The One Reason Your Cat Doesn't Eat You

By Bill Hall

Another television nature show was pointing out the obvious but fascinating fact that cats are a lot more tolerable small than large because the small ones don't try to eat us.

But let's be chillingly candid with ourselves in this matter. The only thing that keeps your cat from following its natural instincts and eating you like a chicken dinner is size. If a housecat were the same size as a lion, it would do what a lion would do: It would eat you without a twinge of remorse.

There really isn't that much difference between a lion and a housecat except size. So the same cat that now snuggles in your lap and purrs with apparent and sometimes genuine affection would, if 10 times larger, follow its irresistible instincts and view you more as lunch than as friend.

Granted, that's not fair. We are 10 times larger than our cats but we don't see them as dinner. Indeed, we serve them dinner. And there's no excuse for their ethical inadequacy in that regard except, of course, that cats, charming as they can be, aren't nearly as smart as some of the more gullible human beings think they are. They are dumb animals incapable of ethical judgments. And it is a deeply imbedded part of their survival instinct to be nice to larger critters and to regard smaller critters as tasty morsels.

We know that not only from the obvious tendencies of housecats but from the known conduct of large cats in the history of their relationship with our kind. The television nature show pointed out that lions once feasted pretty much at will on our ancestors, that there was once a time when humans lived in terror of the large kitties of the world.

It would still be no fun to roam around the tall grass of Africa among hungry lions without protection. And the time once was when the lion was literally the king of beasts, fearing nothing else on earth. The tables turned when the pointy stick was invented by our ancestors. When humans invented weapons, things changed. Not only did humans have some protection against cats but, if they wanted to gang up and press they point, they could kill and eat the cats. The dinner became the diner. And vice versa.

While the big cats today still present some considerable threat to humans in some circumstances, there is a general timidness toward us, armed or not, that I suspect might be attributable to some natural selection among the big cats. Simply stated, the cats that showed no fear of humans ended up on the end of pointy sticks, thereby removing their rudeness toward our kind from the gene pool. A few generations of that, and the only remaining big cats in most places are the ones with a yellow streak.

Similarly, the housecats who were most likely to survive and have kittens of their own were the ones who were most gifted at sucking up to humans, thereby securing a warm place to sleep and regular rations.

The big cats could always have had the same arrangement if they had been smart enough to grovel for food and feign affection. But they ignorantly tended to kill us rather than con us. Thus the large cats killed the golden goose rather than take advantage of the opportunity to maintain a regular supply of golden eggs -- or, in this case, a regular ration of cat food.

Nonetheless, things have worked out for the best. If the big cats had been more friendly and inclined to exploit friendship for food, we might have ended up with the same relationship as with the small cats. That would have meant much larger cat food bills, not to speak of the discomfort of trying to share a couch with a 600-pound lion. And of course, putting out the cat at night would have become a substantial chore.

Fortunately, we invented the sharp stick before a relationship so awkward had a chance to bloom. And there was probably never any hope that any cat could overcome its natural tendency to devour creatures smaller than itself. But that raises the intriguing question of what happens to housecats if mice and birds ever have the wit to discover sharp sticks.

Meanwhile, I share the couch with the cats at our house, but I snooze with one eye open. And I eat enough chips to keep my weight up to the point where it is clear to all concerned which of us is the larger.


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