What happened to cats having nine lives?
Dear showrunners, screenwriters, and creators of all kinds,
Let the cat live.
You should know what I’m talking about. The way when a monster, human or otherwise, and a housecat exist in the same narrative, the cat ends up dead. It’s the new litmus test of monstrosity. Long gone are the days of Alien, when Jones the cat was Ripley’s sole fellow survivor. For all of the cues that monster movies still take from Ridley Scott’s classic, letting the feline companion live to see the end credits has unfortunately not been one of them.Jones, the ‘Alien’ survivor
I have observed this trend on the rise for years. David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Just this past month, Mindhunter and Stranger Things 2. Cats have become the canaries in the coal mine of modern suspense.
For all of you out there contributing to the rising popularity of this trope, I have one question: have any of you actually met a cat before?
Early in Game of Thrones, back in the days when Ned Stark was still alive, a key component of Arya’s badass training is chasing cats. In the book, there’s this one particularly vicious old cat that stalks around the Red Keep—and, going off of some very deliberate-seeming phrasing on George R. R. Martin’s part, quite likely was formerly known as Balerion and belonged to Rhaenys Targaryen. According to a story a gold cloak tells Arya, the cat in question once stole a roast quail right out of Tywin Lannister’s hand. In other words: not only did the cat survive the Sack of King’s Landing, but he remembered.
Of course, Game of Thrones is fantasy, but as a cat mom of three, I can say that this cat narrative rings far more true to my experience of cats than the coal-mine-canary cat. Cats not canaries, they are canary killers. And I mean that quite literally; the American Bird Conservatory lists domestic house cats as the #1 threat to birds in the United States and Canada, and the Invasive Species Specialist Group published a list of “100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species” in 2000 which included house cats. A New York Times article on a study done in 2013 reported that “more birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats[…] than from automobile strikes, pesticides, and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so-called anthropogenic causes.” In sum: cats are far more predator than prey, though movies and TV show them being left as offerings far more than them leaving offerings of their own, as actual cats are wont to do. Most cat owners cannot determine whether these offerings are intended as gifts or warnings, but many of us find this fact strangely endearing.
Not only are cats highly skilled at killing, they are masters of disguise. A cat that does not want to be found will not be found. I say this as someone who has spent twenty plus minutes searching for an old, somewhat overweight cat in a two bedroom apartment and still turned up empty handed (for the record: the cat appeared about an hour later; I still have no idea where the hell she was hiding). So say you are a monster and you see a cat who you would like to violently murder. Between managing to spot the cat and having to deal with its sharp claws and teeth, you will have to catch it, and house cats can move at speeds of up to 29.8 miles an hour—faster than any human. So in a two-people-running-from-a-zombie scenario, if one person is you and the other is a cat, it’s the cat who will make it out alive while the zombies converge upon your fallen corpse.
The reason they used to bring canaries into coal mines is that they keel over from carbon monoxide poisoning well before a person would. The implication of the whole cat-carnage spectacle is that cats are easier targets than humans, but in the case of humans that are not ninjas, this statement is highly debatable.
Of course, I realize that fictional cat mortality is not a major world problem. But it’s reached a point of laziness, and that’s a serious pet peeve of mine.
So let’s talk about Mews. That’s right, Stranger Things 2. You might have shockingly managed to win me over on Steve with whole “world’s best babysitter” shtick, but you did not manage to blind me to your flaws, especially one involving a cat, a monster, and a turtle-sized plot hole.Mews knows what’s up
On Halloween night, Dustin finds a strange-looking creature in a garbage can and decides to keep it as a pet. He brings it inside hidden in a box, but his mother’s beloved ginger cat, Mews, immediately senses the creature in the box and decides that it is Not Good, hissing at it angrily. Unbothered, Dustin continues to his room, where he conveniently already has a terrarium and evicts the existing resident, Yertle, who then turtles off the face of the plot.“So long, suckers!”
Fast forward several days and the newcomer molting multiple times, and Dustin returns to his room to discover that new friend is now a mini-demagorgon—who is gruesomely feasting on poor Mews.
In order for this outcome to occur, several things had to happen. First of all, Mews had to go into Dustin’s room. Mews was an indoor/outdoor cat. He could have gone anywhere he wanted. Yet he chose to go into an adolescent boy’s room? And not just any adolescent boy’s room, but one containing an unknown creature that set off said cat’s evil radar?
To see what cats do around things they consider to be Bad News, try putting out a travel carrier, that universal sign of Vet Day. You will not see hide nor hair of a cat again until said travel carrier is safely out of sight.
Look, when a show has a lab-coated scientist give a technobabble speech including the confidently delivered statement “a virus is alive”—as if the living/non-living status of viruses were not an unresolved grey area that keeps up many a real-life scientist at night—you know you’re dealing with a show actively trying to forget anything it might have learned in a biology class. Considering animal behavior would fall under the general umbrella of biology, this disregard for what a cat would actually do should hardly come as a surprise. But even narratively, was the cliché dead cat really the best option?
Just imagine: Dustin returning to his room to find Yertle’s bloodied, empty shell on his bedroom floor, like a gorier version of Mario Kart. No illogically dead cat, no turtle-sized plot hole, and Dustin’s new friend is still a worryingly large, unfriendly carnivore. Everybody’s happy. Except for Yertle, of course. But turtles are slow-moving vegans, cats are lightning-fast, sharp-clawed carnivores, and this isn’t one of Aesop’s fables. How else could you possibly expect the situation to play out?