BOOKS: The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and their Culture

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1994:

The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and
their Culture, by Elizabeth Marsh-
all Thomas, Simon & Schuster (1230 Ave.
of the Americas, New York NY 10020),
1994, 240 pages, hardcover $20.00.
From the author of The Hidden Life
of Dogs comes a new volume revealing the
social life of cats. This book too displays
Thomas’s uncanny ability to observe a
species and to describe the unique ways its
members act among themselves, without
humanizing them in the least. Raised in a
family of anthropologists, Thomas recalls her
first experiences with larger members of the
cat tribe in the Kalahari desert of South
Africa. Obviously her discoveries there of
the potential for cat/human relationships pro-
foundly influenced her work.

Like her previous book, The Tribe
of Tiger provides an interesting mix of sci-
ence and anecdote. Thomas discusses evolu-
tion, from Ur-cats to Felis sylvestris catus to
New World lynxes, without once becoming
dull. And so we discover why cats developed
their particular cultural personality, and how
it enables them to survive among humans.
Thomas cites in particular the seldom-seen
New England cougar, whose very existence
is denied by many experts, who purport that
the species was extinguished nearly 60 years
ago, but her proofs that it persists are con-
vincing. Thomas other established wisdom as
well, questioning for example the scientific
basis of wildlife management. Studies of cats
in the wild, she argues, have resulted in little
“other than facts that help us trap them.” As
for hunting as a management tool, she
reminds us: “Many kinds of animals regulate
their own population, as of course they have
done since their species began,” a situation
she calls “particularly true of carnivores.”
Elsewhere, she strikes a glancing
blow at husbandry, especially the farmer/barn
cat relationship, noting that farmers tradition-
ally controlled barn cat populations by dispos-
ing of unwanted kittens. But then , as she
says, “To care for a group of animals for a
time, and then to suddenly round them up and
dispatch them without warning, is after all
what farming is all about.”
Animal activists, on the other hand,
may take exception to her comment that, “as
far as tigers are concerned, the circus is not a
bad way of life.” As always, she bases her
opinion on her own observations, comparing
the active lives of circus tigers to the impover-
ished lives of many big cats caged zoos. She
visits a tiger training facility, zoos, and cir-
cuses, from the largest to small, one-man
roadside diversions.
Indeed Thomas’ journeys take her to
many fascinating feline habitats: African
game preserves, Idaho mountains, even back
to the Kalahari, where she investigates how
the free-ranging lions of her childhood are
adapting to civilization. She then returns to
observing the cats around her rural New
Hampshire home. Like their larger wild
cousins, these small cats leave their scent on
their territory, hunt (albeit with occasionally
comical results), and act among themselves
like typical felines. More than any others of
their tribe, they also interact with people.
Still they remain quintessentially cats, even
while watching television. It may be true that
“human standards mean little to the cats,” but
they do seem to enjoy our company.
––Cathy Young Czapla
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