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Cats, in Theory

After seeing a video short featuring Abigail Tucker on social media, I purchased this book, eager to find new insights into my feline overlords. It is well written and peppered with dry wit. However, as other reviewers have noted, it seems more based on cats in theory than in actuality. Some of the science (evolutionary/paleontological info) was interesting and new to me (though not as much as I had hoped), and since I work for a conservation organization, I know the havoc domestic cats can wreak on a habitat and the information about the damage caused by feral cats was an unpleasant truth. (Though I must point out that cats are not alone in their wanton destruction of habitat and indigenous species—foxes, ferrets, rabbits, hogs, goats, and countless invasive plant species too were transported around the globe by humans and they also are paying the price for our environmental folly as they are eradicated from places they never should or would have colonized without assistance from humans. But I digress...) Tucker’s comparisons of cats and dogs were dramatically skewed by the extrovert bias. Of course dogs encourage healthy living habits because they must be taken out for daily walks. She points out that during walks and visits to the dog park, they encourage social interaction among their humans. But not everyone ENJOYS chitchatting with strangers or people you don't really know but see all the time and therefore feel obligated to engage in small talk. Cats are therapeutic for people who need diversion and relaxation in the privacy of their own homes—hence the conquest of Internet cats. Cat people aren’t looking for an animal that will pull sleighs, herd animals, track down criminals/game animals, retrieve things, defend your home, lead blind people, alert people who are about to have seizures/heart attacks/feinting spells, identify drugs/explosives/melanomas/etc. Cat people want strange furry creatures who remind us that we are not all that (and therefore neither are our problems) and delight us with their often inexplicable behaviors. The Internet is a giant worldwide cat park, where people can connect and share the enchanting and bizarre behaviors that their feline companions randomly display. But without having to make eye contact. In her exploration of Internet cats, Tucker cites Hello Kitty, I Can Has Cheeseburger, Grumpy Cat, Colonel Meow, and Lil Bub. These are all celebrity cats, but as with celebrity humans, not all have the same substance. Homer the Blind Wonder Cat's human, Gwen Cooper used the story of Homer to remind us that an animal (or a person) does not have to be perfect to be loved. What about the satirical musings of Henri, the cat with ennui? Or the wry adventures of Cole and Marmalade as interpreted by their clever human caretakers? Internet cat videos capture an astonishing range of perplexing behaviors, some trained and some spontaneous on the part of cats themselves (which of course is one of their most appealing traits). What do these behaviors tell us? She observes that cats, because they are poker-faced, allow us to project our emotions onto them but theirs remain a mystery (though she seems to suggest they haven’t any). It’s hard to know what ANY animal (including the human animal) is feeling for certain. Cats are variable and often (though not always) subtle in expressing their feelings. Understanding them often requires more adept skills of interpretation on the part of humans. Tucker blames the surge in overweight cats on the probability that many people engage with their cats primarily over food and so overfeed them to encourage interaction. Of course many people do overfeed, but that is usually a case of allowing cats to free-feed. Socialized cats are very interactive outside of feeding time, and for those who appreciate subtle signs of affection, lying around on the sofa reading a book for a few hours with a cat in your lap IS interacting. Feline obesity (like human obesity) may have more to do with the amount of carbohydrates that bulk out many commercial cat foods. Though she brings up “domestication syndrome” which is a newish theory that explains why so many different species retain juvenile physical features into adulthood after being domesticated (these traits are incidentally linked to a less active adrenal gland) and explains that with dogs and other social species humans basically hijack that species’ social system—for instance with dogs, the human caretaker is regarded as the alpha animal. Since cats are by nature solitary, this explains, she reasons, why they are less interactive than dogs. But this is ignoring two important points. Cats that are socialized with humans, basically remain kittens all their lives. She delves into the idea that cats resemble infants to us in size, basic configuration (big, front-facing eyes and round head), and sound, and that this partly explains the appeal of cats for women. But she overlooks the fact that the one fundamental social relationship that cats engage in is with their mothers, and it is this relationship that is hijacked by humans. Hence the retention of kitten behaviors such as milk treading, vocalizing, and in some cases suckling. She also overlooks how socially adaptable cats are. On farms where multiple barn cats cohabit, they learn to tolerate shared territory and females will even communally nurse kittens as lionesses do in prides. A recent “kitty cam” study also revealed (to the researchers surprise) that neighborhood toms would actually hang out together in groups, lying around in sunny spots staring companionably into the distance. So although she addresses the ability of Felis cattus to adapt to different climates and various diets and their ability to reproduce at a furious pace, one of the most important fluid characteristics of domestic cats is overlooked. Who knows how the trend toward living indoors or with limited hunting opportunities will change cats. A recent dog study has suggested that domestic dogs have lost much of their ability to work together as a pack. They are less “socially intelligent” than their wolf cousins. Maybe in another 10 or 20 generations of cats, they too will lose more of their wild hunting instincts in order to adapt better to life as companion animals. It would be enjoyable to read a better-informed sequel—hopefully Tucker will adopt several more cats and spend more time immersed in cat videos!

Rudy and Vlad agree that Abigail Tucker needs more practical cat experience.

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