Monday, May 21, 2018

The Meaning of Meow: review of THE INNER LIFE OF CATS: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions

Thomas McNamee
$27.00, hardcover (our price $21.60)

I have a decided lack of empathy for people who hate cats. How, I wonder, can anyone hate such a creature? In fact, how can a human being hate another species? But then again, I’ve had some exceptional cats in my life, particularly my current cat, Nellie. She’s beautiful—a tuxedo cat with fluffy fur, bright green eyes, and perky white whiskers against a black face. She’s brilliant, with a command of a vocabulary of at least four words: her name, “food,” “dinner,” and “naptime,” and a cat vocabulary of squeaks, purrs, and other noises to which I always respond correctly because she has taught me to. She’s also compassionate, keeping a live-and-let-live attitude towards the mice that annually move into our house (although that may be her advancing years, rather than kindness). Her closest animal friend is our troubled dog Sophie, an alliance we’ve never quite figured out. I’m her best human friend, of course. As she enjoys her seventeenth year, she’s taken to burrowing under the covers with me on cold nights, emitting a high-pitched purr to prompt me to make room for her. 

According to The Inner Life of Cats, however, Nellie may not be particularly exceptional after all. Cats have lived intimately with humans for centuries, and yet have remained true to their catlike nature, never succumbing to the anthropomorphic vision we have for our pets. They learn our habits, culture, and language, and yet choose what to attend to and what to ignore.

And they have learned how to speak to us.

Nellie’s purr will gently wake me, and she seems to know that there’s no need to meow. She will meow if she’s hungry or would like to consider going outside (weather depending), or if she’s just saying hello. Cats do not, according to author Thomas McNamee, meow to each other (except when yowling during a fight or before sex). They’ve developed meowing over the centuries to speak to humans, in order to have their needs and desires catered to. If that isn’t brilliant, what is?

In his new book, nature writer McNamee begins his analysis of cats and their unusual place in human history in his own backyard, when a tiny black stray kitten wanders onto his Montana farm in the dead of winter. Estimating her birth month to be August, he names the kitten Augusta and soon finds himself enthralled with her antics, personality, and quirks. Why did she eschew laps, and yet adored being pet? Where did she go when she slipped outdoors for hours? Basically, what was his little cat thinking and feeling? She came in from the wild, and yet settled into domestic life quite easily, keeping her wildness intact at the same time.

McNamee also explores the amazing gattari, caretakers of cats in Rome, and the problem of (and possible solutions to) the feral cat populations throughout the world. He discusses self-proclaimed cat whisperers (I was particularly pleased that he spent a few pages on Buck Brannaman, the original horse whisperer, whose clinic he has hosted at his ranch) and debates about behavior modification, nutrition, and indoor versus outdoor life. 

McNamee is as disdainful of ailurophobes as I am, but he points out that a substantial number of people harm or kill cats without overt vindictiveness. They are simply ignorant, believing falsely that cats will survive with or without people to care for them. So when they move, they leave kitty behind to fend for himself. Or they have a baby and fall for the urban myth of cats suffocating babies in their cribs, and so drop kitty off at a local shelter, where she’ll likely be euthanized. (I have no patience with people who discard their pets when a baby joins the family.) 

But above all, this is a book about one man’s love for his cat and for all things feline. His heartfelt tribute to Augusta is a perfect counterbalance to the hard-pressed facts about felines. It’s fitting, therefore, that the final chapter of this marvelous book is titled “Love.” I read it and in fact most of the book, with Nellie sleeping peacefully on my lap. I suggest all cat-loving readers do the same.

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