Reflections on the Polly column

John Ramos

Taco Taco. Photo credit: John Ramos
Taco Taco. Photo credit: John Ramos

Boy oh boy. What a week it’s been. In nearly twenty years of writing and reporting in Duluth, I have covered hundreds of issues. None has come close to the level of public response generated by last week’s story about my cat. On the Reader website, where weeks or months can go by without a comment, the story has already garnered 30 comments and over 1,000 reads. On Facebook, the story received 53 shares, more than ten times the number of my next most popular story. My link to the article attracted more than 130 comments, and other people’s links added hundreds more. The Animal Allies Humane Society has issued a public statement responding to the phone calls, emails, and tweets they’ve been receiving from concerned citizens.

To quickly recap the issue, last week I wrote about my family’s cat Polly, who went missing on May 8. Because I had seen her being fussed over by two teenage girls in front of our house shortly before she disappeared, I assumed they had taken her. After I spent 12 days searching the neighborhood for the girls and Polly, my wife and two younger boys visited Animal Allies and found her there, going by the new name of Clementine. When I emailed Animal Allies pictures of Polly to prove her identity, I was told that my pictures didn’t matter, because we had not claimed her from the city animal pound within 5 days. As a result, we lost ownership, and somebody else had already signed up to adopt Polly/Clementine. Nobody I spoke to at Animal Allies, from the executive director on down, had any interest in returning Polly to us.

I made mistakes throughout the ordeal, as Animal Allies employees were quick to point out: I didn’t have Polly microchipped, I didn’t call the animal pound, and I let Polly go outside without a leash. I acknowledged those mistakes in my article. Nevertheless, I believed that Animal Allies should be flexible with their policies and let Polly return home.

About three-quarters of people who responded on various platforms agreed with me, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Many were unreservedly outraged by my predicament, while others were only willing to let Polly return because they felt my article showed I had learned from my mistakes, and only if I paid the same adoption fees as anyone else. Almost everybody agreed that Animal Allies was being overly rigid in their strict adherence to policy, since the prospective adopters had not yet actually adopted Polly.

Naturally, I was gratified by the support. It seemed to be the sort of situation that most reasonable people could agree on. That is why I was so taken aback by the remaining 25 percent of the responses.

These people didn’t merely disagree with me. They said I was “negligent,” “lazy,” a “garbage human being,” a “waste of space,” a writer of “biased trash” and “abhorrent garbage,” a purveyor of a “sob story,” somebody who was “throwing a pity party and forcing the whole city to attend,” someone who should be “banned from writing for the Reader,” “a selfish, entitled and ignorant human being” who was guilty of “NEGLIGENCE AND STUPIDITY” and who needed to “quit trying to blame everyone else when [I] fail[ed].”

“Nobody stole your cat,” ranted a typical commenter. “You abandoned it.”

“Try being an adult and take responsibility for YOUR actions,” advised another.

I’m no stranger to criticism, but I have to admit the wave of rage knocked me back a little bit. I had made mistakes that were (I thought) relatively minor, but a significant portion of my readership thought my crimes were so heinous that they wiped out my value, not only as a cat owner, but as a person.

In writing the original article, I had stuck to the bare bones of the story, intentionally avoiding mentioning things that might have been construed as fishing for sympathy. I said that when Polly went missing, I modified my usual walking routes to visit streets and alleys where I didn’t normally go to look for her and the two girls. My critics hated that. I was repeatedly accused of doing “nothing” to find Polly.

What I didn’t mention was that since strapping a Fitbit to my wrist in January, I have habitually walked 5 to 10 miles a day. While looking for Polly, I grid-searched the streets and alleys in our neighborhood, then the large expanses of greenspace nearby, from Skyline Parkway down to First Street, then neighborhoods that were further afield. I was still using my daily walk to search pockets of the city when my wife and kids discovered Polly at Animal Allies 12 days later (a number which various people, for some reason, rounded down to 10).

“This is the LAZIEST form of pet ownership,” declared one Facebook commenter. “He looked for the cat for 10 days and then just decided it was gone? I’m still looking for a lost cat from 1999.”

“That guy was totally cool with his pet being gone for weeks only to go find a ‘replacement’ like a piece of furniture,” sneered another.

“I would say there is absolutely evidence of neglect based in his lack of interest after 10 days,” diagnosed a third. “Animal Allies isn’t a hotel that will hold your pets for whenever you can be fucked to getting around to looking for them.”

Of course, this misconstrued the situation. My wife and kids had gone to Animal Allies to pet the kittens, which they did from time to time for fun. There is nothing wrong with checking out available cats in the process. I thought of replacing Polly as an opportunity to fill an absence in my kids’ lives and help another cat, but a lot of people apparently thought I should be wearing black and weeping in my hands for months before considering such a thing.

That’s the point: Polly is a cat. However fond I was of her—and I was—I didn’t treat her like a human being. That, I think, may have been my biggest sin in the eyes of my angriest critics.

