Category: strays and ferals

Laika And Felicette: The First Dog And Cat In Space Were Sacrificed For Human Ambition

I’ve been watching Apple TV’s exceptional show, For All Mankind, which dramatizes the space race of the 1960s and beyond in a sort of alternate history where the Soviets, not Americans, first lay boots on the lunar regolith.

That loss lights a fire underneath the behinds of the people at NASA and convinces American politicians that the space race is the ultimate measure of our civilization. In real life, American ingenuity and the creativity fostered by a free society allowed the US to leap ahead and “win” the space race. Space missions were already becoming routine by the time the drama of Apollo 13 briefly rekindled public interest.

Then the Soviet space program faded, the competition turned one-sided, and without an arch-enemy to show up, American politicians pulled back NASA’s funding to a fraction of what it once was, where it remains today. That’s why the rise of the private space industry — Elon Musks’s Space X, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, etc — will almost certainly be our ticket to Mars.

But in For All Mankind, NASA remains the budgetary behemoth and source of prestige it was in the 60s and 70s, leading to the development of a permanent moon base, lunar mining operations and a planned mission to the red planet.

There’s a quiet moment in the second season when a Soviet cosmonaut, visiting the US as part of a peacekeeping mission, shares a drink in a dive bar with an American astronaut.

“Do you like dog?” the cosmonaut asks.

“Dogs?” the astronaut replies. “Of course. Who doesn’t like dogs?”

The Soviet shakes his head.

“No, dog,” he tells her. “Laika.”

Laika was the first dog in space, or more accurately, the first dog the Soviets acknowledged sending into space. (The Soviets didn’t acknowledge their failures, and we can only guess at the number of lost cosmonauts and animals officially denied by the Russians, drifting in space for eternity or disintegrated in atmospheric re-entry.)

Laika, also nicknamed Muttnick, wanted to please the humans who had taken her in, and didn’t understand that her trip would be one way. (Historical photo)

The moment turns somber as the cosmonaut recalls the Moscow street dog who was selected because she was docile, fearless and could handle the incredible noise and g-forces of a rocket launch.

“I held her in my arms,” the cosmonaut tells his American counterpart, taking a sip of his Jack Daniel’s. “For only one or two minutes on the launchpad.”

Then he leans in and tells her the truth: Laika didn’t triumphantly orbit the Earth for seven days in 1957 as the Soviet Union told the world. She didn’t endure the mission.

She perished, alone and afraid, just hours after launch when her capsule overheated.

The Soviets never designed the Sputnik 2, Laika’s ship, to return to Earth safely. Her death was predetermined.

We laud astronauts and cosmonauts, the brave men and women who willingly strap themselves into tiny capsules attached to cylinders of rocket fuel the size of skyscrapers and depart this Earth via brute force, knowing something could go wrong and their lives could end before they realize what’s happening. We should admire them. Their accomplishments are all the more impressive when you consider the fact that the combined processing power of every computer at NASA’s disposal in the 1960s was but a fraction of what we each hold in our hands these days when we use our smartphones.

Those first astronauts and cosmonauts were extraordinarily brave — but only up to a point.

Unwilling to risk human lives in the early days of space exploration, space programs used dogs, cats and later monkeys and apes, strapping them into confined spaces, wiring their brains with electrodes for telemetry data, poring over the information they gleaned about their heart rates, blood pressure and breathing as they left our home planet.

The sad eyes of a stray dog, separated from everyone she loved, were the first to behold Earth from space. A few years later the eyes of a French street cat took in the same view before humans did.

Felicette couldn’t move when she was placed into the capsule that took her to space and back.

Felicette, the tuxedo cat who was launched into space by the French on Oct. 18, 1963, didn’t even have a name until the French recovered her capsule and took her back for examination.

The scientists and engineers in charge of the launch didn’t want to humanize her if she didn’t make it, which was a common practice in space programs. (Ham, the chimpanzee sent into space by NASA in January of 1961, was known as No. 65 until his successful recovery. NASA was worried that a name would make him more sympathetic and lead to bad press if the chimpanzee died during the mission.)

Ham the chimpanzee was little more than a baby. Credit: NASA archives

Despite Felicette’s endurance and successful return, French scientists repaid her bravery by euthanizing her a month later so they could study her brain and learn more about the effects of spaceflight on mammalian biology.

Felicette, like Laika and Ham, was never given a choice. Those animals, with their child-like mental capacity, endured their missions out of a desire to please their human caretakers as much as any natural stoicism they may have possessed.

