I’m a happily self-confessed crazy cat lady, so when I see the adorable kitten on the cover of this book and when I learn that it’s about how cats are ruling the world, it was like bookish catnip to me.
Abigail Tucker, a cat lady herself, knows her audience, and so wastes no time trying to convince us of how cute and adorable our little felines are. Rather, she delves into a scientific socio-cultural history of the species to argue her main point that the proper reaction to a house cat isn’t “awww,” but rather awe. Cats are amazing creatures not because they’re adorable and can be amused for hours by a ball of yarn, but rather because they are evolutionary masterminds, weaving their way into our hearts and homes sometimes despite all human efforts to the contrary.
Tucker begins the book with a sobering look at the endangerment and sometimes extinction of some wildcats. Due to human encroachment into their territory, lions, tigers and other wildcats are losing access to food, and far from the kings and queens of the jungle they used to be, they are now often seen in zoos and controlled sanctuaries. The house cat is therefore the evolutionary answer to human civilization — while jungle cats can’t survive in the wilds of an urban landscape, their smaller and more domesticated versions are better equipped to live in apartments and other human dwellings.
The book is chockfull of many such interesting tidbits of cat information that many cat lovers will geek out over. Most interesting to me is that the facial features of the contemporary house cat are very similar to those of lions and tigers, and that this is unusual for domesticated animals. Tucker hypothesizes that this is because, unlike dogs whom humans have bred for specific purposes, cats don’t really serve humans any purpose except to exist, and so their evolution has been mostly left alone. At one point, Tucker says, “We like to chuckle at feline savagery in miniature–but only now that we’ve won. Maybe a lion purring in our lap or cavorting in our living room evokes our global mastery, our total control of nature.” (p. 24) I admit I rebelled against that thought; I hate to think of my cooing over my cat as a form of gloating of my dominance over him. But then I remember how I laugh when he playfully nibbles at my hand, knowing he won’t actually break skin, and I wonder if Tucker may have been on to something after all.
Tucker also observes that cats’ faces are a “mesmerizing” combination of deadly killer and adorable baby, and that this effect is especially potent to women of reproductive age. I don’t know how much that is or can be backed up by science, but she supports it with some observational research on cat shows, where the language used to describe cats (“little girl” or “little boy”) sounds very maternal.
She also writes a lot about the effect of cats on a neighbourhood (sometimes the endangerment or extinction of rodent or avian species), advocacy around cats (“TNR” or trap-neuter-return as the preferred method to deal with stray cats), and on a lighter note, celebrity cats. I particularly like a chapter where she talks about how cats train their humans. According to Tucker, “These cues are unique and don’t translate across homes – an owner can heed his cat’s specific directives, but not necessarily the cat next door’s.” This training is so complete that MRI’s show “blood-flow patterns of our brains change with the tenor of the feline voice.” (p. 132) Isn’t that fascinating?
In short, whatever you feel about cats, this book is unlikely to change your mind. It’s a total geek-fest of cat history and evolution, and will likely reinforce whatever you already feel about cats in general. Are they supreme killers destroying bird and rat lives in the neighbourhood or are they highly intelligent predators who deserve their spot at the top of the food chain? Is their training of humans utterly diabolical or fantastically clever? Is it worth the time and effort to trap-neuter-return when the stats show this method having little effect on the cat population? (A note that other, deadlier measures are also shown by stats to be ineffective, and I was glad to hear that.)
I really loved this book and, as you can see from my Goodreads status updates, I geeked out over practically every chapter. Read it, enjoy, and gaze at your cat in awe for the clever little hunter and ruler they are.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.