The Cats in Baghdad

Sunday’s New York Times offers a poignant look at some of the victims of the Iraq War:

IT was a bitterly cold night in the Baghdad winter of 2005, somewhere in the predawn hours before the staccato of suicide bombs and mortars and gunfire that are the daily orchestration of the war. Alone in my office in The Times’s compound beside the Tigris River, I was awaiting the telephoned “goodnight” from The Times foreign desk, eight time zones west, signaling that my work for the next day’s paper was done.

That is when I heard it: the cry of an abandoned kitten, somewhere out in the darkness, calling for its mother somewhere inside the compound. By an animal lover’s anthropomorphic logic, those desperate calls, three nights running, had come to seem more than the appeal of a tiny creature doomed to a cold and lonely death. Deep in the winter night, they seemed like a dismal tocsin for all who suffer in a time of war.


Perhaps it reflects badly on me, but I find a story like this more moving than the familiar stories of human suffering that populate the front pages of newspapers these days. Perhaps it is because in cats we are talking about creatures with just enough brain power to understand that they are cold, and hungry, and scared, but not enough brain power to think about the morality of war, or the niceties of international politics. Perhaps it is because in talking of the anguished meows of a frightened kitten we are talking about suffering in its purest form. Just an adorable and harmless creature that is the physical embodiment of innocence. Somehow human suffering always seems to come with strains of moral ambiguity. But causing a sweet, mostly undemanding little cat to suffer is just intolerable cruelty.

As The Times’s bureau chief, part of my routine was to ask, each night, how many cats we had seated for dinner. In a place where we could do little else to relieve the war’s miseries, the tally became a measure of one small thing we could do to favor life over death. The American military command has a battery of “metrics” to gauge progress, and the nightly headcount of the cats became my personal measure, my mood varying as the numbers went up and down. Sometimes they went sharply down, during winter epidemics of cat flu, or after attacks by the compound’s two dogs (war refugees themselves) that proved, as they grew beyond puppies, to have a feral antipathy to cats programmed in their bones.

The article’s conclusion is also moving. The writer describes leaving Baghdad with several abadnoned cats he was bringing back with him to England:

All about was hubbub, with hundreds of angry, fearful Iraqis struggling to secure their own passage out. The cats seemed terrified, so I fell once more into my anthropomorphic mode, offering them a quiet discourse on what lay ahead — the 3,000-mile air journey, detention in the quarantine center and, ultimately, liberation into a green and pleasant land where they would be full citizens, never again wanting for shelter, warmth and food.

A small crowd of Iraqis had gathered, and one among them, a middle-aged man who introduced himself as a physician traveling to Jordan to see his ailing mother, knelt down beside me and asked, in halting English, if I’d mind a question. By all means, I said. “Well then,” he said, his face breaking into a sad smile, “what I want to ask is this: This proposal you make, is it for four legs only, or also for two? Six months’ detention, British passport, free to stay, guaranteed home, this is excellent. I will take, and many other Iraqis, too.”

I recommend the whole article, even though it might just ruin your day.

Comments

  1. #1 Christophe Thill
    October 15, 2007

    A population of healthy, neutered and vaccinated street cats is a blessing for any city, all the more, of course, for a ruined thrild-world city like Baghdad. Rats are afraid of cats. The smell of cats and cat urine repells them. And rats are quite a bit of a sanitary problem. So, yes, the cats deserve to be protected, not only because they’re so beautiful and comforting.

  2. #2 Kevin
    October 15, 2007

    Jason,

    you must have missed this:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-op-siegel7oct07,0,7011275.story

    care to comment and/or point out the various lies and mis-representations?

    e.g.

    “If anyone thinks that Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion” — with its “scientific” attempts to refute the existence of God — is going to persuade today’s religious fanatics, here or abroad, to loosen up and enjoy a little MTV, you have to ask yourself just who is “deluded.”"

    Did Dawkins really make “sceintific” attempts to refute god? or just say that science cannot make any comment on imaginary friends? amd..WHO thinks its going to persuade religious fanatics?

    also, I’m sure that soon they will be eating cats and dogs in Iraq, cause they don’t have any money for food.

  3. #3 Dom
    October 15, 2007

    “Perhaps it reflects badly on me, but I find a story like this more moving than the familiar stories of human suffering that populate the front pages of newspapers these days.”

    I stand behind nobody in my love of pets, dogs more than cats, but yes, that does reflect badly on you, very badly.

    Concerning Iraq, this is from an American there, quoted by Sullivan:

    Al-Anbar has changed so completely that it is hardly believable. The Sunni parts of the rest of the country lag behind Al-Anbar and the Shia parts lag behind them, but I assure you the Awakening Movement is taking hold everywhere. And after the tribes clear the bad guys out of an area, they start right in forming parties and engaging good old fashioned messy, chaotic and dirty politics.

    An Arab democracy is being formed here. Forming political parties and coalitions is the new growth industry. It is staggering just how enthusiastically Arabs take to this sort of thing.

    I’ll leave you once again with the the quote from Sheikh Sattar. Recall that Sattar was a small time Sheikh and one time insurgent from Al-Anbar (Anbar was by far the deadliest place to be during this war), who rid Al-Anbar of the insurgency and created the idea of the Awakening which has spread to all of Iraq:

    “The Sahawa [Awakening] began because people thought the Americans were the enemy. We rose up and let the people see the truth – let them see that the Americans are here to help us. That was the true Awakening” – Sheikh Abdul Sattar Albu Risha, 26 May 2007.

  4. #4 Brando
    October 15, 2007

    That’s one thing I definitely won’t forget about Iraq, seeing the way people treat animals so poorly. I saw neglected cats and abused dogs left and right, not to mention the concept of a zoo there really is a freakshow of animal cruelty. No wonder it’s such an insult to call someone a dog over there.

  5. #5 Chris K
    October 16, 2007

    Well, dogs are very unpopular with followers of islam:

    http://www.islamicinvitationcentre.com/FAQ/Animals/FAQ_Animals.html

    As for the article — I consider focusing on the cats a rather oblique way to influence the feelings of the reader. If there had been a large series of more poignant articles about the people in Iraq, then I would not begrudge them the cat article. But the history of articles about people has been rather meager, and so I would not have chosen to spend the column space on the cats.

    To be clearer: I think any war zone could have a such a cat story written. I think an article which is less generic in focus would have been more useful.

  6. #6 CHANGCHO
    October 18, 2007

    “Al-Anbar has changed so completely that it is hardly believable. The Sunni parts of the rest of the country lag behind Al-Anbar and the Shia parts lag behind them, but I assure you the Awakening Movement is taking hold everywhere. And after the tribes clear the bad guys out of an area, they start right in forming parties and engaging good old fashioned messy, chaotic and dirty politics.

    An Arab democracy is being formed here. Forming political parties and coalitions is the new growth industry. It is staggering just how enthusiastically Arabs take to this sort of thing. ”

    Wow, you’ve just demonstrated that at least one person out there believes this stuff. Good for you; listen, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

  7. #7 mario garcia
    September 19, 2008

    my little cat is a calico.