Only in it for the biscuitsWhen it comes to cats, humans aren't owners and MacInnes is correct in using the almost correct term of host. Cats don't need people to provide for their needs, but make the choice to do so. And we end up being their slaves.
Friday 29 May 2009 18.30 BST
Changes are afoot in the field of cat studies or, to use the technical term, apaw. New research into quite how cats went from being wild to apparently domesticated has shed greater light on the loving gaze shared each morning by pet and owner over a bowl of reconstituted meat.
An article in the latest Scientific American looks again at the history of feline domestication. It has long been held that cats were first tamed in ancient Egypt some 3,600 years ago. Thanks, however, to the discovery of a cat-shaped corpse buried some 9,500 years ago alongside their human associate in a shallow grave in Cyprus, the game has been changed. The new thinking is that wildcats of the type Felis silvestris lybica began to dwell alongside humans as farming developed in the fertile crescent of the Levant. Wildcats were tempted into human settlements by the prospects of scraps and, crucially, a ready supply of Mus musculus domesticus, aka the house mouse, an ancient Jerry to their pre-classical Tom.
In other words, we didn't domesticate cats, they domesticated themselves. The animal was not tamed by the human, it looked the human up and down, liked what it saw and decided it would put on its cutest expression and pretend to be friends – a small price to pay for a high-mouse diet.
Cat owners reading, this, perhaps with Tango or Whiskey (or both) sitting nonchalantly on top of their paper, may not be overly surprised to learn of these zoological developments. Unlike obliging, loving, slavering dogs, cats can often give the distinct impression of only being in it for the tuna-flavoured biscuits. The fact that this might be a habit established over millennia only proves the consistency of their interests.
That said, the postulations of the academics ought to give those same owners pause for thought. For every moment of insistent miaowing for meat, there is also the soft purring your cat emits while it submits willingly to your caress, seemingly because it likes it. It is all too easy for humans to imagine a sophisticated relationship between themselves and their familiar. As opposed, say, to it being just an extended period of transactions designed to guarantee the continued delivery of Whiskas.
Anthropomorphism is sometimes decried by ecologists who would prefer it if attempts to preserve endangered species were more evenly spread, rather than concentrated on creatures who look like they'd make nice company at a dinner party. Polar bears are perceived as cute and friendly, despite their penchant for bloody destruction, while snakes are devious and ruthless despite donating upwards of 30% of their income to charity (or so I was told by a snake oil salesman). This tendency applies tenfold to our domestic animals, despite the fact that we have not even the slightest clue as to their actual thoughts and feelings.
It seems that now might be the time to revise downwards our expectations of cats. To continue to imagine, as I have done myself, that a cat actually loves you may only lead to heartbreak when the next study comes out revealing that, far from having an emotional bond with his human host, Felix has in fact conducted due diligence on his owner before deigning to move in.
I wonder if cats go around talking to other felines about their slaves. Perhaps their term is 'provider'.