Monday, December 30, 2019

3299. The Quiet Disappearance of Birds in North America

By Ed Yong, The Atlantic, September 19, 2019

In the early afternoon of September 1, 1914, Martha the passenger pigeon, the last of her kind in the world, passed away, and her entire species disappeared with her. But before that instant of extinction, there had been decades of decline, as hunters killed what was once the most common bird in the world. Billions of passenger pigeons became millions, thousands, and then hundreds, until eventually one became none. Few people took note of this decline as it happened: There still seemed to be a lot of pigeons, and their abundance obscured their downfall.

History is now repeating itself—across the entire avian world.
A new study, which analyzed decades of data on North American birds, estimates that the continent’s bird populations have fallen by 29 percent since 1970. That’s almost 3 billion fewer individuals than there used to be, five decades ago. “It’s a staggering result,” says Kenneth Rosenberg from Cornell University and the American Bird Conservancy, who led the analysis.
“This is a critically important study,” says Nicole Michel, an ecologist at the National Audubon Society. Past work has shown that specific groups of birds are declining, but this is the first study to rigorously put a number on the full extent of these losses. And surprisingly, it shows that the most ubiquitous birds have been the hardest hit. “The common wisdom was that we’d see the rare and threatened species disappearing and the common, human-adapted ones taking over,” Rosenberg says. Instead, his team found that 90 percent of the missing birds came from just 12 families, and that they were all familiar, perchy, cheepy things such as sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, finches, larks, starlings, and swallows.

About 19 species have each lost more than 50 million individuals. Seemingly ubiquitous species such as the red-winged blackbird are at risk. The dark-eyed junco, a type of sparrow and one of the most common sights at bird feeders, is in trouble. Even birds that humans successfully introduced to this continent—such as the house sparrow and European starling, which are famed for their adaptability—are in trouble. “If we can’t even keep introduced species in healthy populations, that could be a stronger indicator that the environment is unhealthy,” Rosenberg says. It’s as if all birds are canaries, and the entire world their coal mine.
As with the passenger pigeon, abundance obscures decline. The fact that 24 million eastern meadowlarks still survive hides the fact that 74 million have gone. “There are still a lot of birds out there,” Rosenberg says. “If you have a lot of birds coming to your feeder and they’re reduced by 30 percent, you might not see that. This loss of abundance can be happening right under our noses.”
With this great emptying of the skies, there are now 3 billion fewer beaks to snap up insects, and 3 billion fewer pairs of wings for moving nutrients, pollen, and seeds through the world. We haven’t just lost birds, but all the things that birds do, “as well as our connection to what is arguably one of the most widely cherished forms of wildlife on the planet,” says Kristen Ruegg from Colorado State University. “Our forests and backyards will continue to grow quieter with every passing year, and within that leftover space there is an opportunity for complacency about the natural world to grow.”
A broader pattern of “biological annihilation” is coming into focus, too. A third of backboned species on land, for example, are also declining, including many that are deemed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to be of “least concern.” Insects might also be in trouble, although fears of an insect apocalypse are hard to judge because there’s very little long-term data on insect populations.
The opposite is true for birds, which are conspicuous, beloved, and heavily watched by both amateur enthusiasts and professional researchers. There’s long-term survey data aplenty, and Rosenberg’s team collected as much as it could for 529 species, covering most major groups. “The data sets they used provide probably the best long-term, large-scale information on species abundances for any group of organisms anywhere in the world,” says Natalie Wright from Kenyon College. “There’s always uncertainty. But if they are wrong, they are likely underestimating the magnitude of population declines.”
Rosenberg’s team also used data from a weather-radar network to show that the number of birds migrating through America’s nighttime skies has fallen by 14 percent since 2007. That’s important. The radar not only provides another line of evidence, independent of the more traditional surveys, but picks up species that those surveys miss, such as Arctic-breeding shorebirds. It “increases our confidence that these declines are really happening,” Michel says.

The new study is silent on the causes of these declines—that’s what Rosenberg’s team will look at next. But it’s widely accepted that “habitat loss and degradation are the largest forces behind the decline of birds,” Rosenberg says. The fact that grassland birds have suffered more than those in other habitats attests to this problem. As wild prairie has been converted into agricultural land, invaded by non-native plants, and flooded with harmful pesticides, 700 million local birds have disappeared, and three-quarters of bird species are going downhill.
It’s hard to estimate exactly how many birds are dying due to habitat loss, or from other potential dangers such as pesticide use, the disappearance of insect prey, or climate change. Other threats are easier to quantify, and the biggest of these, by some margin, is domestic cats, which kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds every year. Window collisions claim 600 million bird lives a year, vehicles take out 214 million, power lines are responsible for killing 32 million, and the lights of industrial towers fatally distract about 6 million. Wind turbines are often cited as a problem for birds, and while they should be placed carefully to protect migratory species, their effect is comparatively small; for every bird killed by a wind turbine, thousands are killed by a cat.
“Being able to tie any one of these drivers to the decline of a particular species or group is difficult,” Rosenberg says. “Cumulatively, they’re all important.”
The organizations behind the new study have compiled a list of seven personal actions that people can take to protect North America’s remaining birds:
1) Make windows safer with products that prevent collisions.
2) Keep cats indoors (or walk them on a leash).
3) Choose native plants instead of lawns, to offer food and resting places for migrants.
4) Avoid pesticides.
5) Choose bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee that’s grown on farms that preserve bird habitat.
6) Reduce the use of plastics, and especially single-use plastics.
7) Watch birds and report what you see to help scientists track the surviving populations.
Ultimately, it will take political will and action to refill the emptied skies—and there’s precedent for such reversals of fate. The number of raptors (hawks, eagles, and their kin) has doubled since the 1970s, thanks to a ban on the pesticide DDT and hunting restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act. At the same time, waterfowl such as ducks and geese have increased in number by 56 percent, after hunters lobbied for legislation to protect wetland areas. These success stories show that “when people band together and take action, it is possible to reverse population declines and bring species back from the brink,” Michel says. “Birds are down, but they’re not out. When you give them half a chance, they can recover.”

