Questioning Your Own Beliefs, or...Should Cats Be Allowed Outside?
August 23, 2014
I once had the privilege of hearing Malcolm Gladwell speak to a small audience just after the release of his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. As part of the experience, the audience was given the opportunity to ask Mr. Gladwell questions about his books. As a fan who has read nearly all his books, I had a particular question burning to be asked. Mr. Gladwell generally does not address the same subject more than once to illustrate his point within his books. One subject, however, has been addressed more than once - Affirmative Action. His earlier treatment of the topic resulted in somewhat different perspectives on this controversial government program. His first perspective did not agree with his last perspective about the program. I found this fascinating (and wondered how many other people had caught the change of heart he seemed to have about the topic).
My question to Mr. Gladwell was this: "The opinion you present regarding Affirmative Action in an earlier book is quite different from the one you present in your most recent book. While I find it brave that you so publicly advertised how your opinions have changed, I wonder why you felt it was important enough to A) address the topic twice when you seldom do this in your work and B) do so in such a way that clearly indicates your current self does not share the same perspective as your former self."
His answer was very to the point, "I think it it important to acknowledge when you change your mind. If you never change your mind on anything then you are not growing and learning."
Mr. Gladwell's answer stuck with me and lingers among my synapses each time I find my own beliefs challenged. An individual who is always challenging my own beliefs is my cat Ares. Despite a rocky start, Ares has pushed me to be a better cat partner. After having "owned" him (and anyone who knows Ares knows I use that term loosely as he allows me to provide the necessary luxuries for him as part of our family) for about two years and keeping him exclusively indoors, I started to wonder if living under our roof was allowing him a safe life, albeit a less enriched one with lower quality than what he was used to in his former environment before he met me.
Ares was a stray prior to his journey to the SPCA where we found one another. He arrived in good health and has remained so - at a healthy 17 lbs with the most beautiful, soft fire orange tabby coat you'll ever see or touch. He has a spirit as fiery as his coat. I saw him look out the kitchen door longingly as we relaxed outside with our dogs. I also heard his pitiful meow occasionally thrown in for dramatic effect. Was my idea of keeping him safe actually decreasing his quality of life?
I had grown up in animal sheltering with the idea that free roaming cats suffered horrible health due to diseases like FIV, were at risk from dying due to predation, killed many other animals themselves and were generally living difficult and hard lives. When I really thought about these and other concerns, it became apparent that human attempts to reduce or eliminate risk was actually at the root of the reasons cats simply could not visit the outdoors. Yes, those risks exist, but to what degree?
Even with very real risks, I still questioned whether or not I should allow Ares outside. I certainly want to do everything within my power to reduce risk to my beloved feline, but I also didn't want to reduce his existence to something he would describe as less than a full life.
What to do? I remember a conversation with a fellow researcher from the UK, Dr. Sarah Ellis at a conference a few years ago. It seemed odd to her that we are so restrictive and encourage people to never let cats outside when they are generally allowed to roam a territory beyond their humans' property lines and return home to the creature comforts such as food, soft beds and social attention from their human and non-human family. Her research was featured on the BBC special: The Secret Lives of Cats.
I struggled with this debate as I live in a suburban area with real threats to Ares' safety. I also know that he was a stray prior to finding me. If he were to go outside and not come home I think I would be heartbroken beyond belief, not to mention riddled with guilt about his outcome (demise?). I wanted to improve the quality of his life and enrich his environment. I also wanted to keep him safe.
The compromise was in training. We have a fenced yard that would make it easier to make sure he remained safe within our yard - although I never trust an unsupervised cat to stay confined with only a fence. He had already been trained to wear a leash and harness. So, we began a boundary training program. Over several weeks he slowly investigated the yard further and further from the kitchen door he once sat solemnly behind. The leash was the safety measure that allowed him to explore and me to limit his exploration when necessary. After a couple weeks, he was allowed to
drag the leash while I kept a close eye on him. Then, he was introduced to a collar holding a tag and a bell while inside the home. He took to it right away, never trying to remove the collar. Then, we started with supervised visits without the leash/harness but with the collar. Over several months, he is now comfortable in all parts of our fenced in yard and is (mostly) respectful of the boundaries of the yard. He is never alone outside, but can now enjoy time with the family on the other side of the kitchen door.
This compromise allows him a more enriched existence that encourages him to enjoy his cat-ness. It also allows me to challenge my own need for control and risk aversion in a way that allows me to see Ares for the playful & confident individual he truly is. In the end, we have both grown and learned about life, control, risk aversion and what it means to allow a loved one to really live.