The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture
When you have had an unexpected success with a book about dogs, what do you do for an encore? In Hollywood, the answer would inevitably have been Dogs 2, but when it comes to books, there is a different strategy: switch to cats. This has been a popular move ever since Victorian times, and it is no surprise, therefore, to find Elizabeth Marshall Thomas following her Hidden Life of Dogs with The Tribe of Tiger. But can one person be equally passionate about both dogs and cats?
Reading Thomas’s new book, one is soon convinced that she is, in fact, as fascinated by cats as by dogs. This may be a sequel, but it has the same mood of urgent enthusiasm as her previous work. She has spent many years observing both the canine and feline world and has many acute observations to record in both fields. She has also read widely and provides information from many sources, some of which are not usually quoted in cat books.
Taken together, her two books provoke some interesting thoughts on the subject of the basic differences in the qualities of cats and dogs as companion animals. There is an old saying that poets love cats and soldiers love dogs. The crude idea embedded in this claim is that cats are sensitive and rebellious, while dogs are by nature obedient followers. There is an element of truth in this, but the real difference is slightly more complicated.
Both dogs and cats live double lives as pets. They see their owners as their parents, protectors who are always ready to feed them as if they were still puppies or kittens, even though they may be fully adult. As a result, many of their actions remain infantile throughout their lifespan. But at the same time they become sexual adults and, as they mature, develop the qualities of adult dogs and adult cats. And this is where they diverge. Mature dogs become loyal pack members, cats do not. So the adult domestic dog becomes doubly dependent, seeing its owner both as pseudo-parent and as pack leader. This has made it the ideal, devoted companion of mankind for over ten thousand years.
The adult domestic cat, on the other hand, is dependent only when it acts as an “overgrown kitten.” In its true adult mode it rapidly reverts to an independent, prowling hunter. To enjoy the company of a cat, therefore, we must be prepared to forgo our dominant pack leader role, and adopt a more modest position. Once it is out in the garden, stalking a bird or indulging in some dramatic form of feline sex-and-violence, we become mere spectators. Calling a cat “to heel” is not one of life’s most rewarding pursuits.
Thomas is clearly good at being a spectator—at letting her animals express themselves without too much restraint. And this enables her to report to us her observations of the intricacies of their behavior—their social relationships, greeting ceremonies, parental care, curiosity and intelligence, sensitivity to the environment, territorial arrangements, and in particular their hunting skills. She enjoys the complexity and subtlety of feline society and rejects many of the earlier oversimplifications that have become “popular knowledge” concerning cats.
She quickly challenges and modifies the idea that they are solitary animals. She explains that, although the pattern of their social life is different from ours (and the dog’s), sociability nevertheless is a significant part of their lives. As she points out, if they weren’t social animals “they wouldn’t need the vast repertoire of vocalizations, scent glands, or tail and body postures to convey an almost unlimited number of emotional impressions to other cats.”
She has the courage to ridicule the great naturalist Konrad Lorenz for denying that animals have “culture,” and proceeds to give a convincing example of a cultural variation that occurred with her own cats. When barnyard cats became suburban cats, she noted, their social pattern changed as they adapted to their more cramped environment. A new feline culture developed. With the barnyard cats there was a tendency for individuals to move out to new parts of the extensive farm territory when the population increased. With suburban cats there was no such opportunity for spreading out. The increasing suburban population became more dense instead of more widespread. Thomas found that a series of cats taken from these two “cultures” and adopted as household pets followed the traditions of their background.
With a book so full of insights and telling anecdotes about the feline world, I hesitate to venture even the slightest criticism, but there is a weakness running through the text that nags at me. This concerns a tendency to push a point too far in order to strengthen an argument. Thomas, for example, makes the perfectly valid point that all members of the cat family are very close to one another. They all share the same basic survival method—highly refined hunting and killing. They all have the same basic body structure, the same loose-limbed athleticism, and similar patterns of social life.
This is not a revolutionary thought. To most zoologists it is a commonplace. The tiger is just a huge pussycat. The friendly house cat is just a tiny tiger. For some reason, Thomas feels this view requires a bravura defense. In making this defense, she pushes facts further than she should. The poet in her gets carried away and starts to stifle the excellent observational scientist that she also is.
For instance, she attacks the established practice of separating the cat family into Big Cats and Small Cats, as if it is somehow offensive to her. She belittles any differences between them. She insists, for instance, that like domestic cats, the Big Cats purr. This overlooks the key difference which is that Big Cats have a one-way purr, while Small Cats have a two-way purr. The cat on your lap can purr continuously, using both inhalation and exhalation. A Big Cat purrs only briefly and only when exhaling. To argue simply that “all cats purr” obscures this intriguing difference.