But Donald Trump’s administration has recently moved to gut the most important bird-conservation law in the United States: the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This proposal would absolve companies of responsibility for millions of incidental bird deaths, and hold them accountable only for purposeful killings, which are negligible. “This is the absolute worst time to be weakening protections,” Rosenberg says.
No one hunts the sparrow, he notes, but bird lovers are so numerous that they could form a constituency to match the political clout the hunting lobby used to save waterfowl. “We need to raise our voices,” Rosenberg says.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

3298. Cuba the Most Sustainably Developed Country in the World, New Research Finds

By Matt Trinder, Morning Star, November 29, 2019
Workers in an organic farm in Cuba.
Cuba is the most sustainably developed country in the world, according to a new report launched today.
The socialist island outperforms advanced capitalist countries including Britain and the United States, which has subjected Cuba to a punitive six-decades-long economic blockade.
The Sustainable Development Index (SDI), designed by anthropologist and author Dr Jason Hickel, calculates its results by dividing a nation’s “human development” score, obtained by looking at statistics on life expectancy, health and education, by its “ecological overshoot,” the extent to which the per capita carbon footprint exceeds Earth’s natural limits.
Countries with strong human development and a lower environmental impact score highly, but countries with poorer life expectancies and literacy rates as well as those which exceed ecological limits are marked down.
Based on the most recent figures, from 2015, Cuba is top with a score of 0.859, while Venezuela is 12th and Argentina 18th.
The SDI was created to update the Human Development Index (HDI), developed by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and used by the United Nations Development Programme to produce its annual reports since 1990.
The HDI considers life expectancy, education and gross national income per capita, but ignores environmental degradation caused by the economic growth of top performers such as Britain and the US.
“These countries are major contributors to climate change and other forms of ecological breakdown, which disproportionately affects the poorer countries of the global South, where climate change is already causing hunger rates to rise,” Mr Hickel said.
“In this sense, the HDI promotes a model of development that is empirically incompatible with ecology and which embodies a fundamental contradiction: achieving high development according to HDI means driving de-development elsewhere in the world. For a development indicator that purports to be universal, such a contradiction is indefensible.”
Britain, ranked 14th in 2018’s HDI, falls to 131st in the SDI, while the US, 13th in the ul Haq index, is 159th out of 163 countries featured in the new system.
Mr Hickel added: “The SDI ranking reveals that all countries are still “developing” – countries with the highest levels of human development still need to significantly reduce their ecological impact, while countries with the lowest levels of ecological impact still need to significantly improve their performance on social indicators.”
The SDI is available at

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

3297. California's Crashing Kelp Forest

By Science Daily, October 21, 2019
Kelp forests are home to many sea species
First the sea stars wasted to nothing. Then the purple urchins took over, eating and eating until the bull kelp forests were gone. The red abalone starved. Their fishery closed. Red sea urchins starved. Their fishery collapsed. And the ocean kept warming.
It sounds like an ecological horror movie, but this scenario actually happened between 2013 and 2017. Its lasting impacts continue to affect northern California's coast today, with another marine heatwave forecast for this winter.
In a study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists from the University of California, Davis, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife use two decades of kelp ecosystem monitoring data to chronicle the catastrophic shift in 2014 from a robust bull kelp forest to a barren of purple sea urchins. Similar impacts are being observed in kelp forests from Baja California to Alaska.
Uncharted Territory
The study shows how bull kelp deforestation triggered the closure of a $44 million recreational abalone fishery and the collapse of the north coast commercial red sea urchin fishery.
More than 90 percent of bull kelp and 96 percent of red abalone were lost along 217 miles of northern California coastline within just a few years. Meanwhile, purple sea urchin populations exploded 60-fold between 2014 and 2015.
"We're in the 20th year of this monitoring program, and we can confidently say, this is uncharted territory that we're in," said lead author Laura Rogers-Bennett, an environmental scientist with UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and California Department of Fish and Wildlife operating out of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. "We've never seen purple sea urchins at these densities before. This paper really shows what it takes in terms of multiple stressors to crash a bull kelp forest."
The Perfect Storm
The bull kelp ecosystem surveys reveal the timing and magnitude of a series of events -- what the study authors call a "perfect storm" -- that led to the unprecedented decline of the kelp forest and the animals, plants and ecological benefits it supports:
  • 2013: Sea star wasting disease killed mass numbers of sea stars, a purple sea urchin predator.
  • 2014-2017: A marine heatwave and El Nino event warmed the nearshore ocean.
  • 2015: Purple sea urchin populations exploded.
  • 2017: Mass mortalities of red abalone led to that fishery's closure in 2018 to the present.
'They're Eating Absolutely Everything'
Purple sea urchins are native to California's coast, but typically at low densities.
"What we're seeing now are millions and millions of purple sea urchins, and they're eating absolutely everything," said Rogers-Bennett. "They can eat through all the anemones, the sponge, all the kelp, the fleshy red algae. They're even eating through calcified alga and sand."
Bull kelp are one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, capable of growing two feet in just a day. If cooler water temperatures return, kelp could likely regrow, the study said. But with ravenous purple sea urchin teeth constantly scraping the bottom of the sea floor, the kelp cannot catch a break.
Urchins are edible. Their fleshy insides -- specifically, their gonads -- turn up on sushi rolls as uni. So perhaps a purple sea urchin harvest is in order? Not so fast. With so much competition from their brethren, the insides of these urchins are nearly empty. They are starving.
Urchin Ranching and a Glimmer of Hope
In what could be a glimmer of hope for bull kelp forests, UC Davis researchers are working with Bay Area shellfish company Urchinomics to explore the possibility of removing purple urchins from their sea floor barrens and fattening them up for market -- in short, urchin ranching.
If the resulting product gives kelp beds a chance to recover, dining on purple urchin could go beyond "sustainable seafood" to become restorative. Rogers-Bennett and UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory Director Gary Cherr will begin trials this fall to see if urchin ranching could be a viable strategy.
Other strategies are outlined in the Sonoma-Mendocino Bull Kelp Recovery Plan, released last June by the Greater Farallones Association and CDFW. It includes measures such as creating a kelp oasis to preserve seed stock and repopulate bull kelp when conditions are conducive to restoration.
"There are too many purple urchins, and the kelp forest is in giant trouble," said Rogers-Bennett. "There are all kinds of problems associated with that. But we are working now on some of the potential solutions."
Meanwhile, this study illustrates the vulnerability of ecosystems and communities to climate-driven collapses.
The study was coauthored by Cynthia Catton, an environmental scientist with the CDFW and research associate of UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory at the time of the study.

