Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas; drawing by David Levine

Although they may not always be aware of it, pet animals are caught between worlds—members of the family, in an emotional sense, but only in very rare cases having any of the responsibilities or rights of their human companions. However comfortable, or even privileged, their lives may seem, they are always vulnerable—not only to the caprice of their owners, but, if they are allowed to spend part of their time at liberty out of doors, to the random cruelty, spite, and greed of other people. If sold or abandoned, they may find relations with humankind abruptly altered, so that they end their days in a laboratory or a cage in a pound, not on a sofa. And their status is often equivocal. An accountant once advised me (incorrectly, as it turned out) that although the costs of moving books, furniture, and close relatives were tax deductible, the cost of moving cats was not.

Conversely, if pet cats and dogs are not quite human, they are not quite animals either. They have lost their wildness, and the reciprocal intensity of their relationships with people distinguishes them from most farmyard beasts. Of course some pets turn out to be capable of independent lives if their human support system disappears, and both cats and dogs can still interbreed with their nearest wild relatives. But many thousands of years of adaptation to the exigencies and opportunities of human companionship have produced psychological alterations perhaps as profound, if not as striking, as the physical differences between the chihuahua and the wolf.

Few people would bar a labrador retriever or a siamese cat from their homes, at least on grounds of temperamental unsuitability; and even fewer would admit a wolf or a European wild cat to similar intimacy. But this obvious reaction begs several more difficult questions. Domestic cats and dogs are complicated organisms, and their actions are far from merely instinctive or automatic. What qualities of temperament or personality account for their relatively accommodating dispositions? What explains the reciprocity of the relationships that many people enjoy with their cats and dogs? Has their protracted and intense experience of domestication made pets more intelligent and adaptive than their wild relatives, or less so? Do they have minds, and, if so, what is on them?

The answers to these questions depend very much on whom one asks. Since pet keeping has been widespread in the United States and other Western cultures for the last two centuries, a huge amount of information about the mental and emotional characteristics of cats and dogs has accumulated, based on the experience of their owners and keepers. This extensive but often unsystematic record of observation has been routinely disparaged or ignored by rival experts, usually biologists or comparative psychologists, whose authority derives from their scientific training. Almost without exception, people who have lived and worked with domestic animals assume that they possess minds and personalities that resemble those of human beings in some general sense, if not in specific detail, and that we can understand much of what they think and feel.

Most but not all scientists have traditionally made the opposite assumption: that pets, along with other non-human animals, lack our intellectual and emotional capacities, and that any claims they may have to intellectual or emotional affinities with human beings require elaborate evidence to justify them. Thus, for example, Henry Gleitman, the author of a widely used college psychology text, bases his analysis of human social behavior upon this assumed dichotomy. He admits that “both animals and humans compete in aggressive encounters, court and mate, provide for their young, and have a repertoire of built-in expressive displays,” but he emphasizes that “the social behavior of animals is relatively rigid and inflexible.” *

It is, of course, difficult to gather evidence that will persuade committed skeptics, just as it would be (and occasionally has been) with respect to fellow human beings if we were unable to talk to them. Thus scientists have tended to insist, for their own reasons, on the radical separation between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom that has long been asserted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In particular, they have denied that animals have the kinds of self-consciousness that human beings have. They have borrowed the term “anthropomorphism” from theology to brand the conflation of human and animal attributes as an intellectual, if not a moral failing.

Both Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Doris Lessing confront the challenge implicitly posed by this terminology. Although in The Hidden Life of Dogs Thomas writes about herself (somewhat vaguely and misleadingly) as someone who simply happens to have many dogs, as well as the time and inclination to follow them on their rambles through Cambridge, Massachusetts, and neighboring towns, she is also an experienced anthropologist, the author of books about several African peoples as well as two novels of Siberian pre-history. In addition, she is a practiced observer of wild animal behavior, as a chapter on the wolves of Baffin Island, somewhat mysteriously inserted into the middle of her narrative, demonstrates. So she is well equipped to recognize and rebut the assumptions of her fellow-scientists, and she loses no time in doing so. The first sentence of her introduction proclaims, “This is a book about dog consciousness.”


She starts by characterizing as “astonishing” and “a holdover from Christian creationism” the fact that “in the past even scientists have been led to believe that only human beings have thoughts or emotions.” Then, using a tactic also employed by nineteenth-century admirers of “animal sagacity,” she offers several instances of thoughtful dog behavior. For example, her husband’s dog quickly fathomed and adopted the human custom of sharing an ice cream cone by taking alternate licks, without ever having seen it done by anyone else. Her husband merely licked the cone delicately, and then offered it to the dog, who helped himself to a similarly modest portion. They finished the cone in leisurely sequence.

