What the life (and death) of Grumpy Cat teaches us about the spectacle of animal disability
Grumpy Cat, arguably the internet’s most famous cat, died on Tuesday, May 14, 2019, at only 7 years old. The Arizona cat, who actually went by Tardar Sauce, died following complications from a urinary tract infection, according to a tweet written by her family.
Although the lifespan of a meme on the internet is notoriously short, Grumpy Cat’s internet celebrity demonstrated the staying power of a Kardashian when her guardian Tabatha Bundesen capitalized on the cat’s face and made it a thriving business. Her rise to stardom was initiated when Bundesen posted her photo to Reddit. And despite her humble beginnings, she went on to win Meme of the Year at the 2013 Webby Awards, beating "Gangnam Style" and the "Harlem Shake," as written in the New York Times.
In fact, the marketing machine known as Grumpy Cat is one of the earliest examples of an internet petfluencer.
Rise of the Petfluencer
According to the August 2019 Global Digital Statshot from We Are Social and Hootsuite, 42% of the world’s population uses social media. As the word Influencer has become a part of our social media vernacular after a decade of watching YouTube videos, the Petfluencer economy has boomed as well. Many companies have discovered the ability to rely on animals instead of humans as brand ambassadors because, as it turns out, animal content is well received by consumers.
At the time of her passing, Grumpy Cat's Instagram had roughly 2.7 million followers. And she wasn't even the most popular animal on the social networking site. She trailed Doug the Pug, who has 3.8 million followers, and Nala Cat with 4 million.
In the United States alone, the Instagram influencer economy—wherein brands pay individuals with significant followings to post about their product—is expected to grow $1.7 billion in 2019. As with food, fashion, and wellness, petfluencing is a remarkably lucrative gig. So it’s no wonder that Grumpy Cat’s family commodified her trademark scowl, which spoke to the internet generation’s sardonic soul.
Unfortunately, many of us never stopped to consider why the otherwise happy feline bore such a scowl in the first place.
As it turns out, Grumpy Cat’s expression of unmitigated contempt was the result of feline dwarfism, a condition that gave her wider spaced eyes, a flatter nose, and a pronounced jaw with a bit of an underbite.
Opinions vary within human communities about whether or not dwarfism is a disability, although dwarfism is a recognized condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, there is little debate about disability when it comes to dwarf cats. Dwarfism in cats is technically a genetic mutation, and not one that is simply cute.
There are three types of dwarfism found in cats: osteochondrodysplasia, pituitary dwarfism, and selective dwarfism. Each of these types of dwarfism can produce the familiar stout legs and smushed face, but they all come with potential health concerns.
And it is only selective dwarfism in which breeders purposefully seek to profit from the genetic mutation that jeopardizes cats’ health for human entertainment.
Of course, the breeding of any animal should rightfully be viewed as a theft of reproductive autonomy and a campaign of eugenics. But the intentional breeding of certain ‘companion’ animals to have specific conditions is especially curious given that disability among other animals is commonly viewed by humans to be an executable offense.
Culture of Euthanasia
For people with disabled animal companions, the message is undeniable. Putting sick or disabled animal companions to death is an unmistakable expectation. Among human populations, euthanasia is a controversial ethical issue. But society frequently compels us to put disabled animal companions down, even at birth if a disability is identified at the moment they come into this world. Cute Facebook videos of animals in wheelchairs might have us believe that palliative care is the norm, when in reality it is the exception.
So it is especially ironic that disability in some animals is so highly valued that people see it as an entertaining spectacle while the appearance of a disabled animal in many other contexts is downright unforgivable if they bear no value as an exploitable good, especially if a disability is the result of a chronic or degenerative condition, amputation, or (heaven forbid) old age.
And it is hardly limited to cats who have feline dwarfism. According to an anonymous op-ed in The Guardian
brachycephalic dogs (which include pugs, bulldogs, French bulldogs and shih tzus) are an anatomical disaster. Every structure that should make up the nose has been squashed flat. The only time these dogs are not in some degree of respiratory distress is when you have them intubated under anaesthetic.
The Curious Origins of 'Tardar Sauce'
No discussion about Grumpy Cat’s famed disability would be complete without also addressing the murky origins of her name. Internet users in the early days of Grumpy Cat’s celebrity speculated about whether her original name was a shortened variation of an ableist slur “Tard.”
It is important to note that such claims cannot be verified. However, it isn’t hard to believe that the story of Tardar Sauce’s name was retroactively conceived in order to fit a less politically incendiary narrative.
Bundesen stated that the cat’s name was the result of two things: 1.) her original orange coloring was reminiscent of tartar sauce, and 2.) she had attempted to get her daughter Crystal to eat tartar sauce, which she aggressively disliked.
In response, a few observations:
This explanation doesn’t account for the unusual spelling (tartar is not spelled with a “d”), which Bundesen attributes to her young daughter’s inability to spell.
Any tartar sauce that is a color other than white should be immediately thrown away, and
A child naming a beloved companion something that she found stomach churning is, to say the least, far fetched.
Once again, no one in the Grumpy Cat family likely would dispute the official story. And regardless of what Grumpy Cat’s true name was, it is clear that her family will miss her very much.
Nonetheless, conversations around disability justice for animals are important. And the legacy of Grumpy Cat is mixed. It forces us to grapple with the human capacity to exploit or pathologize physical disability in other animals based on our whim.
To learn more about disability rights and animal liberation, follow Crip HumAnimal and Disabled Vegan on Facebook. Plus, don’t forget to pick up the book Beasts of Burden by author and artist Sunaura Taylor. And if you liked this post or shared it, please consider supporting me on Patreon.