In The Lion in the Living Room, three things come together with exquisite, delightful effect: a natural history of cats, replete with ecological issues as well as contemporary cultural memes; evolutionary science as it pertains to the origins and consequences of our fascination with felines; and an unusually deft way with words by author Abigail Tucker. The net result is a deep and illuminating perspective on our favorite household companion.
The United States alone is home to a hundred million cats, whose voracious, carnivorous consumption includes some three million chickens each and every day of the year. The paradox of our adoration of these furry friends with their devastating impact upon other species all over the world is the central issue with which this book is concerned. Tucker herself is imbued with a love of cats, so her admonitory tale of the havoc they wreak reinforces and authenticates her indictment of their behavior.
What Tucker exposes - patiently, gently, and with wry good humor - is our utter collective ignorance of the global consequences of the environmental ascendancy of the seemingly innocuous housecat. Their numerical prevalence and predatory effects on a global scale are staggering. Tucker takes us on a tour of isolated islands as well as whole continents, and she documents species after species whose imminent or actual extinction is the result of the introduction of housecats.
She also explores the cultural, psychological side of our feline infatuation, including their prevalence all over the Internet. She describes in meticulous detail how the shape and features of the face of a cat trigger deep maternal responses by virtue of cats' uncanny resemblance, in certain respects, to the faces of human babies. The large, forward-facing eyes, the tiny nose, the rounded shape of the face as a whole, all combine to engender in humans the rather mindless adoration with which we are all too familiar.
Notwithstanding her normally light-hearted and witty style, Tucker's concluding remarks take on, as they must, a much more somber tone. "Human reverence and disregard have a dangerous way of coexisting, especially where animals are concerned. No matter how much we "love" something, it's never beyond us to destroy it." Not that we would destroy cats, but that we tolerate their effect on other species. Tucker's final observation about cats and the terrible consequences of our obsession with them is so wise, so true: "Unlike us, though, they are always innocent."
In spite of her formidable skills as a science writer, a researcher, and an animal lover, Tucker struggles slightly in one key respect. Many of us are enamored of cats beyond all reason, and the explanation remains somewhat elusive. Perhaps Tucker somewhat overlooks that cats are not merely inexplicably cute and adorable; they are something much more. A cat in motion is an exceptionally graceful and beautiful creature to behold. Far more than a dog or a parrot or the fish in an aquarium, a cat shows us nature at her finest, albeit on a level reduced to human scale. We love cats in part because we have lost our love of nature, and within our artificial, domestic abodes, the cat is a living reminder and remnant of the fearsome wonder of the jungle.
One hesitates to use the word genius, but Tucker's book borders on that quality. The photo of her on the inside jacket cover is difficult to square with the outstanding quality of her prose: she looks like a lovely twenty-something-year old, fresh out of college, perhaps, with an air of innocence. In fact, her photo bears a remarkable resemblance to the photo of the kitten on the front cover: large eyes looking right at us, in a sweetly rounded countenance. One wonders if she did that on purpose?