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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.