The story of cats is a story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs. Before their mysterious disappearance, the dinosaurs had reached a sort of climax in the art of meat-eating, which had begun simply enough, almost with life itself, when the early swarms of small aquatic creatures had little else to eat except one another. For these early swimmers, plants as we know them were not an option, since plants had not evolved. As life became more complicated, hunting and meat-eating became more complicated too. Most of the vertebrates were meat-eaters -- certainly most of the fish ate other fish, as did the first amphibians, who in turn became food for the emerging reptiles.
During Permian and Triassic times, predatory dinosaurs crowded out most of their meat-eating forebears, ending the long reign of the big carnivorous amphibians. From Jurassic times onward even the largest dinosaurs had predatory dinosaurs trying to kill them, with more dinosaurs waiting to scavenge the remains. The mammals had no chance to mount any kind of challenge. As a result, when after 130 million years of highly successful predation the dinosaurs vanished, they left behind a most unusual situation -- a world newly free of carnivores of any appreciable size.
Even as recently as the Paleocene, sixty-five million years ago, only two groups of mammals could have been called carnivorous, and by today's standards, or indeed by the former high standards of the predatory dinosaurs, neither of these would have seemed particularly adept at hunting. The first group, called the creodonts, were not built for speed and probably specialized in carrion, and the second group, called the miacids, ancestors of the modern carnivores, were for the most part very small and possibly specialized in insects; in other words, despite the new situation, both groups continued to eat what they had been eating when the dinosaurs were still around.
Thus, there was no one to molest the millions of large, hairy, milk-fed animals who soon evolved to roam the fertile forests left them by the dinosaurs, browsing the trees and bushes without much fear of predators. The early herbivores became a vast, slow-moving food supply which eventually even they themselves could not ignore. A few of them, including an enormous hoglike, bull-sized creature called Andrewsarchus, gave up leaves for meat. The largest carnivorous mammal ever to have lived on land, this minotaur with a carnivorous habit probably lacked the delicate sensibilities of a true carnivore such as a dog or cat or weasel and surely must have been the most frightening predator the world has ever seen.
By all that is sensible, the creodonts should also have been developing themselves to better exploit the world of meat. Surprisingly, however, they went into decline. Their eventual extinction seems puzzling -- not only had some of them grown to the size of bears, so that they were much heftier than their insect-eating competition, but they were in the very act of evolving larger brains and learning to run faster. Even so, they disappeared.
And thus, a way opened for the modern carnivores. Encouraged by the magnificent opportunities and in the absence of rivals, the former little insect-eaters grew and changed. From them emerged two bloodlines, sometimes known as the Vulpavines, or Fox Tribe, and the Viverravines, or Mongoose Tribe. (Students of Latin should simply ignore the fact that viverra means ferret, since a ferret is not a kind of mongoose at all but a kind of weasel and belongs with the dogs in the Fox Tribe. Also best ignored is that viverra comes from wer, the Indo-European root word for squirrel. Squirrels aren't carnivores, of course, and except as prey have no place in this story.) During the Oligocene, members of the Fox Tribe started turning into the dogs, the bears, the raccoons, and the weasels. Members of the Mongoose Tribe became the modern mongooses, the hyenas, and the cats.
While these new carnivores became the hunters of the plains and forests, and also, by Miocene times, hunters of the sea as walruses, sea lions, and seals, many of the Fox Tribe secured for themselves a place close to the evolutionary middle ground. Although they were carnivores, they may have slowly weaned themselves from their insectivorous habits by eating some vegetable matter too. Insects and plants, after all, are so intermixed that they can almost be called two parts of the same thing, and go together like franks and beans, so to take a bite of one is often to nip a little of the other by mistake, especially if whoever is eating has a big mouth. If, like most animals, you have no hands to pick up your food but must put your mouth directly on it, when you snap up an insect, you sometimes can't help biting off a piece of the plant it was sitting on. Conversely, if you eat the plant, you often chew up some insects accidentally. (Allegedly it's hard to tell the difference. A man who ate a caterpillar in a desperate, failed effort to impress a woman said later that the caterpillar had tasted like the plant he'd found it on.)
