Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1996 Issue

Cat Burglar

By "Guido Veloce"
There exists in America a vast population that resists any meaningful sort of training or work, insists upon being fed by others, and whose unreimbursed medical expenses cost hardworking men and women billions of dollars, who would overwhelm us with their numbers unless involuntarily sterilized, and who commit atrocious criminal acts without a second thought. I mean, of course, cats. Let's take the case of one hardened feline felon named Berkeley, so-called because even as a young and relatively innocent lad he liked to be high. (Dumb names are rampant among cats and strongly encouraged by the fuzzy-minded cat lobby, which insists on cute ones like Fluffy, Boots, and Chairman Meow rather than descriptive ones like Thug, Pelt, Sponge, or Twit.) His career is one of unremitting theft and indolence, carried off with a true sociopath's easy charm and utter lack of remorse.

A gray tabby, Berkeley resides within the household of a couple I will simply call "W" (for wife) and "H" (for husband), along with a younger sibling named Clio, a splotchy calico who looks as if she were designed by a committee. When allowed to do so, Clio spends hours trilling and watching her favorite television show--her own reflection in a blank TV screen. Obviously mentally unbalanced, she nonetheless lacks Berkeley's criminal bent and is content merely to be a burden on society. Only timely intervention prevented her and Berkeley from passing their dysfunctions along to future generations, a fact of which they occasionally seem unaware. Yet so long as their kind are tolerated, even coddled, by a permissive society, millions of American homes will be afflicted by fur balls, litter boxes, shredded furniture, cute pictures, and medical bills (for removal of swallowed baggie ties).

As a kitten, Berkeley exhibited a healthy interest in sports. His favorite game involved catching paper wads in mid-air, or sometimes batting them with his paws, and retrieving them to be tossed again. There was a youthful joy in his participation in sports. Even so, there were disturbing signs of pathology from the beginning. In common with other sociopaths, he knew no boundaries, often refusing to play day games in favor of night, or more properly, early morning ones, a preference he indicated by dropping paper wads on the sleeping faces of H or W. He began to set other rules in an obvious manifestation of a severely controlling personality. Tosses by W were more to his liking than those by H, which often tested his ability to land on his feet by taking him perilously close to walls, the head of the staircase, or the edge of the bed. He also developed expensive tastes in sporting equipment. No crumpled newspaper, political leaflet, or unpaid bill would do. The only acceptable wads came from special spiral notebooks, the Air Jordans of the sport. Even these came under close scrutiny. He marched defective or overused ones downstairs to be hidden under the sofa or, in extreme cases, dropped at the bottom of the basement steps, where they quickly formed an open-air paper wad burial ground on which unsuspecting feet slid.

Berkeley's descent into theft was swift. At first it was petty and mostly involved emery boards, which particularly fascinated him. Initially, their frequent disappearance was a mystery and was blamed on the faulty memories of H and W. As the thefts became more brazen, however, both H and W sighted the culprit, emery board jauntily clenched between his teeth, streaking toward the basement, where he has an as yet undiscovered criminal cache, perhaps an emery board chop shop. No amount of reasoning and few preventive measures could break the behavior.

In the meantime, Berkeley discovered cough drops, his favorite being those in H's briefcase, from which--if left open even briefly--his tail and hindquarters immediately protruded. The drops served as kitty hockey pucks until abandoned where they were most likely to be stepped upon. But the real attraction was the wax wrapper, the scent of which appears to be the feline equivalent of glue sniffing. (Sorry to say, on this matter Berkeley corrupted his sibling. The two of them can occasionally be found clustered together around their illicit drug, glassy-eyed.)

The next step on the road to cat hell was paved with underwear. As usual, he had his preferences, in this case pantyhose. In fairness to Berkeley, however, he never sank to the level of a friend's dog, a sociable creature who liked to share his lingerie trophies with his owner's guests, daintily retrieving and dropping them on the living room floor when conversation lagged. Berkeley disdained such public displays of villainy. The ever-secretive felon either shredded his pilfered goods in private or took them to his basement hideaway. Not content with pantyhose or H and W's usual run of fragile gray things, he scored his greatest coup when he pilfered a brand-new black silk slip before W had a chance to wear it. Presumably he lounges on it in his basement den of iniquity as he plots new crimes.

So what's to be done with this hardened, indolent, potentially criminal class among us? Not much, I suppose, except to keep the food bowl full, the litter box empty, and the pantyhose in the drawer.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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