If you’re a cat lover, you probably see your feline friend as a love sponge with a wild streak. If you’re a cat hater, you probably see cats as feral and strange. It turns out that this debate has played out in scientific circles as well. Researchers, it seems, can’t agree on whether cats are a domesticated species or if they are instead only “semi-domesticated.” In my new article for Slate, I delve into the legal and scientific history of the world’s most popular pet. So are cats wild or domestic? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
In the meantime, here’s an excerpt to ponder:
Cats are descended from some of the world’s most fearsome predators. They can be aloof and mysterious, and when they go outside they blend into the savage world around them, stalking, growling, and leaping—their eyes wide, their ears back, their teeth bared. They are the kings of their backyard jungles. Yet they give it all up to be with us—a loud, erratic, and sometimes incomprehensible species. When they cross our thresholds, the beast fades away. They tame us, and they are tamed by us. Cats may have retained a bit of their wild ancestry, but they always come home.
Finally, a note about the paperback. Although I have updated the book since it was first published, the first edition of the paperback contains the original hardcover text. The updates should appear in the next version of the paperback. Here are a couple of updates and corrections worth noting:
Page 73: Marc Bekoff got his MD and PhD at Cornell University Medical College in New York City, not in Ithica.
Page 100: The Animal Legal Defense fund did not create an animal law committee in the American Bar Association. This was instead done by animal lawyer Barbara Gislason.
Page 122: After the book went to press, South Dakota became the 50th state to make animal cruelty a felony.
Page 293: Two updates to the timeline
2006: The U.S. federal government passes the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which impels rescue agencies to save pets as well as people during natural disasters.
2014: South Dakota becomes the 50th U.S. state to adopt a felony animal anti-cruelty law. The same year, the FBI announces it will begin tracking animal cruelty cases.
The origin of dogs is shrouded in mystery: How were they domesticated? What part of the world did they come from? How long have they been with us? Scientists are now closer to answering that last question, thanks to the discovery of a small wolf bone on a remote Siberian peninsula. Radiocarbon dating reveals that the bone is 35,000 years old, and genetic analysis suggests that this animal may have lived during a critical time in canine history: when the ancestors of today’s dogs split off from the ancestors of modern wolves. Though the find doesn’t tell us where dogs came from or even how they came to be, it does suggest that our canine pals have been around for a long time—possibly as long as 40,000 years. Scientists have long known that dogs are oldest friends; now we’re coming to appreciate just how ancient this friendship really is.
For the full story, check out my article in Science.
Dogs are one of the great unsolved mysteries of domestication. They were the first thing we ever tamed–before any plant, before any other animal. Yet, despite decades of research, scientists still can’t agree on where or even when dogs arose. Various teams have battled each other in scientific papers and in the press. Now an unprecedented collaboration of archaeologists and geneticists has brought the warring camps together for the first time. The group is analyzing thousands of bones from around the world, employing new techniques, and trying to put aside years of bad blood and bruised egos. If it succeeds, it may finally uncover the history of man’s oldest friend.
For more on this story, including everything we currently know about where dogs came from, check out my latest feature for Science, “Dawn of the Dog“. [pdf]
Is your pet a family member or a commodity? That’s the issue lurking beneath the surface of a trio of new laws proposed in Maryland and Virginia. Two of the bills aim to ban or severely limit the sale of cats and dogs from pet stores, while the third seeks to redefine the nature of animal shelters. Yet all speak to the rapidly evolving relationship between us and our companion animals.
The pet store bills target shops that sell dogs and cats from breeders. Both were inspired by growing public concern about animals that come from so-called puppy and kitten mills—commercial breeding operations that put profit above animal welfare. Pets from such places are often unsocialized and tend to harbor genetic and infectious diseases. The Maryland bill, which was passed in Montgomery County last week, prohibits pet stores from selling cats and dogs obtained from such mills. Stores can only sell pets procured from shelters or rescue organizations, as large chains like PetSmart and PetCo do. The Virginia bill, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, covers the entire state. It is similar to the Maryland bill, though it still allows pet stores to sell from breeders that meet certain qualifications. It also largely prohibits the sale of pets at flea markets and similar venues.