Friday, December 20, 2019

3296. Ovid: a Netflix for the Left

By Louis Proyect, Counterpunch, December 20, 2019

After reading the reviews below, you’d likely agree that Ovid is an invaluable resource for the left. Launched on March 22, it aggregates films from eight different cutting edge film distributors, including some whose documentaries and narrative films I have reviewed over the years: First Run, Bullfrog, and Icarus. These are the kinds of films that show up in art houses like the Cinema Village in NY or the Laemmle in Los Angeles but generally for a week or less. They may show up on Amazon or iTunes, but you will never get a head’s up as you would if you were an Ovid subscriber. The main benefit of subscribing for $6.99 per month (a real pittance) is the convenience of having an intelligently organized website that categorizes films geared to its intended audience. While Netflix groups film by genres such as horror or crime, Ovid groups them, for example, by “Don’t Mourn, Organize.” In that category, you can find “No Gods, No Masters: A History of Anarchism,” “Eugene V. Debs: American Socialist,” and the 1967 groundbreaking documentary “Far From Vietnam.” In addition to such radical documentaries, you will find avant-garde narrative films from Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, and Marcel Ophüls. So, don’t hesitate. Ovid is the Netflix the left has always needed, supporting evidence from the reviews beneath:
1. Stopover
Co-directed by Delphine and Muriel Coulin, this 2016 French narrative film is a white-hot drama about a platoon of French soldiers who spend three days at a five-star hotel in Cyprus before returning home from Afghanistan. The goal of the all-expenses-paid voir du pays (stopover) is decompression, a way of avoiding the bends by returning to France prematurely.
The military brass wisely calculates that a goodly portion of the troops is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. If they punch out a Cypriot or a vacationing European, that’s better than if the victim was a French citizen. On the first day, we see tension mounting as the soldiers have trouble feeling comfortable around rich kids on a Club Med type vacation, especially after they’ve had one drink too many. That includes Marine (Soko), a tightly-coiled female soldier who picks a fight with a hulking bartender who does not respond quickly enough to her request for a refill.
Besides Marine, two other women have joined the army mostly for economic reasons rather than to defend Europe from al Qaeda. In the small town they both lived in, there were neither jobs nor men who would make a suitable mate. From early on, you understand that none of their fellow soldiers would be a possible match since they are sexist to the core. The testosterone-filled racism that drew them to kill Afghans went hand in hand with seeing the three women as fresh meat.
Aurore (Ariane Labed) and Fanny (Ginger Romàn) keep a watchful eye on Marine, who the Taliban badly wounded in a firefight during their tour of duty. They try to entice her into the hotel’s hedonistic pursuits, but most of the time she sits away from both the soldiers and the guests, smoking cigarettes and gazing at the sea.
The brass leads a kind of group therapy that will aid in the decompression process. They meet in a hotel conference room and take turns going to the front of the room to use virtual reality goggles for reenacting the battle with the Taliban that cost several lives. The troops regard this as a pointless exercise but know better than to duck them. In every instance, we see the participants begin to demonstrate PTSD symptoms as they relive the experience.
On their second day at the hotel, a couple of Cypriot men persuade Aurore and Fanny to take a ride with them to see the sites in the Greek-controlled part of the island. Just before they are leaving, Marine insists on coming along since she senses that the men might have predatory intentions just like the soldiers. Instead of taking them to historical sites or picturesque villages, they end up at the barbed-wire fence that separates them from the Turkish half of Cyprus. Beyond the fence, it is “no man’s land” according to a sign. Within minutes, a car pulls up with four of the soldiers who end up as rivals to the Cypriots in the same that the Greeks are rivals with the Turks. Except, they are vying not over land but female flesh.
Winner of the best screenplay prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Stopover” is a powerful film that deals with the same issues that #metoo took on but within a context that was missing from a movement targeting corporate bigwigs. In an interview with No Film School, a brilliantly named website, they answer a question about rape in the military: “We have gained some things in terms of equality for women. At the same time, you cannot be alone in feeling equal. These girls went in the army because they thought that they were equals with men and they could do the same jobs. But if the other people—the men—don’t think you’re equal, then it’s pointless.”
2. Anthropocene
This documentary should be required viewing from everybody involved in the ecosocialist movement. It points to the inevitable ties between environmental science and the need for a revolution. Structured around interviews with scientists in the Anthropocene Working Group, it makes the case that we are no longer in the Holocene epoch but in the Anthropocene that began around 11,000 years ago when human beings began to develop agriculture and form class societies. One of the film’s startling revelations is how rice cultivation led to the warming of the planet. Like the burping cows, it releases methane into the atmosphere.
The Anthropocene school theorizes the beginning of the epoch as coinciding with the inventions of two men that changed the world. James Watt’s steam engine provided the energy that made modern manufacturing and transportation possible. Ironically, one of its earliest functions was to drain water from coal mines in England through steam-driven machinery that operated in a perfect feedback loop. More coal produced more steam engines that then produced more coal.
The other breakthrough came from a German scientist whose name might not be familiar to you: Fritz Haber. Haber developed a method for synthesizing ammonia out of nitrogen in the atmosphere. This technique made chemical fertilizers possible and hence the possibility of unrestrained agricultural production. In the early stages of the Anthropocene that the scientists liken to our impetuous teenage years, governments saw this as a perfect way in a Trumpian sense to feed a hungry world. However, agricultural expansion led to deforestation that continues unabated to this day, as evidenced by Bolsonaro’s assault on the Amazon rainforest.
Without mentioning the word degrowth, the scientists conclude that humanity has to learn to live within geological limits, or we will become extinct just as surely as the dinosaurs. As grim as this subject matter seems, there is a mordant sense of humor shown throughout the documentary as we see footage of post-WWII films about what miracles fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers were. When Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again, he must have in mind the kind of futuristic newsreels I saw in the late 1950s when gasoline was twenty-cents a gallon and Atoms for Peace was in vogue. While most people recognize that Trump is a psychopath, it is far scarier to consider that a majority of America’s ruling class probably agrees with him.
3. The Chicago Boys
Like “Anthropocene,” this is a most timely documentary. Made by Chileans, it is an eye-opening study of the Catholic University economics students who were admitted into the University of Chicago in 1955 to soak up the wisdom of Milton Friedman. Mostly harmless as academic figures, they became Pinochet’s henchmen after he took power. As one of these Friedman acolytes put it in the film, they had to wean him away from statism. He derided the Chilean military’s belief in the need to control all aspects of the economy (keep in mind that General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, a two-time president of Chile, began the nationalization of the country’s copper mines.) But once Pinochet saw the light, he made sure to torture, kill, or disappear anybody who questioned neoliberalism.
One wonders how these economists could have no idea how gruesome they would appear to anybody outside of the Milton Friedman cult. Listening to Sergio de Castro, who was Pinochet’s chief economic adviser and a Friedman student, is like listening to Goebbels’s secretary Brunhilde Pomsel, who died in 2016 at the age of 106. She insisted that “we knew nothing” about Hitler’s atrocities. Like her, de Castro said he knew nothing about how 40,000 people suffered death, torture or disappearance under Pinochet. He was “too busy” with economic matters. The net effect of listening to him and other of these Chicago boys is similar to those Spaniards who still believed in General Franco, as documented in the film “The Silence of Others.”
Besides de Castro, we hear from Rolf Lüders, who says that inequality is not a problem, only poverty. Those who resent inequality are only guilty of envy. Lüders is unaware that there is both poverty and inequality in Chile. The protests that have shaken the country to its core this year are proof of that.
Now 95, Arnold Harberger was one of the main arteries between the youth at Catholic University and the mother-ship in Chicago. Like the others, he sees their role as benign even if it took murder to make it possible. He smiles and says that the proof of their uplifting role is the continuation of neoliberal policies even under democratic governments. Like Lüders, he shows no understanding of why people are now in the streets demanding change against any government on the right or on the center-left.
Give credit to directors Carola Fuentes and Rafael Valdeavellano for being canny enough to get these economists to hang themselves on their own petard. Of course, it is likely that even if they saw this film, they still wouldn’t get how evil they appear to ordinary people. That’s what makes “The Chicago Boys” so compelling.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

