Susan Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for her book “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?”
People have theories about cats (and the people who love them). Some think, for example, that cats know their names. As someone who’s had four cats, one at a time, over 50 years, I’ve come to realize that few generalizations about feline behavior seem to apply. If I went out looking for my cat Fred and called out “Elvis,” for instance, Fred would come, if so inclined. Cats are laws unto themselves.
Into this murky territory comes Thomas McNamee’s new book, “The Inner Life of Cats,” which promises to unearth “the science and secrets of our mysterious feline companions.” I was skeptical of this pretentious subtitle but nonetheless was charmed by McNamee’s tale of his cat, Augusta, and his attempts to understand this essentially unknowable (but lovable) animal.
“The Inner Life of Cats” is Augusta’s life story, an engaging one interspersed with plentiful information about cats. McNamee found Augusta on a snowy November morning in Montana. He welcomed the kitten into his house, concluding from tire-track evidence that she had been dumped in the middle of the night on a country road and had then made her way to his ranch more than a quarter of a mile away, leaving paw prints smaller than a dime. He drove the black kitten to the nearest vet and, upon learning that she was about three months old, and thus born in August, “gave this gift from the god of chance the name Augusta.” The vet told him that the kitten’s cheerful disposition was probably due, in part, “to an inborn sunny nature, a roll of the genetic dice.”
The book proffers passages on the history of domestic cats, as well as insights on the behavior of laboratory cats, feral cats and indoor cats. Three examples: Cats have the widest range of hearing of any mammal except bats; cats purr only to people, not to one another; female cats in heat will mate with a number of male cats, thus the sometimes extraordinary diversity of kittens in a single litter.
All of this is well sourced, but there are a few speculative passages that left this longtime cat owner wondering. “Some people say,” McNamee writes, that cats are drawn to non-cat-lovers because they don’t look at the animal, “wanting no part of it,” whereas cat people look, “hoping for a response of some kind.” The gazed-upon cat “will then have taken all that staring as potentially threatening,” McNamee explains, “and will perceive the person looking away as polite. . . . Hence the friendly approach to the wrong person.” This does not jibe with my four-cat experience.
McNamee also devotes a portion of the book to cat whisperers, who work with indoor cats that exhibit exasperating behavior — biting and scratching, ripping up the upholstery, yowling at 4 o’clock in the morning, and worse. Perhaps revealing his ambivalence toward cat whisperers, he writes that Mieshelle Nagelschneider, “the queen” of the industry, conducts “individual cat-by-cat consultations,” most of them by telephone and e-mail, and declines to offer statistics on her success rate. Jackson Galaxy, the garish “king of cat whisperers,” makes house calls: He is frequently bitten and slashed on the job. Galaxy has a television show called “My Cat From Hell” on Animal Planet, a charitable foundation that contributes to cat shelters, and a retail empire selling products such as #TeamCatMojo bracelets and Rainbow of Paws flip-flops. “And yet, and yet,” McNamee continues. “Jackson Galaxy knows cats in ways and with an accuracy beyond what I’ve found anyone else to possess.”
Indoor cats may be problems to their owners, but when they are abandoned and don’t wind up in shelters, they usually become feral. Feral cats are cats that have become homeless, and wild cats born on city streets or in rural barns that are never socialized. The Humane Society estimates the national population of feral cats to be 30 million to 40 million. Free-ranging cats are notoriously difficult to count, however, and other estimates are higher. The overpopulation of feral cats in America and on other continents, especially Australia, poses serious difficulties to wildlife: In the United States, feral cats kill billions of birds and mammals every year. They are also a problem to shelters and to themselves. Feral cats transmit diseases but are often victims of suffering: They are run over, poisoned, tortured, shot and generally succumb at early ages to illness.
Augusta, too, comes into a period of suffering. Time darkens our lives and those of our treasured cats and dogs. As Augusta aged, she suffered degenerative joint disease; by the time she was 9, she limped upstairs, and soon, despite an anti-inflammatory medication, she could no longer jump on the bed. Her weight dropped precipitously. At 15, she grew weaker and showed pain, which cats tend to conceal until close to the end. She was euthanized.
The author grieved for months but eventually adopted another kitten, whom he named Isabel. He vowed to be even kinder to Isabel than he had been to Augusta. He wouldn’t go on trips and leave her at home. “Their lives are shorter than ours,” he writes. “We can witness their lives from beginning to end, not just witness but be in them, from naming to knowing, from wonder to love, an arc, and then — now — another. . . . Every day of her life, the kitten and the cat she becomes will make the effort worth our while.”
Life would be less good without cats in it, and dogs, too.
By Thomas McNamee
Hachette. 278 pp. $35