A PURRING CAT IS NOT ALWAYS CONTENTED
Source: The Spectator (Extract)
Posted: May 20, 2023
Large cats cannot miaow. (Lions and tigers, I mean, not moggies who have overindulged on Whiskers Meaty Selection in Gravy.) The largest feline ever to have lived was a sabre-toothed cat in South America, which weighed nearly half a tonne. Female house cats can copulate up to 20 times a day when in the mood. Male cats have a bone in their penis. Cats are green-red colour blind. There are probably more than half a billion cats alive in the world at this moment.
These are gleanings merely from the footnotes of Jonathan Losos’s The Age of Cats, which is portly with information. The book, surveying cats’ evolutionary history, behavioural habits and potential future, has a lovely cast list of felines wild and domestic, large and small. Here are munchkins and cheetahs, Maine Coons and servals, all of which differ, genetically speaking, in the most trivial of ways. The scope is vast, moving across the centuries from Ancient Egypt and the Vikings to the era of GPS collars. Losos charts a gradual evolution, both natural and artificial, as cats – which are little changed from their wild, ancient ancestors – have worked out how best to live with us, and we with them.
Losos is an eminent evolutionary biologist straying from his home turf (lizards, environmental adaptation of). His American publishers have retitled this book The Cat’s Meow, and the dual identity hints at the way it may tumble into a gap between readerships. Packaged for cat lovers, for whom the space devoted to evolutionary biology might be a slog, it will probably be best enjoyed by readers of ‘popular science’ – for whom 350 pages of feline history might also seem a whisker too devoted. Perhaps the Venn diagram of ailurophiles and science enthusiasts has a larger overlap than I imagine, but either way the book should be slimmer. You can’t always feel its ribs through the fur.
Ignorantly cross-eyed at talk of hetero-zygous and homozygous alleles, I occasionally wanted a literary lifeline: a chunk of T.S. Eliot or a portion of Doris Lessing’s On Cats. But mainly the tone is apt for the Netflix series that doubtless awaits – ‘and what do you know? When I played the recordings [of purring], I could hear the similarity to a crying baby!’ Losos is entertaining and anecdotal, learned and chatty; there are 20 pages of source notes, but he is not above citing a Facebook survey or an ‘unscientific sampling of YouTube’s offerings’. He stumbles over lack of concrete evidence, conceding the friction between human certainty and feline capriciousness: ‘I was not able to settle the question’; ‘there are no published data to test this assumption’; ‘my hunch – based on no evidence – is…’ He concludes with a call for more research.
But the delight of cats is their mystery. How rarely they bother to explain their elegant eccentricities as they frisk through life, chasing away what Hilary Mantel called ‘the devils that only cats can see’. Theirs is, nevertheless, a potent articulacy; they use a thesaurus of purrs, we learn, to convey panic as well as delight, hunger as well as comfort. On feline communication, I couldn’t gauge to what extent Losos was tongue-in-cheek:
This would have delighted the composer Maurice Ravel, who believed he could speak to his cats with some fluency. I read it to my own feline companion, Jeoffry, who, beloved and arthritic and firm in the belief that he is more panther than moggie, giggled helplessly and suggested I clean the litter tray.
Losos wisely avoids such deluded anthropomorphism, and steers clear of twee. He is ‘gaga about cats’, sensible man, and his own Nelson proves an admirable research assistant. Between them they have produced a book of, ironically, canine zeal. My proof copy contained no index, but I trust the finished volume has an entry for Nelson roughly as follows, giving a sense of Losos’s witty and observant way with cats:
My ringbound copy arrived with half the binder flapping loose, enticing Maud (Jeoffry’s sister) to slap it with lethally playful paw. Maud is a svelte and inky creature of dark passions; she has a way of looking at a room from beneath her eyelashes that she copied in minute detail from Princess Diana. Perhaps her troublemaking is an evolutionary remnant of the day when, as Losos explains, cats were worshipped by Egyptians as manifestations of a god. Hers is a species no longer mummified but venerated still, all these millennia on. This book shows the vestige of wildness that lurks in her genes, dormant beneath a life of cuddles and kibble. Maybe that is why I am besotted, waiting sadly, as all animal lovers do, for the day when she will no longer be there.
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