Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Abigail Tucker - The Lion in the Living Room

Abigail Tucker, The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, Simon & Schuster, 2016.

This book studies how cats became such a popular animal, and in doing so takes a step back and examines our accepted ideas as objectively as possible. The author is, like me and like most of her readers (presumably), a devoted cat lover. This does not prevent her from uncovering some uncomfortable truths that may make many readers view their love of cats in a different light.

The book first examines the evolution of cats. Unlike the other animals humans have domesticated, cats are completely carnivorous hunters and scavengers. Cats are solitary and independent by nature, and it seems that the only reason they became domestic is that those with a more friendly, confident nature were fed by humans. The book argues, based on research, that cats "domesticated themselves". One change that happened in domestic cats is a reduction in the size of their forebrain, leading to a reduction in fear. Less fearful cats had a survival advantage in human communities, so this trait became reinforced and passed on through the generations.

Traditionally, people have said that humans domesticated cats in order for them to hunt rodents. This utilitarian approach to domestication mirrored the way dogs were bred to serve various purposes in human society, from hunting to guarding to helping disabled humans. However, research has shown that cats are not the great hunters of rodents that people like to think they are. While they do hunt rodents, it was probably never a significant enough contribution to human society to be the main explanation for domestication. There is even a widespread idea that the killing of cats by Catholics in Europe in the middle ages led to a rat-spread plague, when rats multiplied without being culled by cats after their population was reduced. But there is insufficient evidence that enough cats were actually killed to make a difference to the rat population, and new research shows that the Black Death might not have been spread by rat fleas, but by human fleas and by people coughing. Another recent theory suggests that the bias against cats during the middle ages may have resulted from people being allergic to cats, which would have seemed to them like an evil influence.

Cats seem to have become popular with humans because they are similar to human babies. Their faces, with their large eyes, and their size, and even their vocalizations trigger human parenting responses. This is how cats, as a species, became loved despite their questionable utility and their requirement for meat rather than just any leftover food we could offer them.

One of the most controversial issues for cat lovers around the world is the issue of cats hunting various species, often to the point of extinction. While cats may not have hunted rats as successfully as people used to believe, this may be because European rodents co-evolved with them. As cats became popular and followed humans around the world, they adapted to hunt prey animals that had never encountered cats and therefore never learned to fear them. While cat lovers may instinctively prefer cats to other species, it is our responsibility as humans, who have had such an enormous impact on the world, to consider the spread of cats as part of our "meddling" with the biosphere. Reading about the impact of cats on other species has reinforced my support for keeping all pet cats indoors and for humanely reducing the vast population of feral cats through TNR (trap-neuter-return) projects. I feel more ambivalent about actually culling outdoor cats (which is very difficult to achieve), though in some cases I can understand the justification.

Cat lovers around the world are often outraged at any suggestion of restricting cats' freedom of movement. From those who believe pets should be allowed to roam free to those who are upset at anyone even discussing a reduction in the feral population, cat people believe "every cat matters" (the slogan of Purrfect Pals, the shelter for whom Foster Dad John of the Critter Room 24-hour kitten cam volunteers). We are outraged at the very idea of euthanasia for "unadoptable" cats, and prefer to support no-kill shelters that house special needs cats for life. Some of us donate significant amounts to these causes, while others volunteer their time in various ways. It has been argued that TNR can only be effective if around 90 percent or more of a feral colony is spayed and neutered. TinyKittens recently achieved this percentage with its feral colony in the Happy Forest. I have been thrilled by every case where a former feral became adoptable. But when I am honest with myself, I know that cat overpopulation requires a much greater investment of resources. I am also aware that by spaying and neutering feral cats, we provide them with longer, happier, and healthier lives, during which even those who are fed by humans are free to hunt. It is hard to think of a solution that can be humane to both cats and other species.

The book discusses the possible influence of the parasite toxoplasma on human behaviour, and on other species that had not encountered it prior to the arrival of cats and humans. Research even suggests a possible connection between toxoplasma and schizophrenia, though this does not seem to be conclusive. It is worth reading about such research in reputable sources, as the media often misreport such stories in a sensational way.

After a discussion of the ways in which humans have adapted their homes to the needs of indoor pet cats, the author turns to the breeding of domestic cats. To me, this is a slightly distasteful subject, first because selective breeding reminds me of eugenics, and secondly because cat breeds focus on external appearance rather than personality. As cat lovers become increasingly aware of cat overpopulation, it seems frivolous to breed cats for their looks and sell them, sometimes at great cost, to owners who could otherwise have rescued a shelter cat. Then there are the hybrid cats, descended from a crossbreeding of domestic and wild cats. The human desire to have the beautiful fur patterns of a wild cat has unfortunately created domestic cats with wild personalities. The creation of domestic cats unsuitable for domestic life, just for their looks, seems to me a typical example of hubris. I would prefer cat lovers to focus on "normal" cats and to give their love to rescued and perhaps former feral cats.

The book concludes, fittingly, with a discussion of cats and their online presence and celebrity status. As a cat person, I was happy to discover the popularity of cats online, but as time went on, I tired of the silly photo captions in LOLspeak. I discovered kitten cams, and over the past five years or so have received an extensive education in all things cat-related from watching these 24-hour, uncensored webcams. I also find it offensive when some celebrity cats are exploited to give their owners lives of luxury. If you want to make your cat famous, the least you can do (as some owners of celebrity cats indeed do) is donate generously to help cat shelters, fund research into feline diseases, and educate the public about cats.

This is one of the most enlightening books about cats I have read, and it is always good to see authors relying on recent research. It is written in the style of investigative journalism, with the author taking us on her journey of discovery as she interviews experts. It raises questions that cat lovers may find unsettling, and that is a good thing. We need to see reality as it is, and understand that our love of cats has wide-reaching implications throughout the world. What we can do about it is a complicated question, which I hope many readers will keep in mind.