The Maryland and Virginia bills match legislation passed in more than 70 localities across the country in the past few years. Though the ostensible purpose of these laws is to improve animal welfare, they speak to the growing bond between us and our pets. In the past 20 years, dogs and cats have morphed from companion animals to full-fledged family members. We take them on vacation, we spend billions on their food and care, and we even risk our lives for them. As a result, we now view our pets less like property and more like people. A few decades ago, we didn’t think twice about buying a cat or dog from a neighborhood pet shop or seeking the latest and greatest breed, like we might a fancy new TV. Today, many of these pet shops have disappeared, and owners are more likely to boast that their pet is a rescue than a purebred. We don’t buy anymore. We adopt.
One of the most fascinating tidbits I came across while researching my new book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, concerns the 10,000-year-old village of Shillourokambos. Located on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, the site was once home to an early farming community whose inhabitants stored grain in stone silos and corralled livestock behind wood fences. In 2001, archaeologists digging beneath the foundation of what was once a small, circular house made a surprising discovery: a shallow grave containing the skeleton of a human, and next to it, surrounded by carved seashells, the remains of a cat.
That wasn’t the fascinating part. Archaeologists had long suspected that cats first entered human society to hunt the rodents that early farming villages attracted. What surprised me was learning that the Shillourokambians had shipped in foxes for the same purpose. And yet only cats became pets. Dogs, likewise, became treasured companions when plenty of other animals could have theoretically fit the bill. Of all the species on earth, only two have morphed from wild animal to family member. It’s a process that took thousands of years.
And yet, as we were transforming these animals, they were also transforming us.
This month, The Indianapolis Star runs a fascinating investigation about the true legal value of our companion animals. Some companies that make millions of dollars off our bond with our dogs and cats deny this bond when it comes to a court of law. The whole piece is worth a read, but here’s a video that summarizes the main points, featuring yours truly.
Dogs have owners; cats have staff. Dogs are man’s best friend; cats are man’s best frenemy. Dogs come when called; cats take a message and get back to you.
As long as we’ve had dogs and cats, we’ve had dogs versus cats. Dogs are obedient, loyal, and love unconditionally. Cats are obstinate, fickle, and love when they feel like it. But are these personality differences rooted in reality—or are they just in our heads?
Science is coming closer to providing an answer.Last month, researchers published the most detailed analysis yet of the cat genome, comparing it to that of the housecat’s immediate ancestor, the Near Eastern wildcat. Among the highlights: several genes linked to fear, memory, and learning that seem to have changed as the cat morphed from feral to friendly. This makes sense, as cats, like other domesticated animals, have had to overcome their fear of humans and adapt to living in our society. We know less about how the dog’s genome changed from that of its ancestor, the gray wolf, but scientists believe it has undergone more—and more intense—genetic changes than that of the cat’s. That’s not a surprise when you consider that cats have only lived with us for about 10,000 years, while dogs have been with us for up to 30,000.
The Near Eastern wildcat: The ancestor of today’s housecat (Credit: Arno Meintjes/Flickr)
Take a look at the cat snuggled in your bed or the dog lounging on your sofa, and it’s hard to believe that just a few thousand years ago these were wild animals. Dogs were gray wolves that roamed Europe and Asia, sniffing out prey and tearing carcasses apart. Cats were wildcats, slinking through the deserts of the Middle East and eking out an existence on rodents, birds, and reptiles. Somehow, someway, the genes of both animals changed enough to turn them into the lovable pets we know today. Now scientists are finally getting a glimpse of what some of those changes may have been.
In a study published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers reports finding a handful of genetic modifications that may have turned the wildcat into the housecat. Many of these changes are in genes you would expect: those tied to things like fear, memory, and the ability to learn new behaviors when given a food reward. After all, in order for wildcats to become kitty cats, they had to become less afraid of people and learn to live with them. This likely happened around 10,000 years ago, scientists believe, as the first wildcats entered early farming villages to hunt rodents that that were feasting on our grain. These felines wouldn’t have lasted long if they couldn’t adapt to life with humans. Continue Reading →
This past weekend I made a short appearance on NBC Connecticut to promote a book signing at Dogology in Canton, CT. I touch on the inspiration for the book, legal rights for cats and dogs, and the evolving role of dogs in the U.S. military.