Basic Instincts

Cats like to kill birdsThe half-dozen or so bird feeders in our back garden attract hundreds of birds. The hundreds of birds attract several neighborhood cats, including our tabby, Sam, who has 24-hour access to delicious cat kibble. (Well, delicious to him and his sister the dog.) Still, he leaps — literally — at any chance he gets to kill one of the winged creatures in the yard. So do his other feline pals, none of whom is what you would call underfed. They’re all plump and happy.

Whenever we notice one of the cats stalking a bird, we holler or send the dog out to disrupt the hunt. The cats usually gives us a dirty look and slinks off into the bushes, waiting for the next unwitting victim to become too fixated on ground seed to notice a predator crawling through the grass on downy belly.

A friend has pointed out that our merciful efforts fly in the face of thousands of years of conditioning, of genetic predisposition that hard-wires a cat to murApe mander smaller animals even when the cat’s not hungry. “You’re fighting a losing battle,” he’s counseled. “You can’t undo evolution.”

When it comes to wild and domesticated animals, that may be right. But what about human beings?

At our basest level, we too are animals that seem to have a penchant for senseless killing, for senseless procreation, for raping and pillaging. Counterbalancing forces like Law, Religion, and Art make us seem less savage, but our species-wide fetish for power suggests that, like the cats, sating essential hungers are not what drive us. The more one reads the history of the world, the more one realizes that the story of mankind is one of war brought on by property and power lust. We have our temples and our libraries, our hospitals and schools. But we also have our cemeteries, countless acres of shallow graves that memorialize the deaths of, among others, millions of flightless “birds” who died not so that a starving child could eat, but for the perverse sport of kings and dictators.

We have prisons and execution chambers for those who would allow their animal instincts to go unchecked. But our taste for blood — and for sex and food and shelter — seems as unquenchable as a cat’s thirst for sparrow flesh. It’s a wonder, an evolutionary wonder, that our greed-driven species has evolved just enough to rule the world, if only for a brief interregnum along the infinite narrative of Time.

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