3295. Mythical Beings May Be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans

By Becky Ferrira, The New York Times, December 11, 2019
Credit...Ratno Sardi
In December 2017, Hamrullah, an archaeologist on an Indonesian government survey, was exploring a cave system in Sulawesi, a large island in central Indonesia. He noticed a tantalizing opening in the ceiling above him. A skilled spelunker, Hamrullah (who only uses one name, like many Indonesians) climbed through the gap into an uncharted chamber. There, he laid eyes on a painting that is upending our understanding of prehistoric humans.

The dramatic panel of art, dating back at least 43,900 years, is “the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world,” a group of scientists said in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, although additional research will be needed to confirm the age of every character in the painting.

In the story told in the scene, eight figures approach wild pigs and anoas (dwarf buffaloes native to Sulawesi). For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail. In the language of archaeology, these are therianthropes, or characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics.

Given that these extraordinary characters are wielding thin objects that might represent ropes or spears, the painting may be an artistic demonstration of a game drive, a hunting strategy that involves guiding animals toward an ambush.

The otherworldly nature of the therianthropes also raises the possibility that they are mythical beings, or manifestations of “animal spirit helpers” that are common in shamanic beliefs, according to the study.

“This scene may not be a depiction of an actual hunting scene but could be about animistic beliefs and the relationship between people and animals, or even a shamanic ritual,” said Sue O’Connor, an archaeologist at Australian National University who was not involved in the study.

These interpretations are speculative, however, and the original inspiration for the painting, as well as its significance to the humans who created it, is likely to remain a mystery.

The rock art predates the next oldest representation of a character with a mix of human and animal figures, found in a cave in Germany, by about 4,000 years. It is also more than 20,000 years older than a hunting scene on the walls of France’s Lascaux Cave.

Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and one of the study’s authors, said his team was “completely blown away” by the painting.
“We had never seen anything even remotely like this before in the hundreds of cave art sites we’d documented” on this Indonesian island, Dr. Brumm said.

“I immediately knew it was special and that it would be a very important site to understand the cognitive evolution of our species,” said Maxime Aubert, a co-author also at Griffith.

The scene is inside the Maros-Pangkep limestone cave system on the island’s southwestern end, which has been a hot spot for archaeologists since the 1950s. Local people in the region were likely aware of the paintings long before that time, however. A modern custom of marking wooden posts with a handprint may even have “some connection with local observations of prehistoric hand stencils in nearby caves,” Dr. Brumm said.

The scientists determined the painting’s age by performing uranium-series dating on “cave popcorn,” or mineral deposits that hang over three of the animal motifs in the scene. That gave it an age of at least 43,900 years old, and possibly older.

“This finding is very significant because it was previously thought that figurative painting dated to a time shortly after modern humans arrived in Europe, perhaps circa 40,000 years ago, but this result shows it has an origin outside Europe,” said Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in England, who was not involved in the study.

However, Dr. Pike considered it “very premature” to claim that the scene represents the earliest example of such storytelling, because only the animals in the scene have been definitively dated. It’s possible that the therianthropes, a vital part of the narrative, were added later.

Dr. Aubert said his team thinks the therianthropes were likely painted at the same time as the animal motifs because “they are of the same tone of red and are in a similar state of preservation.”

Very little is known about the people who originally decorated the walls of Maros-Pangkep in red pigment, in part because none of their skeletal remains have been found in the caves. They may have been related to a group of modern humans that migrated to Australia more than 50,000 years ago.

Despite these unresolved mysteries, it is now abundantly clear that these humans were storytellers whose abstract paintings shed light into the origins of human cognition and spirituality.

“Images of therianthropes often have complex meanings in modern religions and folklore,” said Dr. Brumm, who gave the examples of werewolves and the animal-headed deities of ancient Egypt.

“While we can’t know if this was the case in Sulawesi at least 44,000 years ago, we can point to these enigmatic images of therianthropes as the world’s earliest known evidence for our ability to conceive of the existence of supernatural beings,” he said, which is “a cornerstone of religious belief and experience.”

Shigeru Miyagawa, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the study, suggested that the painting could have implications for understanding humanity’s “unique capacity to communicate using intricate language.”

“It also hints at high order cognitive processes such as language and elaborate artwork emerging fairly recently in evolution,” Dr. Miyagawa said.

The painting has galvanized archaeologists to continue mapping the vast, unexplored reaches of the Maros-Pangkep caves, where the art is fading, “at an alarming rate” for unknown reasons, Dr. Aubert said.

These imaginative landscapes adorned Sulawesi’s caves for 44 millenniums, but they could vanish soon after they were rediscovered. At this point, they are the only link to this early culture that dreamed up fantastic beings and visualized the thrill of the chase — two activities that still preoccupy humans today.

“We also need to understand why it is deteriorating so rapidly and maybe we will find ways to save it,” Dr. Aubert said.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

3294. The Last Days of the Cat Man of Darby Road

By Kamran Nayeri, November 19, 2019
Latte (Birth ?-Death, October 30, 2019) Photo: Kamran Nayeri
Echo (Birth?-Death, November 3, 2019) Photo: Kamran Nayeri

Max (Birth ?-Death November 21, 2018?) Photo: Kamran Nayeri

Soon after I arrived at my current residence outside of the small town of Sebastopol, sixty miles north of San Francisco, in August 2011, I ran into a colony of feral cats on Darby Road (see, a map,
here), a narrow road that winds around the eastern slope of the hillside that dead-ends at the Atascandero creek, providing residents and farmers access to Burnside Road that leads via Watertrough Road towards Sebastopol to the North and Cotati to East.  

