Representation of Cats

November 1, 2017

by Lydia Lutz, Intern, ILS student

As a librarian it is often hard to resist bringing cats into my work, whether through the sharing of images or through speech. Sadly, I missed National Cat Day, which was on October 29th. Finally, a day when I could have droned on about cats shamelessly and I missed it. However, after finding an interesting book at the Glenn Black Lab, I have reason to discuss cats today.

Cover of bulletin displaying title
Cover of “The Domestic Cat” by Edward Howe Forbush (State Ornithologist) from The Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture – Economic Biology – Bulletin No. 2

It all started when I was perusing the stacks in the James H. Kellar Library. I found the usual suspects: books on archaeology, Native American art, and anthropology research. To my surprise, I found a book titled The Domestic Cat by Edward Howe Forbush.

The beginning pages contained pictures of happy kittens and cat-owner anecdotes. It was heavenly. There was even a relatable comment which suggested that cat owners should simply accept their fate as slaves of their felines and thus bring about peace and their affection (Forbush, 1916, p. 17).

Frontispiece showing cute kittens
Frontispiece: “The Innocents. (From ‘Our Dumb Animals.’) Thousands of kittens are abandoned yearly on country roads or in the woods. This is cruel and unlawful.”

However, the material soon turned dark.

Disturbing is not a word which can describe the black veil that fell over the following pages. The rest of the book depicted photographs of dead cats which had been strung up by their feet, stories of the insidious and evil cat breed, and statistics that revealed a prevalent dislike of cats (p. 20).

Illustration of a cat killing a bird
Illustration from page 53.

I understand that the main point of the book was to discuss how domestic cats affect other wildlife, specifically birds, but was it really necessary to produce such a cruel atmosphere?

After reading the small book I began to ponder how the image of the cat has changed in our society. How did we go from cats as relatively wild pets to commenting giddily on their “kitty beans?” When did “the cat” become “Mr. Snuggles?” Why is the majority of America glued to cat videos on YouTube? Is it because our economy has strengthened since the publication of this work in 1916? The presence of luxurious free time has certainly increased over the past 101 years. Animal rights laws have become more prominent and enforceable, as well. Perhaps it is a combination of all these aspects which has transformed the general population’s view of the purring, chunky balls of fluff. I honestly do not know the answers to these questions, but I am thankful that the reputation of the cat has evolved because I don’t know what I would do without mine.

Resources
Forbush, E. H. (1916). The Domestic Cat. Boston: Wright and Potter Printing Co., State Printers.