I looked up at the television, and couldn't believe what I saw.
It was a huge animal, walking through the snowy forest. It had legs like tree trunks, a powerful-looking snout, fangs like kitchen knives, bared right at me. Its powerful, bright orange eyes burned all through me. Fierce, sharp claws laid waste to a tree, like it was a scratching post. It was a brilliant orange and white colour, with these daring black stripes running all around its body.
And man, what this creature could do! I watched it chase down a huge moose-like thing and wrestle it to the ground! His terrific roar shook the air, even in the living room!
What was even more incredible than that, though, is it looked a little like me.
I mean, sure, he was 10 times larger and more ferocious, its features were larger than mine, and it was far mightier than me, but things about it looked familiar. Its legs and body looked the same, it walked with the same finesse that I do, his tail looked a lot alike, and I even had the same kind of stripes, though my fur is brown rather than bright orange. But I mean... this can't be a cat!
Not the way I know them, at least...
"Hey! Sally!" barked a crass, boorish voice from the door. I rolled my eyes and sighed deep in my throat. I stretched and yawned, baring my fangs such as they were, as the dog came in.
"Hi, Sergei," I sighed. He was a dog I lived with. He was a lot bigger than me, and I have to admit, a lot more proud looking. Of course he can't touch the elegance of your average cat, but as far as dogs go, he's pretty handsome. He's also pretty thick, but most dogs are like that.
"Hey! Siberian tiger!" he yelped as he walked into the room and saw the animal jumping through the snow. "I'm from Siberia too, don't you know!"
"No, I didn't know that," I groaned. I mean, he's only ever told me like a hundred damn times.
But one thing he did say intrigue me. "What did you say that thing was?" I asked, looking back at the TV.
"Siberian tiger!" he replied, "One mean mother! It's kind of like a big version of you... a really big, meaner version, I mean."
I scowled. "How do you know that?"
"I love this show," he answered, lying down in front of the TV, blocking my view a little, "'World's Fiercest Predators'! My favourite part's up next!"
Groaning, I hopped up onto a nearby chair to see over this huge mutt. The next thing was something called a 'grey wolf'.
My eyes popped when I saw it. It looked exactly like Sergei! Sure, his fur was a different colour and it was a little scragglier, but it was almost the same creature! And I saw it trudge through the snow and kill an animal twice its size and everything the tiger did!
"Isn't he the coolest!" Sergei yelped, both to me and himself, I guess. I lied down, sulking.
After the wolves did their thing, they went into another section where it looked like they had a wolf on a leash catching a frisbee. Now this made me really confused. Maybe these wolves aren't the ferocious predators they're cracked up to be?
"Wolves are not that distant from dogs that we keep as pets," I heard the TV say, "they evolved very closely with humankind, and their wild roots are not distant. Animal experts even consider them still part of the wolf genus, canis lupus!"
Then they suddenly showed a housecat, like me, walking around a carpet.
"Unlike cats," the narrator went on, "felis catus, who have evolved very differently from their feral ancestors. Big cats are some of the most enormous and fiercest predators around, but their domestic versions have grown far apart from them. Its larger cousins are of dozens of other animal groups, like panthera, with the lions and tigers, puma with mountain lions, and dozens of others!"
"Hey, wait a second!" I shouted, and jumped off the chair to talk to Sergei.
"You're like those wolf things?" I cried.
"Yeah!" he replied eagerly, "Isn't it cool?"
"How are you like that wolf," I replied, "and I'm nothing like that tiger? How did you do something better than me?"
"It's evolution, Sally!" he boasted. I blinked confusedly.
"Evolution!" he repeated, "that guy on the TV was talking about it!"
"What in the hell is evolution?" I demanded.
Sergei made this galling little grin.
"I'm not sure of the details," he began, "but I think it's that animals improve over time with each new generation, depending on what they need. Evidently, I didn't need as much, whereas you needed a lot."
"I needed a lot?!" I yelled, extremely angry, "Why would I ever want to be 10 times smaller and less able to kill things?!! I mean, hell, you could kill Rodney if you wanted!"
"That's 'The Master' to you!" snapped Sergei. I swear, I could see a predator look flash across his face for a second. His loyalty to that human was so annoying.
"Right," I sighed, "but you still could. You're not changed much from that wolf thing we saw!"
"My kind didn't need much evolution," he said cockily, "they pretty much got us right the first time. All we had to do was learn that we should serve and be friends with our Masters; your ancestors obviously didn't agree to that very easily."
I smirked at him, confused.
"Oh, you know," he went on, "whatever you and the tigers and stuff evolved from. Some of them didn't want Masters, so they became the lions and tigers. Maybe your ancestors chose to stay with some Masters, and they evolved into you."
I glowered at him.
"Why in the hell would they want to do that?" I sneered.
"Because you're pussies, I guess," he joked. I hissed at him.
