Katharine M. Rogers (2006) Cat. London: Reaktion Books.
(Summarized by Amy Shelle, Animal Studies Graduate Program, Michigan State University)
The author breaks this book up into 6 chapters. The first chapter is Wildcat to Domestic Mousecatcher and begins with a brief explanation why humans are fascinated by animals. “Animals fascinate us because we recognize in them consciousness, sensations, drives, and emotions like our own – yet at the same time they remain sufficiently alien that we can never hope to fully understand and communicate with them” (p. 7). Rogers also describes a problem due to humans relationship with animals, “no matter how fond people may be of particular animals, they tend to take for granted a right to treat them as they like and use them as is convenient” (p. 7). Even though the author mentions these two comments briefly, these two ideas are substantiated throughout her book. In this first chapter, the history of the cat is also covered starting with cats evolving from the miacid lineage, about 30 million years ago. Psuedaelurious evolved 20 million years ago and branched into two species known as Felinae and the sabre-toothed cats. Sabre-toothed cats became extinct in the Holocene period, while Felinae splits off to create the different cat species. The author mentions how difficult it is to trace the exact evolution of the cat due to lack of fossil record. Cats were first domesticated in Egypt because of the animal’s ability to catch mice and rats and were made pets. Cats were so highly regarded in Egypt that they were associated with a deity named Baste, who is the goddess of feline allure, fertility, maternity, and the home (p.17). Cats spread from Egypt to Greece and then throughout the Roman Empire (p.18).
Cats were the last of the familiar domestic animals to be domesticated and they were kept to do work. In the medieval and modern time, they were connected with the devil and used for organized cruelty purposes. Many were burned alive to expel evil from the community. In the 1730’s, cats were beginning to be seen as pets again. The author takes a moment to describe the specialized body of the cat, which makes it a “supreme hunter” (p. 12-13). She also stresses, dogs as being the favorite companion of humans early on due to dog's subordination.
In chapter two, Rogers stresses dogs as being the favorite companion of humans early on due to dogs’ subordination in comparison to cats. “Cats move silently, with unpredictability and with perfect precision – so inconspicuously as to suggest that they can magically appear and disappear” (p. 49). This idea leads into a deep discussion of the perception of cats I the Middle Ages through the early Modern period “the cat’s seemingly supernatural abilities, together with it’s cool detachment from human concerns, laid it open to suspicion (p. 51). As a result, cats were presumed to have a connection with Satan, witches using cats and women and cats being able to shapeshift. Japanese folklore also reference demon cats and even docked cats tails due to the idea long tails had sinister powers (p. 59).
Chapter three, Cherished Inmates of Home and Salon, begins with describing a change in the perception of the cat. These animals were romanticized, even though they were still associated with witchcraft. Some cats were even viewed as bringing good fortune to their owners if the cats were well taken care of. In the 18th century, cats became acceptable as pets and thus were in competition with dogs as companions. The author uses examples of literature to explain the concept, dogs are be obedient creatures where cats tend to be independent. Paintings also depicted cats in different scenes where the animal is part of the “home”. In the 19th century, the first cat shows and clubs were formed to show off the very specialized breeding, taking place with cats.
Chapter four, Cats and Women, examines the relationship, through art and literature, between cats and women. Spiteful old women were called cats, attractive women, were kittens (p. 114). Rogers mentions, artists used cats in paintings to show sexuality in the women portrayed. Even prostitutes in 1400 were called cats. The author uses stories and paintings to depict how cats and women were viewed as being very similar in behavior. Even Carl Jung is quoted, “cats resemble women, he remarked, because cats are ‘the least domesticated animals’ in contrast to dogs and men’” (p. 139).
Chapter five, Cats Appreciated as Individuals, brings the reader into more recent times, where the perception of the cat has begun to be viewed more equally with dogs as companions. Rogers’ states, “We see our yielding as testimony to our liberal tolerance rather than exposure of our weakness in asserting mastery” (p. 146). Even how the cat is portrayed stories has changed and the use of human values on animals is decreasing.
In the last chapter, The Fascination Paradox, the author begins with mentioning how cats are a desirable candidate for medical research. She points out, dogs have to be walked regularly and need a lot of space to move whereas cats take up little space and don’t need as much attention. Another point mentioned, cats have similar vision structures as humans, thus they are used in this area of research. Along with the perception change in cats, Rogers states, the number of cats in households is higher than the number of dogs and the popularity of cat themed movies and plays has also increased.