When a stray cat wandered onto the tracks of a midtown 7 train last month, the MTA halted the entire subway line until the animal was out of harm’s way. At the same time, the U.S. government euthanizes millions of stray cats each year.
They’re a disaster for the environment: One conservancy organization has called cats the “ecological axis of evil.” American cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds each year, and they’ve been implicated in dozens of mammalian extinctions. (The Australian government has funded research into the most efficient methods of cat control — yielding products like a poison-laced kangaroo sausage called “Eradicat.”)
Nearly half of house cats have physically attacked their owners.
Humans’ relationship with cats is rife with paradox. There are an estimated 100 million pet cats in the U.S., and their ranks are only growing. “Cat culture” flourishes online. The cat-less can get their fix at “cat cafs” opening across Asia, Europe, and North America.
In “The Lion in the Living Room: How Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World,” journalist Abigail Tucker traces cats’ journey from fearsome Near Eastern predator to global intruder, shedding light on how this baby-sized beast worked its way into so many homes.
Science of Us spoke with Tucker about the disturbing similarities between cats and lions, the reason cats failed to uphold the Rabbit Suppression Act of 1884, and the somewhat baffling question of why people put up with them.
Why are cats such an ecological disaster? How did they end up in isolated island environments like Australia?
Cats are very good shipboard travelers. They don’t need a lot of water; they don’t need a lot of vitamin C, so they don’t get scurvy. They’ve been able to endear themselves to sailors for the past 10,000 years and sail across the oceans, which are the major barrier to mammalian dispersal. It’s usually hard for mammals to get to places like Australia. They have to ride on rafts or get blown in. A lot of islands don’t have any mammals living on them at all, let alone apex predators that are hypercarnivores, like cats.
With just a few tweaks, the house cat is basically the king of beasts. Cat species are very different in terms of size, but the feline blueprint — their behaviors and the proportions of their bodies — is really consistent across species. You let it go in any environment and it’s going to be able to kill anything that’s smaller than it, and even things that are a little bigger. It’s like a meat-eating machine.
You tell stories of house cats clawing and scratching their human owners, especially children. Why do cats so often turn on the people who feed them?
Cats and humans haven’t lived locked inside the same places, in such numbers, until the last few decades or so. We talked about the implications for our mental health, but this arrangement might not be so great for cats’ mental health, either. They can get really stressed out in our houses. A lot of things that we consider normal — everything from the volume of our voices, to our thermostats, to the way that a child is playing with a toy — can stress cats out.
There’s evidence that to prevent cat-human violence, we need to go to more extreme lengths than I’d ever thought. Experts say that you need to give an entire room of your house for the cat’s exclusive use. That you should make sure the cat has multiple litter boxes, one per floor, and extra ones for extra cats. That you should never rearrange your furniture. That you should try not to wear perfume. That houseguests are freaky for your cat.
You’re coming at this subject as a lifelong cat-lover. Did learning all of this — that cats are bad for your health, bad for the environment — change your relationship with your cat? Why would you still want to have a cat?
I lost a lot of my sentimental regard for cats — that “oh, my cute fur-baby” response. But I find that I marvel at them more. I can appreciate the backstory, how this little animal managed to carve out a place for itself in the world, and to become a dreaded invasive species and — culturally speaking — one of the most powerful animals on the planet.
To me, it’s about the wonder of life, and how this animal has gotten so far in the world without giving us much in return. I think that makes our relationship more pure. Humans are so good at extracting what they want from the environment. With cats, we’re not necessarily holding the reins. We don’t even know what we want, but we love it.
The interview has been edited and condensed.