I can haz no exploitation: Why we should keep an eye on the internet’s most famous cats

Revision3 has lately expanded its range of vertical content (niche channels dedicated to niche audiences), including a focus on animals in general and pets in particular — adorable animals doing stuff on video being an everpresent part of web video culture. So on Friday, when Rev3 announced that Lil Bub, a two-year-old tabby cat, was joining the network to host “her own talk show,” it seemed like a real casting coup for the company.

However, while details on Lil Bub’s Big Show are slim — beyond it being a showcase for the cat’s “many skills, mostly her people skills,” the announcement might signal it’s time to have a real conversation about the cats the internet loves — to an almost unhealthy extent.

In the last two years, we’ve seen a new wave of web-famous kitties follow in the footsteps of icons like Maru and Keyboard Cat, formally celebrated by awards shows and keeping themselves and their owners well-fed.

This of course includes Bub and his spiritual peer, Tardar Sauce, dubbed by Reddit as “Grumpy Cat.” While both cats are relatively young, they owe their unique appearances to medical maladies: Tardar suffers from feline dwarfism, while Bub’s health issues also include a level of dwarfism that until recently kept her from moving around normally.

But between books, talk show appearances, movie deals and documentaries, the pair keep quite busy indeed.

At The Big Live Comedy Show, a two-hour live comedy event which kicked off YouTube Comedy Week back in May, the cast of Workaholics put up a short game called “The 2013 YouTube Cute-Off”, where Lil Bub and 30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer competed in a series of challenges to determine who was the cutest.

Skip to timecode 25:51.

I happened to be watching the show from the studio audience, and while I instinctually love both cats and Kenneth The Page, concerns crept in. The room, a warehouse-sized soundstage in Culver City, was loud and bright; Lil Bub looked quite tense for the entire duration of the bit.

This was only a few minutes of stage time, but in front of a cheering crowd of hundreds, and I was relieved to see Bub scooped up and whisked off stage immediately after the segment was over.

Whatever one might think of these public appearances, both families do deserve a fair amount of credit: Events featuring Lil Bub and Tardar Sauce usually include an animal welfare charity component, and their health issues are not glossed over. In fact, in a recent post on Tumblr, an enthusiastic Lil Bub fan asked where they might acquire a “munchkin cat,” and received the following response:

BUB is not a “munchkin cat” or a specific breed. She is a rescue and was born a feral kitten with unique characteristics that made her different from her siblings.

BUB strongly discourages people from buying “munchkin breeds”. Munchkin breeds are created by breeders by taking “accidents” like BUB and cross breeding them with other “accidents” to create a breed that humans think is cute. But this is cruel, and results in many kittens that don’t survive, and the ones that do survive end up having all kinds of health problems, experience pain and have shortened life spans.

If you want a special and amazing cat, go to your animal shelter and find one. There are always special needs cats that need special people to take care of them.

-Me and BUB

In general, to scroll through what’s posted on the Lil Bub and Tardar Sauce social media presences is to be blown away by the owners’ affection for cats in general and their specific pets in particular. There’s no denying that.

But we’re increasingly reaching a place where if these cats are going to be commoditized in this way, we should look seriously at making sure they’re as well taken care of as possible — especially because due to the intense nature of Internet fame, another cat in the same position could find itself in an out-of-control situation very fast.

Digging into the American Humane Association’s “No Animals Were Harmed” certification program reveals that it’s fully integrated into projects that work with the Screen Actor’s Guild: There’s no language on the site that directly relates to digital productions — and how do you regulate something born of a Reddit meme, anyway? — but as SAG itself has evolved to keep up with the challenges of new media, so might the AHA.

A recent positive example of this: Tardar Sauce made a big splash at SXSW 2013 — there, excited attendees waited for hours to pose with the grey tabby, which was huge for the cat’s profile, but seemed like an awful lot of stress to put on a cat. To quote Mike Isaac of All Things D:

I’m not cool with it. If I were a grumpy cat, the absolute last place I’d want to be is stuck in the middle of a 24-hour party for days on end, where throngs of drunk partygoers waited for a chance to take a picture with me. God knows I have a hard enough time being around them as a human capable of rational thought. Who knows what it’s like for that poor cat.

However, the event did have outside monitoring: PETA approved the conditions of Grumpy Cat’s SXSW appearance, according to Buzzfeed:

PETA campaign specialist Ashley Byrne says there’s nothing to be alarmed about, at least for now. “Grumpy Cat is now receiving visitors only two hours a day,” she says. Once PETA learned the specifics — from now on, visitors can only take photographs, the event is divided into one-hour intervals, Tardar’s owners are keeping a close eye on her — it cleared the event.

Maybe it’s worth remembering the real charm of cat videos: The opportunity to see cats being cats. Maru, for a long time held up as the Internet’s most famous cat, has held onto this fame without ever changing the established format that brings him to the world: Short videos, shot and edited together by an unseen, unnamed owner, that highlight Maru behaving as housecats do in their natural habitat.

(There might be some artifice to videos such as Many too small boxes and Maru, in which Maru is presented with a number of increasingly smaller boxes to attempt sitting in, but Maru’s love of sitting in boxes is so well-established that it doesn’t feel false.)

Maru won’t be making any talk show appearances anytime soon. As far I know, he’s never been seen in public. But he’s no less beloved for it.