I published this article a few months ago, but I took it down in the midst of uncertain conditions. I bring it up again now, in the hope that it could be a lesson for all.
I received a terrible news in the beginning of Covid19 pandemic last year. My campus had just issued an official policy regarding the prohibition of feeding cats on campus. Previously, the campus, which was inhabited by quite a number of stray cats, was closed due to work-from-home policies and campus lockdowns. There are no lecturers, students or education personnel who can enter the campus except for those who are given permission. Some campus people are starting to worry: if no one can enter the campus, who will feed the cats? This concern does not develop among students alone. Several lecturers and educational staff that I met (online) also conveyed the same thing. In fact, I heard from a friend who works at the Animal Clinic, that one of his customers shared his concerns about hearing stories of cats on the campus. At first I helped answering, assuring them to stay calm, as on this campus there are many people who care about cats, and there are ways to leave cat food via a security guard or an employee on duty on campus.
That, until the policy report that I read above. The ban on feeding cats occurred along with the development of the Covid-19 outbreak, but problems between my campus and cats existed long before that. The moment is just right to be able to implement this ban because, well, before, how could the campus prohibit more than 10,000 people – students, lecturers, students, visitors – from going back and forth to and from the campus to feed cats or set aside their own leftovers for the cat? The reason for this prohibition is easy to understand: the presence of cats, especially in large numbers, can interfere with the aesthetics and comfort – and have they are also a potential carrier of diseases. There is no official statement that cats are directly related to Covid-19, but the narratives in various WhatsApp Group (WAG) link with the news that cats and dogs can be infected with the coronavirus. Please note, the Office International des Epizooties (World Organization of Animal Health), on its website , issued a statement that although studies report that some domestic cats can actually test positive for Covid-19, there is no scientific evidence that cats can transmits the disease to humans (what happens is quite the opposite, cats are infected by humans).
Social media such as WAG can also capture the horror of some people’s thinking about cats. Small statements such as cat is disgusting, should be left to starve, or better be caught and thrown on the market, they read. Admittedly, the fact that cats can disturb the work environment, spread fleas, or mess up trash cans that should be neat is also found. Not everyone likes cats too – some are even afraid of them. As an institution, the campus must ensure the comfort and health of the people who work in it. In short, the policy of getting rid of cats fulfils all logical and rational justifications for the beauty, safety, health and comfort of the work environment.
However, I would like to try to draw into a broader realm: philosophical justification. The relationship between humans and cats reflects a deeper (and more complex) relationship about humans and nature. The philosophical question about this relationship has been the subject of debate for centuries (maybe you can read this or that). In textbooks such as David Chiras’ Environmental Science (which is also used as one of the textbooks in our classes), it is emphasised that the main cause of environmental damage is human behaviour which is rooted in a certain perspective on nature: that humans are separate from nature and have the right to exploit it, that natural resources are unlimited (frontierism) and nature can renew itself (so that there is nothing wrong with taking more from nature), that economic growth (which is a proxy for people’s welfare) is above the health of the ecosystem, becoming a sugarcoat for human greed ( disclaimer: this is all statement in the book).
Even though environmental damage has occurred since the development of civilization, it seems that only in the past 300 years has the damage been increasingly amplified through the Industrial Revolution. Some environmental thinkers marked this as the starting point of a new era in world history: the Anthropocene era, where human activities significantly led to change environment on a large scale (including climate change). Phenomena such as the pollution of the Thames river in England, the long drought that caused the great famine in India in the 19th century, the US Dust Bowl in the 20th century, deforestation, decreasing biodiversity and the extinction of keystone species, global warming, and various plagues that befall society on a large scale, cannot be separated from this rapid development. I remember Dr. Sonny Mumbunan, senior researcher at the World Resource Institute, said that in this Anthropocene era, global environmental change should not be seen as a massive and simultaneous disaster, but as walking in a minefield – no one can guess what we will step on in the next step ( more on this in my other writing).
So, what does environmental damage have to do with cats? In this regard, we need to look at the ‘disturbing’ feral cat population as a spillover from modernity. For one thing, modernity demands beauty and comfort in a narrow view: humans can coexist with nature (animals, plants, natural ecosystems) as long as nature does not disturb humans (no matter how much humans disturb nature). In his book ‘Monoculture of the Mind’, Vandana Shiva, an Indian philosopher, tells how monoculture farming has its roots in a ‘monoculture’ perspective – orderly, neat, uniform. Imagine entering a jungle in a messy and haunted tropical area, as opposed to a beautifully landscaped Botanical Garden! What do you feel?
I admit that no defense of any kind can discredit the fact that humans need a place to live that is safe, healthy and comfortable. However, humans also need to redefine what they consider safe, healthy and comfortable. On the other hand, safety, health and comfort need to be achieved without compromising the other party. The expulsion of cats from campus is a symptom of the egotistical paradigm of modernity and development. On a broader scale, this can also occur in scrub, grassland or natural ecosystems that intersect with human ‘development’ – or even, in extreme (but real) cases, to fellow humans. Must we continue to displace the slum areas when the development paradigm considers that this area is not in line with the aesthetics of modern development? Or do we need to eradicate all wildlife because they are a source of disease and are dangerous for humans? Lest we find our institutions get trapped in this narrow paradigm and fail to see wider and deeper. This paper does not intend to blame anyone. I am proud of my campus, and I want to continue to encourage this campus to become an inspiration for the community. This paper also does not intend to provide practical solutions (to answer, what should we do?). Humans possess such ingenuity to provide technical solutions in dealing with problems and when faced with existing limitations. This paper, in my hope, intends to open up a new perspective, so that cats are not seen as a problem, but as a limiting factor in which other solutions can be pursued to answer real problems (if any).
I learned a lot from my wife (she is not only a cat lover, but a life lover), that if there is one thing that distinguishes humans from cats, I can assure you that feeling / affection is not it. Like humans, cats (and other higher order animals) have feelings – they can also be afraid, sad, happy, and affectionate. Many of us can relate to that feeling. I’m just worried that if we get in the habit of cutting ourselves off from these feelings on the pretext of logic, we will be “trained” to be more dull in using the same feelings to drive even bigger decisions. I hope not.