Diverting and persuasive as such examples may be, however, Thomas also recognizes that the interpretation of animal behavior, whether anthropomorphic or otherwise, is not necessarily easy or straightforward. Observers, whatever their theoretical point of view, have to avoid the pitfalls of ignorant or sentimental projection; they must use common sense and have a sound knowledge of human and animal behavior. Thomas mentions a psychiatrist neighbor who saw a bird swoop down to carry off another that had flown into a picture window. He assumed that he had seen a loving mate come to the rescue; but, according to Thomas, if he had been better acquainted with bird behavior, he would have recognized this as an act of predation.

Most of The Hidden Life of Dogs chronicles the activities of eleven dogs, five males and six females, who lived with Thomas and her family for more than a decade. (None of the dogs was present for the entire period.) Untroubled by the need to provide themselves with food and shelter, they could concentrate on cultivating relationships with one another. Thomas describes their mostly unremarkable day-to-day activities in precise and loving detail, so that, combined with the distinctness with which she evokes each animal’s personality, her chronicle assumes some of the interest of a family saga.

On the whole, her engaging and sympathetic account of their loves and losses, triumphs and disappointments, makes a persuasive case for informed anthropomorphism. Near the end of her account Thomas asks, “What do dogs want?” and answers, “They want each other.” Their relationships within the group, and to some extent with dogs outside the group, are, she shows, the most important part of her dogs’ experience. Thus, after long months spent following one of her dogs, on bicycle and on foot, as he purposefully roamed Cambridge and nearby towns, Thomas concluded that the goal of his wanderings was simply to establish relationships with other dogs—either in person, by sniffing and circling them, or symbolically, by urinating over marks they had left behind.

Among the dogs of the Thomas household, bonds of alliance, hierarchy, and affection provoked still more intense feelings. Thomas recounts at length the upheavals set off by the entry of Maria, a beautiful young husky, into a canine community which then consisted only of two pugs: Bingo and his adoring mate, Violet. To Violet’s distress, Bingo was smitten with Maria, but Maria never responded to his advances with more than civility, just as she neither challenged nor acquiesced in his assumption of dominance. Finally Maria found true love with another husky, Misha.

In order to emphasize the significance of these relationships, and to force her readers to understand and evaluate them, Thomas calls them by the names of their human analogues. Puppies are “children,” and older offspring are “daughters” and “sons.” Mates are “wives” (even “loyal wives”) and “husbands,” and the relationship between them is “marriage.”

This terminology is arresting—even distracting—but offers a salutary reminder that, however widespread the anthropomorphic impulse may be among pet owners, we are less likely to understand the mental lives of cats or dogs as analogous to our own when they are interacting exclusively with one another—whether they are squabbling or playing games. Still, Thomas’s use of human terms for the relationships between parents and offspring helps her make a plausible argument for the similarity of mother love from one species to another, and it simultaneously raises questions about the customary methods of dispersing litters of puppies and kittens. As for paternal devotion, she tells of one husky father who, on his introduction to the litter he had sired, approached the puppies and their mother cautiously, then lowered his head and vomited, thus, in Thomas’s interpretation, simultaneously promising to treat them gently and, atavistically, to provide them with food.


Thomas’s use of terms relating to marriage seems less persuasive. Of course the relationship between mother and infant, of whatever mammalian kind, is grounded firmly in reproductive biology, although Thomas also finds that the metaphorical relationship of “adopted daughter” can be found among dogs. But marriage is a rather local legal construction, very differently understood in different human societies, and the legal relationship may do little to explain the behavior of human beings who voluntarily assume its constraints and obligations. Just what Thomas means when she writes of the marriage of the huskies Misha and Maria, or of the pugs Bingo and Violet, is therefore unclear. She evidently wishes to imply that the range of canine behavior includes the highest kind of mutual devotion and fidelity, and her descriptions of both Maria’s and Violet’s responses when they are deprived of their “husbands” suggest that she may well be correct. When Misha’s owners gave him away, and Maria realized that he would not return, “she lost her radiance and became depressed…moved more slowly, was less responsive, and got angry rather easily at things that before she would have overlooked.” She was ultimately reconciled to sex, but only for businesslike procreative purposes; she never again experienced a grand passion. Violet was still more severely stricken by the death of the inconstant Bingo, making a place for herself beneath the hall table from which she moved only for eating and excretion. After a year of this hopeless vigil, she died of heart failure.

