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5 February 2017updated 13 Oct 2021 2:44pm

What cats can teach us about how to live

We should celebrate the solitary hunters among us.

By John Gray

A philosopher once assured me, many years ago, that he had converted his cat to veganism. Believing he was joking, I asked how he had achieved this feat. Had he supplied the cat with mouse-flavoured vegan food? Had he presented his cat with other cats, already practising veganism, as feline role models? Or had he argued with the cat and convinced it that eating meat is wrong? My interlocutor wasn’t amused, and I realised that he really believed the cat had opted for a meat-free diet. So I ended our exchange with a simple question: did the cat go out? It did, he told me. That solved the mystery. Plainly, the cat was supplementing its diet by covert hunting. If it ever brought home any of the carcasses – a practice to which ethically undeveloped cats are sadly prone – the virtuous philosopher had managed not to notice them.

It is not hard to imagine how the cat on the receiving end of this experiment in moral education must have viewed its human teacher. Perplexity at the absurdity of his behaviour would soon have been followed by contemptuous indifference. Seldom doing anything unless it serves a definite purpose or gives immediate satisfaction, cats are arch-realists. Faced with human folly, they simply go their own way.

The independence of cats is one of the features most admired by those of us who love them. Given their evolutionary history as solitary hunters, it is easily explained. Seeking their prey alone, cats – with the exception of lions and sometimes cheetahs – have not developed patterns of collective action and hierarchy of the kind found in dogs and other pack animals. “Herding cats” is a metaphor based on fact: cats don’t live in herds. As they are highly territorial and notoriously picky in their eating habits, they make an unlikely candidate for domestication. And yet, more than almost any other species, cats have learned to live on intimate terms with human beings. How has this come about?

As Abigail Tucker explains in her immensely informative and enjoyable book, wild cats need space: large tracts of land that can sustain the sources of meat that are their sole food supply. Human settlements posed a big challenge to these “hyper-carnivores”. When forests are cleared for farming, native prey species disappear, or shrink in numbers. Lacking the prey they relied on in the past, wild cats can only turn to animals that human beings have domesticated – cattle, sheep and the like. Inevitably, this makes cats enemies of human beings. It is not recreational hunting or the use of body parts as aphrodisiacs that is condemning so many wild cats to extinction, though these disgusting practices are hastening the end of wild tigers. It is habitat destruction, an inevitable concomitant of human expansion.

So, it is all the more extraordinary that one particular type of cat – Felis silvestris, a small and sturdy tabby – should have been able to spread worldwide as a result of learning to live with human beings. By invading the villages that were established 12,000 years ago in parts of what is now Turkey, these cats were able to turn the human shift to a more sedentary life to their advantage. Preying on other animals attracted by stored seeds and grains and harvesting waste meat left behind after slaughtered animals had been eaten, they made human settlements into reliable sources of food. Recent evidence points to a comparable process taking place independently in China roughly five millennia ago, when a central Asian variety of Felis silvestris pursued a similar strategy.

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Having entered into close proximity with human beings, cats were quickly recognised as being useful to them. Employing cats for pest control on farms and ships became common. They spread to parts of the world where they were not previously known. In many countries, they outnumber any other species as co-inhabitants.

Cats initiated this process of domestication themselves, and on their own terms. Unlike other species that foraged in early human settlements, they have continued to live in close quarters with human beings ever since. For a minor predator, it is an extraordinary triumph. As Tucker writes:


A house cat is not really a fur baby, but it is something altogether more remarkable: a tiny conquistador with the whole planet at its feet. House cats would not exist without humans, but we didn’t really create them, nor do we control them now. Our relationship is less about ownership than aiding and abetting.


Predictably, there has also been a counter-reaction against cats. Tucker highlights the aims and methods of this movement:


. . . the worldwide ecological community is, in some areas, attempting full-on felinicide. People bomb cats’ lairs with targeted viruses and deadly poisons. They rain hell on cats with shotguns and hounds. Australia is leading the fight . . . the government has bankrolled pioneering research in cat poisons, including the development of a toxic kangaroo sausage called Eridicat. The Australians have also tested the Cat Assassin, a metal tunnel into which cats are lured and then misted with poison. Scientists have considered despatching Tasmanian devils (carnivorous marsupials that live wild only on the island of Tasmania) to dismember cats.


Among these advocates of felinicide are the authors of Cat Wars. For Peter P Marra and Chris Santella, cats are “environmental contaminants like DDT” which spread diseases and disrupt ecological balance. A chapter luridly entitled “Zombie Makers” describes how cats spread rabies, parasitic Toxoplasma gondii and the pathogen responsible for the Black Death. According to the authors, schizophrenia, which they describe in simplistic terms as “a severe brain disorder”, can be caused by infections emanating from cats. These fearful zombie-makers are also responsible for the deaths of countless birds (Marra is the director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre). The only solution is to reduce cat numbers and eliminate stray cats completely. Making sure the reader is clear about what they are recommending, the authors write: “Euthanasia must be part of a successful solution.”

Marra and Santella make some attempt to appeal to cat lovers by suggesting that cats be kept indoors and allowed to work off their excess energy on feline versions of hamster wheels. If “cat owners” insist on giving their animal companions experience of the outdoors, “they can get a leash and walk their cats as tens of millions walk their dogs”.

