Cats, it seems, transcend the practical.
Abigail Tucker, a science correspondent for Smithsonian magazine, has in the past written on topics as diverse as archaeology of ancient beer, bioluminescent marine life, and vampire anthropology. In her debut book, The Lion in the Living Room, Tucker explores something far more mysterious and elusive: the question of how house cats came to be the number one domesticated species on the planet. Tucker, being the proud cat mama to a ginormous, 20 pound, orange furry lazybones named Cheetoh, takes a deeply personal interest in the subject.
First of all it’s not even clear that cats are domesticated. As Tucker details painstakingly, through visits and interviews with science that despite thousands of years living alongside humans, modern housecats aren’t much different from their wild ancestors Felis Silvestris that still roam freely today in southern Turkey, Iraq, and Israel. Indeed, inbreeding between Felis Silvestris and other species of wild cats with loose domesticated cats is quite common.
Secondly, cats, anti-social, nocturnal carnivores who are notorious for being virtually untrainable, were a very odd choice for domestication. In fact, the experts Tucker consults, and Tucker herself, eventually come to the inescapable conclusion that it was the other way around. Cats decided it was worthwhile to seek human company (or rather humans to feed them), and just moved in with us. This strikes me as especially likely since my brother and his former roommate one day were followed into their apartment by a mangy, stray, feral kitten, whom the roommate quickly adopted. Similar incidents appear to have been the means through which cats went on to inhabit the four corners of the globe.
Tucker’s book is under two hundred pages, divided into nine chapters for nine lives. She manages to cover an impressive array of material, from the sabretooth tigers at La Brea, to the Serengeti Lion Project in Tanzania, to Internet cat stars doing a show in Manhattan. Tucker talks with veterinarians, members of the Alley Cat Lobby, archaeologists who’ve excavated ancient cat skeletons and researchers into the cat borne parasite toxoplasmosis. Along the way, she learns things about our furry overlords that are funny, surprising, fascinating, and even disturbing. Like Tucker, at some point any cat owner will have to ask themselves, Why?
Why do we keep apex predators in our homes? Why do we enable what is considered one of the most invasive and destructive species on the planet to wreck ecological devastation on helpless bird and rodent populations? Why do we invest so much time, energy, and expense on creatures who offer nothing in terms of obedience and only the most meagre displays of affection? Why do house cats at all?
Oh wait, my rescue cat, Nena, is now rubbing herself against my arm purring like a carburetor, swishing her long, silky tail in my face. Her enormous, deep set golden eyes peer into mine as she determinedly butts her head against my hand for rubbing. What was I writing about before?
Oh well. Nothing important I’m sure.
Top photo from Bigstock
The Lion in the Living Room
Winnie’s book, The Dog-Walking Diaries – A Year in the Life of an Autistic Dog-Walker, can be bought by clicking here to purchase on Amazon.