Cat in the basket (copy)

A new study finds that cats prefer music that is written exclusively for them.

SHANNON GREEN -- Portage Daily Register

I and the writers of a couple of rather unkind letters to the editor had the same reaction to a recent bit of news out of UW-Madison concerning music preferences among man’s (and woman’s) second-best friend:

A study on cat music?! we sputtered. This is what they’re using our tax dollars for?! To figure out whether cats are more into smooth jazz or gansta rap?!

A little poking around convinced me that the research was legit. But what I don’t understand is why UW’s PR machine helped let this particular cat (study) out of the bag.

On March 10, UW-Madison’s University Communications department issued a news release about a study by psychology professor Charles Snowdon and then-undergraduate Megan Savage that had been published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

The two had worked with a composer to create music they thought would appeal to cats and then conducted field research suggesting cats preferred such music to classical music.

Snowdon hasn’t argued that the work was aimed at improving humanity’s plight in some significant way.

But he said its only funding was a $1,000 scholarship for Savage through a university honors program and that Savage is now a Ph.D. student, something that “would not have been possible without her having research experiences as an undergraduate here.”

Savage told me her career plans are to work with people with borderline personality disorder.

Not that such mundane details matter as much as a story pitch that grabs reporters’ attention with “study shows cats prefer their own beat.”

But such details do matter, in light of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed $300 million cut to the UW System and a Legislature controlled by Republicans who aren’t always sympathetic with the System’s research mission or the way it spends money.

The Walker administration, for example, tried to delete the Wisconsin Idea from state law, Republicans gave System officials a dressing down two years ago for raising tuition while sitting on a multimillion-dollar budget “surplus,” and in November, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos ridiculed research “on ancient mating habits of whatever.”

In short, these are the kinds of people for whom a study on the musical preferences of cats is just one more reason people with lots of letters after their names can’t be trusted with millions of state tax dollars.

John Lucas, executive director of University Communications, said the cat study news release was put together and sent to hundreds of media outlets after there had been some international coverage of the study.

He said his department’s coverage is “pretty all encompassing” and even pointed me to a news release on, yes, ancient mating habits (of sturgeon), issued about a month after Vos made his comments on the same general topic. It’s almost like the university was flipping its collective middle finger at the third most powerful politician in state government.

I guess you can’t accuse UW-Madison of cravenly shifting with the political winds.

But I feel a little sorry for the lobbyists and other UW backers trying to prove UW’s worth to a bunch of politicians.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.