When I arrived here with Mooshi, who used to be a feral cat living under the Anna Head building at UC Berkeley where I worked, I was hoping for a quiet time to garden, watch wildlife, and perhaps write a book about my view of ecological socialism. 

The feral cat colony that lived near the road under the skeleton of a very old flatbed truck that offered them a relatively dry and protected place to hide or sleep was in such desperate condition that I immediately decided to take on the care of these cats.   I have written about this original feral cat colony elsewhere (see, here, and, here). As I will describe in a moment, within a year I also came to take care of other feral cats on Darby Road closer to my home. 

Dumped cats
There is an important distinction between feral cats and dumped cats. Feral cats are largely on their own, often born and raised by a feral mother, while dumped cats are house cats or barn cats, both socialized with humans and more dependent on them for their survival.  All cats bond with their surroundings and like humans are routinists.   Just as most of us follow a routine in our daily lives so do cats.  

Thus, cats feel safer and happier where they are accustomed to live, be it a hole on the side of a creek, a barn, or a house.  That makes it very difficult to take feral cats home as house cats, especially if they are older adults.  At the very least, they must be kept in captivity for months (in my experience at least four months) before they “forget” their former home and accept the new one.  For older cats, this may not be a good option. Sayda, a feral cat in the original colony, who was judged by her veterinarian to be about 9 years old was badly and permanently hurt by a brute force to the head either in a car accident or by being hit by someone lived three years in the house but mostly in the dark corners of the loft. Only towards the end, she began to feel comfortable to come down and even sit on a cushion and later on the patio to enjoy the sunshine.  Unfortunately, she was at the same time suffering from multiple life-threatening illnesses and had to be euthanized. Of course, had I left her to live with the rest of the colony on Darby Road she might have fallen victim to a coyote and not survived three years. But the transition to the house was traumatic for her nonetheless.

Over the past eight years, I have bought five cats from the road to the house: Sayda (feral), Sunny (probably dumped), Panther (dumped), Lulu (probably dumped but gone feral), and Siah (dumped).  In my experience dumped cats have been much easier to acclimate than feral cats to their new home and lived a longer and happier life.  I must say that dumped cats tended to be younger and feral cats I brought in were older—both Sayda and Lulu were judged to be nine years old when I brought them in. Mooshi was also a feral cat when I first saw her in the parking lot of Anna Head building at UC Berkeley.  She was probably three years old then. Over the next three years as I served her in the parking lot of Survey Research Center we became good friends.  When I was planning to move to a new job at the UC Office of President (UCOP), I had to catch and take Mooshi home. It took months until I succeeded. It took Mooshi about four months to get used to the Montclair house (Oakland). She learned and liked to be brushed and to sit on my lap or legs. But I could not pick her up until the last year of her life when she became disabled and needed me to pick her up to take care of her daily needs. That is, after 13 years! 

Panther (L) and Siah were both young unneutered male dumped cats who wandered in the neighborhood for months before opting to live with me in La casa de los gatos.   Panther was dumped in 2012 and Siah in 2017.  As you can see, they are both black cats.  The Human Society in Sonoma County offers additional incentives for people to adopt black cats due to prevalent superstition.  Photo: Kamran Nayeri
During my eight years serving feral cats on Darby Road, I have witnessed a half dozen cases of dumped cats.  In every case, these cats felt lost, scared, were hungry and thirsty and had no secure no resting place. Some of the dumped cats try to return home and die along the way sometimes by being hit by cars or by being taken by predators.  The luckier ones find a location once populated by a feral cat and gradually become part of the feral cats in a neighborhood. A few luckier ones find someone who brings them into their home.  

The Cat Man of Darby Road
While there are dozens of homes on Darby Road and at least some residents have been well aware of the existence of the feral cats and a few occasionally feed those that appear in proximity of their home no one has taken an interest in taking care of these unfortunate cats on any consistent basis during the past eight years.  That is why I found the original cat colony on Darby Road in such a desperate situation.  Of the two female orange cats in the colony that I was able to trap one had to be euthanized because of inoperable skin cancer on her face. I took the other who I named Sayda home because she was disabled by a brute force to her head that had shattered her teeth, deformed her face, and impaired her vision and hearing. Sayda lived in the house for three years mostly in the dark corners of the storage area of the loft before I had to euthanize her in October 2014 due to a number of life-threatening illnesses that required care she would not allow.  I trapped Smokey, a male cat that pestered other cats and took him to Analy Veterinarian Hospital, where he was also diagnosed with advanced disease fostered by FIV infection and was euthanized.  This left me with two cats—Calico, a large, older, very skittish, calico female, and Lulu, a mellow mannered black male cat who bonded with me quickly.  With help from John Woodward, we built three cat condos (I found the design on the web) with insulation that would warm up inside quickly with the cat’s body heat for the coming cold and wet winter months.  Alas, by the time the winter arrived, there were only two cats left. I surrounded the condos with various boards to make it impossible for coyotes to get close to the door to them so the cats could hide inside and be safe.  There was also a trashed garage across the street where a really big young man lived a mysterious life.  He was a low-paid worker who showed up occasionally and came and left quietly in his very large truck. 

As I learned from the few who cared for feral cats and who had lived in the neighborhood for a while, a female renter had taken care of this colony and she had led an effort to spay and neuter feral cats in the neighborhood (probably with help from Forgotten Felines). Unfortunately, she also suffered from psychosis and was hospitalized and had to move out of Sonoma County so the colony her support for months until I arrived. 

Sometimes in the spring of 2013, Steven who appeared to me to be in his early fifties perhaps because he walked with a cane because of a heart attack that also financially ruined him, asked me to take care of a feral cat named Oskar.  At the time, Steven who loved cats and dogs was house- and cat-sitting for Stuart who owned the rundown house at the corner of Darby Road as it turned east towards my house.  Stuart had two exceptional young larger male cats who were brothers. He had named the black cat Frank and the white cat with black spots Ernest (everyone called him Ernie). Frank always amazed me with his love of dogs, especially Elko, who was a very large but very sweet dog. Every time Les and Nancy walked Elko to our end of Darby Road, Frank and Elko greeted each other. Neither cats were spayed and Ernie was running all over the neighborhood getting into a fight with other male cats. Katherine, who also owned the property that bordered with the original cat colony, once asked me if Ernie was “your cat” and when I told her he was not she threatened to shoot Ernie if he ever came again to her property! I appealed to Steven to urge Stuart to spay Ernie and Frank. He did and Stuart finally forked over the money for Steven to proceed with it. 