To the early Fox Tribe, the ability to eat vegetables proved very helpful in times of meat shortages. Today some of its members -- the raccoons and bears, for instance -- can eat almost anything. This allows them to exploit a wide range of habitats. Others, such as the dogs and modern foxes, can endure a decline in their usual meat supply by varying their diet to include fruits, legumes, insects, and other forms of nourishment. One very early member of the bear family, the bamboo-eating giant panda, has passed right through meat-eating into vegetarianism again and thus has become, paradoxically, a vegetarian carnivore.
The cats, however, took a riskier path. In general, the descendants of the Mongoose Tribe eat fewer vegetables than do the descendants of the Fox Tribe, and the cats eat almost none. A cat might eat the chyme that had been in a victim's stomach, or take a little catnip as a recreational drug, or chew some leaves for vitamins, or swallow a few sharp blades of grass as a scour, but cats can't extract enough nourishment from these or other vegetables. Well-meaning human vegetarians notwithstanding, cats must eat animal protein or they slowly decline and eventually starve. Not for them the comfortable middle ground, eating meat one day and berries the next, and no carrion either. Fresh meat killed by themselves or by their mothers is virtually the only item on the feline menu. The cats have chosen the edge.
Survival at the edge is no easy matter. The food of cats is not found at the tips of branches, waiting aromatically in the sun to disappear down someone's throat. Fruit, after all, is the reward offered by a plant to anybody willing to swallow its seeds, soften the husks, and eventually put them on the ground, securely packed in fertilizer and too far away from the parent plant to offer any competition. In contrast, the food of cats is frightened of the cat and is dedicated to its own survival. It is intelligent, brave, fast moving, often well armed, and sometimes much larger than the cat who wants it. So to live at the edge, the cats were challenged to become highly skilled as hunters.
And this they did. Hunting preoccupies a cat almost from birth. The behavior of kittens at play is hunting behavior and nothing else. Because a cat can hunt without eating but cannot eat without hunting, hunting means life to cats, so much so that the process of hunting matters more than the resulting food. A cat of ours, named Orion because of his unquenchable hunting (and also because he seemed to say "Orion" when he gave his ringing, far-traveling call), brought no fewer than thirty chipmunks into our house during just one summer. Head high, pace determined, jaws bulging with the chipmunk who was forced to ride, feet forward, in his mouth, Orion would hurry to the living room, put down his victim, and step back.
Of course, once the poor creature got its bearings it would try to escape, and Orion would chase it from room to room. Up and down the curtains the chipmunk would run with the cat leaping after him, up and down the stairs, over the beds, under the sofa, over the kitchen table, through the sink and out into the hall. The moment my husband and I would hear what the cat was doing we would of course join the chase in hopes of rescuing not only the chipmunk but also our things. Even though we almost always managed to catch the chipmunk and let it out, thus depriving Orion of his sport and his prey, he nevertheless seemed to enjoy our participation, possibly because we added to the excitement, or possibly because housecats (contrary to what many people believe) do in fact hunt cooperatively when the opportunity arises. They don't cooperate as well as lions do, but they cooperate to some extent -- a practice that seems to have developed from the tendency of kittens to follow their hunting mothers, trying to take part as best they can. At any rate, perhaps in hopes of our participation, Orion released chipmunks again and again, to the point where we hated to hear the cat door slam because we knew what was coming.
Interestingly enough, our area could not possibly have sustained the thirty chipmunks captured by Orion. At most, ten or twelve might have lived in our woods and stone walls. This meant that Orion was catching some chipmunks for a second or third time. One chipmunk lost a tail, and two were slightly wounded by Orion's inconsiderate games, but only three of his victims died. And not from any lack of hunting ability on the part of the great Orion, who enjoyed his sport for one summer and then gave it up for reasons of his own but not from a lack of chipmunks.
Had he been cruel? Well, yes, by human standards. But human standards mean little to the cats. Furthermore, incredible as it seems, chipmunks are hunters too -- not as skilled as the cats, of course, but equally cruel. Once one of the above-mentioned chipmunks caught a wood frog and ate it, swallowing one of its legs and packing the rest of it, still feebly struggling, into his cheek pouches. The frog was almost half the size of the chipmunk, so it didn't fit in easily. Three or four times the chipmunk was forced to drag the dying frog out of his mouth, turn it around, and repack it. So Orion, who may have captured this same chipmunk once or more than once, seemed almost kind by comparison.
