Shimsi: Memories And Meaning Of A Feral Cat

Are feral cats nothing more than a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity?
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Shimsi (second from the left) with his best friends at the University of Minnesota.
Shimsi (second from the left) with his best friends at the University of Minnesota.
William Lynn, 1997

October 16, 2016 was National Feral Cat Day, something of a self-declared celebration by Alley Cat Allies and the wider animal community seeking to highlight the needs and issues of feral cats.

Having received many personal messages about Shimsi — the feral cat whose picture was featured in my previous Huffington Post article on the book Cat Wars — I thought I’d say a bit more about him, and what he means in the sphere of human-animal relations.

Shimsi began life as a feral kitten born on the streets of Istanbul, Turkey. The only jet-black kitten from a family of striped tabbies, he and his family were cared for as “community cats” — cats that do not belong to one or another family per se, but who are fed and nurtured by people in their interspecies community.

Many Turks have an especially fond regard for community cats. This is something born partly out of the role cats play as mousers and ratters in defense of household and public health. Yet these cats are cared for in equal measure because of their social nature and their valued place in Turkish culture. Most live their entire lives as community cats. Some are adopted as companions into households.

It is important to remember that there is a debate over whether “house” cats were ever domesticated in the first place. One school of thought believes any animal living in close proximity to humans must be domesticated to serve human needs. Another school sees cats as commensal — wild animals that have learned to live and thrive amongst human beings. It may be that what we refer to as cat domestication is largely the socialization of each generation of kittens to living with human beings. The socialization of adult feral cats is far more rare but not unheard of. Cats may therefore remain wild creatures, capable of living on urban streets or rural farms with some help from their human friends.

Luckily for me, Shimsi was adopted by the brother I never had, Andy. Andy is now a professor of political theory specializing in Turkish political ideologies. In the 1990s he was a graduate student writing his dissertation in Istanbul. Shimsi was born in a flower box below the window in his study and sought Andy out. As a kitten, Shimsi would spend long hours sitting on Andy’s shoulder as he wrote. When Andy returned to the United States, Shimsi came with him. Some years later circumstances changed so that Andy could no longer care for Shimsi, and the little Turk came to live with me and my own feral cat, Delilah.

Long, sleek, and agile, Shimsi was endlessly inquisitive, made the rounds of every lap during a party, purred himself to sleep on my chest, and had the annoying habit of waking me with a gentle draw of a single claw against my nose. Nothing was more fun than being in a box with a hole from which he could reach out and swipe someone. After our move to Boston, he fell deeply in love with my future wife, Karin. He lived with us to the end of his days, punctuated by happy reunions when Andy would visit.

There is a moral to Shimsi’s story with implications for the dispute over whether feral cats like him are nothing more than a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity.

There are those who believe animals as a whole have no intrinsic value and are not worthy of respect. When held as an ideology about ethics, we call this speciesism (alternatively, anthropocentrism). This ideology reinforces dialogues in the conservation community which unreflectively privilege native species, and dismiss concerns about the well being of individual animals (whether native or introduced). Altogether, this foments a worldview about human-animal morality that justifies human depredations on other animals, sees cats as nothing more than an “invasive species”, and calls for their elimination from the landscape “by any means necessary” — coded language for the violence of hunting, trapping, and poisoning.

An analogy with political history may be of help in finding our way out of the moral thicket of speciesism. Humanity’s long and difficult experiment with democracy has taught us that individual rights are inextricably bound up with larger issues of social justice. It is counterproductive to violate an individual’s rights in pursuit of social justice, or ignore how social justice in turn impacts the exercise of one’s rights. We continue to learn, imperfectly to be sure, to balance both rights and justice for the benefit of all.

Our ethical responsibilities to Earth’s other living beings and species are as complex as our own politics. We cannot blithely do wrong to some individual animals (e.g. cats) in order to do right by other species (e.g. native wildlife). Nor can we be morally indifferent when we choose to kill some animals for the benefit of others. We must simultaneously meet our social and ecological obligations to individual creatures like Shimsi, as well as the wider community of life.

As in politics, finding an ethical balance is not easy. This is nowhere more true than with cats and biodiversity. Yet it is a balance that must be sought, and it starts with the open and frank acknowledgement of the intrinsic moral value of animals, of lives like that of Shimsi.

Corrections: Small grammatical errors.