Would we do the same thing today? Will we repeat those experiments as we set our eyes on Mars?

Consider that the moon is a three day trip, and it’s close enough to Earth’s magnetic field to protect living beings from radiation. Mars is at least a seven month trip if the orbital conditions are right, and there will be no protection from radiation aside from what can be built into the craft. Take that trip without adequate protection and you’re guaranteed to get cancer.

It’s easy to say we wouldn’t make animals our test subjects for a Mars journey, and NASA now has decades of data on the effects of space and zero gravity thanks to the International Space Station.

And yet Neuralink, another company owned by Elon Musk, currently uses monkeys to test its brain interface technology, which allows the primates to operate computers with their thoughts. Those monkeys are forced to endure radical surgery to implant microchips in their brains. The teams working on the technology say suffering by those animals will be worth it as people with paralysis are able to do things with their thoughts and regain a measure of independence, increasing their quality of life.

Likewise, it will probably be an animal, or animals, who will be the test subjects on board craft that first venture beyond the Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Scientists and engineers will do their best to create a vessel that shields its occupants from harmful radiation, but they won’t know how successful they’ve been until the test subjects are returned to Earth and their dosimeters have been examined.

Will an astronaut volunteer for that kind of mission, knowing the “reward” could be a drastically shortened life?

To hear Musk and futurists tell it, pushing toward Mars is not just a matter of exploration or aspiration, but is necessary for the survival of our species. Earth becoming uninhabitable, they say, is an eventuality, not an if.

Others point out it’s much easier and wiser to pour our resources into preserving the paradise we do have, and the creatures who live in it, rather than banking on a miserable future existence on Mars where society will have to live underground and gravity, at 0.375 that of Earth, will change the human form in just a few generations.

To put it bluntly, while Musk and futurists look at life on Mars through the rose-colored glasses of science fiction fans, in reality living there is going to thoroughly suck.

If people do live on Mars they’ll never venture outside without a suit, never feel the sun on their skin, never swim in an ocean. They’ll never have another backyard barbecue, watch fireworks light up the sky on the fourth of July, or fall asleep to the gentle rain and crickets of warm summer nights. They’ll never hear birdsong or have the opportunity to see iconic animals like elephants and lions. Every gulp of air will be recycled, every glass of water will have passed through the kidneys of others. There will never be snow. Circadian rhythms will be untethered from the cycle that governed human biology for the 200,000 years our species has existed.

And while there could be a future — if you want to call it that — for people on Mars, there won’t be a future there for the rest of the living creatures on Earth.

As a lifelong fan of science fiction who devours SF novels, counts films like Alien and Bladerunner among my favorites, and is fascinated by shows like For All Mankind, The Peripheral and Star Trek, I understand the appeal of space and the indomitable human spirit that drives us to new frontiers. I just hope we can balance that with respect for the Earth and the animals we share it with. Let’s hope there is never another Laika, Felicette or Ham.

Correction: For All Mankind is the name of the Apple TV series about an alternate history space race. The first reference to the show’s name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

A close-up of Felicette’s face. Credit: French government archives
Ham the Space Chimp reaches for his apple reward after his space mission.
Ham the Space Chimp waits for his apple reward. Credit: NASA archives

White Sox Photog Saves Scruffy Stadium Stray, PLUS: Super Rare Male Calico Born in Colorado

The Chicago White Sox opened the baseball season on the road, then headed home where they hosted the San Francisco Giants — and a scrappy, hungry stray who helped himself to heaps of stadium food.

The cat appeared in the park for three consecutive nights of the homestand, emerging from a hiding spot in the bowels of the stadium to sidle up to fans eating ballpark grub and meow for them to share. And share they did, according to Block Club Chicago, with fans holding the little guy and feeding him “shredded chicken off the top of their ballpark nachos.”

“He was just super chill and very comfortable roaming the park, like it’s his territory,” White Sox fan Alexis Lopez told Block Club.

Beef the Cat
The stray, now named Beef, is enjoying his forever home and his doting human servant. Credit: Darren Georgia

The cat, who was “a little scruffy and thin” according to Lopez, took an overly enthusiastic bite of some stadium food and accidentally punctured the skin on her cousin Antonia Denofrio’s finger. Stadium staff treated Denofrio at the park and thought they were in for a thorough search for the kitty, but the night after the White Sox finished their home series against the Giants, the orange tabby “jumped right up onto a security golf cart and was super friendly,” White Sox team photographer Darren Georgia said.

Georgia brought the cat home, got him fixed and examined by a vet and named him Beef. Now they’re best buds.

