A great article in the New Statesman.
A philosopher once assured me, many years ago, that he had converted his cat to veganism. Believing he was joking, I asked how he had achieved this feat. Had he supplied the cat with mouse-flavoured vegan food? Had he presented his cat with other cats, already practising veganism, as feline role models? Or had he argued with the cat and convinced it that eating meat is wrong? My interlocutor wasn’t amused, and I realised that he really believed the cat had opted for a meat-free diet. So I ended our exchange with a simple question: did the cat go out? It did, he told me. That solved the mystery. Plainly, the cat was supplementing its diet by covert hunting. If it ever brought home any of the carcasses – a practice to which ethically undeveloped cats are sadly prone – the virtuous philosopher had managed not to notice them.
It is not hard to imagine how the cat on the receiving end of this experiment in moral education must have viewed its human teacher. Perplexity at the absurdity of his behaviour would soon have been followed by contemptuous indifference. Seldom doing anything unless it serves a definite purpose or gives immediate satisfaction, cats are arch-realists. Faced with human folly, they simply go their own way.
The independence of cats is one of the features most admired by those of us who love them. Given their evolutionary history as solitary hunters, it is easily explained. Seeking their prey alone, cats – with the exception of lions and sometimes cheetahs – have not developed patterns of collective action and hierarchy of the kind found in dogs and other pack animals. “Herding cats” is a metaphor based on fact: cats don’t live in herds. As they are highly territorial and notoriously picky in their eating habits, they make an unlikely candidate for domestication. And yet, more than almost any other species, cats have learned to live on intimate terms with human beings. How has this come about?
As Abigail Tucker explains in her immensely informative and enjoyable book, wild cats need space: large tracts of land that can sustain the sources of meat that are their sole food supply. Human settlements posed a big challenge to these “hyper-carnivores”.
When forests are cleared for farming, native prey species disappear, or shrink in numbers. Lacking the prey they relied on in the past, wild cats can only turn to animals that human beings have domesticated – cattle, sheep and the like. Inevitably, this makes cats enemies of human beings. It is not recreational hunting or the use of body parts as aphrodisiacs that is condemning so many wild cats to extinction, though these disgusting practices are hastening the end of wild tigers. It is habitat destruction, an inevitable concomitant of human expansion.