Colonel Meow was the first to go.
A lumbering, long-haired Himalayan-Persian mix with the bearing of a military dictator, the Colonel was struck down by a sudden illness in January 2014. I’m not sure what I was doing when he actually left us, but I know for a fact that receiving the news stopped me cold.
“Colonel Meow passed away yesterday evening,” read the caption, written by his owner, Anne Marie Avey, along with a photo of the Colonel’s familiar grumpy-old-man face. “I will post more about the details when I’ve had a few days to grieve.”
Then came Caspar, a beautiful white Turkish Angora who goes by the handle “@LittlePiecesofCat” (which he shares with another cat of indeterminate relationship, named Melchior). One day, my boyfriend came home to find me morose. “Caspar has lymphoma,” I told him, unable to meet his eye. He was understandably confused, partly because we don’t have any friends called Caspar.
“Who?” he asked.
Indeed: Who? While Colonel Meow was a bona fide feline celebrity, a peer of renowned Instagram celebrities like Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub, I haven’t the faintest clue how I became one of Caspar’s (and Melchior’s) 10.7K followers. And yet, suddenly, his struggle was part of my everyday life. Every day, I would get a new update on his lymphoma treatments. His white-blood-cell count was too low! He wasn’t responding well to chemo! His fur had lost some of its lustrous sheen! I found myself Googling feline lymphoma in my spare time, educating my friends on his prognosis and various treatment options over brunch and coffee dates. I generally think that I have enough stress in my life without a random cat’s terminal illness, but I also felt like I didn’t have a choice. What else could I do? Unfollow him in his time of need?
In my time as an Instagram user and follower of animals (mostly of cats, as is my God-given right, but a few dogs too, plus some miscellaneous), I have had much to grieve. Caspar passed away this summer. Biddy the traveling hedgehog died last year; Loki the corgi left us just last week. Bobby Flay and his wife went through an unpleasant divorce in 2015, thereby splitting up their two Maine coon kittens (Nacho and Taco) into to separate accounts, a separation which I took almost as hard as a death.
And yet it has never gotten easier, never less surprising and unpleasant, to learn that one of my followees has succumbed to their relatively short feline or canine lifespans. Once upon a time, my Instagram feed was a place of low-stakes escapism and mindless distraction, a portable menagerie that I could reliably turn to for a shot of cuteness-related dopamine. Now, more often than not, it is a place to be aggressively confronted with my own mortality (or, indeed, the vicissitudes of modern marriage), making me wonder why exactly I signed up for it in the first place.
What does it mean when an Insta-animal stops being merely cute and starts being, say, a lymphoma patient with a few months to live? Is the joy of a few hundred cute cat pictures outweighed by the eventual burden of mourning a creature you never even knew? Does everyone else get this deeply invested in the digital lives of other people’s faraway pets, or do I need to get more hobbies?
I never found out the answers to these questions, because recently, scrolling casually through my feed, I saw a photo of Colonel Meow, whom I had un-followed in the traumatic days after his death. It took me by surprise. Had he actually died, or was my memory playing tricks on me? Clicking over to his feed, I realized that his owner had decided to continue sharing photos of the Colonel on a regular basis for the past few years. It was possible to believe that he was still at home, eating his kibble, rolling around and napping on the windowsill, posting grumpy captions like “Wake me up when there’s a World Domination Leader Day” and “Go away. I’m eating.” He looked peaceful, plump, delightfully gruff — I liked him just as much as I did when I first followed him years ago. All my cheaply bought lessons about mortality were suddenly cast into doubt.
But, I figured, at least there was no chance of going through another painful grieving process; he was already dead.
So I clicked “follow.”