Throughout the cat tribe, many individual cats can kill without benefit of experience or education, contrary to an often-stated belief that killing is a skill that mother cats (but not father cats) teach their young. Mother cats certainly are teachers, but exactly what they must accomplish with this teaching is imperfectly understood, at least by human beings. A female puma, for instance, who was born in a zoo and knew less than most of us about the ways of the wild, instantly killed an unfortunate young male elk whom her keepers had found injured by the side of a road and, in order to make a video of their puma killing something, had shoved into her pen.
Even more revealing, perhaps, is the account of a puma named Ruby, who was born on a fur farm but rescued as a tiny kitten by her owner, a wildlife rehabilitator, Lissa Gilmour. Except for her first few weeks of life, Ruby had always lived with Lissa at Lissa's home in Colorado, and was completely uneducated from a puma's point of view. Thus it was impressive to learn how much information on hunting was already in Ruby's head.
One evening, Lissa was giving a lecture on pumas at the Denver Museum of Natural History, with Ruby scheduled to make an entrance after the slides had been shown. Friends had offered to help by keeping Ruby occupied until the time came for her to join Lissa, at which point they were to bring her to the lecture hall. The kindly people were doing exactly that, and Ruby, restrained by her collar and a leash, was patiently padding along beside them through the dark, deserted halls of the museum, when in one of the dioramas she spotted a stuffed deer. Instantly she sprang at it, whisking the leash out of her handler's grasp. Alas, she crashed into the glass and dropped to the floor, so the experience, for her, must have been quite bewildering. Yet for the rest of us it must be considered extremely illuminating, since Ruby had never done any such thing before. She had never seen any animal killed, let alone a deer. Furthermore, the deer in the exhibit certainly hadn't moved to attract her, nor had it given off a tempting sound or odor. No -- Ruby had reacted to its appearance only, and her reaction had been sure and strong.
These episodes show something important about the cat family -- that meat-eating is deeply ingrained in their nature. Consistent meat-eating explains much about all cats, from why, except for size and camouflage, there is very little difference among the thirty-two species of the family to why they seldom mark with feces but frequently use urine, which they spray.
In short, cats resemble each other because, so far, they have had no reason to change. Good hunters since the lynxlike Ur-cat of the Miocene from whom the modern cats descend, the cats have had no need to adjust their bodies or their diets in response to major changes in the world's climate. Why not? Because, unlike the diets of other animals, the diet of cats didn't change. The vegetarian menu listed everything from bananas to pecans, from seaweed to eucalyptus leaves, items so different from one another that completely different organisms were required to find, chew, and digest them, but the cat menu listed only one item: meat. From a cat's point of view, the difference between a bird who eats cherries, a fish who eats algae, and a giraffe who eats acacia thorns is mainly one of quantity. All three are meat, and a cat can benefit from any one of them if he can catch it. So while the glaciers came and went, while the vegetarians struggled against all odds trying to digest new plants and adapt themselves to overwhelming global changes, the cats simply kept on hunting, waiting to pounce on whoever managed to survive into the next epoch. The limber cat body that hunted successfully in the Pliocene hunts just as successfully today.
Hence, meat-eating has formed cat bodies, beginning in the mouth with daggerlike eyeteeth suitable for fastening their owner to a victim, and with strong, triangular cheek teeth, capable of severing the victim's spine and shearing his flesh into bite-sized chunks for passage down the cat's throat. Meat-eating has caused the shortness of the cat's intestine, since meat is easy to digest and doesn't require a long, heavy gut that would weigh a cat down and keep him from accelerating quickly -- a basic requirement for the feline lurk-and-leap style of hunting. Meat-eating explains the short digestive period, the rapid passage of food through the cat, and the nutritional residue in a cat's feces, which is why dogs forage in cats' litter boxes and why cats mark with spray. A spray is not as visible as a scat, perhaps, but at least it will still be there when the owner returns to check on it. Thus, finally, meat-eating even explains why a cat can twist his penis. Like a gardener spraying roses, a cat can direct his urine upward to moisten the undersides of leaves where other cats will find it and where rain won't wash it away.
The most important fact about meat-eating, however, is that it explains a cat's emotions, or some of them. Many expressions of a cat's feelings seem deeply related to the capture of live prey. An excited, happy, or much relieved cat may ambush and pounce upon whatever triggers its pleasure -- something worth considering before getting a large cat all worked up.
