard to ignore the kinds of  angry rhetoric  that 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 the 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 and, well, make us feel more human and less animal ourselves. Advocate groups  like Feral Cat Friends or Alleycats, whose volunteers are devoted to the philosophy of TNR (trap, neuter, release) are considered misguided, 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  in this case (a) are actually "urban," having come from private city preserves  that were then sold off to developers and disrupted by houses and apartments (one development ironically calling itself "DeerParkManor"), and (b) would likely die of stress myopathy if drugged and relocated. "Go back to the forests," we say, as we destroy  the forestland and habitat to develop profitable cookie-cutter houses,  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, which is munching greenery and living their amazing lives among us.  But they're the ones who are wrong, not us, we say, we need to eliminate them so we can enjoy our suburban ornamental gardens. Echoes here of 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 whom we can easily exploit); the "othering" language around  deer includes variations  "dirty and disease-ridden," "dangerous," "predatory" (deer are actually prey animals), "free-loading" (helping themselves to gardens or bird bath below-----and note,  Mr. Buck, that bird bath is for BIRDS, not deer, how dare you?).

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.

Small aside:

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 certainly 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 and thick and they're starving, which they're not). 

These outsiders  don't belong here. For one, we  can't control them. They interfere with the way we imagine our own lives to be.  They interrupt what we think of as "civilized life," which includes our love of gas-guzzling cars and cables and cell phones.  It's annoying when you go to back out from the garage and find a feral cat curled on the car hood.  It's disconcerting when you set off on a stroll through your neighborhood, and a young doe crosses  the street in front of you.   But what if we started asking different kinds of questions?   Like, why are they here?

Animals  ask us to think deeply  about ourselves. We, too, are animals.  But we set impermeable borders. We want to rise above our own animality, because it terrifies us to imagine that we, like other sentient creatures, share pain, suffering, and ultimately death. We, like them, are vulnerable.  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 deal 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)

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