Preview of Coming Attractions
Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit http://www.thecatbehaviorist.com/ . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Cats and Matriarchy
Occasionally, I will read two seemingly unrelated books that synthesize as profoundly connected. Last year, my favorite read of the year was Leaving Mother Lake a biographical portrait of a woman who grew up in the truly Matriarchal culture of the Moso women. Moso lake is a small region in China near the Tibetan border. Isolated by a rugged, mountainous terrain, their culture is entirely different from any other that I have encountered except for that of the cat as I read about them in Roger Tabor’s The Wild Life of the Domestic Cat, which explains the biologist’s extensive research on feral cat colonies and cultures.
In traditional Moso culture, there is no acknowledgement of fathers. There isn’t even a word for father. The family is organized around the matrilineal line (the line of the mothers). The home is usually the grandmother’s, her daughters and their children all living under one roof. Each grown woman has her own flower room; basically her bedroom where she can receive her lovers privately. When the sons and brothers mature, they move out of the main house into their own dwelling. They often travel far away in their work as herdsmen and traders. The women tend the agriculture and the home.
Uncles and brothers perform all the traditional support roles of a man in the family, except for sex. Incest is highly taboo. Men and women are free to engage in non-monogamous relationships based on mutual desire with a great deal of freedom, only not within the family. Thus the family bond is based on blood rather than romantic love or forced marriage. The Moso believe that love comes and goes like the seasons and find the idea of basing the stability of the family on such a sensation very precarious indeed.
Sisters share childrearing duties, including nursing. The arrangements are very egalitarian from house grouping to house grouping. Amongst themselves, the Moso are not very territorial but they are known to distinguish one family as the social pariah of the community and they are not always welcoming to people from other cultures.
I am by no means an expert on Moso culture, but reading Leaving Mother Lake not only excited my imagination about the variety of ways that humans can organize themselves. It also excited me because so many of the social structures where identical to that of the cat, leading me to the exciting conclusion that the domesticated cat is a matriarchal creature in its social organization.
Why do I think this? First of all, let me be clear about one thing. The domestic cat is NOT a solitary animal. The domestic cat is also NOT a dog. Cats are neither the aloof individualists they are misrepresented as, nor are they pack animals. The ancestors of the domestic cat are solitary animals, but the domestic cat has evolved into a social animal. They still hunt alone, (unlike dogs who hunt in packs, and thus organize their entire hierarchy around this survival practice) cats congregate for social reasons. For companionship, mating and security, and around a common food source.
In his book, The Wild Life of the Domestic Cat, Roger Tabor suggests that the considerable research on patterns of dominance and submission in cats may tell us more about the species conducting the research than about the cats (ostensibly) being studied. He finds patterns of affection and cooperation far more prevalent among cat colonies (feral and domestic). Aggression is usually focused on unfamiliar intruders or towards Toms when Queens are protecting their kittens. In fact, this defensive aggression is a cooperative action amongst Queens who will kitten-sit each other’s offspring;both nursing and providing protection. Any evidence of hierarchy is usually associated with limited food supply or conditions of confinement combined with high population density (such as the cages in which research cats are often confined while their behavior is being studied under controlled conditions.)
It is clear that cats confined in cages are not operating with their normal instincts, because the normally fastidious species will urinate in its water dish and sleep in its litter box. In essence, the cat’s hardwiring runs amok when the environment works against its instincts. Through the examination of studies of feral cat colonies, barn cats and other house cats, particularly those that are not-neutered, it is clear that female cats are the nest builders. They tend to stay closer to home, whether home is a back alley, a barn or a comfortable suburban house. The male cats will roam much farther for hunting and mating. In most documented feline social groups, cats do not recognize the father of their kittens. And in fact, several kittens within a litter may have different fathers.
Interestingly, although there is considerable biting and grasping during cat mating, there is no rape according to field researchers. The female cat selects her mates. When she goes into heat, her trilling and her physical postures and pheromones may attract many Toms who may fight each other, but she is not somehow obliged to mate with the winner. She may wait for another Tom more to her liking or a she may mate with several Toms. Cat sexuality seems to know no taboos other than female consent. This is much like the Moso women. A Moso woman may invite a man into her flower room, but this does not guarantee him admission at another time. She may welcome him back as long as she likes, but if she wants to break it off with him, she simply leaves any of his things on a hook outside her bedroom door. She may have multiple children from several fathers and there is no stigma associated with this. The fathers simply aren’t involved. Sex is strictly consensual.
All of this has led me on a search to learn more about Cat social structures. Cats have been so broadly misunderstood over the ages that new research and observations are just coming to the fore. Most of the evidence and a research is anecdotal, though it may be carefully quantified. Over the next months, I will be conducting several field studies on the social roles of shelter cats, feral cats and barn cats. As well as looking at the various maternal cultures of the cat looking at the highly domesticated pedigreed cat, and the maternal practices of shelter queens, feral queens and others.
As always, if you have made interesting observations about the social roles of the cats you interact with—or have anecdotal insights into the relationship between the mother cat, her young and other cats, please don’t hesitate to share them. You can contact me via my website at www.TheCatBehaviorist.com .