Thursday, May 22, 2014

What Makes a Family?

Clearly, at least in the wealthy countries of the industrialized and post-industrialized world, our pets are our family. For millions of people today, we dote on our companion animals, buying them the best food, toys, and beds (when they are not sleeping in ours), taking them on vacations, and including them in our family photos.

Fighting over catnip sprouts. by Jason Houge
But what about feral cats?

The very definition of feral--from the Latin fera, meaning "wild beast"--suggests that they are clearly not members of the family. These domesticated (but not tame) cats, who live around the periphery of human societies, are viewed as pests, disease hosts, wildlife killers, and worse by most observers. They are subject to a wide variety of control and eradication policies around the world, up to and including killing them, although in the United States, it is still illegal to intentionally kill a cat, even if feral. But that doesn't mean that it isn't done.

Diane ran past some visitors who came to see the kittens. By Jason Houge
Still, many animal lovers care for the cats in feral cat colonies, feeding them, and catching them in order to have them spayed and neutered or given medical care. 

But one man, photographer Jason Houge, who shares his rural property with a colony of feral cats in Green Bay, Wisconsin, takes "family photographs" of them as well.

His lovely, and often intimate photos of the many cats on his property, all of whom he cares for, makes them feel as if they are truly part of his family. This is so different from the way that feral cats are usually seen; to borrow a phrase from anthropologist Mary Douglas, they are "matter out of place"  (1966).

Like dirt, to which Douglas was referring, they are not just dirty, but they literally don't fit into our conceptual categories; they are not cute and cuddly, you cannot hold them--they are not PETS. Like pigeons, another culturally problematic animal, they are hated.

Family Portrait: Ernie, Mumma and their 9 kittens. By Jason Houge
But Houge doesn't just not hate them, and he doesn't just care for them. His photos almost re-domesticate them, making us remember what makes us love cats in the first place, and want to bring them into our families in the first place--their playfulness, their lovingness, and yes, a bit of their wildness too.

This last photo he's titled "Family Portrait," and it includes the entire kitty family.

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