Ernie. Photo: Kamran Nayeri
Stuart was in the process of relocating to Colorado even though he was suffering from pancreatic cancer that killed him soon after he settled there.  He had the house on the market for sale and Steven was forced to move to another county where low-income housing was available.  While living in Stuart’s house, Steven had brought in a small male Siamese cat named Coco who was FIV positive and as Steven was preparing to move away seemed gravely ill with very badly infected eyes.  Steven could not afford veterinarian care for Coco or even high-quality cat food that could have boosted his immune system. Luckily, Les and Nancy who also lived up on the hill on Darby Road adopted Coco.  They took Coco for veterinarian care, gave him good food, a comfortable home, and a lot of love. Coco revived, his eyes cleared up, his fur turned fuller and shiny, and he enjoyed games Nancy and Les played with him.  He lived a couple of years longer and all of it in happiness. 

Steven was also feeding Oskar, a smokey colored small male feral cat with a square face and a great, mellow personality.  Unbeknown to Stuart, Oskar had made the basement of his house into his den and could get in and out through a broken window.  Steven served Oskar’s food by the house or in the decades-old rundown huge chicken barn. Steven told me that Oskar sometimes came inside the house and slept near him with Coco. 

Initially, I served Oskar food and water in the rundown chicken barn.  As run down as it was, the barn had a tin roof and offered some protection from the elements to Oskar and other small mammals, as well as birds, and even deer who rested in between piles of discarded building materials in hotter summer days.  Unfortunately, the house-sitter Stuart hired—he took Ernie and Frank in his final trip to Colorado—to replace Steven was a psychopath named Bert who hated cats and immediately ordered me set foot on “his” property to serve Oskar.

It took a while for Oskar to adjust being served across the street under the blackberry bushes where a small relatively flat area existed. I had to crawl in and out it at the turn of the road to serve Oskar and a number of times the thuggish house-sitter tried to run me out of the road into the creek. Bert who had transferred his dislike for Oskar onto me three times tried to run me over as he arrived when I was serving Oskar and had to step down to the feeding area or up onto Darby Road.  The problem got bad enough that I reported it to the County Sheriff and related it to two of my neighbors.  Finally, Steven who was in touch with me by phone told Stuart about this problem. Stuart then told Bert to stop harassing me.  Although he did not entirely stop his hostility he retreated from the more aggressive acts. 

Before Stuart died of pancreatic cancer, he sold the house to a young couple with money who demolished it and the old chicken barn and built a new house. Within a couple years, they brought in a couple with a tiny home as renters and then built an apartment on part of where the barn was and rented it as well.  This process took time and Oskar died within a year after I came to care for him.  Meanwhile, I had come to care for two Siamese cats. 

In the earlier phase when I was still serving Oskar in the old chicken barn a large male Siamese cat appeared who was so hungry that he would steal Oskar’s food as I was looking elsewhere.  After I discovered who was stealing Oskar’s food as I was waiting for him to finish (in my experience, most people do not realize that one cannot just leave cat food on the side of a road hoping the intended cat will come and eat it!  People were often puzzled why I brought the food, served it in a dish, and then took everything back to the house with me except for the water bowl).  Soon, I began to serve Mocha as well except he was very wild and would not approach his food dish unless I step away from a fair distance. As our relationship became regular I named him Mocha and he took a cavity under a pile of scrapped wood at the far corner of the old chicken barn as his home.  Unbeknown to me, Mocha was gravely ill and stopped eating after a few months and then disappeared as dying feral cats often do. 

A short while after I began to serve Oskar across the road under the blackberry bushes, a younger female Siamese cat appeared in the creek in the direction of the marijuana farm. This cat was also very skittish and obviously hungry.  Still, it took her a few weeks before hunger forced her to come to where I served Oskar and ate from the bowl I left for her near where Oskar ate.  Clearly, she and Oskar knew each other as neither minded the other eating a foot away.  In fact, the two of them became friends.  

Soon after, I noticed a small wound on Oskar’s right ear. I figured he must have had a fight. But the wound did not heal and grew slowly.  Given my experience with Orange Kitty Number 2, the cat with skin cancer in the original colony who I had to euthanize, I began to worry about Oskar having skin cancer. FIV infection rate is high among feral cats, especially male cats who are more likely to fight. FIV spreads in the cat population through biting.  I was debating what to do with Oskar. Should I trap him as the disease advances and have him euthanized or let him succumb to the disease on his own and die.  

On February 13, 2013, after I served dinner to Oskar and Latte under the blackberry bushes and took away their dishes, I returned to see Latte sitting along Oskar stretching her right arm across his back and licking his face, so clearly a sign of affection. Oskar just sat there with his eye closed.   A couple of weeks later, I served dinner to the cats and Oskar ate especially well and then left.  I never saw Oskar again.

After Oskar, Latte was my only feral cat on Darby Road.  I began to debate if I should try take her home, a process that would be especially hard on her as she remaind skittish. 

Spots and Stripes
Stephen and Renée, an Irish American couple in their forties who were renters at the marijuana farm for years had decided to move to a larger apartment in town as Steve who worked at Whole Foods as a low-level manager got a raise.  They had told me that there was a family of barn cats there who they had taken care of over the years. For several months, they made a point of coming to feed these cats outside the gate of the marijuana farm.  Unlike me, they did not follow a schedule so they fed whichever of the cats who showed up.  Those that did not show up went hungry. 

After a while, I did not see Steve or Renée anymore. I assumed they come at some other time.  One day, two small smokey and white-colored cats appeared under the big oak tree across from where I serve food to Latte.  The fur on their back looked funny—one had spots where the fur seemed burned and the other had stripes where the fur seemed burned. They were very hungry and I served them food.  They began to show up again and soon were regulars.  I called them Spots and Stripes.  I never saw Steve and Renée on Darby Road again.

One day when I was shopping at Whole Foods, I ran into Steve.  He seemed embarrassed to see me.  He blurted out something like: “We thought since you are taking care of Latte you would not mind taking care of our cats… It was not practical for us to come to Darby Road every day.”  

To be sure, the round trip from their home in town to where they fed the cats was 20 minutes. But nobody serves feral cats for its convenience.  They took care of these cats as long as they lived by the barn. Once the cats were no longer outside their front door, they became a burden they would not tolerate.  

Steve said they took the large, aggressive male in the family of barn cats. But Steve never told me how many cats they left behind.  Soon, I found a miserable old cat half of her face including one eye had been eaten by skin cancer.  I learned that this was the mother cat.  I had to trap and take her to be euthanized; a heart-wrenching ordeal.

