With so many books about cats published to read, I try avoid those that are cute photo books; or books about how Fluffy, Snowy, Blackie, etc. saved my life although I have read some. I stay away from how-to manuals or behavioural or veterinary guides. And such books as those that reproduce great paintings with cat heads replacing those of people. You know, the self-satisfying smirk of a Siamese painted over the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.
After this process of elimination, I am left with a small but increasing number of what I call “serious” books about cats. So, I look to their subtitles as clues to discover their unique perspective and decide whether they live up to their claims. I am on a bender on serious books about cats because of my consultancy work with Alley Cat Allies. Of course, I love cats. We have rescued and lived with many cats but our (my partner and myself) present schedules prevent us from sharing our lives with cats (and dogs).
Besides, I have always thought that subtitles should be read with a grain of salt. Do they really describe what is in the can? The subtitle for Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room is “How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World.” As subtitles go, it is fine but I found myself wanting more than what I took away from reading her book. The Lion in the Living Room is Tucker’s first book and, as you would expect from someone who is a correspondent for Smithsonian magazine, it is well-written and researched. Every now and then, though, I did read something that was not appropriately referenced in the back of the book. And while I learned about such things as how in 1911, the “New York SPCA gassed 300,000 [cats] in New York City” because they were “falsely accused of carrying diseases like polio.” (p. 86) I assume she meant the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but this is not made clear as it is not referenced. Further, there were often times when I wanted the text to be tightened up to move the narrative along. This was particularly true for chapters 8 (“Lions and Toygers and Lykoi”) and 9 (“Nine Likes). Gorging on serious books about cats reveals their commonalities, weaknesses, biases, and whether they are a good read.
The author is a life-long lover of cats. Her Cheetoh is the “book’s bright-orange muse.” (p. 6) She takes us through familiar territory to do with cats. Their evolutionary development and history of association with our ancestors. These are explored with insight as “Cats are biologically at odds with the broadest patterns of human civilisation.” (p. 20) She goes onto explain
The more we push, the more coexistence with wild cats becomes nearly impossible. First, we clear the land, reaching ever deeper into rain forest and savannah, and devouring or shooting off the prey animals. This hurts wild cats, from the lions and tigers that compete with us directly for the big herbivores that we like to eat [well some of us I–Kim–must note], to house-cat-sized felines like the African golden cat, whose smaller prey is exterminated or siphoned off as bush-meat. After we topple forests and polish off the native prey species, we introduce our own food animals like cattle, sheep, chickens, and fish–which wild cats of all sizes, now without a meat source, naturally want to eat. Now it’s their turn to be kleptoparasites, and farmers don’t tolerate feline thievery. (p. 21)
As I read on I found myself moving through the familiar territory of such issues as domestication, predation, endangered species, Australia, Marian Island, Macquarie Island, American Bird Conservancy, and so on. Generally, Tucker deals well with these issues and fairly explores diverse points of view; however, there are times when I think she could have been more challenging on the arguments deployed in defence of killing cats. She visits several places to interview people as part of her research (e.g., breeders, researchers, bird advocates, Internet celebrities) and they inform and enrich the book’s narrative. It was pleasing to read about the author’s several trips out with feral cat advocates to witness TNR and colony care management.
Chapter 6, “Cat Scan,” is devoted to the issue of toxoplasmosis. Again, I thought her treatment did not sufficiently challenge the claims made associating toxoplasmosis with mental disease. The preceding chapter, “The Cat Lobby,” includes her account of meeting Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies, and attending their conference. Generally, this chapter is fine but again I felt she insufficiently challenged the counter arguments to Trap-Neuter-Return that it is ineffective. Further, these various points are brought together in the chapter’s summation.
As the sober PowerPoint concludes, the presenter suddenly flashes a slide of an adorable feline neonate: “And this is my kitten Rex!” she says. The room explodes in squeals. It was a bit like ending a lecture on the war on drugs with a picture of a lit crack pipe–especially since there is actually evidence that cats, like street drugs, have clinically compromised our minds. (p. 101)
This is a clever juxtaposition of issues but it feels like a cheap gratuitous shot. There was another similar occasion that stood out when I thought the writing style overshadowed what was actually being said.
Indoor cats are apex predators without a pyramid, and territorial overlords without territory. But in his own cage, safe from rivals, unexpected noises, unwanted eye contact, and us, every cat is what he was born to be: a king. (p. 137)
So, with these various misgivings, The Lion in the Living Room is a worthwhile read even though it is not exactly clear how, as the subtitle claims, “cats tamed us” other than perhaps through toxoplasmosis and “took over the world.” It is not as if we live in the age of the felixpocene.