Classroom litter boxes, cat translators and other myths running rampant

by Gene Lyons

This just in: Regardless of what your ex-wife’s hairdresser’s brother-in-law says, there’s not a single documented instance of a school district anywhere in the United States installing litter boxes in bathrooms to accommodate students identifying as “furries” and wearing cat costumes to school.

Nowhere. Not a single one.

There’s a terrific article about it in the conservative magazine The Bulwark, entitled “Furrygate: A Litterbox of Lies.”

“It’s absolutely insane,” renegade ex-Democrat Tulsi Gabbard announced recently.

Well, it would be if this story were anything but total make-believe — evidence of a moral panic among right-wing Bible-beaters. It’s the first cousin to wild tales about werewolves in 16th-century Germany, or witches in 17th-century New England.

Or, for that matter, tales about episodes of ritual child abuse at day care centers in 1980s Los Angeles and Washington state.

So let’s not get too smug, shall we? Perhaps you recall “recovered memory syndrome”? People went to prison based on hypnosis-induced sexual fantasies evoked by crackpot “psychotherapists” — essentially witch doctors with Ph.D.s. Children examined by these worthies told of sex in hot air balloons, flying teachers and (nonexistent) secret tunnels beneath the day care center.

“Secret tunnels” … sound familiar? It was basically QAnon for Democrats.

Also, ever wonder why people taken up in flying saucers invariably report their genitals being probed by aliens?

Because they dreamed it all, that’s why.

Meanwhile, most of the real sexual abuse was being carried out by priests, preachers, Boy Scout leaders, wrestling coaches and other pillars of the community. And not upon preschoolers, either. When Irish singer Sinead O’Connor tried to warn people about clerical sexual abuse, she was all but driven from the United States. Frank Sinatra threatened to beat her up. Today, she’s seen as a prophet in Ireland.

Anyway, so far, no so-called furries have been taken into custody and sent to animal shelters. But at the rate people are showing up at school board meetings to denounce imaginary crimes by teachers, you have to suspect it won’t be long. I’d like to think the whole litter box business started as a satirical joke that somebody took literally.

Elsewhere on the pet-related front, as reported in The New York Times, scientists have supposedly devised a cellphone app to help you understand what your cat is saying. It’s called MeowTalk, and according to science reporter Emily Anthes, it’s “the product of a growing interest in enlisting additional intelligences — machine-learning algorithms — to decode animal communication.”

“’We’re trying to understand what cats are saying and give them a voice’ Javier Sanchez, a founder of MeowTalk, said. ‘We want to use this to help people build better and stronger relationships with their cats.”’

Supposedly, cats say stuff like “My love, I’m here!” and even “Hey baby, let’s go somewhere private!”

“It’s not pure science at this stage,” one inventor concedes.

Cynical me, I suspect MeowTalk’s inventors may also want to help gullible cat-owners rid themselves of excess cash. So I put the question to my cat, Martin, an absurdly affectionate orange tabby who has a one-word vocabulary. He goes “Meh,” with a little guttural tone at the end.

I go “Meh.” Martin repeats himself. I go “Meh” again, and we carry on like that until he gets bored and walks off. Then I follow him to see exactly what he wants. Sometimes “Meh” means “Let me in.” Other times, “I want out.” It occasionally means “Pet me,” and often, “Fill my supper bowl.”

In recent months, Martin’s added a few basic commands. If he’s standing in the bathroom sink, “Meh” means “Turn on the faucet.” (Like his jungle-cat ancestors, Martin prefers to drink running water. He is not a toilet-slurping dog.) If he leads me to the clothes dryer while switching his tail, he expects me to hoist him up to his supper dish — located out of the dogs’ reach. At age 9, his hang time isn’t what it was. He can still make it, but he’d rather be lifted.

And that’s pretty much it. Because he’s a cat, not a cat-loving human, he neither thinks nor talks in words. It’s all body language: his posture, the position of his ears and his tail. When he’s feeling affectionate and at ease, he purrs like a small outboard motor. All night long, wedged firmly between my wife and me. A poor mimic, Diane can scarcely “Meh” at all. Martin loves her anyway, which he shows by biting — gently, for the most part.

If he’s growling and switching his tail, there’s a butt-sniffing dog in the room. If he hisses and spits, somebody’s fixing to get hurt.

One time I mistakenly left him in my office with Aspen, a collie/Great Pyrenees mix and enthusiastic cat chaser. Martin held the high ground atop my desk. I heard a growl, a hiss, and two quick thumps.

Aspen has let Martin be ever since.

No translation needed.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner. You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.