"Hey, don't get testy," he warned, "the master feeds you, takes care of you, and gives you attention. I mean, hell, those 'tigers' are endangered; there's not very many of them left, and they all might die soon!"
My eyes widened with horror.
"They might... die soon?"
"Yeah," Sergei sighed, "count yourself lucky."
I stared at Sergei, stunned for a second by this new information. But I quickly shook myself out of it.
"I won't accept this," I announced, "my ancestors didn't try to protect themselves by becoming small and pathetic."
Sergei rolled his eyes. "Well, what are you going to do about it?" he asked.
I turned around with a start, and flicked my tail disdainfully at his face.
"I'll think of something," I remarked, "more than I can say for you."
I jumped up some furniture onto the ledge that lines the high windows, and snuck out one that was open a crack, squeezing my body through the tiny space. I needed some time outside to think about this.
It was getting late in the day, and the backyard was cast in the warm orange light of the sunset. Rounding to the front of the house, I came to the street. A lot of cars were driving along it at this time of day, all terrifyingly large. I had to wait for them to stop coming before I could walk around.
I cursed my tiny size. Those tigers could have stopped one of these cars by swatting at it. And then eaten the driver.
They stopped coming after a while, and I walked across the road and across the neighbourhood, hopping across fences and through backyards. Some of the yards had their dogs out behind the fences, and when I walked by, they started barking and shouting at me to get out of their yard and not hurt the Master. Those things were favoured by evolution? Please.
Walking along, my mind began to wander about what Sergei said; that there aren't many tigers left. How could those beautiful monsters be dying out? Could people be killing them?
Eventually, the suburban houses gave way to tall buildings, and the wide sidewalks and avenues turned into narrow streets lined with flickering streetlamps. The urban streets full of sights, sounds and smells, were a great relief from the sterility of suburbia. Coming out to the city is release if nothing else.
I swung a left into my favourite alley. Strolling along the middle of the alley, I saw cats jumping and playing around the various stacks of crap strewn everywhere, cats straining through the dumpster grumbling about the sort of things people throw away, cats talking about what's going on with themselves and what idiots their people are being lately. A few of them called out to me as I walked by, but I brushed them off with a playful grin and a tail flick.
Some distance away, I noticed a black shape moving around some trashcans. I recognized him as Tony, a friend of mine. He was a housecat, like me, who liked to get out now and then. I imagine he also probably lived with a bunch of idiots.
"Hey! Tony!" I shouted, as I got closer. He glanced over, and his bright yellow eyes flashed gladly at me.
"Sally! Long time no see!" he called. "What brings you out?"
"Ehh, Sergei was being an idiot," I explained, "and I just needed to get out of the house for a bit. I needed time to think."
"Sergei's usually not an idiot the same way twice," he pointed out, "what did he do this time?"
"Well, I was watching TV," I started, "and this thing that looked like a really big, awesome cat came on and just started kicking ass all over the place. It was something called a 'Siberian tiger'; have you ever heard of it?"
"Yeah!" he replied enthusiastically, "my human's crazy for them! He's got pictures of them all over his room! Though he calls them Bengal tigers, for some reason..."
"This was the first I'd seen one," I said, "and I couldn't get over that it was a cat that seemed so completely different from you or me. Then they showed a picture of something called a 'grey wolf', and it looked almost exactly like Sergei!"
Tony's head tilted.
"Really! Well, that's news to me!"
"Tch, he said that's because he has better 'evolution' or something," I scoffed. "You know what evolution is, right?"
Tony rocked his head back and forth for a bit.
"Mmm... nope, I'm drawing a blank," he admitted.
"He basically said that animals change themselves with each new generation to better suit their own needs," I explained, "and we apparently needed to get a lot smaller and weaker, and he didn't have to do anything. This I just can't understand!"
"That does sound pretty aggravating..." Tony agreed, "but shouldn't we be used to dogs giving us this kind of crap?"
"Sure," I said, "but it's still nagging me. Why would our ancestors demean us like this?"
"Well search me, Sally, I don't know," he shrugged, "why don't you ask Silver? She's around here somewhere."
My face brightened with excitement.
"Really? Silver's here?" I exclaimed.
"Somewhere," he chuckled, "I'm sure she would love to see you!"
"Great!" I said, "Thanks, Tony!"
"Anytime," he answered, and I was on my way further down the alley, anxious to find Silver.
She was an alley cat. She didn't have a home or a collar, and she liked it that way. She'd been around a lot, floating around the city at her leisure, and I think she probably knew everything.
Eventually I found her sitting poised and cool on a ledge under an alley light. Even just looking at her, you could tell she was different. She had a thin, lithe body, yet she was larger than most of us other cats, probably from her more feral upbringing. She had an unusual, beautiful quality to her, the way her back curved so smoothly, her long neck, her bright green, jewel-like eyes... she didn't have a proper name given to her, but we pretty much all called her Silver because of her smooth, white fur.
As graciously as I could, I hopped up to see her. She glimpsed up at me.
"Sally," she greeted, "long time no see."
