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Domestic cats are the most popular pet in America, numbering some 80 million. (istockphoto.com)

Cats as Pets and Predators

Jake Page explores the evolution and enigmatic ways of the most popular pet in America -- the house cat

smithsonian.com

Becoming a “cat person” means renouncing your sanity, or so a quick skim of the Internet suggests. At the wildly popular Icanhascheezburger.com, besotted humans script nonsense captions for cat photographs, and Stuffonmycat.com is exactly that: pictures of stuff (running shoes, cocktail umbrellas) on top of cats. There are also countless cat blogs, many of them supposedly penned by felines themselves, as opposed to “food ladies,” as their owners are sometimes dubbed. The madness of cat fanciers dates back at least to the days of the ancient Egyptians, who painstakingly mummified their deceased kitties, interred them in cat necropolises, and shaved off their own eyebrows in mourning.

Jake Page, author of Do Cats Hear With Their Feet?: Where Cats Come From, What We Know About Them, And What They Think About Us (published by HarperCollins and Smithsonian Books), is not a cat lover in the deepest sense. “I like cats,” he protests. He may well, but no one whose personal menagerie includes bearded dragons and button quails but not a single kitty qualifies as a real aurophile. Sure, in the past he’s owned cats; one died, one was catnapped by an Episcopalian priest (ok, Page gave it to him), and one of his favorites, a three-legged Chinchilla Persian named Fig Newton – well, Figgy was passed along to a friend, too, after he developed a taste for Page’s expensive tropical finches. These days Page’s relationship with the cat family, never passionate, is tinged with fear. He currently resides in Lyons, Colorado, where – as the name hints -- mountain lions patrol backyards and terrorize neighbors’ guinea fowl. “It’s creepy to think about,” he says. “Typically around here people don’t go out all by themselves for a walk, though its rare that (the lions) take an adult.” The most recent addition to Page’s pack of a half dozen dogs is, perhaps not coincidentally, a Rhodesian ridgeback, originally bred to hunt lions in Africa.

Page’s memories of pet felines past and his keen awareness of local predators inform his natural history of the house cat, Felis catus, an extraordinary machine even by his clear-eyed standards. A cat can hear way up into the ultrasound range; the ridged roof of its mouth helps accommodate some 67,000 smell receptors (humans have a measly 20,000). A cat needs only one sixth of the light we need to see and in utter darkness it can still navigate by way of its whiskers. Cats can even fly – kind of. Dropped from heights seven stories or more, they spread their legs and glide, Page writes, “somewhat in the manner of a flying squirrel.”

Obligate carnivores (“no veggies or fruits,” Page explains), they spend up to a third of their waking hours placidly licking themselves, but – as any food lady knows – they’ll sever a smaller creature’s spinal cord in a heartbeat. At five weeks old they’re full-fledged killers, dispatching mice on their own. Cats have hunted whole islands of birds into extinction, but they don’t have to spill a drop of blood to be a threat, Page notes. British scientists have theorized that a cat’s mere presence is frightening enough to stop birds from breeding, thereby driving down population size.

I’ve often wondered if other cat owners sometimes gaze into the glowing pair of eyes at the foot of the bed and wonder why on earth this small, murderous being gets free room and board. Page informed me that my long-held suspicion is correct: in form and spirit, a house cat really is like a shrunken leopard. But it’s comforting to know that the big cats share some of the house cats’ cuddlier characteristics. Even mountain lions purr (though only house cats meow.) And jaguars like catnip.

Page, a science writer and editor who specializes in natural history, has also explored the evolution of dogs and, inevitably, his book contrasts our relationships with the two species. Dogs, he says, often die in the wild, while feral cats “thrive in a seedy sort of way.” Likewise, we don’t really need cats. They don’t drag our sleds or catch our Frisbees, Page points out, and though they originally guarded our granaries against vermin, the average American doesn’t harvest much of anything these days. Cats were the last major species to be domesticated (we managed to tame turkeys first) and they are pretty much the only “loner,” or non-herd, animals whose companionship we’ve secured. But even now they are not truly broken to our ways. They are neither true domesticates, like dogs, nor “exploited captives,” like reindeer or yaks, who are relatively tame but whose breeding patterns aren’t typically influenced by human selection. One London zoologist prefers to call cats “exploiting captives” – not exactly a term of endearment.

Why, then, are domestic cats the most popular pets in America, numbering some 80 million (and around 400 million worldwide)?

“Cats are nothing like people, and people are nothing like cats,” Page says. “We don’t interfere with each other. We don’t compete.” We simply let cats be cats -- a rather breathtaking undertaking all on its own. Indeed, Page sometimes considers acquiring another one himself.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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