Spots and Stripes lost their spots and stripes in a few months.  I learned that they were brother and sister and that the sister was names Echo because her paws were white.  Both were very sweet cats. But the male cat stopped coming by and I learned that he was found in the farm dead apparently without any signs of injury. 

Echo and Max
A little later, another very small male cat came.  Steve and Renée had named him Max. Max was mischievous.   While Echo respected Latte’s privacy and did not venture into her eating spot, Max would not.  I had to make sure that he did not raid Latte’s food while she was eating.  Max was the smallest of the three cats. So, his behavior was simply annoying to them but did not cause them any serious trouble. 

While Latte was punctual and consistent—she never missed a meal unless she was sick or it was raining cats and dogs.  Echo and Max were not consistent or punctual.  Echo hated the rain and would never show up on a rainy day. When it rained for three days she did not come to eat for three days!  I have a feeling that they either at times successfully hunted rodents in the barn where they lived or people on the farm threw some food at them. But as I will note later, residents of the farm neither liked the cats nor liked me to take care of them. 

The cats, mostly Echo and sometimes Max, got sick from time to time and would not show up for an extended period of time.  Echo held the record of not showing up as long as two weeks due to illness that left her skin and bones. Each time I feared for her life and each time she surprised me by coming back and bouncing back by eating a lot and gaining some of the weight she had lost. 

On the evening of the day before Thanksgiving 2018, Max came for dinner.  He was not eating well for a few weeks and did not eat much that evening. I never saw Max after that. Like Mocha and Oskar, he simply disappeared. 

In the last year, I got closer to Echo and Latte. Echo loved to be brushed and I brushed her twice a day sometimes.  Latte who now allowed me to pat her and enjoyed it learned from Echo’s example and allowed me, reluctantly, to brush her as well.  

Echo and Latte hanged on for another year. But last few months I saw them both in failing health.  It was through my urging that they ate a fair amount at each meal. When Echo stopped eating, I moved her disk close to where Latte ate and she ate some more.  When Latte quit eating early, I knew rubbing her forehead and chin would encourage her to eat more. 

Before the Kincade Fire which burned October 23 to November 6, both cats ate very little.  Latte exhibited a worrisome panting as her lower abdomen pulsed uncontrollably.  I had been wondering earlier why she ate so well but was so skinny.  I feared cancer is eating her from the inside. But I did not know why she was panting.  Just before the fire started, Echo also did not eat much and a few times she threw up and that seemed to have become a pattern. She also drank water frequently.  I feared renal failure. 

In the early hours of Sunday, October 25, large sections of West County, which included me, were ordered to evacuate.  I was only able to put Siah in a carrier and left for San Rafael to stay with Saeed and Mina, my longtime friends. Panther had gone out an hour before the evacuation order was issued and was not responding to my calls. Of course, I had no hope of taking Echo and Latte. 

The evacuation order was issued because of high winds. The power company, PG&E, had cut off power to millions of residents.  Tens of thousands were on the road trying to find a safe haven somewhere.  

Saeed and Mina had no power either. But they had running water and natural gas.  By early Monday morning, the high winds had largely died down.  I decided to return and made it back to Darby Road by about 8:30 a.m.  There were only a few cars on the highway and even fewer on the country roads and none in the town. 

When I got a tray of food and went to the road and called for Latte and Echo, Latte came out of the blackberry bushes with a loud heart-wrenching cry as if in sharp pain.  Her abdomen was pulsing and despite my urging, she ate almost nothing. Echo came and ate a little but threw up her food; her saliva was sticky and foamy. She proceeded to try to drink some water. 

I decided it was to euthanize Latte—she seemed in pain, unable to eat, and was showing up because she wanted to see me or repeat an experience that was once rewarding to her.  Analy Veterinarian Hospital in Sebastopol was closed and so were just about all cats and dog hospitals. But VCA Hospital in Rohnert Park about 30 minutes away was open. I called them and told them I had to bring in a cat to be euthanized.  The receptionist said there were 51 patients in line at that time. That was not a good time to take in Latte. The next morning, I called before I went to the road. There was only one patient in line. 

When I called Latte, she again came out the blackberry bushes crying loud. Her abdomen pulsing fast. I offered her some food but she was not interested. She sat there miserable as if about to die.  I picked up, wrapped her in a towel I had brought, and placed her into a small carrier I had borrowed. She put up a little resistance as Latte has always been skittish and I was doing something well beyond what she liked. But then she became quite resting inside the carried covered in the towel.  

As I drove to the VCA Animal Hospital I talked to Latte to give her some comfort. But I heard no response from her. I feared if she was dead.  I did not dare to look. 

At VCA Animal Hospital which was very quiet, I was taken into an examination room to wait for the attending veterinarian.  It was Wednesday, October 28, at about 8:30 in the morning. A nurse came and took the carrier to another room. About ten minutes later, the attending veterinarian came into the room with a saddened face. He said: “I am sorry but Latte is already dead.”  Apparently, Latte who always feared people but learned to trust me had died of a heart attack as I tried to take her to be euthanized. I was relieved that she did not endure the torment of being taken to the hospital and being handled by people she did not know only to be euthanized.

On Sunday morning, November 3 I had to take Echo to be euthanized. Her situation was different from Latte in that she was not facing an immediate threat to her life by a failing heart. But she was weakened by not being able to hold down what she ate and was starving as a result.  Echo who was friendly to people did not mind me placing her into the carrier and closing the door on her. But she began to complain about her confinement as we drove the distance to the VCA Animal Hospital.  A very intelligent cat, Latte did not seem like a good candidate to be euthanized. So the middle-aged woman who was the attending veterinarian had to examine her before deciding that it was the ethically right course to take.  Echo would not allow a proper examination and jumped out of the carrier and tried to jump up the computer desk but could not. Her mere movement and apparent weakness convinced the veterinarian that there was no way to walk her back to health and it was prudent to save her from the agony of dying from starvation that may take a couple of weeks.  A crew came in to catch Echo and they took her to be euthanized. I declined the offer to be present for the process of injecting her sedated body with medication that would stop her heart. She died about 10:30; always a feisty, friendly, and beautiful cat.

I buried Latte and Echo below the redwood trees where other cats have been previously buried. Greg, my neighbor, and friend used his tractor to bring a 160lb. rock on which Echo sat to view the vineyard and I brought the lighter flat rock where I had their water bowl placed for them.  They served as the tombstones. 