Different ways of thinking

A lot of people jumped on my case because I didn’t do the same things they would have done, like call the pound.  The thing is, I have noticed this tendency before in my life, and I think other people will recognize it in themselves if they’re honest. Sometimes you do stuff based on certain ideas that you have, only to discover later that a better course of action existed—and you didn’t think of it, even if it seems obvious after the fact. As I explained in my original article, I thought Polly had been taken by two girls, so I was looking for two girls. It didn’t cross my mind to call the pound. Different people’s brains work differently, and that’s just the way it is. I can’t explain it any more than that.

That darn ordinance

As far as the anti-roaming ordinance goes, I don’t think it should apply to cats. For one thing, cats don’t cause the problems that free dogs do. When a dog gets loose, you often find it galloping through traffic without a care in the world, having the time of its life while endangering everybody around it. Cats operate more like wildlife, subtle and behind the scenes, completely comfortable being outdoors on their own. Indoor/outdoor cats have their own lives apart from their life in the house. That appeals to me.

Of course, as was pointed out to me many times, letting a cat outside puts it at greater risk of all sorts of dangers. They could get hit by cars, attacked by other animals, tormented by mean people and so on. Nevertheless, my cats want out. They love it out there. If you try to keep them in, they get out anyway, eventually. So I just let them out.

I try to stay practical about it. My idea of responsible cat ownership includes vaccinating it, spaying/neutering it, making sure it’s fed and housed, making sure it has a clean litter box, and making sure it’s healthy and groomed. Based on recent experience, I have now added microchipping to the list. Anything beyond that depends on the individual cat.

Our oldest cat, Taco Taco, is an independent fellow who does his own thing for most of the day, but almost every evening, as I lie on the couch looking for something to watch on Netflix, Taco Taco comes over, sticks his head in my glass of water to take a drink, then jumps onto my chest and shoves his face into my hand, asking for affection. After a good bit of petting and massaging, he curls up on my chest and takes a 20-minute nap. Then he wakes up, jumps down, and has nothing more to do with me until the next night.

The other big objection that I heard to letting cats roam free is that they kill wildlife, particularly songbirds. More than one person described them as “killing machines,” and cats certainly are designed to kill. For most of their existence that is what made them valuable to humans—their ability to kill mice and rats and other vermin in barns and on ships. (It was not until the invention of cat litter in the 1950s that cats came to be considered viable house pets; without litter, the stench would be brutal.) Polly’s favorite prey is a weird sort of tan cricket that lives in an ancient coal room built off our 110-year-old basement. Taco Taco occasionally brings home mice or moles. Sunlight has never shown me any proof that he’s successfully hunted anything, as this would interfere with his busy schedule of sleeping sprawled out on our bed. I’ve never seen my cats get a bird, though I’m sure they have at some point.

My feeling is that birds are designed to avoid predation, and my cats probably don’t add too much to the pressures birds face from other local killing machines: raccoons, foxes, skunks, feral cats, cars, etc. Indeed, it is civilization itself, with its abundance of garbage and absence of apex predators, that gives rise to heavy concentrations of small urban predators. There are more raccoons in town than there are in the woods, and they’re bigger. People’s bias against free cats has a whiff of the scapegoat about it: People themselves create the conditions that threaten songbirds, then blame it on the cats. Oh, and their owners, of course.

In any case, I suspect that my cats would have been more harmful to the bird population if I had let them grow up wild rather than taking them in when their mothers abandoned them in our yard as kittens. When you look at it that way, I’m actually helping the situation. And I can only imagine the shrieks of fury some people will emit upon reading that.

The bottom line

So those are some of my thoughts on cat ownership, as I have spent more time thinking about cats in the last week than in my entire previous life. The thing is, I don’t want to plead my case on any heavy moral grounds. It’s more a matter of pieces fitting together. We lost our cat, and later we found her at Animal Allies. What a stroke of luck! It seemed perfectly sensible that Polly should be returned home, where her food and bed and family were. It was Animal Allies’ implacable opposition to the sensible thing that confounded me. Anyone else in my situation would have had no recourse (and a number of people on Facebook said it had happened to them), but I had one more tool in my toolbox than most people do: a newspaper column. So I used it.

The enraged reaction of my harshest critics was an upwelling of something dark and animal itself, yet also deeply human. It disturbed me. I can imagine how being subjected to something like that day after day would wear a person out and warp their behavior and tinge all their interactions with anger. The truth is that after a few days of it I was getting exhausted and considering giving up my column. My supporters helped to balance me out in that regard, as did a three-day trip to the Boundary Waters with my family, safely out of reach of social media.

Polly is gone, adopted by her new family. I hope she is doing well. Animal Allies has been receiving calls and emails from people wondering why they’re so inflexible, and I find that gratifying. A policy is not a biblical Commandment or a federal law; it is something that can be changed relatively easily. My hope is that Animal Allies will use this situation as a learning experience, just as I have done, and modify their policies to better showcase the qualities of compassion and decency in the future.

And once we’re on the subject of learning, can we all just start teaching our children that most animals one sees in the world are not lost or abandoned? They’re going about their lives. The best course of action, in most cases, is to leave them alone.