It is obvious from these examples that the authors – unlike Tucker, whose delight in the species is evident on every page – have little knowledge of and even less affection for cats. Do they imagine that cats will accept life on a leash as dogs have done? Are they so ignorant of the differences between the two species? Maybe not. They seem bent on feline mass extermination. At the end of their book they write:


With cats wandering the landscape it is not difficult to imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when your son or daughter enters a natural history museum and comes upon a small exhibit for a piping plover, a roseate tern, a Hawaiian Crow, a Florida scrub-jay, a Key Largo cotton mouse, a Choctawhatchee beach mouse, a Catalina Island shrew, a Lower Keys rabbit, or any number of other species from islands and continents around the world – with the label “Now Extinct”.


As can be seen from this passage, the principal rationale for a mass cull of the cat population is environmental conservation. But the risk that cats pose to the environment is not enough alone to explain the authors’ intense hostility to Felis silvestris. The danger of disease can be countered by programmes such as Trap-Neuter-Return, widely implemented in the US, in which cats living outdoors are taken to clinics for vaccination and spaying and then released. The risk to birds can be diminished by bells and other devices. (Birds also spread diseases, some of them potentially fatal, but this is rarely mentioned by cat haters.) More fundamentally, it is distinctly odd to single out one branch of a non-human species as a destroyer of ecological diversity when the main culprit in this regard is by any reasonable measure the human animal. With their superlative proficiency as hunters, cats may have altered the ecosystem in parts of the world. But it is human beings that are driving the planetary mass extinction that is under way.

Another striking feature of the campaign against cats is how little attention is given to the benefits they confer on human beings. For most of the time in which they have cohabited with people, cats lived outdoors. It is only relatively recently that they began to live in human households in large numbers. What is it that has allowed them to make this evolutionary step? Ailurophobes will say it is the anthropomorphism of cat lovers, who treat their feline housemates as surrogate human beings. But for many cat lovers, I suspect the opposite is true. What they cherish is not how cats resemble us, but their differences from us. Living with cats opens a window into a world beyond our own and teaches us something important about what it means to be human.

One of the most attractive features of cats is that contentment is their default state. Unlike human beings – particularly of the modern variety – they do not spend their days in laborious pursuit of a fantasy of happiness. They are comfortable with themselves and their lives, and remain in that condition for as long as they are not threatened. When they are not eating or sleeping, they pass the time exploring and playing, never asking for reasons to live. Life itself is enough for them.

If there are people who can’t stand cats – and it seems there are many – one reason may be envy. As Jeffrey Masson, whose The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats is the best book on cats ever published, has written:


In English, if not in “cat”, the word contentment conveys something of a feeling of being at peace with the world or with yourself. It is more of a state than a fleeting emotion. A person can be happy (momentarily) without being content. Contentment cannot be purchased; happiness, on the other hand, has a price. For us, happiness is a serious business.


Whereas human beings search for happiness in an ever-increasing plethora of religions and therapies, cats enjoy contentment as their birthright. Why this is so is worth exploring. Cats show no sign of regretting the past or fretting about the future. They live, absorbed in the present moment. It will be said that this is because they cannot envision the past or future. Perhaps so, though their habit of demanding their breakfast at the accustomed hour shows they do have a sense of the passage of time. But cats, unlike people, are not haunted by an anxious sense that time is slipping away. Not thinking of their lives as stories in which they are moving towards some better state, they meet each day as it comes. They do not waste their lives dreading the time when their lives must end. Not fearing death, they enjoy a kind of immortality. All animals have these qualities but they seem particularly pronounced in cats. Of all the animals that have lived closely with human beings, cats must surely be the least influenced by them.

“When I play with my cat,” Montaigne wrote, “how do I know she is not playing with me?” With creatures that can be understood only partly by us, one can only speculate about their inner life. Yet it is tempting to suppose that the secret of feline contentment is that cats have no need to defer to a picture of themselves as they imagine they should be. Certainly they have a sense of dignity: they avoid people who treat them disrespectfully, for instance. Yet cats do not struggle to remake themselves according to any ideal self-image. Not inwardly divided, they are happy to be themselves.

Again, it will be said that this is because they have no moral sense. There are many cases of heroic devotion in which cats have risked pain and death to protect their kittens. But it is true that they cannot be taught moral emotions in the way dogs have been taught to feel shame. Cats are certainly not virtue signallers. Nor – except when it concerns their offspring – are they at all inclined to self-sacrifice. But given that cats, consequently, do not kill other cats or anything else in order to become martyrs to some absurd belief system, that may be no bad thing. There are no feline suicide-warriors.

The moralising philosopher who believed he had persuaded his cat to adopt a meat-free diet only showed how silly philosophers can be. Rather than seek to teach his cat, he would have been wiser to learn from it, as Montaigne did. Living in accord with their nature, cats do not need moral instruction. Dissatisfaction with our natural condition, on the other hand, seems to be natural for human beings. The human animal never ceases to strive for some higher form of life. Cats make no such effort. Without any process of laborious cogitation, these lucid, playful and supremely adaptable creatures already know how to live.

John Gray is the NS lead book reviewer and the author of “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals” (Granta)

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World written by Abigail Tucker is published by Simon & Schuster (256pp, £12.99)

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage