House cats rule bedrooms and back alleys, deserted Antarctic islands, even cyberspace. And unlike dogs, cats offer humans no practical benefit. The truth is they are sadly incompetent mouse-catchers and now pose a threat to many ecosystems. Yet, we love them still.
In the “eminently readable and gently funny” (Library Journal, starred review) The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker travels through world history, natural science, and pop culture to meet breeders, activists, and scientists who’ve dedicated their lives to cats. She visits the labs where people sort through feline bones unearthed from the first human settlements, treks through the Floridian wilderness in search of house cats-turned-hunters on the loose, and hangs out with Lil Bub, one of the world’s biggest celebrities—who just happens to be a cat.
“Fascinating” (Richmond Times-Dispatch) and “lighthearted” (The Seattle Times), Tucker shows how these tiny felines have used their relationship with humans to become one of the most powerful animals on the planet. A “lively read that pounces back and forth between evolutionary science and popular culture” (The Baltimore Sun), The Lion in the Living Room suggests that we learn that the appropriate reaction to a house cat, it seems, might not be aww but awe.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
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The Lion in the Living Room Chapter 1 CATACOMBS
BUBBLING AWAY on Wilshire Boulevard in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, the La Brea Tar Pits look like pools of toxic black taffy. California colonists once harvested tar here to waterproof their roofs, but today these asphalt seeps are far more precious to paleontologists studying Ice Age wildlife. All kinds of fantastic animals mired themselves in the sticky death traps: Columbian mammoths with pretzeled tusks, extinct camels, errant eagles.
But most famous of all are the La Brea cats.
At least seven types of prehistoric feline inhabited Beverly Hills 11,000 years ago and earlier: close relatives of modern bobcats and mountain lions but also several vanished species. More than 2,000 skeletons of Smilodon populator—the biggest and scariest of the saber-tooth cats—have been recovered from the 23-acre excavation site, making it the largest such trove on the planet.
It’s late morning. The asphalt is softening as the day warms and the air smells like melting pavement. Ugly black bubbles popping on the tar pits’ surface make it look as though a monster is breathing just beneath. My eyes water a bit from the fumes and, plunging a stick into the goo, I find that I can’t pull it out.
“You only need an inch or two to immobilize a horse,” says John Harris, chief curator of the museum here. “A giant sloth would get stuck like a fly on flypaper.” There’s a touch of pride in his voice.
The only way to get the asphalt off your skin is to massage it with mineral oil or butter, as a few local fraternity pranksters have learned the hard way. Given time enough, the tar even seeps into bone, preserving the remains of the giant animals that died in agony here so well that pit specimens aren’t even truly turned-to-stone fossils. Drilling into a preserved saber-tooth rib produces the same smell you get at the dentist’s office: burning collagen. It smells alive.
In the murk of the tar pits, I’m searching for clues to the primordial human-feline relationship. Human patronage of cats, which seems so intuitive to us, is in reality a quite recent and radical arrangement. Though we’ve shared the earth for millions of years, the cat family and mankind have never gotten along before, much less gotten cozy on the couch. Our competing needs for meat and space make us natural enemies. Far from sharing food, humans and felines have spent most of our long mutual history snatching each other’s meals and masticating each other’s mangled remains—though to be perfectly honest, mostly they ate us.
It was cats like the La Brea saber-tooths, colossal cheetahs, and giant cave lions—and later their modern-day heirs—that dominated the untamed planet. Our prehistoric forebears shared habitats with these sorts of behemoths in parts of the Americas, and in Africa we tangled with various species of saber-tooths for millions of years. So powerful was the ancient feline influence that cats may have helped make us human in the first place.
In a storage room, Harris shows off the milk teeth of a Smilodon kitten. They are almost four inches long.
“How did they nurse?” I ask.
“Very carefully,” he answers.
The adult upper canine teeth are eight inches; their shape reminds me of a reaper’s blade. I run my finger along the serrated inner curve and get the chills. Scientists still don’t know much about these animals—researchers once made a steel model of saber-tooth jaws in an effort to figure out how in the world they chewed, and “we only recently learned to tell male from female,” Harris admits—but it’s safe to say they would have been absolutely terrifying. Weighing about 400 pounds, they likely used their burly forelimbs to wrestle down mastodons before stabbing their saber teeth through the thick skin of the prey animals’ necks.
Then my eyes stray to a nearby skeleton of an American lion, which stood a head taller than the saber-tooths and probably weighed about 800 pounds enfleshed.
So this is what our ancestors were up against.
The sheer awesomeness of such predators, and the grisly legacy of our interactions with them, make it especially remarkable that today people are on the cusp of wiping the cat family off the face of the earth. Most modern cat species, big and small, are now in grave decline, losing ground to humans daily.
With one exception, that is. Harris marches me out to an ongoing pit excavation near one of the oozing seeps not far from the museum’s door. As two women in tar-smudged T-shirts chip away at a Smilodon femur, there’s a sudden brownish blur around my ankles, and up hops Bob, a tailless female house cat with a potbelly and a proprietary air. The giggling excavators tell me how they rescued her from the traffic accident in which she forfeited her tail and then nursed her back to health. “No more surprise mice,” one woman says, patting Bob’s amputated rump.
Which is stranger, I wonder: the fact that Beverly Hills is a graveyard for giant local lions, or that a tiny, unassuming feline stowaway originally from the Middle East thrives here today?
But in fact, the house cat’s rise is the flip side of the lion’s ruin. The story of the cat family’s ongoing downfall helps explain what organisms like Bob and Cheetoh and all of our beloved house cats really are: fully loaded feline predators, like lynx or jaguars or any other kind of cat, but also extreme biological outliers.
Absent human civilization, the Greater Los Angeles area could still be a prime habitat for the native cats that survived the Ice Age. A few straggling mountain lions continue to haunt the Santa Monica Mountains, though the population is hopelessly isolated and inbred and the rare kittens often end up as highway roadkill. A mountain lion known as P-22 was recently photographed loitering in the hills beneath the Hollywood sign, and gazing out over the glowing city at night.
But it’s Bob who rules the tar pits now.
The La Brea saber-tooths and giant lions died out around the end of the last Ice Age for unknown reasons. But we can piece together the narrative of why most of the surviving wild cats—even the smaller species, some of which look very much like our beloved house pets—are in dire trouble today. The story begins where so many of our ancestors ended: inside the mouth of a cat.
The cat family is part of the mammalian order Carnivora, the “flesh devourers.” All carnivores, from wolves to hyenas, eat flesh as part of their diet, and why wouldn’t they? Meat is a precious resource, full of fat and protein and wonderfully easy to digest. But it’s also hard to come by, and so most animals, including almost all of those classified as carnivores, pad their diets with other food groups. In the bear family, for instance, black bears chomp acorns and tubers with plant-crushing molars that wouldn’t look out of place in the mouth of a cow; pandas famously subsist on bamboo; and even the big-fanged polar bear occasionally munches on berries.
Not cats. From the two-pound rusty-spotted cat to the 600-pound Siberian tiger, all three dozen or so cat species are what biologists call hypercarnivores. They eat pretty much nothing but meat. The plant-chewing molars of cats have shrunk to a vestigial size, like something a child would leave for the tooth fairy, and the rest of their teeth are extremely tall and sharp, a mix of steak knives and scissors. (The difference between a cat’s teeth and a bear’s is like the Alps versus the Appalachians.) Though called canines, the killing teeth at the front of the mouth are actually larger in cats than in dogs, which should come as no surprise: cats require three times as much protein in their diets as dogs, and kittens need four times as much. Dogs can even get by on a vegan diet, but cats can’t synthesize key fatty acids on their own—they must get them from other animals’ bodies.
The singular purpose of a cat’s teeth—butchery—explains why all cat maws look alike, even to biologists. The jaws of an insect-sucking sun bear look nothing like a grizzly’s, but sometimes even experts can’t tell a lion’s from a tiger’s because they are designed for exactly the same job.
So it goes for the rest of cats’ bodies. There are tremendous, almost comic differences in body size—some cats are 14 inches long from tip to tail, and some are 14 feet—but very few differences in form. “The important thing about big cats and small cats is not that they are different but that they are the same,” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes in The Tribe of the Tiger, her history of the feline family. House cats and tigers, she says, are “the alpha and omega of their kind.” Sure, tigers have stripes, lions have manes, and pumas have eight nipples while margays have two. But the blueprint endures: long legs, powerful forelimbs, flexible spine, a tail (sometimes up to half the length of the body) for balance, and short guts for digesting meat and meat alone. Cats are armed with retractable claws, sentient whiskers, and ears that rotate for uncanny directional hearing and the broadest possible auditory range. With eyes located at the front of the face, they possess excellent binocular and night vision. Cat skulls are domed and their faces round and short with powerfully anchored jaw muscles, a design that maxes out bite force at the front of the mouth.
Whether the prey is bunny rabbit or water buffalo, almost all cats (with the notable exception of ultraspeedy cheetahs) hunt in the same way: stalk, ambush, tackle, and enjoy. Even lazy Cheetoh hunts like this, plump rear wiggling in anticipation as he pounces on a hapless shoelace. Cats are largely visual predators and depend on surprise, delivering the killing bite by sliding their canines between neck vertebrae like (as the animal behaviorist Paul Leyhausen puts it) “a key in a lock.” Cats can get the best of animals up to three times their size, and their ambitions don’t always stop there: as a child, I used to watch one of our Siamese stalk deer, crouching on boulders above the oblivious herd.
The modern Felidae have enjoyed worldwide success for ten million years or more, across a remarkable range of habitats. Cats are partial to the tropical forests of Asia, but the feline archetype performs in almost all climates: the snow leopard in the Himalayas, the jaguar in the Amazon, even the sand cat in the heart of the Sahara. Thousands of years ago, lions lived not just in Beverly Hills but also in Devon, England, and Peru—pretty much everywhere on earth except for Australia and Antarctica. Lions are believed to have been the most widely distributed wild land mammal ever, king of a thousand jungles plus deserts and marshes and mountain ranges in between.
What wild cats need to succeed is space. This is why, in nature, they are typically less common than other big carnivores like bears and hyenas. Even the littlest cats need comparatively huge tracts of land to harvest the necessary animal protein. A very rough rule of thumb is that 100 pounds of prey animals living in an environment can support one pound of resident carnivore. But for hypercarnivores, the stakes are even higher. These animals have no evolutionary backup plan. They must kill or die. In fact, cats quite frequently kill each other. Lions eat cheetahs, leopards eat caracals, caracals eat African wild cats. Cats even dispatch members of their own species, and this animosity—in addition to their secretive hunting style, and a given ecosystem’s inability to support large numbers of them—explains why most are solitary creatures.
Although humans devour stunning quantities of flesh these days, we are not members of the carnivore family. We are primates. Our great ape relatives don’t eat much meat, and neither did our early human-like kin, who started coming down out of the trees in Africa 6 or 7 million years ago, long after cats had settled into their spot at the tippy-top of the food chain.
Not only did we not eat meat, we generously supplied it in the form of our bodies and our babies. A host of creatures dined on us: supersize eagles, crocodiles, bus-length snakes, archaic bears, carnivorous kangaroos, and maybe jumbo otters. But even amid such fearsome company, cats were almost certainly our most formidable predators.
Humanity’s early ancestors came of age in Africa during the “heyday of cats,” according to anthropologist Robert Sussman, whose book, Man the Hunted, details our history as a prey animal. In regions where we “overlapped” with cats, he tells me, “they took advantage of us completely”—dragging us into caves, devouring us in trees, caching our eviscerated corpses in their lairs. Indeed, we might not know nearly so much about human evolution if not for big cat kills. The world’s oldest fully preserved skull representing the Homo genus, known as Skull Number 5, was recovered from caves in Dmanisi, Georgia, which likely served as a sort of picnicking ground for extinct giant cheetahs. In caves in South Africa, paleontologists endlessly puzzled over piles of hominid and other primate bones, trying to figure out the source of the carnage. Had our forefathers massacred each other? Then somebody noticed that the holes in some skulls lined up perfectly with leopard fangs.
The contemporary landscape also gives clues about the toll that cats likely took on us. Sussman and his colleague, Donna Hart, surveyed modern primate predation data and found that the cat family is still responsible for more than a third of all primate kills. (Dogs and hyenas account for just 7 percent.) One study at Kenya’s Mount Suswa lava caves showed that leopards there eat baboons and practically nothing else. Even our strongest, smartest living kin can fall prey to felines half their size: scientists have picked stubby black lowland gorilla toes out of leopard poop and chimpanzee teeth from lion feces.
Scientists are just starting to formally study our own legacy as prey, finding, for instance, that our color vision and depth perception may have first evolved as a system for detecting snakes. Experiments have shown that even very young children are better at recognizing the shapes of serpents than lizards; they also spot lions faster than antelope. Antipredation strategies persist in a host of modern human behaviors, from our tendency to go into labor in the deepest part of night (many of our predators would have hunted at dawn and dusk) to, perhaps, our appreciation of eighteenth-century landscape paintings, whose sweeping vistas give the pleasing sense that we would have seen danger coming before it ever got close. The goose bumps that I felt at La Brea, while holding a saber-tooth’s fangs, date back to a time when my body hair would have stood on end at a predator’s approach—making me appear larger and, I hope, intimidating.
Predation pressure likely also helped shape our body size and posture (tall, upright bodies allowed us to scan more distant horizons), our preference for community and social life (a glorified form of safety in numbers), and our sophisticated forms of communication. Even less exalted primate relatives like vervet monkeys have a bark that means “leopard.” (Though not to be outdone, small Amazonian cats called margays have been observed mimicking primate baby calls while hunting.)
But the cats’ most significant contribution to our species’ evolution may not have passed from predator to prey, but rather from predator to scavenger. That gift was our own first fateful taste of meat.
The earliest evidence of our meat-eating dates back about 3.4 million years. Cut marks on hoofed animal bones found near Dikika, Ethiopia, show how hard our largely vegetarian ancestors labored to slice off the meat; at other sites, they hammered into the rich marrow. But where did those first delicious bones come from? Our ancestors would not develop hunting technology for millions of years.
According to Briana Pobiner, an expert in human carnivory at the National Museum of Natural History, it’s possible that our unarmed, meat-mad predecessors simply chased some of our first prey animals to death, or threw rocks to kill them. But Pobiner—who works in her office beneath the photographed gaze of two very large lionesses—believes that it’s more likely that we were shameless thieves and scavengers, or “kleptoparasites.” Our ungracious “hosts” would have been the big cats who felled gazelles and other grazing animals, ate their fill, and then wandered away to come back later. That’s when our pesky ancestors sneaked in to snatch what they could. We may have lifted antelopes from the trees where leopards stashed them (perhaps to hide them from even mightier cats, like lions). But the saber-tooths would likely have generated the best leftovers, as the anthropologist Curtis Marean has pointed out, because their big teeth were good for killing but not necessarily for chewing, leaving plenty on the bone. Some scientists have even proposed that saber-tooth table scraps were so bountiful and essential to the diet of early humans that we followed the cats out of Africa and into Europe, in the first great migration of our species.