The last days of the Cat Man of Darby Road
Thus, my eight years and three months of daily service for the feral cats on Darby Road came to an end.  I was such a constant presence that some of my neighbors called me the Cat Man of Darby Road.  I would not deny that I fell in love with these cats and I looked forward to serving them even in the harshest weather. I always admired Latte who showed up for her meals even when it was raining cats and dogs. But I also suffered a lot of stress both because I care for these cats and because of what I saw from my fellow human beings.  In the summers when coyotes visited the neighborhood, I feared for the feral cats’ safety. In fact, I lost Calico who was an older and perhaps sick and weakened female cat to coyotes.  In winter, when the temperatures dropped to close to freezing or to freezing I had trouble sleeping thinking of these cats who had to make do in the cavities of the creek which was cold and damp.  Or when it was stormy for days, and some cats, like Echo, would not eat for a few days. 

But I suffered even more stress from my fellow human beings.  Some were outright hostile to me taking care of these cats. I recounted how Bert, a poor white man himself in need of compassion, tried to drive me away and run me over by speeding around the curve on Darby Road where I fed the cats.  The occupants of the marijuana farm for some reason took a hostile attitude towards me serving food to the cats that lived under their barn and they refused to feed!  Heather, the wife who walked her three dogs unleashed on Darby Road, started by tossing water bowls I left for the cats into the creek and when I replaced the bowls with new ones, someone, I suspected her, for overturning the flat rock on which water bowl was placed. One day, as I pulled into the spot by the side of the road that left room for cars to come and go, one of her dogs sneaked from under my car and bit me. When I complained to her she told me I was laying and when I showed her my bleeding ankle she did not even apologize. She simply pulled away from her dogs and went back to the farm.  I had to report the episode to Animal Control and check for possible rabies.  That started a minor war against me because she was now ordered to keep her dogs on leash as is required by law. And she was given notice that if her dog bites another time she could be euthanized. Of course, I had no desire to cause any harm to the dog so I did not file a civil complaint against Heather. But Frank who befriended me when I was taking care of the original colony now turned into an enemy. They tried every trick in the book to stopped me from taking care of these cats to no avail. Meanwhile, I found out that others have been bitten by the same dog. Marijuana dogs are trained to be hostile to people.

It took a year and a half before Frank and I finally made up and Frank asked Heather to observe the law and walk her dogs on leash and avoid doing so when I was serving the cats. 

The same woman, Katherine, who warned me that she would shoot Ernies, the young male cat if he goes near her house, used to walk by my and ask: “Aren’t the cats dead yet?” 

Others who were not outright hostile were expressing disapproval.  When sections of the culvert over the creek where I serve the cats failed because rainwater running under the asphalt, a neighbor suggested it was because of me walking in and out of culvert to serve Latte!  Of course, when I called in engineers they did not agree with such an assertion. 

Others who walked their dogs on Darby Road allowed them to poop exactly where I served Echo and Latte.  So I had to clean up each time after them!  It never occurred to them to respect these cats to have a small area around the creek as their own free of garbage and dog poop. Still, others drove on Darby Road at high speed and did not slow down when they passed where the cats were having their meal.  Of course, this bothered the cats and I always feared they could run over them.   

In my twenty years of living with many cats, I have also discovered that our problematic relationship with them is not limited to outright hostility or simple ignorance.  The problem is rooted in anthropocentrism, deeply embedded in much of world culture, in which we are raised to believe that nature, including all living beings, exists for a human purpose and we ourselves are therefore separate from and superior to them.  As I noted earlier, there were three Siamese cats on my end of Darby Road--Coco, Mocha, and Latte.  I found out where they come from Steve and Renée.  A young couple who were renters in the marijuana farm decided to raise Siamese cats to sell them as a business. Once they raised a brood of Siamese cats they discovered there were no customers. They left and left the brood of cats behind to fend off for themselves. Thus, sheer human stupidity resulted in lifetime misery of a number of cats, including Mocha, Coco, and Latte. 

I have offended many good and close friends who have visited me over the years when I have asked them to please be respectful of the cats in the house.  It is not at all unusual for them to walk into the house that belongs to the cats as a guest and immediately rush to the cats to pat them or to play with them. Never it occurs to them that we do not do the same when we arrive in someone’s house and rush to touch or play with their children who we do not know.  We keep a certain distance from other humans in accordance with our relationship with them. To respectfully get closer to any other human requires a certain degree of mutual trust that depends on the state of our relationship.  Twenty years of living with cats or taking care of feral cats have taught me that they require the same care as my fellow human beings as I try to develop a relationship with them.  

Of course, this problem is not limited to our relationship with cats but extends to our relationship with all other living beings.  Clearly, the only healthy relationship we can have with them is one based on respect for them.  Anyone familiar with how life and ecosystems have developed on Earth should have no difficulty to understand that our relationship with other species is pathological.  And this is at the root of the existential eco-social crisis we face today.

Those who feel sympathetic for my view often also mistake my love for cats as a preference for them—“he is a cat man.” It is common to divide people into “cat people” and “dog people.”  My friends are taken aback when I tell them that I am not really a cat person. In fact, in my ideal world, there would be no domestication and no domesticated animals. If we have a billion dogs and cats, a majority as feral, we have a crisis of civilization. Cats and dogs are an invasive species.  According to Pete Marra who heads of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center “free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually.” The reason for the discrepancy was the woeful lack of data on feral cat populations and their lifestyles (“The Moral Cost of Cats,” Smithsonian, 2016).  What is lost in the controversy between the “cat people” and “bird people” is that the spread of the cat population to about 500 billion across the world is entirely due to human civilization?  All cats have genetically related to the first domesticated cats in the Fertile Crescent some 5,000 years ago.  


One morning as I was writing this tribute to Max, Echo and Latte and other feral cats on Darby Road, I noticed something that looked like a white cat at the corner of my neighbor’s property.  Frank had told me about a white cat that walks on the edge of the marijuana farm.  I took my binoculars and looked at the area. Sure enough, I saw a white cat sitting there looking intently in the direction of Darby Road!  All of a sudden, I face a number of questions: what am I supposed to do? Take some food for the hungry cat? Ignore it to go away? 

I decided that if the cat has been around for some time—maybe months—the cat knows where to get food.  I left the house to do my errands. When I returned, a light rain had fallen.  I looked to see if the cat is gone. To my surprise, the cat was still there in the same position!  I decide to take a photo of the cat. So, I walked slowly in the direction of the cat a good distance away. As I got halfway closer to the cat, I realized what I thought was a white cat was really a white trash can liner that some careless neighbor of mine had let loose and the wind brought it to this location. There was no white cat needing my care except in my mind. 

It also reminded me of a side benefit of serving the feral cats on Darby Road: I cleaned the area including the street of debris, from plastics, broken glass, empty cans, styrofoam, etc. that my neighbors, the passerby, or even the garbage collectors spread in the neighborhood.