One of the reasons given for all cats being very close to one another is their common hunting behavior. Again, Thomas tends to overstress a point in order to impress this on the reader: “Hunting means life to cats.” Well, yes it does, but then we read that “the behavior of kittens at play is hunting behavior and nothing else.” This is not true. It is an unnecessary exaggeration. Much of kitten play is indeed hunting behavior, but there are also frequent elements of fighting behavior involved, as there are in the play of many other animals. Fighting between cats involves quite different actions from hunting prey, but this difference is swept aside.
It is as if Thomas cannot help using the campaigning politician’s device of distorting some facts to emphasize a greater truth. Does this really matter? I must confess I think that it does, if only because, once the process of distortion has started, it can gain momentum. For example, we read that a carnivore “may express affection and even gratitude towards his or her prey.” Or, when talking about her pet cats: “It hurts us to watch them torturing their prey.”
How do these interpretations arise? In the first instance, a puma that has just killed a sheep is observed as it “tenderly pats the (dead) sheep’s face as a kitten might pat its mother.” As for torturing, this is the interpretation given to a pet cat’s common habit of releasing and then re-catching a still living prey that has been brought into the house. Thomas says this is one of the few “forms of amusement ever attempted by any of the cats.”
A more objective assessment of what is being observed is that felines are extremely cautious when dealing with captured prey. They have good reason to be, for many a panic stricken prey will lash out and may injure the cat. Cats have to make sure that the prey is incapacitated and to this end will “pat” it, not with affection, but to see if there is any life left in it.
“Playing” with a prey animal is another way of doing this. What may appear to be sadistic torture to us is probably no more than a pet cat’s wary handling of a half-dead prey. Even if caution is involved, the idea that what we are observing is feline “amusement” is misleading. Pet cats, and zoo cats for that matter, often have their hunting urges so starved by their easy lives that they prolong the hunting pattern whenever they get a rare chance to do so. This is not “for fun,” but as a serious and therapeutic way of venting their frustrated hunting urges.
I once supplied a captive serval cat with an unplucked chicken to study the way in which it denuded the bird before eating its flesh. The cat in question had not been allowed to express this inborn food-preparation urge for years. Its response was quite extraordinary. After completely plucking the bird, the serval proceeded to pluck the grass near the bird, using precisely the same actions. It went on and on doing this, hurling tufts of grass into the air, just as it had previously hurled feathers. The ancient action had been so frustrated that it was now running out of control, as if a dam had burst. A similar process may occur on one of those special days when a pet cat brings home a live prey and cannot bring itself to stop mauling it.
Again. Thomas suggests that cats “seldom mark with their faces” and explains this by saying that the high nutritional value of feline dung means that it is likely to be stolen by other animals. This does not fit with the recent feline field studies revealing that although many cats bury their feces, dominant tomcats do not do so. In other words, the display or concealment of the scent-laden dung is really a matter of feline status.
Other small irritations crop up in the text of The Tribe of Tiger. For example, a cross between a tiger and a lion is called a “tigon” not as Thomas would have it, a “tion.” This may only be a typographical error, and some of my other criticisms may be little more than nit-picking. It is a shame that I should have to make them because they may cast a shadow of doubt over many other statements in the book which, in reality, may be perfectly valid. For instance, Thomas makes the fascinating claim that “housecats (contrary to what most people believe) do in fact hunt cooperatively when the opportunity arises.” If this is true, it is extremely interesting. But because it supports her thesis that all cats are very close to one another (since it makes domestic cats seem even more like lions), one cannot prevent a doubt creeping in. Do they really cooperate actively, or do they only seem to do so because there just happen to be several of them accidentally close to the prey? When lions hunt cooperatively, their reward is to share between them the large kill. It is hard to understand the reward for active cooperation by domestic cats when the prey is a mouse.
Still, I agree wholeheartedly with Thomas’s realistic attitude toward the cat family, and find myself time and again sympathetic to her often unfashionable views. On captive tigers, for instance, she says that in her opinion a circus tiger is better off than one in a zoo. This will anger many people, who consider circuses to be horribly cruel to their livestock. But Thomas is right. Zoo tigers, in their elegant, tastefully designed enclosures, are bored out of their skulls. Circus tigers, in their much less elegant living quarters, are able to experience a daily challenge. If ever I am reincarnated as a captive tiger, I trust it will be in a lively traveling circus and not in a stiflingly monotonous zoo.
I hasten to add that this does not mean that I approve of animal acts in the circus—I do not. I think they demean the animals by displaying them to us in a wholly artificial way and give the audience largely false ideas about them. But that is another matter. For the animals themselves, the daily performances act as valuable, occupational therapy, and for an animal as intelligent, as curious, and as endlessly observant as a cat, this is essential.