The truth about geeks and cats

Cats have ruled the internet since its earliest days, just the way they already ruled musty bookstores and comic book shops. It's true that many people love cats, but there are a few basic reasons why these small, furry mammals are especially relevant to geek interests.

I realize that cats are not the only geek spirit animal. But anything you want to know about geeks and dogs has already been covered in Allie Brosh's awesome book Hyperbole and a Half.

I've been living with cats for my entire adult life and I can tell you with serene confidence that unlike dogs, cats are aliens. Dogs live in packs, like humans, and seem to natively understand the idea of dominance and submission that is so pervasive in Homo sapiens culture. Cats don't give a crap about who is in charge, though. They don't navigate their worlds by looking to a leader.

Several years ago, I adopted two adorable sibling kittens from the Berkeley Humane Society. I named the fat white male Time and the skinny calico female Space. Their names turned out to be somewhat apt, as I am able to tell people that Time is slow and Space is small. Everything was going well until the cats got to be about 10 months old and decided that they hated each other. I'm not talking about hissing and smacking each other. Their fights were epic. Space would taunt Time, and then he would chase her, and it would end with both of them screaming, covered in blood, and spraying piss everywhere they ran because they were so freaked out.

The truth about geeks and cats

See how Space is sneaking up on Time from behind the books while he's sleeping?

After cleaning up a few trails of fur, blood and urine in our house, we decided to follow some internet advice that recommended separating the cats. So we put Time in the bedroom. But then the cats would fight under the door all night long, clawing and hissing. Any time the door opened, they would stare at each other and puff up to the size of those fluffy rollers that buff your car at the carwash. We would try to re-introduce them to each other, but every time it ended in the howling and the murder attempts.

We tried a zillion things, including a phone call with a so-called cat whisperer, who made some good suggestions that didn't help. No matter what we did, Space and Time would eventually stare at each other, then puff up, and then the blood would flow. We basically had them separated — swapping which one was in the bedroom — for a year. A YEAR.

Finally we gave in and took them to a "kitty shrink," who turned out to be a vet with a Ph.D. who had studied cat behavior pretty extensively. As Space and Time cowered in opposite corners of her office, probably assuming we'd decided to return them for being damaged, she explained the fundamentals of cat social behavior. We'd been going about our disciplining of the cats all wrong, she said. The cats weren't fighting for dominance at all, which is what we'd assumed. Instead, she said, they were fighting because Space is a "reactive" cat.

Put another way, Space is really fucking high strung. She's one of those cats who curls up at your feet and rolls on her back to show you how cute she is — and then when you pet her, she slaps you with a claw.

The truth about geeks and cats

She reacts to everything strongly, whether it's cuddling or a pin dropping three houses over. Time, on the other hand, is like Ferdinand the bull. He just wants to sit around all day and knead the blankets.

The truth about geeks and cats

But no matter how peace-loving Time (or any cat) is, he can't resist the lure of a reactive cat. Whenever Space would start to freak out, he would follow her. And cats hate being followed. Seriously, if you ever want to fuck with a cat, just follow them around.

The reason for all this, the vet explained, is that the dominance/submission binary of human and dog culture doesn't exist for cats. Instead, they have attention/ignore. So Space was interpreting Time's attention as an attack. And then she would attack him, and we would proceed to the ninja moves. The thing was, to our eyes it looked like Space was starting all the fights. She would get all reactive and smack Time's head for no reason, and then he would (understandably) get up in her face.

But this wasn't a fight for who got to be Top Cat. It was a fight to ward off attention. To achieve peace, we had to get them to ignore each other. So that meant the cat who was paying attention was really the aggressor. Lazy, friendly Time was actually the one causing all the trouble! Despite all our human-centric misgivings, we had to start squirting Time with water any time he paid attention to Space being a complete jerk. And you know what? It totally worked. As long as Time ran into another room to lick his fur, Space would instantly chill out.

Now Time has learned to ignore it when Space gets all reactive (AKA bitchtastic). Sometimes she'll just hiss at him for no reason, or jump on his back when he walks by. And 95% of the time, he just keeps on strolling. We have the squirt bottle for the other 5%. I feel horrible about it, because I'm bringing my human perspective into this. Shouldn't Space be punished? No. She should be ignored. If you wanted to convey to a cat that you come in peace, you'd do it by getting back in your spaceship and going home.

The truth about geeks and cats

There's probably a behavior lesson in this for everyone on the internet, but more than that there's a fascinating window onto an alien perspective. Unlike humans, cats are not deeply social animals. Yes, many types of cats form small family groups in the wild, and occasionally wild house cats will band into gangs. But they don't view their social groups as having classes, or bosses. Plus, they are ambivalent about the very presence of a social group. Sometimes just getting a direct stare from another animal will send the cat into aggression mode. I still don't quite understand the dynamics involved, but I know what works. And I love speculating about what that non-human social sensibility is like.

Geeks are drawn to strange customs, which is perhaps why we love stories about aliens and demons and assassins from alternate worlds. Unlike dogs, whose intentions and reactions are sometimes heartbreakingly easy to recognize, cats are opaque. They have bizarre body language, showing that they like being with you by closing their eyes or turning away. "Can't you see how much I love you?" Time seems to say. "I'm elaborately ignoring you!" Trying to communicate with a cat is like jumping into a science fiction story about forging alliances with gas giant creatures in another arm of the galaxy.

The truth about geeks and cats

But it's not as simple as cats = aliens, because you could write that same basic equation about almost any animal, including humans, some of the time. It's also that cats have such a specifically weird relationship with socializing. Like geeks, who form friendships and relationships that rarely fit the Hollywood standard, cats are always defying norms. They want to be with you and play, but they also want you to pretend they aren't there. I guess cats are kind of like Hulk, who doesn't really want to fight. He just wants you to leave him alone!

When you're not looking, cats are always off on inscrutable feline missions, or doing things that make no sense.

Why does Time sometimes knead a pillow and then jump off of it like he's been burned? Why does Space see an enemy cat in the backyard, but then attack Time as if he's some kind of quantum double of the animal outside? And why does Time only pay rapt attention to the television when we have it in debug mode, its screen covered in lines of throbbing white text? I think the weirdness of cat interests is what has led to the explosion of people putting cameras and trackers on their cats, to find out what the hell they are doing all day long.

When I think about a cat mission, I picture a nerd who stares at her computer for hours, arguing in obscure forums about Greek puns and the merits of specific episodes of television shows. It seems like cats are inside their heads a lot, reacting to things that they're imagining rather than whatever is sitting in front of their faces.

I'm not saying that this is what cats are doing, because we can't know what is truly in their minds. I'm just pointing out that it's easy for a geek like me to project my own social awkwardness and geeky fixations onto my cats. Geeks love their cats because we adore aliens. But we also love them because they remind us of the aliens in ourselves, as we lower our eyes and awkwardly try to fit into the conversation one more time.

Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and this is her column. She's also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.