Should you throw a million kittens into a river to save one baby?

"My husband saw your article on Japan Today."

This rather surprising remark came from my pet sitter, who had written to confirm the dates she was looking after Tallis while I was away. It was a surprising because, to the best of my knowledge, I had not written for that particular online publication. My first assumption was that there had been a mistake; either the article in question had been authored by someone of similar name or had actually been published elsewhere. I was half-way composing my fervent denial when I thought...


… I'll just google that.

Whereupon, I struck upon an article written by myself in Japan Today from which stemmed 51 exciting comments of abuse.

The article in question had been originally published on GaijinPot, a website for foreigners living in Japan with a blog section for which I am (knowingly) a regularly contributor. Japan Today had republished my post, admittedly with full credit to myself, on their own site. My feeling about this move were divided:

On the one hand, I wasn't sure that publishing an article without the author's express permission (or indeed, knowledge) was legal. At the very least, it wasn't good form. Yet conversely, my work now appeared on a much bigger website and I wouldn't really want to stop this happening again. 

I suddenly understood why my cat sometimes only half-inflates her fur: it's the cross-roads of indecision. Is this a scene of indignant anger or one of fun timez? 

Unsure how to react, I emailed the editor of Japan Today and expressed my surprise that I had not been contacted. I received a reply almost instantly, apologising for any inconvenience and explaining that Japan Today and GaijinPot were part of the same company and regularly share content. GaijinPot also replied to my tweet of distress and offered to remove the article from Japan Today if I was unhappy. 

I had a cup of tea.

After which I concluded that overall, it was a net win and simply asked to be notified in future. Then I read the comments to my post.

Kids, don't try this at home.

If you're tempted to read comments to an article, I recommend first signing up to AvoidComments on twitter which will periodically send you helpful reminders such as 'If someone told you the internet had hemorrhoids, would you want to look at those, too?'

I should say up front that had I chosen an article for Japan Today, it wouldn't have been this one. Originally from my personal blog, it was the story of my flight from Toronto to Tokyo with my cat and contained phrases that I knew could be trigger points in a public forum.

In particular, I express mock outrage that my cat was thought to be a dog when we passed through security and remark that it's highly surprising that people don't discuss throwing screaming babies out of planes. 

Obviously, both the above are not designed to be serious; it wouldn't be possible to tell the type of animal I had in my pet carrier and aeroplane windows don't open. 

In fact, such concerns had caused me hesitate before submitting the post in its (almost) original form to GaijinPot, but I had decided it was worth the experiment for the sake of humour. I had already written a few articles for the site, read posts containing similar material and hoped regular readers would give me the benefit of the doubt in the region of homicidal tendencies. They unanimously did but the readers of Japan Today were divided: was I a fun-loving cat owner or a neurotic baby-killing narcissist? 

To be honest, the answer largely depends on which stage of the research publication process I'm currently dealing with at work. 

The Japan Today comment debate came down to a few juicy points fought out between a handful of people. In reverse order of entertainment, I present the questions and my opinion: 

  1. Should pets be allowed in the aeroplane cabin at all?

    This debate actually had nothing to do with my article since I had no control over Air Canada's rules regarding pet transportation. I also do not suffer from asthma, so I'm also unable to comment as to whether pets in an aircraft with circulated air is a big problem. I would guess that the restriction on pet number and the offer to sit allergic passengers away from the animals would be sufficient, otherwise more restrictions would exist. If that actually isn't enough, as a pet owner I'd be perfectly happy with a compromise that only allowed pets on one flight per week. Moving with my cat required a huge amount of planning, so restricting the flight I would be able to take would be a minimal inconvenience. 

    (@AvoidCommentsWe like to think that we're smarter than dolphins, but no dolphin has ever bothered to read online comments.)

  2. Did I care about my cat at all or was I flying just for the fun of the experience and blog post?

    Now I have to admit, the thought of writing a blog post allows me to brave many an experience from which I might have otherwise fled. However, I am sorry to confess my passion for writing has yet to reach the stage where I engage in an 8 month long, $1000 initiative just for entertainment. Seriously people, they have cats in Japan too. If I were indifferent to which furry critter decked my apartment, I would have hot swapped them over.

    Tempers flare and break / Winning move is not to play / Don't read the comments)

  3.  Should you throw a million kittens into a river to save one baby?

    I am proud to say my blog post initiated this serious ethical debate. However, as one commenter revealed, it is just not possible to make this call without more information: "Do the kittens have a fatal disease communicable to humans? They should be put to sleep soon. Is the baby Adolf Hitler? That might give me pause." You see? Kittens and babies are cute but cats are frequently more cute than adults. The situation is complex.    

    Linked with this was a second question: Are all animal lovers people haters?

    Now I have to say the answer before I started reading the comments was a resounding 'no'. However, by the time we were on comment 51, it was decidedly more debatable. 

    "It was the worst of times." -- Charles Dickens, if he'd read internet comments)

Since these comments were largely poorly reasoned and nonsensical (being a physicist is awesome both for your ego and Vulcan roleplay) , I was more amused than perturbed. However, they did raise the warning flag of the pitfalls of being a public writer. 

To date, my experience with negative reactions to my writing has been limited. This is largely because my main blog audience are my friends (who have no qualms about handing me their off-spring and so therefore presumably trust me or regret parenthood) or regular readers who understand my humour. Moving onto a more public site has the dual effect of positive comments being like prozac and negative comments tearing me between desires of laughing and wanting to bite someone. While I would have chosen to write a different post for Japan Today, it's unlikely I will always avoid every trigger point. It's a roller coaster of excitement. I may need to order in more tea. 

Also, if anyone approaches me and tells me their name is 'Maria' or 'Cleo' and they read Japan Today, I'm buying them lunch.