One moonless night when Lissa was out for the evening, Ruby escaped from her pen. Finding herself at large on the isolated homestead high in the Colorado Rockies, Ruby must have felt anxious and unsure of herself while she waited for Lissa to get home and straighten things out. When Ruby heard Lissa's car, she crouched low beside the house, and as Lissa groped her way through the almost prehistoric darkness that surrounds her mountain fastness, Ruby joyously sprang on her from behind and bore her down. It was her way of expressing relief.
I have occasionally witnessed similar episodes, the most touching involving a tiger, whose version of a free-floating predatory dream was displayed backstage at an outdoor circus one very hot day. The tiger grew increasingly excited at the approach of her trainer, then abruptly stopped leaping and spinning and quickly crouched low to hide behind a solid partition in her cage. When the trainer passed the partition, the tiger sprang at him with her fingers stretched and her claws out. Especially touching, I felt, was the fact that the trainer had not come to feed this tiger but to squirt her with a hose to cool her, and she knew it. The prospect not of food but of cool water, and the joy of playing in it, had fired the tiger's excitement so high that she saw herself leaping from ambush. That her concept of climax was to seize her trainer -- as she surely would have done without the bars to stop her -- is simply a meat-eater's way.
Conversely, a committed meat-eater may express affection and even gratitude toward his or her prey -- a touching and thoroughly appropriate emotion in a creature for whom captured animal protein is the only source of food. Or so that emotion should seem to us, since in many human societies people do exactly the same thing when thanking or venerating an animal who has been killed for food. In a tender scene I happened to witness on the African savannah, a lion and some lionesses were rendering the carcass of a female kudu. The lion took the intact but severed head of the kudu between his paws and, holding it upright so that she faced him, slowly licked her cheeks and eyes intimately and tenderly, as if he were grooming her, as if she were another, beloved lion. Rigor mortis had not yet stiffened her muscles -- under his tongue her eyelids opened and shut in a lifelike manner. An infant lion pushed up under his father's elbow and helped to wash the kudu's face.
Even more touching was a scene that aired on public television several years ago. Shot through such a long lens that the image appears flat and blue with distance, the film shows a large male puma who evidently has just killed a large male bighorn sheep. The sheep is lying dead on his left side. The puma lies down full length on his right side, face to face with the sheep, gazes fondly into the sheep's eyes for a moment, then reaches out his paw and tenderly pats the sheep's face as a kitten might pat its mother.
Finally, meat-eating, and meat-eating alone, accounts for a cat's sense of fun, of play. The only forms of amusement ever attempted by any of the cats are simulations of hunting, whether with toys, with each other's extremities, or with live prey. All three of our cats bring live prey into the house, to release and chase, either singly or together. When we see the three cats lined up, peering under a radiator or a bookcase, we know what we'll find there. So, too, do we know what we'll find when we hear creatures rushing about in the dark, banging and thumping. My husband and I have great sympathy with the need of cats to hunt, so except to put the bird feeders very high, we don't interfere with our cats as long as they hunt outside, but it hurts us to watch them torturing their prey, and when a cat comes inside with her head high and her jaws bulging, we rescue her victim.
Considering the great behavioral similarities found among the different kinds of cat, and considering the number of actions that cats appear to perform while on automatic pilot, it seems paradoxical that they show so much individuality. Although every cat lover has seen astonishing deeds done by cats, I offer a few observations of my own, mostly because, as examples of what cats do that cannot be preprogrammed, they seem spectacular. A few cats, for instance, understand their owners' feelings -- or to put it differently, many cats may understand their owner's feelings, but a few cats seem to want to affect them. I was told of a cat who, upon finding her owner lying exhausted and weeping on a bed, lay down beside her with her belly curled over her owner's face and, putting her front paws around her owner's head, enfolded her owner as she would have enfolded a kitten.
Cats also appear to understand the use to which human beings put their things. A cat of ours who brings mice and birds into the house has on several occasions put her victims on plates or in bowls. Many cats know what doorknobs are for and can manipulate them successfully. And unlike dogs, who, as everyone knows, are apt to regard toilets as drinking fountains, many cats understand the use to which people put toilets, and a few can even figure out an appropriate technique for using one without falling in.
