The Body Language and Emotion of Cats (excerpt)

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Chapter 1 – Fame and Infamy: The Cat and History

“DON’T touch Fluffykins while she’s sleeping,” chides Helen Dorchester as she tiptoes past the silver Persian napping on a satin pillow. “Isn’t she the most regal animal you ever saw?” Helen glances at the clock: “Oh my, it’s time to prepare Fluffy’s seafood bisque. “

Next door, Dick Lawrence heaves a rock at the stray black cat streaking from his yard with a bird in its mouth. “Get outta here, you damn devil!” he screams.

And a few blocks away Bob Klafen hands his wife a fuzzy kitten. “Well, we can’t have any kids until we pay our school loans and save enough money for a down payment on a house, but we can still have our own little ‘family. If this one works out, we’ll get another, maybe two.”

Gods, devils, surrogate children: The domestic cat has played all these roles throughout history. Except for dogs, no other species of animal has enjoyed such intimate contact with the human race, and a study of the relationships between people and cats through the ages sheds light on the fascinating evolution of human responses to feline body-language displays. The story unfolds with all the beauty and startling twists of human evolution itself. If you took a basic high school biology course, you probably heard that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” This somewhat intimidating phrase simply means that, to some extent, the development of an individual (its ontogeny) mimics the evolution of the species to which it belongs (its phylogeny). For example, if we accept that mammals, both humans and felines, descended from some sort of aquatic ancestors, we can see evidence of that evolution by examining the developing fetuses of either species. The early stages of both forms look distinctly fish- and amphibian-like before eventually assuming their familiar mammalian, then obviously human or feline, features. By studying the development from conception to death of an individual member of a given species we can glean a good deal of information about the history of the species itself. Conversely, knowledge of the species’s evolution provides clues to the probable development of anyone individual within that species. Taken together, these two different forms of history and evolution-of the individual organism on the one hand and the collective species on the other-can give us a fairly complete understanding of the animal in question.

In this book we’ll lay the foundation for such understanding and then use it as a doorway into the wonderful and little explored territory of interspecies body language and emotion. As we explore the mysterious and inscrutable cat and the sometimes seemingly unfathomable relationships that form between it and people, we’ll obtain a clearer picture of both species, a picture that will help us get the most out of the cat-owning experience. Although most of this book will cover the “ontogeny” of human/feline interactions, the development of your special relationship with your special cat(s), we need to begin our exploration by going back to the earliest point in history, to when the two animals set up housekeeping together.

Alternating Currents of Thought

As we begin to review the history of human/feline interactions, one fact stands out: They clearly lack the consistency that has characterized peoples’ relationships with dogs. Although cats have always entertained their devout champions and supporters, even when the majority of humankind associated them with the dark forces of Satan, they have never won consistent praise for particular traits the way faithful Fido has. A brief survey of a wide range of cat-related literature demonstrates this lack of uniformity. Writers as diverse as Colette and Hemingway see cats as powerful symbols of the intimate and often contradictory needs of men and women, husbands and wives. Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant curdle our blood with tales that take common feline characteristics and expand them to horrifying proportions, preying on our lack of understanding of normal cat behavior. Writings from such divergent authors as early Egyptian priests, fourteenth-century Christian monks, and the often bawdy social commentators such as Geoffrey Chaucer often speak of cats in sexual and sensual terms that set translators and interpreters at each others’ throats. Conversely, authors such as the preserver of the legend of Dick Whittington’s cat and Tennessee Williams write about cats that display almost doglike devotion. Even though human beliefs regarding cats may be uniformly inconsistent, we can’t escape the fact that they are also often uniformly passionate. Whatever people may believe about cats, chances are they’ll believe it strongly. Although certain aspects of human/feline relationships do tend to recur, the historical cat, unlike the dog, cow, or horse, has triggered volatile and extreme emotions, ranging from deification to vilification.

What historical factors contributed to such wildly divergent views of the same basic animal? Have people changed so dramatically during the last five thousand years? Have cats changed all that much? Or is there something about cats that just naturally ignites human emotions?

To be sure, people have changed since 3500 B.C., but basic human biology and behavior have remained essentially the same. This is equally true for cats. The Felis domestica stalking a mouse in a suburban American basement looks and acts like the one that preyed on mice in ancient Egypt. Furthermore, the domestic cats described in ancient Egypt share the same characteristics with their prehistoric ancestorDinictis. The agility, adaptability, and intelligence that enabled Dinictis to survive the centuries relatively unchanged still captivate cat owners today. Therefore, we must conclude that human beliefs and emotions regarding cats account for the tremendous inconsistency with which cats have been experienced in human society over the years.

The study of the relationships between people and animals reveals that awareness of and response to a particular species depends to a large extent on our ability to link it to our own experience. If the animal reflects a quality we recognize and like, we eagerly develop a relation- ship with it. For example, animals such as dogs, horses, cows, chickens, and ducks tend to be social, preferring to be among their own kind, a quality they share with humans. In addition these species also possess other qualities that we perceive as enhancing human existence: The horse serves as a predictable beast of burden, the dog as hunter, herder, and companion; the cow and fowl as reliable sources of food. Because we see all of these qualities in a positive light, selection and domestication progress with relative ease.

