The Cold War Between Men and Cats

Perhaps it's time to call a truce

November 04, 2013|By Peter Mandel

Way down deep, we're all motivated by the same urges. Cats have the courage to live by them.

— Jim Davis

There they crouch. The words "cat" and "courage" lurking quietly in the same sentence. As an American man, I understand how I'm supposed to react.

"Cats?" I should object. "They're all about cushions, about couches. Give me a good mud-loving hound, any day." Despising felines, or pretending to, is a sex-role rule for us males as powerful as pulling on pants.

Friends of mine complain on and on about the fact that cats don't "come when called." Some of us insist that they're arrogant — measurably more so than we men. Above all is the threatening realization that women obviously seem to enjoy cats down to emotional and cerebral depths that we do not understand.

I am feeling embarrassed even as I write this, but, well, we have whiskers, they have whiskers. It is time for the cold war between men and cats to end.

A small confession: I write books for kids, including two with cats in them. And while I was ensnared by Old Yeller and White Fang as much as any guy, my favorite read growing up was something called "It's Like This, Cat," a 1964 novel by Emily Neville.

The book's main character is a New York City kid, like I was. At one point, he says this: "Pop can have his memories of good old Jeff [the dog] and rabbit hunts, but I'm going to have me a tiger."

This idea — of a boy and his tiger — sounded absolutely primitive to me. Jungle dangerous. Alley tough. After we adopted a shelter tabby, I went straight for my Animal Encyclopedia. It didn't take much page-flipping to figure out that, despite so many tales about dogs who tug at the leash of shared adventure, even the laziest, fluffiest housecat is far more wild.

Compared to felines, canines have been man's domestics roughly twice as long. You can look this up. And more than any snarling Shepherd or Husky, a cat craves meat and knows how to prowl and to strike in order to obtain it. In fact, unlike a dog, a feline will die if you try to make it a vegetarian.

I understand that there are men out there who'd just as soon grill chunks of fennel as a lamb chop. But even when we obsess over carrots or cilantro, we still harbor images of ourselves as just a little bit feral — able to construct a fire out-of-doors and, maybe, just possibly, trap some emergency food.

As a middle-aged guy, nowadays, who's lived with tigers while his friends have kept wolves, I understand a down-under-the-fur predator truth. Men and cats are a natural match. We are, although we don't recognize this, much the same.

Catching and chomping on prey is just one similarity. Ever watch animals when workmen are on the job either inside your house or in your yard? A dog will vapidly bark or present himself for a scratch. But keep an eye on your cat. He'll monitor the operation, whatever it involves, stalking every nut and bolt. He'll stretch out a claw — thwack — for wayward strands of wire. He is a born mechanic.

In fact, if you talk to plumbers or electricians or tree surgeons, you'll discover an interesting thing. They all have feline colonies at home. Five cats, sometimes. Even ten. The sky's the limit. My wife will go as far as to argue that it's because these men are secure enough in the physical aspects of manhood that they don't need to pretend. Why should a carpenter or roofer care to concoct an epic dislike for something small and fuzzy if they can out-arm-wrestle just about anyone in town?

I've been thinking about this, lately, and my wife may be right. What, after all, does the chilly inter-species relationship between cats and men boil down to? Are we simply jealous of the cat's brilliant skills at hunting? Or envious about its easy intimacy with our wives and girlfriends? More than likely, we're put off — outraged even — by a creature that does not pay proper respects to the animal kingdom's two-legged rulers.

Still, I say it's long past time for at least a little mutual respect. Cats could give us a passing wave with a paw, and we could bend down and pat them. Pat them, I said. The way we would clap shoulders or high-five a worthy foe at tennis.

Maybe cats and men could share a burger now and then. We could hang out back in the alley, near the trash cans. Talk fishing. Crack some snacks and beers.

A club of some kind might be an idea. A club for loungers. A club for prowlers. A club for tinkerers with tools.

A private club, it would be, with some unyielding rules:

No women. And no dogs allowed.

Peter Mandel of Providence is an author of books for kids including Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan) and Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).

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