Cat Sense by John Bradshaw: An attempt to dispel the mystery surrounding an animal never fully domesticated

After reading Cat Sense, you will never look at your cat in the same way again. You might wish you still could.

Earlier this year, the BBC2 programme Horizon affixed “cat-cams” to 50 feline inhabitants of the Surrey village of Shamley Green to learn what the moggies got up to once they had exited the catflap and embraced their inner catness. To anyone who owns – or is owned by – a cat, the results were surprisingly unsurprising. The killer cats of Shamley Green roamed around a bit, carried out some light bin piracy, had remarkably little sex (it was a family show) and engaged in confrontations that were bigger on noise than paw-topaw violence. In general, they gave the lie to T S Eliot’s fantasy of a rich and rumbustious feline underworld. The answer to the question “What is my cat up to right now?” is almost always “sleeping”.
 
The animal behaviourist John Bradshaw took part in The Secret Life of the Cat and his book promises greater depth than Horizon’s mild night-vision entertainment. Cat Sense is an attempt to dispel the mystery surrounding an animal that has lived alongside us for nine thousand years yet retains much of its wildness. Bradshaw’s goal is that by understanding the cat more fully – and accepting that it is neither completely domesticated nor the finished article in evolutionary terms – we become able to provide it with a better and more fulfilling existence. The home life of many pet cats which Bradshaw describes is stressful, with mismatched or rival animals packed too tightly into the urban setting, or boring. What we consider normal cat behaviour is often the product of status anxiety and a kind of feline anomie. No wonder they bring home dead birds and poo in the shower.
 
Bradshaw’s desire for a comprehensive picture works against the book. To reach the juicy tinned meat of cat psychology and sociology, the reader must get over the hump of some numbingly dull opening chapters on feline evolution and domestication; if this is the cat bible, then there is an awful lot of begatting and begetting going on. Bradshaw also has a terrible weakness for digression: the section on the genetic provenance of striped v blotched tabby would try the patience of the most committed cat lover.
 
Get past all that, though, and more engaging details emerge. Dr Johnson used to feed his cat Hodge on oysters, not then a luxury food; the ancient Greek word for cat was ailouros, or “waving tail”; and Britain got the orange tabby from the Vikings a thousand years ago. On physiology, Bradshaw goes well beyond charming did-you-knows to provide insights that could transform the average cat owner’s understanding of their pet. Far from an indiscriminate bin-rummager, the domestic cat is a specialised “hypercarnivore” that can no longer obtain certain essential nutrients from anything but meat.
 
Its senses are even more attuned to balance and hunting than you might expect and much stranger, too. Because the cat processes visual images far faster than we do, it experiences fluorescent light or cathode-ray-tube TV as an incessant flicker (more misery for the housebound puss). It cannot focus its vision at close quarters and relies on its whiskers to sense prey at close proximity. This explains that strange thing a cat does when it moves its head backwards, not forwards, before pawing at an unfamiliar object. Cats can detect ultrasound up to the register of a bat’s call and can differentiate rodent species by squeak. Their olfactory receptors indicate that they can tell billions of odours apart – impressive, considering that there are only so many ways a mouse or bird can smell but, you know, Eskimo words for snow and all that.
 
What of less palatable feline behaviours? Cat mating is explored in all its horrible, noisy, barbed-penis perversity. So, too, is spraying, which is not as purely malicious as it seems to the human nose. The smellier a tomcat’s urine, the more protein there is in his diet. He is not ruining your carpet out of spite; he is demonstrating his prowess as a hunter and thus his worth as a mate, with a quick spritz of feline Drakkar Noir. As for cats’ notorious cruelty – batting a vole around apparently for fun and then not even having the decency to eat it – Bradshaw explains it as a product of a hunting instinct that is entirely separate from hunger. Even on a full stomach, a cat can’t see a small scuttling object without wanting to kill it, as many a leaf, raindrop, spider, clockwork Dalek and escaped frozen pea in our household has learned to its cost.
 
It is almost disappointing to learn that these most charismatic animals are not governed by some unknowable and amoral shared spirit as the Egyptians believed and the Vatican feared, but are subject to the same belittling system of rules, reward and reinforcement as the rest of us. Even the most committed rationalist might find it a little sad to have the four-legged mystery of their household explained as an evolved system, however magnificent. Do we want the feline enigma resolved? After reading Cat Sense, you will never look at your cat in the sameway again. You might wish you still could.
 
Andrew Harrison is a magazine editor and cultural critic
Portrait of a rescued domestic cat in Long Island, New York. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage