Interview with the Cat Lady

Early reviews have been mixed, as with most new books worth commenting about. Amazon customer reviews of Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tames Us and Took Over the World is either a must-have for cat lovers or a hate crime against cats, depending on which reviewers you choose to believe.

Published just last month, timed for the Christmas shopping season no doubt, it’s a good idea to really know the person you might give this to as a gift. The 250-plus page book isn’t a love sonnet to the world’s most popular pet — with all due respect to man’s best friend — as much as it is a clear-eyed look at the natural history of house cats, from their early days as self-appointed guardians of granaries and papyrus scrolls in Ancient Egypt — they killed grain-eating mice and birds, you see, as well as popping off the occasional snake, drawn by the grain-eating mice and birds — to today’s couch moggy.

Tucker’s book has three distinct themes: the natural history of cats, the evolutionary science of a hypercarnivore and superpredator, and an admittedly unscientific deconstruction of the psychological bond between pet and pet owner — or pet guardian, if you prefer — over time.

Today’s couch moggy is also tomorrow’s potentially invasive species, though, as Tucker goes to great pains to point out, with empirical and statistical evidence to back her up. (This is where the alleged hate crime against cats comes in.) Allowed to run loose, unspayed and unneutered, cats can adapt to virtually any environment. Once loosed unsupervised into the wild, they will hunt and eat anything they can, and reproduce at will. Tucker talks to wildlife preservationists in her book who dub feral cats “an ecological axis of evil” to be annihilated en masse.

Cats also spread dangerous parasites and viruses. Cats spread toxoplasmosis! Did you know that? Left untreated, Tucker finds, toxoplasmosis cause birth defects in humans, and rot your brain! It came from inner space.

Readers who dislike the book really dislike it: There’s no happy middle.

Myself, it works for me, because I like science and I enjoy reading about science, though some of Tucker’s personal anecdotal details ring false to me. They make terrible mousers for example, she writes, no more useful at killing mice than dogs are. I can speak from personal experience that that is fundamentally untrue: I have had four rescues in my time, and all four were dedicated mousers. A tall, rangy black cat I dubbed Kipling didn’t stop there; in the lane outside my house in the inner-city one morning, he bagged himself a rat. The reason, again in my experience, why cats may appear to be lousy mousers is that — and this is as unpleasant to witness as read about — is that they don’t kill mice so much as catch them and worry them to death, like a chew toy.

In a sit-down interview with National Geographic just days ago — linked here:

 — Tucker explained why she devoted so much time to uncovering the secret history of cats — other than the obvious reason, to make money — and proffered her own, admittedly unscientific opinion as to how house cats tamed us. Anyone who’s ever been a cat companion knows that’s the way the relationship is, too — we adapt to the cat rather than the other way around. They’re independent; as they can get by in the wild, they’re not as dependent, or needy, as dogs.

The Lion in the Living Room suffers from errors of omission, but that’s easy to forgive. For me, anyway. Realistically, as anyone who knows cats knows, 250 pages probably isn’t enough. Darwin needed 500 pages for On the Origin of Species, after all.