Cat > People: Cecil The Lion and The Cats of Ulthar
Humans are animals, and that doesn’t square well with us. Famously narcissistic and filled with hubris, our species places itself upon a pedestal, defining the worth of other animals through comparison to ourselves. We place an incredible amount of importance on an animal’s human-like features, going as far to value the life of apes and dolphins hire than uglier, dumber mammals like the wretched naked mole rat. But the truth is, human superiority is a facade. We are not objectively better than other types of animal in any way that goes beyond having evolved thumbs and language, and this lack of importance is frightening.
If you take that assertion back far enough you can see it in the Abrahamic Religion’s creation myth. In the book of Genesis, humans were created in the image of God. It’s a powerful message when categorically differentiating homosapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom, aligning our own species closer to the divine than the lower lifeforms that we cultivate, domesticate, mutilate and consume. But if you pull a Nietzsche and kill God with your brain, come at things from an evolutionary perspective, it becomes very clear that the only difference between us and the jungle cats is that we are uncomfortable with nudity and David Bowie never wrote a good song about being a powerful human.
(Just let this song play for the rest of the post)
This fear of not being special, which is essentially the fear of a godless world, is the closest I can come to a conclusion as to why people hunt big game. It is a fear that is particularly modern, and an act that was just recently a major topic in the human news circuit. Last week a dentist from the Midwestern United States named Walter Palmer went on a hunting expedition in Zimbabwe and shot a lion.
Much ado has been made about the fact that the poached lion had a name, Cecil, and was under protection by the state, but talking about the cat as an individual misses the point. Palmer apologized for killing a known lion, while reaffirming that big game hunting is still a hobby he enjoys legally and responsibly. He cared about the anthropomorphic aspects of the beast, but his statement on the matter, along with his well documented history of killing large animals for sport, implies that he would not have cared about a nameless apex predator. That’s what he had planned to do, and had Cecil not been named I suspect the subsequent controversy would have been fairly muted in comparison to what we saw in the media and across the Internet.
Immediately upon hearing that Cecil had been baited, shot, beheaded and skinned then left for the carrion while his 12 cubs were left to be slaughtered by the next dominant male to take his place, the first thing I thought of was horror. One of the greatest weird tales in the English language, and one of my personal favourite horror stories, The Cats of Ulthar by H.P. Lovecraft is a short, contemplative parable of what happens to humans that hurt cats. Lovecraft was an ardent lover of felines, writing his own pet into The Rats in the Walls, and Ulthar inverts the natural human assumption of superiority over other animals.
The Cats of Ulthar takes place in the titular fictional town, which is home to an ornery couple who are known to capture and torture stray cats to death. A caravan of ancient nomads pass through Ulthar, and a child from the group has a pet black cat that he loves. One night, the cat is captured by the killers and meets the same fate that awaits all strays in the town. When the townsfolk tell the distressed boy about what happened to his cat (they know because of the noises they heard in the night), the boy turns his head to the sky and prays.
The image of this is sublime, and evokes and inversion between the human God in Genesis and the animal gods we deny out of fear and pride:
It was very peculiar, but as the little boy uttered his petition there seemed to form overhead the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked discs. Nature is full of such illusions to impress the imaginative.
The shadowy figures recall the story’s introduction, in which the narrator outlines the deep divinity of the cat, placing its secret knowledge higher than our feeble human understanding and, in true Lovecraftian fashion, tying the feline form to its Egyptian spiritual roots (a trope that he often employed as a shorthand for lost knowledge and the perils of narrow modern thought).
Sure enough, the night after the boy’s prayer, the living cats of Ulthar converge on the house of the couple who killed their brethren. When the townsfolk notice that the lights in the house on the edge of town aren’t turning back on at night they investigate only to find two skeletons, picked clean of meat. After this event law passes in Ulthar that no human shall kill a cat.
The Cats of Ulthar is a perfect example of how horror can challenge the human hubris seen in horrendous acts like big game hunting, inverting assumed rules of existence to promote humility. It is relevant in the wake of the killing of Cecil the Lion partially because it enables a divine retribution on those who would commit such arrogant crimes against nature (which is satisfying), but also because it challenges our own assumptions of morality (which is humbling).
Due to the place we’ve put ourselves in our own historical narrative we operate under a self serving rule: that which is human is good. But maybe we don’t know any better than the cats. This code, which has its roots in our biological imperative to survive, allows us to destroy beautiful things, other animals that are no less important than us. We’re all just animals, after all, and cosmically you’re no more special than a cat, no matter how many of them you kill