From as far back in time as the disappearance of the dinosaurs, cats have occupied an important place in our evolutionary, social, and cultural history. The family of the cat is as diverse as it is widespread, ranging from the lions, tigers, and pumas of the African and Asian wilds to the domesticated cats of our homes, zoos, and circuses.
When she witnesses her housecat, Rajah, effortlessly scare off two fully-grown deer, acclaimed anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas starts studying the links that bind the feline family together. Immersing herself in the subtle differences of their social orders, feeding behaviors, and means of communication, Thomas explores the nature of the cat, both wild and domestic, and the resilient streak that has ensured its survival over thousands of years.
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The Tribe of Tiger
Cats and Their Culture
By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas 1993 Irrevocable Trust
All rights reserved.
The story of cats is a story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs. Before their mysterious disappearance, the dinosaurs had reached a sort of climax in the art of meat-eating, which had begun simply enough, almost with life itself, when the early swarms of small aquatic creatures had little else to eat except one another. For these early swimmers, plants as we know them were not an option, since plants had not evolved. As life became more complicated, hunting and meat-eating became more complicated too. Most of the vertebrates were meat-eaters — certainly most of the fish ate other fish, as did the first amphibians, who in turn became food for the emerging reptiles.
During Permian and Triassic times, predatory dinosaurs crowded out most of their meat-eating forebears, ending the long reign of the big carnivorous amphibians. From Jurassic times onward even the largest dinosaurs had predatory dinosaurs trying to kill them, with more dinosaurs waiting to scavenge the remains. The mammals had no chance to mount any kind of challenge. As a result, when after 130 million years of highly successful predation the dinosaurs vanished, they left behind a most unusual situation — a world newly free of carnivores of any appreciable size.
Even as recently as the Paleocene, sixty-five million years ago, only two groups of mammals could have been called carnivorous, and by today's standards, or indeed by the former high standards of the predatory dinosaurs, neither of these would have seemed particularly adept at hunting. The first group, called the creodonts, were not built for speed and probably specialized in carrion, and the second group, called the miacids, ancestors of the modern carnivores, were for the most part very small and possibly specialized in insects; in other words, despite the new situation, both groups continued to eat what they had been eating when the dinosaurs were still around.
Thus, there was no one to molest the millions of large, hairy, milk-fed animals who soon evolved to roam the fertile forests left them by the dinosaurs, browsing the trees and bushes without much fear of predators. The early herbivores became a vast, slow-moving food supply which eventually even they themselves could not ignore. A few of them, including an enormous hoglike, bull-sized creature called Andrewsarchus, gave up leaves for meat. The largest carnivorous mammal ever to have lived on land, this minotaur with a carnivorous habit probably lacked the delicate sensibilities of a true carnivore such as a dog or cat or weasel and surely must have been the most frightening predator the world has ever seen.
By all that is sensible, the creodonts should also have been developing themselves to better exploit the world of meat. Surprisingly, however, they went into decline. Their eventual extinction seems puzzling — not only had some of them grown to the size of bears, so that they were much heftier than their insect-eating competition, but they were in the very act of evolving larger brains and learning to run faster. Even so, they disappeared.
And thus, a way opened for the modern carnivores. Encouraged by the magnificent opportunities and in the absence of rivals, the former little insect-eaters grew and changed. From them emerged two bloodlines, sometimes known as the Vulpavines, or Fox Tribe, and the Viverravines, or Mongoose Tribe. (Students of Latin should simply ignore the fact that viverra means ferret, since a ferret is not a kind of mongoose at all but a kind of weasel and belongs with the dogs in the Fox Tribe. Also best ignored is that viverra comes from wer, the Indo-European root word for squirrel. Squirrels aren't carnivores, of course, and except as prey have no place in this story.) During the Oligocene, members of the Fox Tribe started turning into the dogs, the bears, the raccoons, and the weasels. Members of the Mongoose Tribe became the modern mongooses, the hyenas, and the cats.
While these new carnivores became the hunters of the plains and forests, and also, by Miocene times, hunters of the sea as walruses, sea lions, and seals, many of the Fox Tribe secured for themselves a place close to the evolutionary middle ground. Although they were carnivores, they may have slowly weaned themselves from their insectivorous habits by eating some vegetable matter too. Insects and plants, after all, are so intermixed that they can almost be called two parts of the same thing, and go together like franks and beans, so to take a bite of one is often to nip a little of the other by mistake, especially if whoever is eating has a big mouth. If, like most animals, you have no hands to pick up your food but must put your mouth directly on it, when you snap up an insect, you sometimes can't help biting off a piece of the plant it was sitting on. Conversely, if you eat the plant, you often chew up some insects accidentally. (Allegedly it's hard to tell the difference. A man who ate a caterpillar in a desperate, failed effort to impress a woman said later that the caterpillar had tasted like the plant he'd found it on.)
