The Tradition of Misunderstanding Cats: Animal Histories Dissected

I am without a shadow of a doubt, a Cat person. They are by far my favourite animal, and though I love dogs, I feel cats are especially underrated in the pets department. Over the years I’ve encountered many people with an avid dislike for Cats, they’re too aggressive, too aloof, too high maintenance, the list goes on. I don’t think these claims are unfounded necessarily, but I do think they have been influenced by centuries of biased interactions between human and cat. Cats have been misunderstood, compared to other species and in some cases, abused by humans and this has led to a frankly unfair assessment on the animals character.

As an animal lover and activist, I cannot stress enough the importance of animal history. Humans are fundamentally a selfish species, the strong pray on the weak and this is especially true in our relationship to animals. Animal History is tied to humans because unfortunately we have attempted to control, tame and conquer time and time again. By learning how human beings have treated animals in the past (both good and bad) we can educate ourselves and work towards a kinder future.

Reakiton Press released a series, which is possibly one of the most admirable contributions to Animal History. It contains 93 full books, each one dedicated to a different species, tracking it through the past and its interactions with the human race. So far I have read the Whale, Bear and Cat books and I cannot recommend them enough. The books are a beautiful mix of facts, in depth analysis, philosophy on animal welfare and a deep love for each animal written about.

I thought I would include some of the key facts I learnt about Cats from this series, and give my own opinion on how animal history affects animal welfare to this day.

Fact 1: Ancient Egypt is perhaps the first example of Cats becoming domesticated by humans. Cats voluntary entered Egyptian society, hunting rats and mice that lived within the towns. Egyptians actively appreciated and even worshipped cats – unlike many other societies throughout history. Cats appeared in artwork and Egyptian wall-scenes from this period and the deity Bastet whose face was a cat, was the Egyptian goddess of feminine allure, fertility, maternity and home. There was a strong affinity with felines in Egypt, they were the favoured pets and were heavily mourned once dead. However they retained their autonomy, cats entered Egyptians villages on their own free will and were accepted, even celebrated, they were tamed because they chose to be tamed.

Fact 2: By the Middle Ages, Cats had also been domesticated in Europe. However, they did not share the same affinity as the animal had with the Ancient Egyptians. Throughout the medieval period, and into the Early Modern, Cats were stereotyped and compared to other domesticated animals (namely dogs). Katharine Rogers noted that whilst Cats hunted alone and for their own means, Dogs hunted with their owners, FOR their owners, therefore Cats were considered ruthless and selfish compared to dogs. They were even critiqued for how they hunted, and were considered sly and hypocritical for sneaking up on their prey, as opposed to Dogs, who openly chased prey on their hunts. Negative comparisons proved detrimental to Cats, they were kept for their utility as rodent hunters, but were not loved nor appreciated. Rogers noted “At best cats were considered harmless and necessary; at worst, they were common animals of negligible monetary value and were therefore handy victims for casual sadism. They were easily obtainable at no cost and are satisfyingly demonstrative when subjected to pain”.

Fact 3: A Cat’s perceived relationship with Witchcraft is well documented, however contemporary examples of witchcraft trials (mainly in the early modern period) show that many animals were associated with dark magic, not just cats. Despite this, there was a definite sense of uneasiness and suspicion when it came to felines during this period. Cats were not as easily tamed compared to other animals, nor as easily spooked. They could stare unashamedly into human eyes, and were generally aloof to interactions. In a time when hierarchical order in society and nature was supposed to be obeyed at all costs, a Cats disregard for human expectations and power was “unpleasantly disconcerting”.  When humans were confronted with a creature that did not obey their perceived authority, their first instinct was to assume it was against them, thus Cats became a symbol of evil spirits and were treated with distrust. 

Fact 4: Interestingly, Cats and Women have been grouped together in literature throughout history, (unsurprisingly) by men who sought to express sexual metaphors between the two. Sigmund Freud is perhaps the most famous example, and is quoted within the book as stating “women, remain objects of love because they retain their narcissism. People find cats charming for the same reason“. Prostitutes in the 19th century were compared to Cats, as both ‘essentially antipathetic to marriage’, and ‘keen on maintaining [their] appearance’. Cats are constantly referenced within sexuality, from Cat-calling, to Cat-houses and even the perception that ‘cat-like’ features in women were essentially alluring. Inherently, even the compliment of Cat-like features being alluring is meant with derogatory undertones, women who are ‘cat-like’ are selfish in their sexuality, promiscuous and rule-breaking. Rogers asserts that cats are used to help along men’s historical tendency to project sexual desire they disavow in themselves onto women”. The tendency to associate female desire with narcissism, pride and shame is all too familiar throughout history, and it is unsurprising that Cats were used to further implicate shame on these behaviours. Cats were condemned for their independence, deemed selfish and unsociable, women were likewise condemned in the same manner for the sexual independence. This stereotype is not just insulting to women, but it has a negative impact on how cats themselves are perceived and treated. 

Fact 5: Despite all these negative opinions and mistreatment, as always, love can also be found. There were many occasions were people displayed true and honest love towards their feline friends. Edgar Alan Poe called his cat “the most remarkable black cat in the world”. The historian Hippolyte Taine, the ‘friend, master, and servant’ of three cats, dedicated twelve sonnets to them in 1883. French poet Joachim du Bellay who wrote a 200-line poem for his deceased cat in which he describes the animal as a “tiny masterpiece of nature”. Queen Victoria placed an image of a Cat at the forefront of the Queen’s medal for Kindness, as to change the public opinion of Cats, who had been ‘grossly mistreated in the past’. The Bronte sisters used cats within their novels to project their characters sensitivity (if they are kind to cats) or obtuseness (if they are not). Cats were generally disregarded, but not always.

It hurt my heart in places reading that book, the thought of any animal being subject to pain and torture is horrible to me. Cats have never truly been ‘owned’ by humans. They were not trained like dogs, they have no master and we do not immediately earn their affection or trust. For humans that concept is difficult, even in present day, it is like people have this expectation of cats which they never meet. That is why I wanted to write this blogpost; though the treatment of cats is nowhere near as extreme, the expectation is still there. Cats are scary and mean. They are standoffish and sceptical (can we blame them), they do not give away their affection willingly and they can survive without us.

I truly believe that our relationship with all animals is slightly warped. Humans inhabit the earth alongside animals, they have no ownership over any living creature, they are not owed anything by any living creature, and yet there is always this expectation. Whilst there are thousands of animals this resonates with, I chose to speak about cats for two reasons, firstly (and selfishly) because I love them, and I feel this need to defend their behaviour. Secondly and more importantly, because I think if you look at their history you understand why Cats are misunderstood: they directly go against this hierarchy that humans have implemented and they constantly ignore these expectations. And thats why I love them. You have to work for a Cat’s love, they know of their own worth and they don’t let the selfishness and hunger for power that humans possess affect them. If people don’t like cats it is because they do not understand their behaviours, they assume without taking time to learn. That is why animal histories are so important, they help to rectify these assumptions.

As long as human’s respect animals as autonomous creatures, with their own history, their own experiences, their own feelings, they can be respected and cared for. Just as it is important to remember the tragedies of humankind, it is important to remember the mistreatment of animals and learn from it.

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