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11 july 2011

According to Katharine Rogers in Cat, cats have overtaken dogs as the pet of choice in both the United States and United Kingdom over the past few decades. This shouldn't surprise me – at the turn of the century, I lived in a household with two dogs, and now I live in one with three cats – but it seems to mark a noteworthy shift in Anglo-American human-animal relations. Rogers herself sees the trend as one of growing appreciation for the autonomy of cats, as opposed to the eager identification with the oppressor exhibited by dogs. And since cats have typically been coded as female in the West, our increasing respect for them may track the gains of feminism, as well.

This cultural freight may seem a lot to load onto tiny quadrupeds with names like Candyfloss and Freckles. But the genius of the Reaktion Animal series is that it lays out, with a stunning range of examples, the mythic investments we make in our companion species. Cats are neither parasitic nor commensal with humans; they're better than that. They actively eat our commensal rodents. But in the course of doing so, they basically just move in and help themselves. Training cats is difficult; herding them, proverbially impossible. They just seem to fit in ready-made to human lifestyles. Their uncanny "rightness" can be a source of comfort, or an unsettling phenomenon.

Cats are creepy (witches' familiars); cats are cuddly (perfect sweet kittens rounding out a household of Mom, Dad, Junior, Sis, and Rover). In both guises, cats are feminine; at least, Rogers shows, they stand for how male writers and artists fear and admire female humans. Women artists more rarely depict cats, and when they do the cats form more equal partnerships with humans, as in Cecilia Beaux's Sita and Sarita. Cat fancying and cat fear also take on different forms cross-culturally. Thai culture separates auspicious from inauspicious cats in ways that go beyond simply black = unlucky. (For Thais, pure black cats are apparently highly auspicious. Japanese artists and writers seem to have a more humorous, indulgent attitude toward cats than Americans or Europeans, for whom cats are more often nerve-wracking creatures like Edgar Allan Poe's "Black Cat."

Above all, as Rogers points out, cats are autonomous. If they like us, it validates us. If they don't like us, it seems a special affront, and it can be coupled with a vicarious affront from their favorite people. Johnny Cash assessed that kind of situation best:

I gave my baby half my money at the general store,
I said, Go buy some groceries and don't spend no more.
She went and spent ten dollars on a ten-cent hat,
And bought some store-bought cat food for her mean-eyed cat.

The (now slightly less than) half of the world that prefers dogs usually feels the same way.

Rogers, Katharine M. Cat. London: Reaktion, 2006.