This week I read an interesting article by the historian of medicine, Projit Mukharji, about the use of cats in anti-plague measures across the British Empire. The idea was developed by an imperial medical official in British India called Andrew Buchanan and he expounded it widely from 1907. He was inspired by his experiences serving in Amravati in Western India, where he found that a small village with an abundant cat population had avoided the ravages of an epidemic. As Mukharji shows, the take up of his idea was uneven—but one place where a scheme for using cats as a prophylactic against the plague was adopted was Mandalay.
I’m looking forward to digging around in the archives to see what can be uncovered about this scheme, but in the meantime I followed the footnotes in his article to a couple of digitised newspaper reports from 1909 about the Mandalay “cat farm”. One appeared in The Straits Times, published in Singapore, and the other in The Daily News, published in Perth Australia. The content of both was identical.
The Mandalay municipality has started a cat farm in view of the plague epidemic, and a profitable business is being done in the sale of cats, says a contemporary. The farm costs more than the charge for lepers, the feeding of each cat per month being Rs. 5.10, while that of a leper in an asylum is fixed at Rs. 5.
Currently, I can’t either verify or disprove the claim that the colonial state expended more on individual cats than it did humans suffering from leprosy—but that the newspapers felt the need to make the claim is interesting.
Historians of animal rights and their intersections with humanitarianism, such as Joanna Bourke and Hilda Kean, have noted that public debates about the resources allocated to the care of animals are often framed within a limited economy of sympathy. In this imagined economy, care for a nonhuman animal detracts from potential care given to an unfortunate human. It is this economy that seems to be being evoked in this article: how can cats cost more to look after than suffering humans? How can this apparent prioritization of nonhuman creatures’ needs be justified? This implicit invitation to snide outrage misses the point that the cats in question were not being kept in recognition of their own intrinsic needs, but to kill rats and thereby eliminate vectors through which plague could be contracted by humans.
Buchanan’s campaign to popularize the use of cats to combat plague were ultimately unsuccessful, as Mukharji’s article shows. Perhaps this type of mocking attitude to the state paying for the upkeep of cats contributed to its failure.