Are Cats Spies Sent by Aliens? A Deep Examination of One of the Internet's Best Conspiracy Theories
Recent polling shows Americans love their conspiracy theories. They also love cats. This was bound to happen.
Image: Keith Kissel via Wikimedia Commons
Attention cat people. There's a burgeoning theory around the internet that begs reckoning. It's not the theory that parasites in cat poop are turning you into crazy cat ladies, though that's certainly cause for alarm. It's much worse than that.
Domestic house cats, it seems, may be alien sentinels—sent to spy on us and report their findings back to the mother ship. Or, as some theorists have put it, they're like alien camcorders tracking our every move.
Well, maybe. We humans love our conspiracy theories, and there's a decent chance this is just another among them. As a poll published just yesterday reveals, 51 percent of Americans believe the JFK assassination was a conspiracy; 15 percent believe "the government or the media adds mind-controlling technology to TV broadcast signals"; and 4 percent believe reptilian shapeshifters control the government.
It's impossible to know just how pervasive cats-as-alien spies theory is without an adequate polling apparatus (if you have one, please get in touch). One guesses it's fairly low. Then again, 4 percent is much higher than one might have expected for the lizard people theory, and, according to the same poll, some 29 percent of Americans believe aliens exist and 14 percent believe in Bigfoot, so who knows?
As with most conspiracy theories, the cats-as-alien-spies theory is surprisingly well-developed—and based on a few kernels of truth and genuine ambiguity. How much? Motherboard decided to take a look at some of the supporting premises, one-by-one. A user who goes by the moniker "RedSpider" summarizes the prevailing wisdom in a handy list on the British tech message board, Digital Kaos. I've appropriated his/her list here (lightly edited for style and clarity), with the original points bolded.
Examine the evidence and decide for yourself:
1. There is no documentation before ancient Egypt that mentions the existence of cats. And in ancient Egypt, they were worshipped as gifts from the gods.
As with several of these premises, these propositions are mostly true, but also somewhat disputable. To find out more about the fossil record, I emailed Ryan Haupt, a paleontologist at the University of Wyoming who, as he described it for a previous interview, "studies the lives of modern mammals to better understand what their extinct relatives were doing in the past." He said Egypt was "the best guess" for the origin of the domestic cat species, but noted that "cat skeletons have been found at older sites."
Exporting domestic cats was illegal in ancient Egypt, according to Wild Cats of the World, a book by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, which may explain why they don't appear definitively in the records of other civilizations until thousands of years later than early cat records in Egypt. What older feline skeletons have been found elsewhere don't provide clear "evidence as to whether they were domesticated or not," Haupt said, adding, however, that they "probably" weren't.
"Looking at just skeletons it's basically impossible to say when cats stopped being wild and started being domesticated." Haupt said.
As for cat worship, the picture is a bit more complicated than the conspiracy theorist asserts. Cats were, indeed, revered by the ancient Egyptians, the Sunquists write. Cats were beloved as pets; they were mourned like family members when they died; they were embalmed and buried with varying degrees of pomp according to its owner's wealth; cat cemeteries were plotted along the banks of the Nile; the penalty for killing a cat was death. But cats weren't simply viewed as gifts from the gods. Some of the Egyptian gods were cats, like Bastet, the goddess of joy and love. One ancient Egyptian papyrus depicts Ra, the sun god, as a knife-wielding cat with spots.
2. Science is baffled by a cat's purr, and cannot determine how the sound is produced. (Feedback, much?)
I'm not entirely sure what "Feedback much?" means, unless it means that a cat's purr is some kind of transmission feedback, similar to a cell phone's when held near a speaker. But the broader assertion is, again, partly true.
For this, I started with a bit of internet research. That science doesn't know why cats purr is often taken for granted around the internet, but that only tells part of the story. It's true that cats possess no special organ for purring. But science does know a thing or two. As noted in a WebMD article:
A rhythmic, repetitive neural oscillator [in the brain] sends messages to the laryngeal muscles, causing them to twitch at the rate of 25 to 150 vibrations per second (Hz). This causes a sudden separation of the vocal cords, during both inhalation and exhalation - the unique feline vibrato.
"Opera singing for cats," is what animal behaviorist Karen L. Overall, VMD, PhD calls it. But the purr is usually so low-pitched that we tend to feel it as much as hear it.
I contacted Dr. Ken Simpson, of Monon Animal Hospital, my vet back in my hometown of Indianapolis to ask what the latest veterinary science said. (Full disclosure, he's also my uncle.) He said the "physiology remains a slight enigma," but noted that vets have learned a few fascinating things about purring over the years.
"To me, purring is a method of communication that may be derived when the laryngeal folds are dilated with blood due to excitement from stimulation," he wrote to me. "As air flows through the folds, a vibration occurs which creates the sound heard. I have also heard that diaphragm movement against over-inflated lung tissue contributes sounds to the purr. In my experience, cats with asthma and hyperinflated lungs have a slightly louder purr."
There's evidence the behavior is learned, he noted. He described a deaf cat, for example, who never purred. Another cat patient of his had meningitis as a kitten and was learning-impaired as a result; that cat never purred either. Case studies like that lend themselves to the notion that cat purring does indeed, originate in the brain, and Simpson said he saw "no reason to doubt" the "neural oscillation" theory.