"Evening, Silver," I greeted back, "it's great to see you again. How are things?"
"As well as always," she replied, "what brings you to the alley tonight?"
"I'm feeling a bit low," I said, "I was wondering if I could ask you about something."
"What's the matter?"
"Have you ever heard of this thing called a 'tiger'?" I asked.
"Oh sure!" she answered, "There's a couple of them at the zoo that I visit now and then, though they're not that sociable; they're pretty brutish. I also visit the cheetahs, the jaguars, the leopards..."
"Wait, what are those?" I interrupted.
"Other big cats!" she said, "You know, like those tigers!"
"There are others??" I gawked.
"Sure! There's dozens!" she replied, "There are all kinds of big cats all over the world! Why this sudden interest in them, Sally?"
"Do you know about wolves, too?" I asked.
"Yeah, I know of them," she giggled, "just dogs without masters." I couldn't help but giggle back.
"I only just found out about tigers today," I began, "and I didn't understand why we were so different from them, but dogs weren't different from their wild kind. It makes me think we got a raw deal."
Silver casually licked her paw.
"Well, why do you think it happened?" she asked me.
"This husky I live with said it's 'evolution'," I went on, "that species change themselves with each successive generation to better suit what they need to do. He thinks that wolves pretty much got it right, so they didn't have to evolve much to become dogs, whereas we were so messed up we had to become so much smaller and weaker than our big cousins!"
I turned away from Silver, not wanting her to see my temper flare.
"It makes me feel so foolish..." I mumbled.
"Why would it make you feel foolish?" she asked, "it's not like it's your fault."
"I know," I admitted, "it's just that... why would that happen? Was it a decision we botched?"
"Well, be fair, Sally," she said, "it's not like it was anyone's decision."
I glanced up at her. "What do you mean?"
"It's hard to explain," she began, "but let's say that I asked you, right now, if you wanted spines on your back. Would you want them?"
"What?" I asked, "No, why? It would make rolling over pretty annoying."
"Right," she continued, "now let's say tomorrow, these giant birds appeared that snapped up anything they could and took them away. They grab them with their big talons and fly off, and they'll take anything. Nothing is safe."
"Really?" I gasped.
"Now, think back to the decision you had the day before," she said, "wouldn't spines have been useful then? It would keep them from grabbing you."
"I... guess it would..." I supposed.
"Would you trust anyone with that decision?" she put to me. "They have no idea what tomorrow might bring, how would they know what they needed?"
"They wouldn't," I agreed.
"They wouldn't," she affirmed, "but what about next week? Next month? The next thousand years? Something could happen, how would you be prepared for it?"
"But... Silver, if we don't know, what does?"
"Well, here's where it gets weird," she said, "we do."
I blinked. "Eh?"
"The decision of how we would change isn't left up to you or me personally," she explained, "it's left up to all of us. There's things about you that you or I can't control, but it's still a part of you."
"But… what does that mean?" I asked. "Does this mean we've… defended ourselves against something?"
"None of the big cats are doing that well, Sally," she told me, "there are only, like, 20,000 tigers or so in all the world, mostly because of people. We might not seem more evolutionarily advanced, but if you think about it, we're doing really well."
I stared at her, in kind of a daze.
"It's not as though we're completely apart from them, either," she went on, "we're still made of the same parts as them, and still think the same way. I've spoken to a lot of the big cats at the zoo, I can tell why they're not doing that well in the wild."
"But what about the dogs?" I asked, "they're not that separate from their old wildness. Why didn't they need to go that far?"
Silver smiled smartly at me.
"They didn't make that decision," she assured me, "it never came up."
I was silent for a long few moments, but soon I returned the smile.
"I think I'm starting to see," I said, "in a way."
"I'm glad to hear that," Silver said. "It's really amazing how well we know ourselves, Sally, more than you or I might ever see. It's worth thinking about."
"I'll have to make some time for that," I said.
"Think about it," she continued, "What does your human ask of you? Not a whole lot. What does he ask of the dog? A lot more, no doubt, because the dog is such an obliging chump. We evolved to be so much more sophisticated and subversive than our giant cousins, Sally, and there's a lot more of us around because of it."
My eyes lit up.
"I never thought about it that way," I said, half to myself, half to Silver.
"Tigers and such might be bigger and more awesome," Silver said, "but it comes at a price to them, once that they might never be able to pay. We're a lot smaller and more docile, but that's chump change compared to the benefits."
"I guess evolution's not a have or have-not kind of thing, is it?" I said, "It's just what we need."
"You got it!" Silver yelped. I couldn't help but smile. Evolution was actually very good to us, if you looked at it the right way. It was good to all cats, in its own special ways.
Silver turned around and prepared to jump off the ledge, looking over her haunches at me
"C'mon," Silver encouraged, "let's see what we can get into tonight."
My eyes narrowed mischievously.
"Lead the way!" I declared, and we hopped off the ledge and strolled further down the alley.