“He’s outgoing, loves to play and snuggle,” Georgia told The Block. “Just everything you’d hope for in a cat.”

The unicorn of cats

When Alli Magish, a foster for NoCo Kitties in Colorado, took home a mom cat and her five kittens, she realized one of them was incredibly rare: a male calico.

Charlie the male calico kitten is now 11 weeks old. Credit: NoCo Kitties

Magish brought the little guy, now named Charlie, to two veterinarians to confirm, and for all of them Charlie is their first male calico. Only about one in 3,000 calicos are male, the Coloradoan reported, citing statistics from the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine.

“We will probably get huge adoption fee offers for him, but we want him to go to the best home, and that’s not necessarily the one that could be the highest bidder,” Davida Dupont, founder of NoCo Kitties, told the Coloradoan.

Typical adoption fees for kittens at the rescue are $195, but Dupont says she wants to organize a fundraiser around the little guy before settling on the best place for his forever home. (Shhhh, no one tell Chloe Mitchell.) Since she spoke to the Coloradoan on April 1, NoCo Kitties has received a flood of adoption applications, and in a follow-up Facebook post  Dupont says she hopes some of them will consider adopting the many other lovable cats at NoCo who are looking for homes.


Bogus Science And Unverifiable Claims Drive Cat Hatred In New Zealand

After news of a now-canceled children’s cat hunting contest made international headlines this week, the usual suspects came out of the woodwork with wild, unsupported claims that cats — not humans, not human industrial processes, not human-driven habitat loss, wind farms or agricultural pesticides — are singlehandedly responsible for wiping out New Zealand’s native birds and the extinction of an arbitrary number of avian species.

One of the people leading the charge is Helen Blackie, a “biosecurity expert” who told the BBC that cats are responsible for the extinction of six native bird species in New Zealand.

Blackie doesn’t say where she got that information, but noted cat-hating Kiwi Gareth Morgan’s site claims that cats have killed nine native bird species, and attributes the information to a study, “A global review of the impacts of invasive cats on island endangered vertebrates.”

The “study” was published by academics in Spain and California without boots on the ground in New Zealand and is not actually a study at all. It’s a meta-analysis of prior studies, none of which count the number of feral, stray and pet cats in New Zealand, nor do they offer anything resembling a measure of how many birds are actually killed by cats.

Notably, the study does not say cats are responsible for the extinction of nine bird species.

close up shot of a stray cat
Credit: Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz/Pexels

Much like their US bird-conservationist counterparts, the authors of the study cannot say how many cats actually live in New Zealand and have no observational data about feline predatory habits.

They rely on the same methods the US studies do, which is to say they collect data from unrelated studies — including a study measuring the impact of all predators on wildlife in the aftermath of wild fires in urban environments, a study on the way pet cat personalities impact how their owners view them, and a study on cat behavior in Culver City, California — stir the data into a pot of numbers, and massage the numbers until they get the desired results.

In this case, the “desired results” are any suitably impressive-sounding figure for the total number of native birds killed by cats in New Zealand. The authors aren’t conducting a scientific investigation to find out how those native birds died, they’ve already decided that cats are the reason and they’re misrepresenting data from unrelated studies to support that conclusion. That is not science.

Of course their conclusion has no basis in reality. How is it possible that a bunch of researchers on entirely different continents are able to come up with accurate figures on cat predation in New Zealand without any actual data about cats in New Zealand, without a population count of cats in New Zealand, and without a single observational study to draw information from?

How does a study of coyote and cat interactions in Culver City, California have any bearing on cats killing birds in New Zealand, an island country 6,700 miles away with habitats that bear little or no resemblance to California? Coyotes don’t even exist in New Zealand!

How does a self-reported questionnaire about the personalities of pet cats by American cat owners tell researchers anything about the behavior of feral cats in rural New Zealand?

How does a study about the Persian squirrel on Greek island ecosystems tell a research team anything about the impact of cats on flightless birds in a completely different environment, in a different part of the world, with different types of trees and cover, different native fauna and weather systems?

How does a study of alpine ecosystems inform estimates of cat predation in the temperate and subtropical ecosystems of Aotearoa?

view of a stray cat on a city street
Credit: Boys in Bristol Photography/Pexels

This sort of buffet-style, cherry-picking nonsense wouldn’t pass muster in an undergraduate class in the hard sciences, yet somehow it’s not only published in peer-reviewed conservation journals, it’s reported breathlessly and credulously by reporters at outlets like NPR, the BBC and the Guardian, who don’t even bother to read beyond the abstract.