To the early Fox Tribe, the ability to eat vegetables proved very helpful in times of meat shortages. Today some of its members — the raccoons and bears, for instance — can eat almost anything. This allows them to exploit a wide range of habitats. Others, such as the dogs and modern foxes, can endure a decline in their usual meat supply by varying their diet to include fruits, legumes, insects, and other forms of nourishment. One very early member of the bear family, the bamboo-eating giant panda, has passed right through meat-eating into vegetarianism again and thus has become, paradoxically, a vegetarian carnivore.
The cats, however, took a riskier path. In general, the descendants of the Mongoose Tribe eat fewer vegetables than do the descendants of the Fox Tribe, and the cats eat almost none. A cat might eat the chyme that had been in a victim's stomach, or take a little catnip as a recreational drug, or chew some leaves for vitamins, or swallow a few sharp blades of grass as a scour, but cats can't extract enough nourishment from these or other vegetables. Well-meaning human vegetarians notwithstanding, cats must eat animal protein or they slowly decline and eventually starve. Not for them the comfortable middle ground, eating meat one day and berries the next, and no carrion either. Fresh meat killed by themselves or by their mothers is virtually the only item on the feline menu. The cats have chosen the edge.
Survival at the edge is no easy matter. The food of cats is not found at the tips of branches, waiting aromatically in the sun to disappear down someone's throat. Fruit, after all, is the reward offered by a plant to anybody willing to swallow its seeds, soften the husks, and eventually put them on the ground, securely packed in fertilizer and too far away from the parent plant to offer any competition. In contrast, the food of cats is frightened of the cat and is dedicated to its own survival. It is intelligent, brave, fast moving, often well armed, and sometimes much larger than the cat who wants it. So to live at the edge, the cats were challenged to become highly skilled as hunters.
And this they did. Hunting preoccupies a cat almost from birth. The behavior of kittens at play is hunting behavior and nothing else. Because a cat can hunt without eating but cannot eat without hunting, hunting means life to cats, so much so that the process of hunting matters more than the resulting food. A cat of ours, named Orion because of his unquenchable hunting (and also because he seemed to say "Orion" when he gave his ringing, far-traveling call), brought no fewer than thirty chipmunks into our house during just one summer. Head high, pace determined, jaws bulging with the chipmunk who was forced to ride, feet forward, in his mouth, Orion would hurry to the living room, put down his victim, and step back.
Of course, once the poor creature got its bearings it would try to escape, and Orion would chase it from room to room. Up and down the curtains the chipmunk would run with the cat leaping after him, up and down the stairs, over the beds, under the sofa, over the kitchen table, through the sink and out into the hall. The moment my husband and I would hear what the cat was doing we would of course join the chase in hopes of rescuing not only the chipmunk but also our things. Even though we almost always managed to catch the chipmunk and let it out, thus depriving Orion of his sport and his prey, he nevertheless seemed to enjoy our participation, possibly because we added to the excitement, or possibly because housecats (contrary to what many people believe) do in fact hunt cooperatively when the opportunity arises. They don't cooperate as well as lions do, but they cooperate to some extent — a practice that seems to have developed from the tendency of kittens to follow their hunting mothers, trying to take part as best they can. At any rate, perhaps in hopes of our participation, Orion released chipmunks again and again, to the point where we hated to hear the cat door slam because we knew what was coming.
Interestingly enough, our area could not possibly have sustained the thirty chipmunks captured by Orion. At most, ten or twelve might have lived in our woods and stone walls. This meant that Orion was catching some chipmunks for a second or third time. One chipmunk lost a tail, and two were slightly wounded by Orion's inconsiderate games, but only three of his victims died. And not from any lack of hunting ability on the part of the great Orion, who enjoyed his sport for one summer and then gave it up for reasons of his own but not from a lack of chipmunks.
Had he been cruel? Well, yes, by human standards. But human standards mean little to the cats. Furthermore, incredible as it seems, chipmunks are hunters too — not as skilled as the cats, of course, but equally cruel. Once one of the above-mentioned chipmunks caught a wood frog and ate it, swallowing one of its legs and packing the rest of it, still feebly struggling, into his cheek pouches. The frog was almost half the size of the chipmunk, so it didn't fit in easily. Three or four times the chipmunk was forced to drag the dying frog out of his mouth, turn it around, and repack it. So Orion, who may have captured this same chipmunk once or more than once, seemed almost kind by comparison.