If we dislike certain qualities, we either try to ignore them or we attempt to eradicate the quality or the species, depending on how much the negative quality threatens us. When we feel threatened by certain rodents, snakes, roaches, and stinging or biting insects, we either try to stay out of their paths or spend a great deal of time and effort trying to wipe them off the face of the earth. If we feel that our meat should be leaner, our milk have more butterfat, our horses run faster, or our Persians be longer-haired, we initiate controlled programs designed to eliminate the undesirable genes and/or individuals. However, even though we may tamper extensively with individual species within the animal kingdom, the fact remains that the human view toward most species has been fairly consistent throughout history-except for the cat. In spite of a tremendous amount of superficial genetic manipulation to alter its visible features (coat length, texture, and color; eye color; conformation or body shape), the cat’s basic qualities have remained relatively unchanged for centuries; however, human attitudes toward those qualities have fluctuated wildly. To understand why this phenomenon occurs, we’re going to track human responses to four common feline displays:

  • Nocturnal behavior
  • Territorial and asocial behavior
  • Mating and maternal behavior
  • Predatory behavior

By contrasting human beliefs about these behaviors within the highly ailurophilic ancient Egyptian and the equally ailurophobic medieval European cultures, we can learn some fascinating lessons about the fundamental relationship between Homo sapiens and Felis domestica.

Gods and Demons of the Night

Remember the nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead? “When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid.” From ancient times philosophers have noted that anyone or anything that wins recognition from some quarters for being very, very good can quite easily elicit hatred and intolerance from others. Like yin and yang, “godlike” and “devil-like” seem to form inseparable sides of the same coin. Strong human personalities (Socrates, Jesus, Hitler, and even Clint Eastwood) can evoke extreme love/hate emotions; many fashions (hair length, hemlines) entice or anger depending on the era.

Because humans are a diurnal or light-active species, we’ve always been afraid of the dark, especially before electricity lighted our homes and streets. Therefore it’s not surprising that the cat’s ability to move freely in the dark and its apparent preference for a nocturnal life-style made a deep and lasting impression on our ancestors. Because the Egyptians recognized multiple gods, they could easily ascribe positive meanings to the cat’s distinctly nonhuman behavior. Recall the flash of brilliant light emitted from the eyes of a night-stalking cat caught in the beam of your car’s headlights. We can appreciate the Egyptian’s assumptions that a creature with such ability represents something otherworldly. Because they didn’t know about the highly reflective structure at the back of the cat’s eyes (the tapetum), they easily assumed the cat was the sourceof that light. And because the dark-fearing Egyptians worshiped all light, this four-legged fur-covered “lamp” was worshiped too. In such a way the Egyptians took great comfort from the idea that the cat was a mini reservoir of the sun god’s great power, keeping watch over them during fear-filled nights; and out of gratitude, they made the cat a god.

Anyone who’s looked closely at the feline eye can’t help but notice how the pupil opens (dilates) or closes (constricts) in response to light. This fact didn’t escape the notice of the early Egyptians, who related it to the waxing (dilation) and waning (constriction) of the moon, an association that further linked the cat with night. Once they made this association, they eventually transferred to the cat the moon’s power to control the tides, the weather, crop plantings, and harvests.

In such ways the Egyptians took their only domesticated, available nocturnal species, imbued it with the qualities of both sun and moon, and made it a symbol of light in the darkness. Whether their cats lay quietly beside them or prowled the night, the Egyptians believed the – cats were protecting them from the dangers of the dark.

During the Middle Ages people harbored just as many fears of the night as did the early Egyptians and perhaps even more. However, unlike the Egyptians, who had firmly established a multitheistic religion providing all sorts of protective gods and tangible symbols in the form of animals or idols, early Europeans got caught in the transition between pagan and monotheistic Christian beliefs. Because Christianity didn’t permit its followers to recognize any “good” god save the One beyond human comprehension, night-fearing medieval Europeans found themselves in a bind. Their fears convinced them that if those other-worldly things going bump in the night couldn’t be good, then they must be bad—a view supported by churchmen, who saw nothing inconsistent about recognizing an intangible God but a tangible Devil(s)


Into this world sauntered the only domestic nocturnal species; but instead of enjoying respect and deification, cats quickly became symbols of Satan himself. In this reversed view, cats became the target of human fear, an emotion that often leads to violence. Almost overnight, the destruction of a cat became synonymous with triumph over the Devil, the Prince of Darkness.

Living the Asocial Life

Another feline characteristic offering insight into the human/feline relationship is the cat’s singularly asocial nature. All other domestic species, including humans, prefer the society of fellow creatures; we, our dogs, and our sheep function most happily when among our own kind; we birds of like feather flock together. If we can’t, we’ll flock with birds of just about any feather, gravitating toward a member of a different species simply to fight off loneliness. Cats don’t necessarily share this behavior. All felines are, by nature, asocial or solitary animals who prefer to be alone except when mating or raising their young. Because of this preference for the solitary life, the relationships between people and cats take on qualities unlike those that characterize the bond between us and any other domestic species. Unlike our bond with faithful Fido, to whom we are drawn by the similarities between us, the one we form with Sylvester depends on thedifferences between the two species. As with other feline displays, this behavior can lead to extreme human interpretations.