But “marriage” may not be the most accurate label for this admirable kind of relationship, whether among dogs or among humans. Instead, its use suggests that coyness of an earlier age, when Victorian dog breeding magazines announced the copulations of distinguished animals under headings like “Weddings” or, more daringly, “Engagements.”

Thomas asks, “Do dogs have morals?” and argues that they do. In support of her view she cites an occasion on which Bingo, who was unrequitedly “in love” with Maria, nevertheless prevented her from harassing a cage of parakeets and mice. Thomas interprets this action as showing Bingo’s sense of right and wrong, although she is not certain whether he was defending what he perceived as his master’s property or whether he felt that Maria had reached an unconsoionable and dangerous pitch of excitement. When Thomas makes claims about canine morality she cannot avoid judgments of praise and blame. In the case just cited, Bingo is warmly praised (indeed, Thomas, who did not try to stop Maria’s aggression, feels “shamed by my own dog”) and Maria’s exuberant attack is more or less swept under the rug.

But a subsequent episode raises more troublesome issues about applying human moral language and moral standards to canines, particularly when one learns that the Thomas dogs divided themselves according to a hierarchy of precedence based on both the ability to dominate physically and the canine equivalent of charisma, which is as hard to define for dogs as it is for humans. Two of Thomas’s dogs—Koki, a high-ranking husky, and Viva, a low-ranking dingo—had litters of puppies at the same time. Thomas came home one day just in time to prevent Koki from killing the last of Viva’s puppies; the rest were already dead. Thomas describes the feelings of the dogs—Koki’s “nervousness and suppressed agitation…her unwillingness to kill puppies,” Viva’s “detachment” and the “extremely subdued” attitude of the onlookers—as expressing their understanding of themselves as a pack, which, at least in the wild, can raise only one litter at a time. This meant that only the puppies of the higher-ranking litter had a “right to be born.”

Thomas supports this analogy between domesticated and wild canines with one drawn from her anthropological experiences. She notes that among the Ju/wa Bushmen of the Kalahari, when, as happens on rare occasions, a new baby is born too soon after a still-nursing toddler, the mother may have to force herself to commit infanticide to ensure the survival of the older child. Such analogies raise many questions. If dogs are capable of morally praiseworthy behavior, are they also capable of being wicked? Why compare the behavior of canines who live among the comforts of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to that of human beings who live among the scarcity of the Kalahari Desert? As with the marriage analogy, there seems to be some discrepancy here between what is characteristic of the entire human species and what is much more restricted. How can we tell when the behavior of domestic dogs should be interpreted as the result of their long domestication, and when it should be seen as deriving from their remote wild ancestry?

Thomas may answer the latter question by her choice of pets. In view of her preference for dashing and independent breeds, it may seem surprising that the first two animals to join her pack were pugs, but she soon switched to huskies and dingoes. Huskies resemble wolves in their appearance and behavior much more closely than do most domestic dogs, and dingoes—whose ancestors traveled to Australia with its original human colonizers but soon escaped to populate the continent on their own—have a long tradition of feral existence. This is worth keeping in mind when we consider the most amazing incident chronicled by Thomas. Her dogs, when they were removed with the rest of her family to the Virginia countryside and kept in a large enclosure near the house, excavated an elaborate underground den similar to that inhabited by the wolves of Baffin Island. In doing so did they reflect the specific inheritance of the animals involved or a propensity widespread among household pets? This is one of several questions Thomas leaves open.

Like most pet owners, Doris Lessing shares Thomas’s conviction of mutual understanding and reciprocal communication taking place between humans and their animals. In Particularly Cats…and Rufus (reissued, after a quarter of a century, with the addition of one chapter and many fine illustrations by James McMullan) this conviction constantly informs her moving, sympathetic, and shrewdly observed descriptions of her life with cats. Thus she says of one animal she nursed through an unpleasant illness: “No, of course cats are not human; humans are not cats; but all the same, I couldn’t believe that such a fastidious little beast as black cat was not suffering from the knowledge of how dirty and smelly she was.” And she describes the way that another cat accepted her explanation for inadvertently threatening him, after he had let her know, by fleeing, that he feared raised sticks: “I picked him up, brought him back, showed him the harmless broom handle, apologised, petted him. He understood it was a mistake.”

Lessing’s experience with domestic cats has been unusually broad. Before she moved to Londoner, she had lived on a Rhodesian farm where the family’s many cats had to deal with the special dangers and opportunities of nearby wilderness, as well as the ordinary ambiguities of agricultural life—whether one was a barn cat or a house cat, for example. Yet despite the alarming presence of snakes and eagles and other exotic predators, the greatest threat to these rural African cats, as to the housecats of Europe and North America, was posed by human beings. Lessing makes this point by means of a very sobering anecdote. Controlling the numbers of various animals, domestic and wild, was the responsibility of Lessing’s mother, and she routinely drowned superfluous kittens. But after years of slaughter, she wearied of these duties and refused to perform them, ultimately leaving Lessing and her father alone with an exploding feline population. In what Lessing describes as “the holocaust of cats,” they shot as many as they could find.

