Saturday, November 17, 2007

Book Review: The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A Journey Into the Feline Heart by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson: A review

The very first thing I must say about this book, because it is the most important, is that the author is horrifically irresponsible in not just advocating cats living outdoors, but also claiming that it is cruel to not allow them unsupervised access to the outside world. The reasons this is a bad thing are myriad and well-documented, including danger to the cats in the form of cars, predators, incurable diseases for which there are no vaccines, and, most disturbingly, sick and cruel humans who torture and kill cats. Additionally, cats do a number on local wildlife, and in places like the author's home, many native species do not stand a chance against domestic cat predation.

Masson also talks about his cats roaming the neighborhood, entering his neighbors' property and homes, and he has been informed of their unwelcomeness. Neighbors who do not take kindly to trespassing cats are a step away from poisoning the animals or carting them off to an animal control facility, yet this does not seem to faze Masson at all.

I was also quite disgusted with the author's descriptions of his previous cats. One set of cats was dumped somewhere because of the ubiquitous excuse, "We had to move, and couldn't take them with us." If you're planning to move, then don't acquire pets that cannot come with you. It isn't fair to the animals to get attached to you and their home, and then for you to just shove them off to another life. It's a huge, stressful adjustment, and many cats do NOT handle it well. As a rescue volunteer and cat foster parent, I can't tell you how many times this happens--and with a little planning, it could be completely avoided.

The other cats the author had prior to his current set were squished on the road. The author's response to this seems to be nonchalant, as he blithely declares it "natural" to let cats roam outdoors. When that "natural" world involves roads and cars, though, it's just plain irresponsible and stupid to let them out. How do you think kitty felt as he lay dying on the side of the road? How do you think the driver felt after hitting him? Just because you aren't creative and attentive enough to provide enrichment for an indoor cat? That's just fabulous. Oh, and did I mention that mutt cats aren't good enough for Mr. Masson; he's got to buy expensive purebreds--the squished cats were both Abyssinians. Why spend all that money on a cat whose life you are willing to just throw away anyway?

The other huge problem I had with this book is that apparently Masson's publisher is too afraid of him to have an editor read the damn thing before sending it to the printer. He frequently makes a firm, declarative statement, then completely contradicts the statement two pages later. Any decent editor would have spotted these errors immediately and called him on it. On one page, for example, he claims that cats only purr to communicate with other cats: "Cats do not purr by themselves, which would seem to mean that they do not purr for themselves, either, but for us and for each other, and even for other animals they like." I rolled my eyes at this, knowing that there are many documented cases of sick, injured, or frightened cats purring to comfort themselves. Heck, if you want to get anecdotal about it (which is Masson's favorite form of fact-finding), our Morgan will purr furiously in the vet's office because she's so frightened. So, imagine my surprise when he changes his mind three pages later, stating exactly that: "Veterinarians know that cats also purr when they are in distress. The predominant explanation is that they are self-medicating...We can liken it to when we hum or sing a tune to ourselves..." There are other similar contradictions, including one where he claims that catnip's influence is sex-related, then claims on the same page that it is not sex-related. Good grief.

There was also a fundamental lack of real research. There are claims made that are just plain false, such as "Cats rarely attempt to eat [catnip]." I don't know what cats he has been around, but most cats that are affected by catnip (which is about 1/3 of them, not 1/2 as Masson claims, except in Australia, where the gene for catnip appreciation is relatively rare due to a limited gene pool) do eat it. Another misrepresentation of facts occurs on page 70, where he says that, "[the nictitating membrane] is also found in sharks, owls, and polar bears, who use it to prevent snow blindness." Not only does the sentence appear to say that all of these animals use it to prevent snow blindness, but it is very misleading--it would have been better for him to say that fully functional nictitating membranes are found commonly in birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians, but less so in mammals. This is just one small example in a book rife with contradictions and poorly represented facts.

I was very disappointed in the book's structure as well. The "nine emotions", a number selected for cleverness rather than anything resembling reality, are arbitrarily named--and with the very first one, narcissism, the author concludes that it doesn't even apply to cats! If it doesn't apply, then why not replace it with another that was not represented, such as embarrassment or sadness?

The book has some cute pictures, and there are some interesting anecdotes, but I really would not recommend this book for information or facts--or to gain any kind of insight into cats' emotions. Masson's point of view is very limited, as his clan of cats at the time of writing this book were young ones, and it does not seem that he has ever had a cat long enough to observe the change of personality and behavior they experience as they age. If you are looking for a good solid book on cat behavior and evolution, I recommend The Tribe of Tiger by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. If you're looking for something a little more personal, perhaps a book exploring the relationship between cat and human, The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats by Clea Simon is a pretty good read--she describes her cat's journey from kitten to senior and beyond, and explores the relationship between women and cats. Men need not fear this book, however, as it would decently apply to the sensitive, gentle type of men who love cats.


vesta44 said...

This guy should not be allowed to own cats, ever. I've had several cats, and the ones I adopted that were originally outside cats were not happy being kept in the house all the time, but too bad. It was just too dangerous to let them outside.

Jennifer said...

Thank you for making these points about indoor cats. I find 99% of the time, the people who claim it's "cruel" not to let cats outdoors are simply too lazy to be bothered with having the cats indoors and having to clean litter boxes, keep them entertained, etc. I always tell people "You know, you aren't REQUIRED to have pets." Selfish bastards.

I don't know if this was the right or wrong idea, but there used to be a cat that seemed to "live" in the parking lot of our gym. So I tried unsuccessfully to catch him and take him to the Humane Society (he was well-fed-looking and friendly--liked to be petted and would approach people and purr and rub on your leg--but was very adept at running away if you tried to grab him). My husband was pretty opposed to the idea of having another cat so I didn't feel we could take him home. Anyway, people acted like *I* was the villain (and again, maybe I was, but I was doing the best thing I could think of). They felt he "belonged to somebody" and I'm sure they thought it would qualify as stealing if I took him. My feeling is, if you are letting your cat roam freely such that he is spending hours every night in a PARKING LOT, especially since our gym is located off a very busy, winding country road, then you don't give enough of a crap about him to say whether I can take him to the Humane Society or not. I lived in fear of running him over with my car and didn't even want to go to the gym anymore because it upset me so much to see him hanging out under cars and sitting in the bitter cold. I was also afraid that someone would kidnap him with the intent to hurt him, or kill him after he bit someone's overly friendly kid (I saw kids petting him all the time, which I did not consider advisable at all).

This year he is gone; if he is dead, I suppose (and sort of hope, considering some of the alternatives) he got run over by a car. It's too bad because he was such a sweet kitty and would have made a wonderful housecat. Oh, but *I'm* the one who is "cruel" for not letting my two roam the outdoors.

vesta44 said...

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OK, so here are the rules of the game:
1. Link to the person’s blog who tagged you.
2. Post these rules on your blog.
3. List seven random and/or weird facts about yourself.
4. Tag seven random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
5. Let each person know that they have been tagged by posting a comment on their blog.

Anonymous said...

My cats give this book a paws down.