Once we form relationships with “birds of a feather,” we often feel more comfortable exploring relationships with more alien creatures. This may explain why the ancient Egyptians, having gained confidence from their fixed and stable society, felt drawn toward novelty. And what could be more novel than the solitary, nongregarious cats? The cat’s aloofness stimulated the ancient Egyptians to raise its exalted status still further. After all, a god would naturally avoid intimacy with common folk and would never consider coming, sitting, or staying just because some mere mortal instructed it to do so. The Egyptians believed that feline independence provided concrete proof that the cat-god chose to live with them, to serve them and their families; it didn’t need them, it didn’t depend on them for anything. Conversely the feline’s asocial proclivities also provided a constant reminder that the cat could choose to abandon its host or withdraw its favors at any time. This awareness spurred them to anticipate their cat’s every need lest they displease and alienate it.

The cat’s asocial nature actually served the Egyptians’ needs quite well. While they welcomed cats into their households, the distance between human and cat, which they considered a signal of the cat’s superior nature, facilitated their devotion. This behavioral and often spatial gap reminded them daily that gods and mortals, night and day, men and women, were different, and never the twain would meet. In such away the Egyptians relied on the asocial cat to help them accept and celebrate those aspects of their lives that they found most incomprehensible.

Medieval Europeans, on the other hand, were still struggling to get comfortable with monotheism and Christianity and longed for the security of predictable uniformity in their lives. Unlike the Egyptians, who evolved their civilization and feline-inclusive multi-deity worship over a period of approximately thirty-five hundred years, the early Europeans found themselves assaulted by domestic cats and Christians almost simultaneously. Unlike the Eastern cultures, they had no opportunity to worship the cat first, establish a safe distance from which to study its differences, and learn to accept it as beneficial.

Imagine a caravan of fervent preachers rolling into your town and joyfully proclaiming that salvation would come only to converts who owned computers and kept tarantulas as pets. Not only would these proselytizers be asking you to abandon religious beliefs that have sup- ported your culture for centuries, they’d be asking you to accept these ominous-looking arachnids as harmless and necessary companions. Because cats were so familiar to those earliest Egyptian monks determined to Christianize Europe, they never stopped to consider what a profound effect their totally different pets would have on their targeted converts. Essentially they were unwittingly thrusting a dramatic and powerful paradox onto the pagans: On the one hand they touted the virtues of a single God, but on the other hand, they brought with them the most unworldly godlike creatures the Europeans had ever seen. A legend tells of an early monk named Su Cat who traveled with his cats to convert the inhabitants of what would later become Ireland. His persuasive arguments regarding God’s power were greatly enhanced by his (or was it his cats’?) ability to rid the region of the snakes that overran it. Su Cat’s baptized name was Patrick, and many of the early churches founded in response to his teaching boasted cats carved from stone.

In Saint Patrick’s case the cat survived the transition from multitheism. However, as time passed and the cats multiplied, the cats so far outnumbered the Egyptian monks in Europe that the latter could no longer neutralize the Europeans’ fear of this species. As we’ve already noted, in their efforts to integrate anew religion and anew species, more often than not the Europeans saw the Church as very, very good and the cat as very, very bad. Because they were struggling to belong, to be what this new religion wanted them to be, anybody or anything alien became a terrifying threat. Obviously the aloof, asocial, noncongregational cat fell into this category, and the medieval mind perceived the asocial behavior as a flaunting of God’s will.

In fact, according to early churchmen, cats acted a lot like the most dreaded outcast, Lucifer himself. The cat’s refusal to obey like a dog signaled its inferior intelligence, stubbornness, and antagonism toward man and God alike. Its tendency to come and go as it pleased, independent of human desires, violated the law decreed by God Himself that all creatures should accept human dominion. In effect, the early Europeans said, “If you’re not with (like) us, you’re against us. If We’re trying to be like Christ, you must be trying to be like Satan. ” As more and more clergy came from within the ranks of the Europeans, this attitude prevailed until the official view of the Church under Pope Innocent in 1484 empowered the Inquisition forces to burn all’ cats and cat lovers.

While it would be tempting to ailurophiles to side with the Egyptians and condemn these early Christians, we can’t overlook the positive role the cat played in the transformation of a great number of multideity worshipers into a monotheistic society in a relatively short period of time. By projecting many of their pagan beliefs and existing fears on the cat and then destroying it, people rid themselves of emotional and philosophical burdens that would have otherwise greatly delayed their acceptance of monotheism and Christianity. Thus to some extent we may say that the cat became a scapegoat or a sort of sacrificial lamb, and in so doing remained godlike. Such is the glory and the steep price paid by those who dare to be different.

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