Let me tell you a story I recently heard from a friend of mine. My buddy has a pet that is one of nature’s most ferocious and stubbornly independent obligate predators, a creature that quite honestly has no business living among the gentle citizenry of refined society. A creature that frequently enjoys the luxurious trappings of civilization while periodically giving in to base desire. I refer, of course, to the common house cat. The house cat, unlike its larger canine counterpart, maintains close ties to its recent wild past. Feline domestication happened a scant few thousand years ago, and it’s only in the past half century that cats have moved into the house.
Yeah, they’re house cats now, but through most of their domesticated history, they were barn cats, farm cats, and alley cats – lurking, stalking denizens of the night who only came inside for a saucer of milk or a quick chin scratch. Fifty years is not nearly enough time to extinguish the urge to hunt small beasts, both furry and feathered. Cats will stalk insect intruders, attack toes wriggling underneath blankets, hunt reflected light dancing along the wall, fling themselves at dangling strings, shred shoelaces, and murder defenseless houseplants. Unless they’re sleeping (which is most of the time) they are on “hunt mode.” It’s an essential part of the cat’s identity.
In the past year, my friend learned firsthand just how essential; his cat began exhibiting signs of urethral blockage. He would strain when trying to urinate, drops of blood began to appear, and, eventually, the cat was unable to go at all. He was totally blocked and surgery was nearly inevitable. The vet’s diagnosis was stress-induced inflammation of the urethral sphincter. Something had been stressing the cat out, and the resultant systemic inflammation led to a compromised urethral passageway which could no longer handle the flow of urine. Urinary crystals, which normally pass through without problem, began to accumulate, worsening the situation. He eventually had (expensive) surgery to correct the situation (he would have died otherwise), but that didn’t take care of the stress. My friend had to figure out what was stressing his cat out and how to fix it to prevent any future incidents.
Living indoors, the cat’s catness had been stifled. Chasing feather toys and getting loaded on catnip only worked for so long. Eventually, the urge to kill became too much to ignore. This conflict between essential cat nature and artificial environment caused tons of stress. Now, my friend briefly considered making him an outside cat, which would give him access to wildlife and adventure, but that comes with its own set of risks, especially in high-traffic West Los Angeles. He didn’t want a dead cat. What if he brought the prey to him?
A quick trip to the pet store and three dollars later, my friend had several dozen large live crickets in a box. Crickets are agile, crunchy, inexpensive, not nearly as messy as rodents, and packed with protein and minerals, making them attractive prey for a bored house cat. He figured setting a couple loose and letting his cat have a go at them would make up for the hunting deficit and possibly reduce stress.
And it seemed to work. The cat was a master cricket hunter and began hunting and eating several a day (sometimes up to a dozen in a row). He’d play with them, bat them around, snap off a leg or wing, and take his sweet time. More importantly, he stopped showing outward signs of stress. He purred more often and more easily, he slept through the night without going crazy meowing and getting into trouble, he just seemed a lot happier and more content. All in all, he was a changed cat. And he was peeing without issue, largely due to the surgery, of course, but also, according to my friend, due to the reduction in stress. Why does he think it wasn’t just the surgery? He recently moved across the state. As a result, he noticed a recurrence of stress-related symptoms in his cat, including odd litterbox behavior; upping the daily cricket quota eliminated the symptoms.
As he told me this story, I could only think of how analogous this is to our own situation as what Erwan le Corre calls “zoo humans.” Sure, it’s far more complex with people, as our prime directive isn’t just to hunt and kill, but we are animals with certain inherent inclinations toward certain acts, or ways of being, that often directly conflict with certain aspects of our civilized surroundings. And then there’s my friend and trusted colleague, Richard Nikoley, whose blog, called “Free the Animal,” is largely about exploring how our animal natures conflict not just with modern foods/lifestyles, but with political systems and society itself.
What does this cat and cricket story mean for us? Is it just further evidence that animals should be aware of where and how their health might suffer in modern “zoo” life? Does it simply reinforce the refrain to avoid evolutionarily novel foods, habits, and stressors, so long as they are shown to be harmful?
It’s more than that. We’ve got to acknowledge, as Richard says, that we are animals. Moreover, we are animals that seek to be free – free to pursue health, happiness, and free to revel in our animal natures. Animal nature isn’t a negative thing. It doesn’t deserve the negative connotations (savagery, rape, war, hate, fear) cooked up by thousands of years of repression. Animal nature is not “good” or “bad”; it simply is. Empathy and love and compassion are innate and animalistic, and I think everyone would say those are good things.
And so I ask you: what are your crickets? Do you have any Primal, animal instincts that are being stifled? If so, how do you work around them? Or has civilization completely conquered and subdued the human animal inside?
- I need frequent “forest bathing” to feel normal. Hikes, paddle boarding excursions, snowboarding, even just sitting on a beach regarding the waves and sun dipping down below the horizon – immersing myself in nature, even using modern “technology” like books or boards, is a requisite stress fighter. The key is getting away from walled enclosures and into unpredictable surroundings.
- Lifting heavy things and sprinting keep me sane, whereas endurance training never scratched that same itch (even when I did it for a living). There’s something about giving maximum effort and knowing that this is all you have to give because it’s so brief and impossible to maintain for more than a few seconds that it satisfies you deep down. Running long distance is also a kind of maximum effort, but more mentally trying than physically: is it really a test of physicality if you’re able to do it for hours at a time? I like being limited by objective physical energy, and pushing that limit.
- Sex. Yeah, it’s the most notorious and frowned upon of all “animal instincts,” but boy does it make you feel alive (and glad to be so). You can stick romantic love in there, too.
- A bloody steak. I need at least two or three a week. I’m even guilty of not letting the steak rest for five minutes before digging in. I dunno – I sometimes like the juices to get everywhere. I also lick the plate.
- Companionship, camaraderie, friendship. Having dinner with friends and family. Sharing a laugh. Confiding in someone. Arguing with someone whom you respect, ideally courteously but not necessarily so.
- Going shirtless. I know, I know. It sounds silly, but there’s just something about shedding clothes that feels right. It’s nothing to do with how I look; it’s all about how I feel.
What are yours?
I reject the negative connotations accumulated from millennia of repressive thought that surround the idea of our animal natures. In fact, I think we owe it to ourselves and our health to revel in them. Don’t hurt anyone, but don’t hurt yourself by stifling yourself. My crickets don’t put me at odds with the law, nor do they put anyone else in harm’s way. They might get some weird looks from other people, but that’s fine. This is not necessarily about formally opposing formal political authority. This isn’t picketing or protests. This is merely about recognizing the (passive and nonpassive) ways in which civilization conflicts with human nature, and opposing the instances that become pathological, or harmful to our health. It is going barefoot at the office, or constructing a standup workstation, or eating a pound of steak in the lunchroom slathered in butter?
Tell me, what are your crickets?