Their claims are further undermined by their inexplicable assertion that feral cats and domestic cats are not the same thing, when in fact they are the same species: felis catus. They are indistinguishable because they are the same. They look identical and have the same genetics. The only difference is that house cats have homes and ferals do not.

No one is claiming that cats don’t have an impact on the environment. It would be foolish to think they don’t.

But if anyone — especially journalists with influential platforms and researchers cloaked in authority thanks to the veneer of real science — wants to make the case that cats are the primary force leading to declining numbers of native bird populations, then the burden of proof is on them, and it’s a high one.

We’re talking about life here, the lives of fully sentient animals with their own rich internal thoughts and feelings. You don’t just casually call for their extirpation or send children off with rifles to arbitrarily shoot them like little serial killers in training.

If you want to make the case, do the work. Get the grants. Hire the personnel. Do it right. The Washington, D.C. Cat Count even has a free toolkit for other communities to conduct their own feline census, so they can make informed decisions. But if you’re unwilling or unable to do the work, then stop spreading misinformation, because it has tragic consequences for real-world animals, and their blood is on your hands.

Top image credit Aleksandr Nadyojin/Pexels

Cat Hunt Canceled, Kiwi Journalist Says Cats ‘Need To Be Shot,’ ‘Run Over’ And ‘Wiped Off The Face Of Aotearoa’

A New Zealand group canceled a cat-hunting competition for kids after receiving massive backlash for the plan, but one Kiwi journalist told a national audience he thinks the cat hunt is a great idea and doesn’t go far enough.

“When it comes to feeral kets, I’m on the soide of the kea, the kākāpō and the kiwi ivery sangle doy of the week and my missige to [the organizers] is ‘Git the competition back on, git the keds back out thea,'” said the vowel-desecrating morning show host Patrick Gower. “If thea gonna hunt and thea’s feeral kets in the way, then we hif to woipe them out. Feeral kets need to be shot, they need to be run ovah, they need to be trepped, they need to be woiped off the foice of Aotearoa and I imploah the school to git it back on, and look, I’ll put up some rewoade as well foah any kets these kids git down theah as well.”

English translation: “I think the cat-killing contest is a wonderful idea, cats need to be shot, run over and exterminated from New Zealand, and I hate cats so much that I’ll put up some of my own money as prizes for the children who bag the most kills.”

You’ve got to wonder what cats have done to Patrick Gower for him to hate them so much, and fortunately dear readers, PITB has the answer!

Gower lost the New Zealander of the Year competition of 2020 to a cute orange tabby named Mittens.

Think about that: All those years of doing Pulitzer-worthy breakfast show kitchen demonstrations, of slaving away at the anchor desk bringing viewers important news about reality TV stars and parroting former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s declaration that New Zealand’s government is “the single source of truth” on COVID, and Gower loses the honor to a damn cat. Mittens even has the key to the City of Wellington, and Gower does not.

So sad.

Mittens the Cat
Mittens receiving honors that have eluded morning show host Patrick Gower. Credit: Wellington City Council

It’s unfortunate when a man in influential position, small country or not, enthusiastically encourages children to practice being future serial killers by slaughtering innocent animals because he thinks — despite the complete absence of evidence — that arbitrarily gunning down and running over sentient animals will save birds.

Really, you’d think before calling for the extirpation of an entire species of animal that these people would have something, even a single bogus research study, claiming that bird populations would recover if only people started killing cats on sight.

But no such proof exists, and the burden of proof rests with Gower, fellow Kiwi cat-hater Gareth Morgan and others who harbor an irrational and ill-advised hatred of tiny animals who are simply behaving the way nature designed them to behave.

What we do know is that managing cat populations can be done, but it’s difficult, time-consuming work that requires dedication and patience.

Cities like Washington, D.C., with its exhaustive cat count, and communities across the US have provided the blueprint with TNR efforts and a mass push for all pet owners to spay and neuter their cats. The results have been remarkable, and shelters save more than a million felines a year compared to just a decade ago. There’s still work to be done to bring the number of euthanizations down to zero.

Patrick Gower

It’s also worth noting that the organizers of the North Canterbury Hunting Competition and supporters like Gower are coming from a place of ignorance. In their original, now-deleted announcement, the organizers offered a “guide” to telling the difference between feral and pet cats, unaware that they are the same species. The only difference is that pet cats are fortunate enough to have homes, and strays and ferals do not.

