About a year ago, I wrote a column about two little kittens that Bandit, our 110-pound boxer, found in our backyard. They appeared to be about a month old, and someone had just dumped them off on the side of the highway behind our house. We have an outside cat we have fed for 10 years, thinking it would keep away mice, rats, snakes and other vermin. But it was pouring down rain, so we decided to put the kittens in our garage until we could find a good home for them.
Well, giving away kittens is not as easy as one might think. Three months later when Hurricane Laura hit, the kittens were still living in our garage. While our garage was pretty much destroyed, somehow the kittens survived in the rubble. Then along came Beta and Delta. As we struggled with repairs, Cathy repeatedly said we needed to get “Flash,” the female kitten, neutered or we would have more kittens on our hands.
Well, that did not happen. (I’m talking about the neutering of Flash, not the more kittens part.) In January, shortly after Cathy and I got over our bouts with COVID-19, we came home to find a squiggly little orange furball that Flash left outside of our kitchen door. So, we set the new mama and her baby up in an outside closet to shelter them from the approaching ice storm. We intentionally didn’t name the new kitten because we were planning on giving it away. We just called it either “the kitten” or, when we were practicing our Spanish, “el gatito.” (Spanish is a handy language to know when one is trying to repair hurricane damage.)
So, we now had four cats meowing at our kitchen door twice a day to be fed. Cathy and I are dog lovers, and neither of us are very fond of cats. But Bandit sits at the kitchen door for hours staring at the cats outside and has decided it is part of his job as “home protector” to look after the cats as well: He lets us know when they are hungry and meowing for food, and he makes a ruckus if a critter like a racoon or possum comes near them.
We sent cute pictures of the kittens to every child we know, but none of their parents would let them accept our thoughtful and generous gift. As the weather became warmer, Cathy kept saying we needed to get Flash neutered or we would soon have even more kittens … But amidst our struggle to get our insurance company to pay for repairs, neither of us bothered to take Flash to the vet. Now we have nine kittens (that’s “nueve gatitos” for you Spanish learners).
Which brings me to why the word “worms” is in the title of this article. About 40 years ago, I was driving through northern Michigan, an area with many rivers and lakes where fishing is a popular pastime. I noticed a hand-lettered sign by the side of the road that read “worms, $10 a pound.” I thought to myself, “this must be a country version of a lemonade stand.” Then, a bit further down the road I came to another hand-lettered sign that read “free kittens.”
I was in graduate school studying economics at the time, so this got me thinking about the value of things. Why are cute little kittens worth nothing, while a handful of worms is worth $10? I’ve seen photos of firemen climbing a tree to rescue a kitten, but I have never heard of anyone climbing a tree to rescue a dangling worm. And while some people shed tears over the death of a pet cat, no one gets upset if they happen to step on a wiggling worm in their driveway or cut one in half while gardening. I wondered if market prices reflected the true value of things.
I rationalized this by noting that pets like kittens are consumption goods, while worms are an input in a production process. It is not the worms, per se, that have value; their value is derived from the product they produce, that is, a plate of tasty fresh fish.
This led me to think about children and families (my mind wanders a lot when I am driving). A generation ago large families were common, especially in rural areas. This was because prior to industrialization, the household or farm was a center of production, and children were a value input in that production process, helping with crops in the field or with work around the house. The more children one had, the more prosperous was the family unit.
Today, children, like kittens, are consumption goods. They may bring joy into your life, and sometimes pain and sorrow, but they don’t really do anything anymore. Before adding a child to your family, you start doing the math: How much do babysitters cost? What about clothes, video games and computers as they are growing up, cell phones and a car when they are teenagers, then college so you can finally get them out of your house?
As the father of six children (and now nine cats), I have made such calculations myself. There is not much to enter on the income side of the ledger.
So, I decided the way we have been marketing our “free kittens” is all wrong. As cute as they may be and as much as a child may want one, the parent(s) are going to go through the calculations: What is the cost of cat food, kitty litter and visits to the vet? Who is going to feed them and clean up after them? What about the sofa and curtains they will tear up while sharpening their claws? Then the parent is going to placate the begging child by offering them a plush toy instead.
Louisiana is a lot like northern Michigan, except Louisiana is much hotter and more humid. Both have lots of rivers, lakes and sportspersons who love to fish. Perhaps I should gear my pitch to those who love to fish. Recreational fishing is a consumption activity, much like owning a cat. Fishermen spend thousands of dollars on a boat, fishing gear and tackle, and take time off work to obtain something they could buy in a supermarket for $7.99 a pound — and often they come home empty-handed. In other words, fishermen can’t do math any better than little kids, but they enjoy what they are doing.
It occurred to me that a lot of fishermen read Lagniappe, so perhaps I should write a column for Lagniappe geared towards fishermen, offering them a pound of worms if they would take one of my kittens for their kids and give it a loving home. There has been inflation in the last 40 years, and worms now go for around $30 a pound. (I Googled it.) So, to the fishermen out there, and anyone else who can’t do math, please contact me through Lagniappe if you can help me out with my kitten problem.