Throughout the cat tribe, many individual cats can kill without benefit of experience or education, contrary to an often-stated belief that killing is a skill that mother cats (but not father cats) teach their young. Mother cats certainly are teachers, but exactly what they must accomplish with this teaching is imperfectly understood, at least by human beings. A female puma, for instance, who was born in a zoo and knew less than most of us about the ways of the wild, instantly killed an unfortunate young male elk whom her keepers had found injured by the side of a road and, in order to make a video of their puma killing something, had shoved into her pen.
Even more revealing, perhaps, is the account of a puma named Ruby, who was born on a fur farm but rescued as a tiny kitten by her owner, a wildlife rehabilitator, Lissa Gilmour. Except for her first few weeks of life, Ruby had always lived with Lissa at Lissa's home in Colorado, and was completely uneducated from a puma's point of view. Thus it was impressive to learn how much information on hunting was already in Ruby's head.
One evening, Lissa was giving a lecture on pumas at the Denver Museum of Natural History, with Ruby scheduled to make an entrance after the slides had been shown. Friends had offered to help by keeping Ruby occupied until the time came for her to join Lissa, at which point they were to bring her to the lecture hall. The kindly people were doing exactly that, and Ruby, restrained by her collar and a leash, was patiently padding along beside them through the dark, deserted halls of the museum, when in one of the dioramas she spotted a stuffed deer. Instantly she sprang at it, whisking the leash out of her handler's grasp. Alas, she crashed into the glass and dropped to the floor, so the experience, for her, must have been quite bewildering. Yet for the rest of us it must be considered extremely illuminating, since Ruby had never done any such thing before. She had never seen any animal killed, let alone a deer. Furthermore, the deer in the exhibit certainly hadn't moved to attract her, nor had it given off a tempting sound or odor. No — Ruby had reacted to its appearance only, and her reaction had been sure and strong.
These episodes show something important about the cat family — that meat-eating is deeply ingrained in their nature. Consistent meat-eating explains much about all cats, from why, except for size and camouflage, there is very little difference among the thirty-two species of the family to why they seldom mark with feces but frequently use urine, which they spray.
In short, cats resemble each other because, so far, they have had no reason to change. Good hunters since the lynxlike Ur-cat of the Miocene from whom the modern cats descend, the cats have had no need to adjust their bodies or their diets in response to major changes in the world's climate. Why not? Because, unlike the diets of other animals, the diet of cats didn't change. The vegetarian menu listed everything from bananas to pecans, from seaweed to eucalyptus leaves, items so different from one another that completely different organisms were required to find, chew, and digest them, but the cat menu listed only one item: meat. From a cat's point of view, the difference between a bird who eats cherries, a fish who eats algae, and a giraffe who eats acacia thorns is mainly one of quantity. All three are meat, and a cat can benefit from any one of them if he can catch it. So while the glaciers came and went, while the vegetarians struggled against all odds trying to digest new plants and adapt themselves to overwhelming global changes, the cats simply kept on hunting, waiting to pounce on whoever managed to survive into the next epoch. The limber cat body that hunted successfully in the Pliocene hunts just as successfully today.
Hence, meat-eating has formed cat bodies, beginning in the mouth with daggerlike eyeteeth suitable for fastening their owner to a victim, and with strong, triangular cheek teeth, capable of severing the victim's spine and shearing his flesh into bite-sized chunks for passage down the cat's throat. Meat-eating has caused the shortness of the cat's intestine, since meat is easy to digest and doesn't require a long, heavy gut that would weigh a cat down and keep him from accelerating quickly — a basic requirement for the feline lurk-and-leap style of hunting. Meat-eating explains the short digestive period, the rapid passage of food through the cat, and the nutritional residue in a cat's feces, which is why dogs forage in cats' litter boxes and why cats mark with spray. A spray is not as visible as a scat, perhaps, but at least it will still be there when the owner returns to check on it. Thus, finally, meat-eating even explains why a cat can twist his penis. Like a gardener spraying roses, a cat can direct his urine upward to moisten the undersides of leaves where other cats will find it and where rain won't wash it away.
The most important fact about meat-eating, however, is that it explains a cat's emotions, or some of them. Many expressions of a cat's feelings seem deeply related to the capture of live prey. An excited, happy, or much relieved cat may ambush and pounce upon whatever triggers its pleasure — something worth considering before getting a large cat all worked up.
One moonless night when Lissa was out for the evening, Ruby escaped from her pen. Finding herself at large on the isolated homestead high in the Colorado Rockies, Ruby must have felt anxious and unsure of herself while she waited for Lissa to get home and straighten things out. When Ruby heard Lissa's car, she crouched low beside the house, and as Lissa groped her way through the almost prehistoric darkness that surrounds her mountain fastness, Ruby joyously sprang on her from behind and bore her down. It was her way of expressing relief.
Excerpted from The Tribe of Tiger by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Copyright © 1994 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas 1993 Irrevocable Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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