Once our ancestors tasted meat, rich in nutrients and amino acids, they wanted more. Some paleoanthropologists have argued that meat-eating ultimately made us human. It was certainly a crucial step.
“Meat-eating was so important that we got better and better at making stone tools,” Pobiner explains. “It was a feedback loop. Being able to get more meat requires good perception of your environment, communication, advance planning. We would not have gone on the same evolutionary trajectory if it had not been for meat-eating.”
Indeed, meat-eating may have literally expanded our minds, according to the “expensive tissue hypothesis” (which concerns brain development, not brand-name Kleenex). Because vegetarian primates must process large quantities of tough plant matter, they have monstrous, energy-sucking intestines. (This is why otherwise-skinny monkeys look like they have beer bellies.) But an animal with steady access to easy-to-digest meat may have the evolutionary leeway to shrink its guts and spend that digestive energy on something niftier: an enormous brain. This crown jewel of Homo sapiens is extraordinarily costly, taking up 2 percent of our body weight but 20 percent of our caloric intake. It may be that we can afford it because of meat-eating.
The biggest jump in our ancestors’ brain size happened about 800,000 years ago—not long after we mastered fire, which we used to cook our meat, preserving it longer and making it more portable. A few hundred thousand years later, we figured out how to bring down big game on our own. Fast-forward several hundred more millennia and the Homo sapiens twig of the family tree finally sprouted, about 200,000 years ago.
At this point the original, and lopsided, power balance between people and big cats gave way to an uneasy equilibrium, in which our beefed-up brains counterbalanced their brawn. With our new hunting weapons, we could probably sometimes push big cats off their carcasses and even kill a few, though mutual avoidance might have been our best strategy. Yet apparently we couldn’t help admiring our beautiful foes. Thirty-thousand-year-old cave paintings in Southern France’s Chauvet Cave—some of the oldest art in the world—include magnificent ocher leopards and lions drawn with a biologist’s eye for detail, down to the whisker spots.
This ancient stalemate between cats and humans, in which both parties were heavily armed and more or less equally matched in their mutual quest for meat, lasted until about 10,000 years ago, when somewhere in the Middle East, humans got enterprising, or lucky, enough to figure out how to forever satisfy our infinite hunger for flesh: raise and kill our own. The domestication of herd animals and plants, the evolutionary coup known as the Neolithic revolution, allowed hunter-gatherers to settle down in permanent communities, which ultimately led to the birth of culture, and history, and the earth as we know it.
For many other creatures, especially cats, the appearance of our first flocks and gardens signaled the beginning of the end.
We tend to think of the conservation plight of wild cats as a relatively recent phenomenon; and Europeans, the British in particular, often shoulder much of the blame for killing them off. It’s true that colonists introduced guns to India and Africa and offered handsome bounties for feline pelts. On one 1911 spree, the hunting party of King George V bagged thirty-nine Indian tigers in under two weeks. The Victorians filled London’s zoos with African lions, which languished in captivity and usually died within a few years (though a few managed to take a carriage horse or two with them before they went). The imperial campaigns against cats are chronicled in hunting narratives, a singular category of literature that one biologist described to me as “the torrid side of mammalogy.” In the classic The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, the British officer James Henry Patterson recounts, with icicle poise, his run-ins with a pair of maneless, seemingly depraved African lions.
But for all their chilly efficiency, the British merely accelerated a process that began with the very dawn of agriculture.
“Cats are very fragile,” the feline geneticist Steve O’Brien tells me. “If they don’t have a lot to eat, they starve, simple as that. It’s not shooting them that’s the problem. It’s planting farms and neighborhoods.”
Cats are biologically at odds with the broadest patterns of human civilization. This was true from the first: Egypt, the first great agrarian culture, gradually lost much of its lion population. The Romans—who bagged big cats for processions and Colosseum spectacles—documented regional shortages as early as 325 BC. By the twelfth century lions were gone from Palestine, where they were once common. Before Europeans arrived in India, Mughal emperors fragmented the tiger population by razing forests. And so it went with all kinds of wild cats.
