#WhatImReadingNow: The Lion in the Living Room

Cats, by any reasonable standard, are terrible candidates for domestication. The most obvious problem is their social lives—or lack thereof. Mankind’s basic strategy for controlling other species has typically been to hijack their dominance hierarchies, to play the role of lead steer or alpha dog so that subordinate animals fall in line … But like almost all the cats (with the exception of lions and sometimes cheetahs), Felis silvestris lybica has no social hierarchy. It has no leader. In the wild, it does not even tolerate the presence of other adult cats except during copulation. Herding cats really is hard.

Cats’ limited social lives aren’t the only strikes against them, in terms of their suitability for domestication. The wild Felis silvestris lybica is—like most cats—nocturnal, territorial, highly agile, and difficult to contain, all of which makes sharing a schedule and space with himans far from ideal. It is sexually finicky—domestication typically involves mating the best animals to amplify desirable traits, but Driscoll believes that we have influenced feline sex lives for only 100 of the last 10,000-plus years, and even now supervise only a tiny percentage of (mostly purebred) couplings.

And of course, Felis silvestris lybica is a terrifically picky eater: many of our domesticated animals (like pigs and goats) will gladly consume any swill, but all cats are exclusive carnivores and eat only high-quality meat. Today, with pet cats, these demands remain inconvenient, as anyone who’s run out of turkey and giblets at 11 p.m. knows, but in previous millennia when meat resources were far dearer, there actually would have been a form of carnivorous competition between cat and keeper. (In some parts of the world this rivalry subtly persists: the average Australian household cat, for instance, ingests more fish each year than the average Australian does.)

Even if our ancestors, still fending off starvation and leopards, could have worked out all these kinks, it’s not clear why we would have made the effort [to domesticate a cat]. Our motives for domestication are usually quite obvious: we covet an animal’s body parts, by-products, or labor. What exactly house cats furnish (as we will see in the next chapter) is a much fuzzier matter.

But luckily for Felis silvestris lybica, at least some individual members of the species turned out to have one vital “domestic” quality going for them: their temperment. A baseline comfort with humans is by far the most important prerequisite for all domestication contenders. Anxious animals won’t mate in captivity and may even die of stress. Preferring that our rabbits reproduce like rabbits, humans have always, deliberately or by default, bred calm animals that can handle our chaotic environment. What’s so curious about house cats is that they seem to have cultivated this trait on their own.

Almost all wild cats, even those species big enough to eat humans, are, with excellent reason, shy, reclusive, and often deathly afraid of us—and that includes the several other undomesticated yet nearly identical subspecies of Felis silvestris. In the 1930s, wildlife photographer Frances Pitt wrote about her attempt to woo the European wild cat, Felis silvestris silvestris, a close cousin of the house cat’s ancestor. “Beelzebina, Princess of Devils,” as she calls the captive kitten, “spat and scratched in her fiercest resentment. Her pale green eyes glared savage hatred at human-beings, and all attempts to establish friendly relations with her failed.”

But the Near Eastern wildcat is a remarkable exception. Studies of modern radio-collared wild Felis silvestris lybica suggest that, while most shun humans, every so often an outlier will pursue us, prowling our pigeon houses and canoodling with our pet cats, with whom they regularly interbreed. That’s not to say that a daredevil lybica is capable of anything like the sort of affectionate behavior that we regocnize in house cats; these wild animals aren’t about to snuggle with you on a Sunday morning or sit on your shoulders or request a belly rub. But personality, Driscoll explains, is a trait that can run in families, the same as milk yield or muscle quality, passed on, and sometimes amplified, through DNA. And some quirk in the natural lybica gene pool disposes particular individuals toward a certain natural bravado—a feature that would ultimately become the raw material of the cat-human bond. What we call “friendliness” in our pet cats is, in part, a lack of aggression. But it is also a lack of fear, and an inborn boldness.

So it wasn’t the meek and mild cats that first entered our fire circles at Halli Çemi and elsewhere: it was the lion-hearted. Once the most fearless felines infiltrated, they fortified themselves with our tasty leftovers and mated with other daring cats dining nearby, producing even more audacious babies. These were not domestic recruits, but invaders. And while other little predators like foxes and badgers were content to linger at civilization’s edges, where they remain today, bold cats blazed a trail all the way to our beds. In doing so, they hijacked what is normally a human-driven selection process.

In effect, Driscoll tells me, “House cats domesticated themselves.”

—Abigail Tucker, The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World (Simon & Schuster, 2016)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • Carlos Driscoll, whose name you see above, was, seventeen years ago, an Oxford University doctoral student who spent a decade sampling genetic material from domesticated cats all over the planet, and learned that “from blue-blooded Persians to mangy strays, from Manhattan’s street-smart alley cats to the ferals of the New Zealand forest, it turns out that all house cats come … only from Felis sylvestris. More astonishingly, they are descended solely from the lybica subspecies.” Did you catch that? All our cats, no matter what they look like, are descended from the same species. Driscoll also cross-referenced the genetic analysis with archeological evidence, and concluded that our domestic relationship with house cats began about ten to twelve thousand years ago. This is interesting research.
  • If you know me personally, you know I’m a lifelong lover of cats. I’m a firm advocate of spay/neuter; I don’t believe in declawing. My cats have always been indoor/outdoor cats, which has led to some heartbreak, thus I fully understand why some folks opt to keep their cats as indoor-only. However, cats’ respiratory systems are fragile; they react to things in their “closed” environment (cleaning chemicals, for example, or room sprays, insecticides, candle smoke, cigarettes, and on and on), so caution is called for. Also, of course, they lick their paws, so if they’re not breathing it, they’re ingesting it. (Read this.)
  • Blurb: “Cats are incredible creatures: they can eat practically anything and live almost anywhere, ruling bedrooms and deserted Antarctic islands alike. But cats do humans very few favors—especially compared with dogs. So why do we feed and caress them and obsess over them online? To better understand the furry strangers in our midst, science writer Abigail Tucker investigates the way house cats have used their relationship with humans to become one of the most powerful animals on the planet. Tracing their rise from rehistory to the modern cat craze, she meets (and pets) champion purebreds and the latest mutants, attends a cats’ rights convention, and treks through the wilderness in search of house cats on the loose.”
  • This book was both fascinating—and saddening. I learned so many things. (Insert here: “that I didn’t want to know.” But that’s the human way, right?) Tucker warns—and we know this already—that large cats, lions and tigers, will soon be extinct due to diminishing habitat. Some species that are prey of the common house cat—lizards, birds, and so on—are also being diminished by the proliferation of house cats (both feral and domesticated). In fact, there are too many unwanted, stray cats, and this statistic broke my heart: the state of California euthanizes more than 250,000 house cats a year. Strays.
  • Other books about cats I’ve loved: John Bradshaw’s Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet; How to Be a Cat Detective: Solving the Mystery of Your Cat’s Behavior by Vicky Halls; and The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A Journey Into the Feline Heart by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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