The plan was to take Riff Raff, my editor’s large-boned gray cat, out for some coffee.
After all, a cat is the hottest accessory this fall. Just as the tiny dog in a purse was the preferred silly-pet-transport method of the early 2000s, the Paris Hilton years, so has simply carrying a cat around become almost normal amongst tabloid celebrities in the past year or two. Taylor Swift carries Olivia Benson around Manhattan. Mr. Peep$, Kesha’s cat, is the basis for her cat cult (as well as nice arm candy on the West Coast). And the mother of all trendsetters, Kim Kardashian, traveled with a fluffy white kitten called Mercy (RIP) until the four-month-old cat died unexpectedly. And who am I to look to for behavioral inspiration if not Kesha?
My own cat, who happens to be the cutest cat in the universe (Ed. note: this has not been confirmed by any organization), is skittish; once I took her up to my roof, figuring she might like to play in the garden and maybe stalk a pigeon or two. Instead she yowled and pressed herself as close to the rooftop as possible, which wasn’t easy considering every single one of her hairs was pointing straight upwards. Riff Raff, though, made not a noise throughout our introduction, calmly strutting around, happy to meet me, comfortable being picked up.
An ideal cat for this trip. Or so we thought.
When Taylor Swift is photographed with her cat, it’s usually loose, in her arms, ostensibly only held for the minute or two before Swift is spirited into a limo or a helicopter. (Swift eventually had to publicly explain why she was carrying her cat around Manhattan.) That struck me as a bad idea: Any cat could wriggle free and jump into (god forbid) traffic. For our outing, Riff Raff was stuffed into a bag.
Specifically, Cat-In-The-Bag. The Cat-In-The-Bag is essentially a square canvas envelope with a zipper along one edge, a small circular cutout on the opposite edge for the cat’s head to peek through, and a strap so it can be held like a purse. To get the cat into it, you have to first cram the cat’s head through the hole, which the cat doesn’t much like, then adjust it with a Velcro strap so it fits snugly before pushing the cat’s body the rest of the way into the bag and zipping it up.
Riff Raff looked a little uncomfortable and a lot undignified in this getup, but there seemed to be no way he could really hurt himself, and maybe he’d enjoy a trip to the coffee shop.
But this was only Riff Raff’s second expedition in the bag. The idea of carrying a cat in a bag seems insane to me; my entire experience with cats–growing up with them, occasionally writing about them, owning the world’s most adorable one–had led me to see carrying a cat around as a pretty bad move. But I’m not an expert on feline behavior, so I called up Beth Adelman, a Brooklyn-based certified cat behavior consultant, to find out what was going on in poor Riff Raff’s mind while stuck in that bag.
My first question was whether any cats would enjoy going for a stroll in the city. “There’s nothing inherent in cats that would stop them from enjoying going outside,” she says. “This is just about the way we raise our cats. If we socialized our cats to go out all the time, they’d be fine going out all the time.” It’s important, she says, to remember how differently we treat dogs and cats; a dog is socialized from a very early age to go outside every day, usually multiple times a day. Dogs, from a very early age, figure out that the outside world, with all its stimuli, isn’t necessarily scary. But cats often live their lives indoors, and the outside world can be pretty terrifying.
Feline senses don’t work quite like ours; they don’t rely on their visual sense quite as much as we do, instead leaning on their senses of smell and hearing. And, especially for an apartment cat like Riff Raff, crossing the rubicon from indoors to outdoors is the equivalent of stepping into a war zone. “They’re bombarded with sensory input that they don’t understand and can’t interpret,” says Adelman.
Interestingly, Adelman notes that the mere presence of the sky could be a source of terror. A cat that lives indoors is used to having a ceiling over its head; this is protection from falling objects, and it also simply limits the amount of space a cat has to see. The sky, limitless and bright, could inflict the same kind of psychic terror on a cat as space does on us.
And the Cat-In-The-Bag wasn’t helping. Cats, though they are obligate carnivores (meaning, they eat very little but meat), are not at the top of the food chain. They descend mostly from the African wildcat, and have long been mid-range predators: sure, they hunt, but they’re also small enough to be hunted. That gives them both predator and prey characteristics, the latter of which causes fear and stress, for obvious reasons.
For any prey species, it’s paramount to have an exit route. If something goes wrong, all cats want to have a clear way that they can escape. So being wrapped up in a bag is very stressful for them, but what’s worse is not even being able to stand upright. “Cats often don’t feel good when they can’t get their feet under them; that’s why they sometimes don’t like to be picked up,” says Adelman. Without their feet on the ground (or on some other surface), they’ve got no purchase to spring away if that’s needed.
It turns out that the celebrities weren’t totally wrong in carrying the cats without a carrier. The celebrity cats in these delightful paparazzi shots are being held with varying degrees of expertise; certainly their owners could learn to support their feet a little better, but for short distances, this kind of carrying should be okay. But cats aren’t dogs, and won’t tolerate just being shoved into a purse–unless, say, the purse has a flat bottom, and the cat has been socialized to do this since it was a kitten.
Riff Raff is not such a cat. After no more than five minutes walking, he really flipped out: Unable to find a comfortable position in the bag, he began trying to squeeze his head back through the hole. And even without any scary dogs or screaming sirens or giant rattling trucks or loud teenagers, without anything that would immediately freak out a cat, Riff Raff began shivering uncontrollably. “I’m calling it,” I said. “Let’s get this cat home.”
It seems that cats, even chill cats, unlike dogs and even babies, do not enjoy meeting the public on the arm of a human.
Back at the apartment, a quick meal and some comforting petting put him right again. He doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against me. But the next time I take my award-winning cat to the vet, I’m not going to be carrying her Taylor Swift-style, either. I’ll be sure to put her in a comfortable, flat-bottomed carrier and not a glorified tote bag.