What’s most informative about the British hunting narratives are their settings which illustrate precisely the sort of places and situations where human-cat conflict happens—not in the deep jungle but on the freshly plowed margins of civilization: sugarcane and coffee farms abutting Indian jungle, railroad tracks snaking through the Kenyan bush. Along such edges we push deeper into cat territory and cats wander into ours.
The more we push, the more coexistence with wild cats becomes nearly impossible. First, we clear the land, reaching ever deeper into rain forest and savannah, and devouring or shooing off the prey animals. This hurts wild cats, from the lions and tigers that compete with us directly for the big herbivores that we like to eat, to house-cat-sized felines like the African golden cat, whose smaller prey is exterminated or siphoned off as bushmeat.
After we topple forests and polish off the native prey species, we introduce our own food animals like cattle, sheep, chickens, and fish—which wild cats of all sizes, now without a meat source, naturally want to eat. Now it’s their turn to be kleptoparasites, and farmers don’t tolerate feline thievery.
And then, too, sometimes the biggest cats still want to eat us. Even in the twenty-first century, the most horrific man-eating episodes continue to occur in border zones where spreading human communities press against cat territory. A lone woodsman can hunt his whole life in Russia’s vast birch forests without running afoul of a Siberian tiger, but in India’s Sundardans Delta, home to 4 million people, rogue tigers are a problem; and in southwestern Tanzania’s booming Rufiji farming district, lions can take hundreds of villagers per decade.
Only today, agricultural poisons have replaced firearms as our weapon of choice. Lace a giraffe carcass with pesticides and you’ll eliminate not only the man-eating lion but the whole shifty-eyed pride, dispatching the king of beasts like any other pest. Lacking poison, locals will use any available means. Indian tigers emerging from preserves have even been clubbed to death.
It’s easy to blame faraway peoples for the demise of the big cats until you imagine what it would be like to send your seven-year-old herd boy to guard a lion-plagued pasture, or to discover a leopard in your own latrine. And when the problem hits home, Americans are no different. Much of America was, after all, big-cat country once, but settlers long ago dispensed with jaguars in the South and mountain lions east of the Mississippi—excepting Florida’s panthers, which are inbred and diseased and subsisting on armadillos in one dismal pocket of the Everglades.
The wild cats’ tendency to kill the game animals we covet, the farm animals we raise, and, in the case of the largest feline species, us, makes them essentially incompatible with human settlements. As our populations thicken, theirs must thin, and as surviving cats are pushed into undesirable habitat, other forces related to human settlement patterns start to take a major toll: traffic accidents, distemper outbreaks, trophy hunting, fur trapping, droughts, hurricanes, border security barricades, the exotic pet trade.
At present, some humans are even taking their new status as apex predators literally, by eating big cats, as they once relished us. The Asian medicine market carves up tiger carcasses for human consumption: claws and whiskers and bile, but especially bones, for tonic wine. And loin of lion is a trendy dish among a few American gourmands, including a New York based-group called the Gastronauts. It’s apparently best when pan-seared, then slow-cooked, and served with coriander and carrots.
Since so many wild cats are now much easier to find dead than alive, I’ve traveled to the Smithsonian Institution’s off-site storage facility, hidden way out in suburban Maryland’s strip mall country, to look for them. These giant buildings house all the pickled dolphins and gorillas that won’t fit in the downtown museums; one structure is more or less a hangar for the airplane-sized bones of whales.
A security guard inspects my purse and since there’s no food allowed in this sterile graveyard, I discreetly eject my chewing gum. Soon I’m following the jingle of the Smithsonian mammals curator’s keys as he walks the aisles of metal cabinets. This particular building is all “skins, skulls and skeletons,” Kris Helgen says over his shoulder. He pulls open a drawer to reveal the crumpled pelt of a giraffe shot in 1909 by Teddy Roosevelt just a few weeks after he left office: the long eyelashes are still attached, and coquettishly curly. We examine the yellow whiskers of extinct monk seals, and peer into the tusk sockets of one of the biggest bull elephants on record.