Still there's a certain point where the knowledge plateaus: What, exactly, is the neural oscillator? Why, exactly, does neural oscillation exist? And why, in behavioral terms, do cats purr? Those questions remain a bit of a mystery. Alien bio-technology? Transmission signals? It's doubtful, considering some wild cats, like cheetahs, purr as well.
3. If you hold a cat's ears back and describe what you see, it is a perfect match to the classic "grey alien," with its almond-shaped eyes, small mouth, and small nose.
Obviously true. See below. Next premise.
4. A cat can see exponentially better than you. Making it appear that it must be more advanced evolutionarily speaking. How?
The extrapolated version of this, as I've gathered from other cat-as-alien-spy internet detritus, says that cats stare at us with those big eyes because they are, in fact, alien cameras, recording and beaming our actions back to the grey aliens that put them here. I can't find any evidence of anything but standard neuronal circuitry in a cat's brain, but one never knows. We humans have recently managed to build a computer out of living cells, so who knows what alien technology may be hidden in the feline brain?
Leaving that aside, the idea of a cat's eyes being "exponentially better" and that translating into evidence of irrationally advanced evolution is, of course, absurd.
Cats eyes have more "rods" in them than "cones"—the former are responsible for providing black-and-white images, which makes them crucial for night vision; the latter add color and help us discern details. Cats, thus, have better night vision, but they only "see better" depending on your definition. I like seeing in color, so if you suddenly gave me cat's eyes, I wouldn't describe my vision as "better" at all.
A cat's eyes do have a second advantage with regard to night vision. As this New York Times article explains:
Cats also have elliptical pupils that open and close faster and can become larger than our round ones. In addition, cats and some other nocturnal animals have a mirrorlike membrane, the tapetum, on the back of their eyes, which reflects the light passing through the rods back through them in the opposite direction. This "double exposure" allows cats to see well in near darkness.
But suppose we were to grant that cats had "better" vision because they can see better in some ways. That would mean, yes, that its eyes (but not the whole cat) were "more advanced evolutionarily speaking." But dogs smell better than we do. So do bees and mice, for that matter. Cheetahs run faster, birds fly better and elephants kick more ass generally. Are they aliens, too? Doubtful. If any species presents a real anomaly, it's us, with our enormous brains, which are three times bigger than nature typically grants its animals proportionally. I would like to go on the record here to state that if anything is related to aliens, it's probably us.
5. Ever watch a cat wake from a deep sleep and run out of the room in an instant? Transmissions from the mothership coming in, and they must be alone.
We've all seen this happen and I can't find an answer. Evidence of alien collaboration? Put it in the "maybe" column.
6. All things that come out of cats are totally unnatural. (Not of this earth.)
This, too, is absurd. Hairballs are disgusting but totally natural considering cats are hair and all they do is lie around and lick themselves all day. As for their urine and excrement, I don't see how it's any different than any other mammal's, other than its smelling particularly foul.
7. Cats survive situations that any earthbound animal would surely perish in. How can a cat fall out of a four-story building backwards, and land on its feet? (Anti-gravity properties.)
This is partly true. Cats are great hunters, and would probably outlive us humans in the wild if we and our cats were suddenly stranded on an uncharted desert isle or in a post-apocalyptic situation. But so would a lot of wild animals. The landing-on-feet scenario notwithstanding (more on that below), it's hard to conceive of a natural situation in which cats will always survive better than "any earthbound animal."
But that landing-on-its-feet thing is no joke. It's nuts. Folks at the Smarter Every Day YouTube channel offer some great slow-motion footage of a few cat-drops using a high-speed camera. As the host explains, the flipping cat problem was a mystery since time immemorial. Today physicists know a lot more about it, and the physics observed in flipping cats has helped teach scientists how to operate space telescopes.
As series host Destin Sandlin, a mechanical engineer and rocket tester, notes, on the surface a cat appears to violate the physical law of conservation of angular momentum. "I've studied freefalling bodies—my own, in fact—in several different environments, and once I get my angular rotation started in one direction, I can't stop it," he says.
But when the cat's freefall is slowed down, it's clear the cat does not violate the law. It's just extremely, extremely agile. In physics terms it's complicated, but it has everything to do with the way the cat arches its back, extends and retracts its legs, and, in doing so, rotates its body along two separate rotational axes.
So while the theory of anti-gravity properties is certainly appealing, it doesn't, shall we say, carry weight.
8. If you die, your cats will eat you. Not really a link between cats and Aliens, but still pretty creepy.
By all accounts this is true. In 2010, for example, about a dozen cats were found eating the corpse of a northwestern Pennsylvania man who was found dead there with his mother.
But as Chris Gayomali notes for The Week, cats aren't the only pets that eat their owners after they die. Some pets kill their owners then eat them. Gayomali's article includes examples of pet pigs, pythons, a pet hippo, lizards and others, including a pair of Nebraskan pugs who survived on their owner's body for two weeks after he killed himself.
Now may be a good time for a bit more journalistic disclosure by saying that I am, in fact, a dog person. I would happily believe that cats are the only pets that eat their owners if so compelled. But it simply isn't true. Brian Palmer notes in this Slate article that history is rife with examples of dogs eating dead humans, even the corpses of their owners. (Apparently, Palmer notes, there is even a theory among some scholars that Jesus' body was eaten by dogs and that "his acolytes fabricated the story of a reverential entombment as a sort of coping mechanism.")
Our conspiracy theory friends are correct that this is creepy, indeed. But it's hardly evidence that cats are alien drones.