Barbara Jampel speaks with the fervor of the converted.
"I've been a dog person all my life," said the National Geographic TV producer and writer. "I've never had an active hatred for cats. I've had a what-are-they- all-about? attitude. Now, I know that as soon as my 15-year-old collie is no longer with us, I'll switch to cats. And I want 17 of them."
Jampel might be accused of merely going with the flow. When dogs were considered a more dominant pet in America, she produced the TV special "Those Wonderful Dogs" for the Geographic. Now, cats outnumber dogs and cat food outsells even baby food in the United States. And Jampel, right in stride, has produced "Cats: Caressing the Tiger," an hour-long program introducing the 26th season of National Geographic Specials (16th on PBS). It airs Wednesday at 8 on PBS.
Jampel found her theme for this piece in a passage, "God created cats that man would have the pleasure of caressing the tiger. I felt this was the approach, an animal behavior show, that cats have maintained so much wildness about them. We have not domesticated them the way we have the dog."
So the theme of the show is that a cat is a cat. Give or take a few stripes, variations in color and oh, maybe 600 pounds or so, cats are basically all alike, with even the most docile house tabby occasionally exhibiting the traits of a tiger.
In Stephen King's hands, that theme might make a first-rate horror show. In Jampel's, it becomes more of a celebration. Michael Fox, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, explains why we love -- or hate -- cats. They are, he says, independent, loyal, affectionate, beautiful, sagacious, inscrutable, mysterious and ineffable. How people react to such a creature -- one that, unlike a dog, refuses to be dominated -- determines how they feel about cats, says Fox.
Themes and theories: They amount to a perfectly adequate excuse to explore the characteristics of the cat and to show a lot of neat cat film footage.
Along the way, we see how the cat has been exploited by the marketeers -- there's a guy selling something called a kitty condo -- and we're introduced to high-rise syndrome, the tendency some cats have, especially New Yorkers, to leap from open apartment windows.
Many of them land relatively unharmed, which is to say alive. The ability cats have to right themselves in free fall is demonstrated in the program by Tigger the Falling Cat. (Warning: Tigger is a professional stunt cat. Do not attempt to perform this trick at home.)
It was all enough to convince Jampel and her principal photographer, Mark Knobil, that cats are the ideal pet.
"Mark went out and got a cat as soon as we finished the program," said Jampel. Or maybe a cat got him. "You don't have the cat, the cat has you," said Jampel. "I also felt that watching cats gave me a window into a wild world that dogs don't ... I felt I was allowed in the presence of a wild animal. Well, half wild. Partially wild ...
"I felt I could sit and stare at cats endlessly to try to figure out what's going on. Whereas with dogs, it's all right there -- wagging tail and slobbering in your lap," said Jampel, noting that Racket, her ancient collie is going deaf and couldn't hear her pro-cat comments, let alone her replacement plans.
A key difference between dogs and cats, she noted, may lie in how long man has been involved in their lives. "Dogs have been in peoples' lives many thousands of years longer than cats," she said. "Cats go back 3,000 to 4,000 years, dogs 15,000 to 20,000 years, back to the cave man era. It could be that because of that duration alone we've had much more time to domesticate the dog. Also, they are descended from wolves, pack animals. Cats are loners.
"As one scientist said, cats may be domestic, but they're not domesticated."