This giant collection of dead animals is a de facto time machine, offering a look at a transforming planet and life-forms in flux. It’s a bit like La Brea, except that humans killed and carefully preserved most of these animals, doing the eternal work of the tar pits all by ourselves.
“So,” Helgen says, “shall we start looking at some cats?”
He unlocks a cabinet to our left and with a careful clunk fits together the jawbone and cranium of a Siberian tiger, only about 500 of which now roam the wild. Helgen remarks on the width of its cheekbones and the length of the bony crest on top of its head, which would have made its living face a near-perfect orange circle, like the sun. To me, the skull looks like it’s gritting its teeth. Helgen unfurls the pelt of a rare black African leopard; I stroke a cognac-colored puma from Guyana and explore the plush undercoat of a snow leopard. I hold a piece of muslin stitched with the tiny skin of a cougar kitten, likely one of the last born in New York State, and finger the ear plumage of an Iberian lynx. The fierce black spikes, I discover, consist of the softest silk.
Helgen is a young man, with just a bit of stubble instead of the wizard’s beard favored by his senior colleagues. When we met, he was about to depart on a whirlwind three-month wilderness spree, from Kenya to Burma, taking jungle censuses and looking for undiscovered species of mammals. He’s not a doom-and-gloom-prone guy: in fact, he strikes me as an environmental optimist.
But not when it comes to the cat family. “The trend has been in one direction—people have supplanted wild cats,” he says. “That trend is not slowing down or reversing, but we are getting to the end of the line for some animals”—including many of the big cats, but some little ones, too. Scientists of his generation fear presiding over the first full-scale cat extinctions, particularly of the Iberian lynx and the tiger—not just some subspecies, but all tigers, period. Back over in the tiger drawers, he points out how the nineteenth-century specimens (many with ragged bullet holes) hail from habitats where today there are no more tigers, like Pakistan, while later pelts come from places where tigers never naturally lived in the first place, like Jackson, New Jersey, site of a Six Flags Great Adventure safari park. “In the late twentieth century, almost everything is from zoos,” he says.
Locking up his cabinets of exotic skins, Helgen walks across the aisle and pulls out the skull of one last feline, a little species this time, but one that, according to its specimen tags, enjoys a modern range stretching from India to Indiana: roughly the lion’s old lands, and then some. This is Felis catus, the common house cat.
“And look,” Helgen says, parting the tiny jaws so we can peer into its mouth. “A little tiger. And just as fearsome in its way. Just look at those teeth.”
Given the history I’ve just recounted, a complacent human could see these incredibly numerous little felines—which we most often think of as pets—as living trophies. Just as the Romans flaunted lions in the Colosseum, and medieval kings kept them in royal menageries, perhaps we like to keep our own tiny lions around as evidence of our very recent triumph over our feline archenemies. We like to chuckle at cats’ savagery in miniature, to coo over their teeth and claws—but only now that we’ve won.
Maybe a lion purring in our lap or cavorting in our living room evokes our global mastery, our total control of nature. Maybe it’s telling that one of the few places in the world where house cats are not popular pets is India, which is also the rare region where big cats can still do real damage.
But there’s also a strong case that the feline family actually remains unconquered, and that cats are still on top and calling the shots. Yes, man-eating lions have abdicated, but the humble house cat is pressing the same kingly claim in the new millennia.
Indeed, for all their strength and prowess, lions didn’t get nearly as far in the world. The house cat has gained ground from the Arctic Circle to the Hawaiian archipelago, taken over Tokyo and New York, and stormed the entire continent of Australia. And somewhere along the way, it seized the most precious and closely guarded piece of territory on the planet: the stronghold of the human heart.