The group said it was offering its “guide” as a way to prevent children from killing pet cats, but how exactly would they do that when a pet is indistinguishable from a colony stray or a feral? Would they find a microchip on the corpse of a cat they killed and say “Oops, guess that one doesn’t count!”?

Does a cat somehow feel less if it doesn’t have a home? Is its life worth less if it doesn’t have a collar and eat from a bowl?

It’s barbaric and so poorly thought-out, it really boggles the mind that the idea of a cat-killing competition for kids was voiced, let alone approved, planned and promoted by supposed adults.

As for the contest itself, we’re very glad it’s been called off, even if the organizers want to play victim and say their feelings have been hurt by the response to their murderous event.

That, however, doesn’t solve the problem. The fact that the organizers thought this was a good idea in the first place, and the increasingly pitched rhetoric from the likes of Gower and Morgan, are normalizing the idea of slaughtering innocent animals who have their own minds, thoughts and feelings, and who have been shaped by 10,000 years of history to live with and depend on humans.

Instead of calling for blood and whipping people into a frenzy, influential New Zealanders should read about cats and animal cognition in general, so they’re aware that felines experience the full range of primary and secondary emotions and are very much capable of suffering the same way we do when we’re injured, stressed and our lives are in danger.

That, unlike claims that cats are primarily responsible for the decline in bird populations, is hard scientific fact. We can peer into the brains of felines, watch their neurons fire, see different brain regions light up as they think specific thoughts and respond to specific smells and sights.

Maybe if people who hate cats understand what they are, they’ll feel some empathy for a beautiful species, animals who have been companions and literal life savers to humans since before deepest antiquity, animals whose lives have intrinsic value regardless of what they mean to us. At the very least, we owe them that.

New Zealand Hunting Contest For Children Offers Prizes For Killing The Most Cats

An annual hunting competition for children in New Zealand has a new category this year, awarding a cash prize to the young hunter who kills the most cats.

You read that right.

The North Canterbury Hunting Competition announced the new category on Saturday and says it will offer a $250 prize to any child 14 or younger who kills the most felines.

In a statement, the local SPCA pointed out the obvious, that cats will suffer horribly, pets will die and the competition will result in bungled kills en masse, leaving wounded cats to suffer horribly before the children finish them off — if indeed they do.

“There is a good chance someone’s pet may be killed during this event,” the Canterbury SPCA wrote in a statement. “In addition, children often use air rifles in these sorts of events which increase the likelihood of pain and distress, and can cause a prolonged death.”

photo of cats
Credit: Ali Arapou011/pexels

Prompted by the same sloppy “research studies” that inspired Australia to kill millions of cats — and resulted in a mouse plague of biblical proportions in 2021 and 2022, causing billions of dollars in damage to farms, homes, businesses and infrastructure — New Zealand is on a disinformation-fueled jihad against felines.

Like all such studies, the claims that cats are singlehandedly responsible for declines in native wildlife, thus absolving direct human activities of blame, come by way of overzealous bird conservationists and others who insist the mass murder of cats will save native birds and small mammals. As if humans destroying habitats, dumping chemical waste, creating wind farms that act as bird dicers, building glass skyscrapers that millions of birds fly into every year, saturating entire swathes of the Earth with light pollution and EM radiation that harms and confuses animals — and all the other things people do — have no impact whatsoever, and it’s only those dastardly cats who are the culprits.

You’ve got to hand it to the misguided conservationists, who have picked tiny scapegoats who can’t defend themselves verbally or physically against humans.

To understand how the “hunting” (killing) competition can be real, it’s important to understand the context of the way cats are portrayed in New Zealand. Gareth Morgan, a Kiwi economist and politician, launched a campaign about a decade ago with the stated goal of eradicating cats from the island nation of 5.1 million people, which would forbid people from adopting new cats and end programs like trap, neuter, return (TNR) in favor of having local animal control departments kill felines.

Morgan, whose Cats to Go site portrays kitties with devil horns and glowing red eyes, says cats are evil animals driven by “bloodlust.”

“Cats are the only true sadists of the animal world, serial killers who torture without mercy,” Morgan has said.

Hunting Competition
A screenshot from the group’s Facebook page announcing a new prize for young hunters.

The North Canterbury Hunting Competition, which also offers prizes like dirt bikes for child hunters, pulled the new category announcement from its Facebook page on Monday but stopped short of canceling the event, blaming people who were upset by the idea of cat hunting.

Citing abusive feedback, the group said it’s “incredibly disappointed by this reaction” and said the hunt is for a good cause, raising money for local projects.