Housecats are not the only cats with such abilities. Evidently pumas have them too. One night, again at the Denver Museum of Natural History, Lissa was bringing Ruby from her place of confinement to the lecture hall. Ruby tugged so hard toward the ladies' room that Lissa assumed she wanted to drink from a toilet and didn't refuse her. In the restroom, however, Ruby forced her way into a stall, clambered onto the toilet, and, with her four feet on the seat and her tail aloft, she defecated into the bowl. What a cat!
My grandmother, Bessie Merrill, had as a young wife a similar experience with a cat. Much to the delight of members of the family, this cat was often seen using the toilet. In those days, indoor plumbing was relatively new, and a toilet was considered too intimate an object to discuss openly, so the talents of this cat were not celebrated outside the immediate family. If my own cats would do the same, I'd tell the world shamelessly, but they haven't quite got the technique of perching on the edge of the seat, tail high, front paws together, rear paws spread. They know what a toilet is for, though, and they occasionally relieve themselves around the base of the pedestal. This attribute of cats is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that cats in the wild don't seem to have formal dung middens, where everyone in the local population defecates. Cats do spray where other cats have sprayed, or in the same area, but the object of this is almost certainly territorial. Nor is the traditional use the only use to which cats put toilets. Our cats cling to the seat while leaning low to drink from the bowl. But our son's cat dips his left front paw down into the bowl while clinging hard to the seat with the others, then licks the water from his paw. Finished, he jumps down, shakes his paw dry, and walks away.
Finally, cats understand many words of their owners' language, although they often don't seem to. I happened to notice this when my black cat, Wicca, would sleep on top of my word processor. As her body absorbed the heat from the monitor her tail would dangle in front of the screen. "Your tail, Wicca," I'd say, and push it aside. One day I was saying "Your tail" just as the phone rang. Wrong number. When I turned back to clear my view of the screen, I was surprised to see that Wicca had already moved her tail. So the next time her tail dangled, I didn't touch it but just asked. Eyes shut as if fast asleep, Wicca simply moved her tail so that it folded around her body and didn't hide the screen. And from then on, all I ever needed to do was to say, "Your tail."
Wicca, who specialized in hunting birds, died tragically in the claws of a bird, a great horned owl. One of her successors is a cat named Christmas, who also sleeps on my monitor and also dangles her tail. To my surprise, it turned out that Wicca wasn't the only cat who understood the meaning of words. If asked, Christmas sometimes also moves her tail. However, Christmas seems to want something in return for doing me so great a favor. Seizing my hand with both of hers, claws out, she brings it up to her head so that I can scratch her.
Finally, I offer the doings of a cat named Wazo, who lives in Massachusetts with my friend Margie Bourne. An intelligent, mature male, Wazo is interested in dogs, whom he manipulates. As in many households with dogs and cats, Wazo is fed on top of the refrigerator so that the dogs won't eat his food. When he eats, the dogs eye him from below. From time to time he picks out a kibble, puts it at the edge of the refrigerator's tablelike top, and flips it over with his paw. A dog finds it on the floor and eats it. At one time, Wazo also fed the dogs from bowls of candy that had been left on a table, but as he saw it, candy was fit only for dogs. He himself didn't partake of it, although the dogs ate it wrapper and all.
Yet there is a reciprocal aspect to the relationship. Wazo is a very territorial cat who values his space and hates to see another cat intrude upon it. Nevertheless, in his community, which is urban, many other cats are always prowling about. When one comes into his yard, Wazo goes into the house and somehow manages to communicate the presence of a rival to the dogs, who then burst out the door and chase away the stranger. Margie doesn't know how her cat communicates his problem to the dogs -- but communicate he does. In the wink of an eye, the dogs are out of the house and the strange cats are gone.
Most species of cat have never been studied, to be sure, but because cats as notably different as tigers, pumas, and housecats show surprising amounts of individuality, it is probably not unreasonable to guess that the other kinds of cat might too. It is as if Gaia has said to the cats: Here, my beauties -- the information you need in order to hunt, mate, fight, yowl, be cautious, raise children, is safely packed in the back of your brains. Save your forebrains for whatever creative inventions may strike you; use your wits to amuse yourselves and me.
Copyright © 1994 by Elizabeth Marshal Thomas 1993 Irrevocable Trust