Despite this strong language and the quietly conveyed horror of the experience, Lessing claims that she did not grieve for the dead animals. An earlier trauma—abandoning a cherished kitten when her family had moved from Persia to southern Africa—had forced her to harden her heart against the emotional claims of cats. Thus she begins a memoir of typically urban experiences with pampered pets, thoroughly integrated into a human household, by recalling the poignant paradox that underlies all human relationships with cats and dogs. As much as their similarity to us may be acknowledged by the intimacy with which they share family life, the consideration accorded their wishes and demands, and the time and money devoted to their maintenance, their difference is constantly made clear. Although particular animals may be valued, even extravagantly, cat and dog life is cheap. Even the strongest bonds between human and pet can be violated with ease, and for reasons that would, in an exclusively human setting, be considered trivial or even criminal.

Lessing displays this paradox in her own sensibility and experience. Capable as a teen-ager of shooting cats without flinching and as an adult of killing excess kittens (she does not say how), she participates in the lives of her pets with deep empathy, shares vicariously in their triumphs and disappointments, tries to cure their illnesses, and mourns their aging and death. She exercises her controlling influence gingerly, trying to balance their needs and desires with her own. She is, for example, particularly uneasy about depriving her cats of their sexuality, because she feels that with it they lose some of their looks and their personality. Thus she describes the transformation in a favorite cat that had been spayed. “Her confidence had been struck. The tyrannical beauty of the household had vanished…. A strident note entered her character…. In short, she had turned into a spinster cat. It is a dreadful thing we do to these beasts. But I suppose we have to do it.” And she continues to do it when she feels she has to.

Although Particularly Cats is hedged around by the tragedies of feline existence, it is memorable as an account of the depth and the pleasures of the relationship between humans and cats, in which Lessing describes a series of feline companions, each distinct, each admired, and each beloved. Her account is intensely personal and particular. She makes no claims to objectivity or to any authority besides that of the eyewitness. She portrays herself simply as a committed cat lover, and even offers occasional, slightly uncomfortable, specimens of the language in which she addresses her pets: for example, “beeeoootiful, delicious puss.” Nevertheless, Lessing presents as powerful an argument in her way as Thomas does in hers, and to much the same effect. For both a degree of identification with animal feelings—anthropomorphism—offers direct insight into the minds and characters of domestic animals, an enlightenment not available by any other means. And both therefore raise the question—Thomas explicitly and Lessing implicitly—of why many of those who study animal behavior should automatically treat anthropomorphism as a weakness that distinguishes the soft-headed and the simple-minded among humans. Perhaps the people who minimize the possibility of communication and understanding between humans and other animals are the ones who should have to defend their assumptions.

Cats: Ancient and Modern, by Juliet Clutton-Brock, is more concerned with the bodies of domestic cats than with their minds. It may seem at first glance a picture book, since it has so many beautiful, amusing, and shrewdly selected illustrations, but it is, in fact, an intelligent and informative distillation of Clutton-Brock’s unrivaled knowledge as a zoologist specializing in the history and prehistory of domestic animals. She explains the relation of Felis catus, the domestic cat, to Felis silvestris, the wild cat of Europe and northern Africa, from which it is descended and with which it will still interbreed. She explains why domestic cats interact differently with one another and with their human caretakers than do domestic dogs, a divergence that results from the predatory methods of their wild ancestors. Wolves are social animals, and hunt as a pack or community, while Felis silvestris, like almost all other members of the cat family, lives and stalks alone.

Clutton-Brock also traces the history of cat domestication, a briefer history than for most other domesticated animals, and explores the persistent association of cats with the supernatural. Cats were thought to be witches’ companions in the Middle Ages and afterward, and were often burned and tortured during attempts to exorcise the devil. But they could also have a benign spiritual influence: black cats were considered to bring good luck, and the corpse of any cat, built into the wall of a new house, was thought to keep away rats. Finally, she describes the state of domestic cats at the present time, paying special—and appropriately skeptical—attention to the proliferation of fancy breeds, like the drop-eared scottish fold and the hairless sphynx. Clutton-Brock offers no opinion on the possibility of communication and mutual understanding between cats and their human owners. But behind her objective and authoritative scientific manner, she makes it clear that she likes them very much.

This Issue

January 13, 1994