In medieval times, a woman who lived alone with a cat risked being burned at the stake or drowned on the ducking-stool. (The poor cat risked burning too, especially if it were unfortunate enough to be black.)
The consequences these days aren't as dire as being branded a witch, but solo habitation with felines can earn you another pejorative label: “crazy cat lady”.
The older you are and the more cats you accumulate, the more likely the label will stick, yet even one innocuous kitty can raise suspicions that you are odd, pitiful and incapable of normal human relationships.
Why is the common perception of “cat ladies” so negative? Animal hoarders(1) aside, lonesome people sharing their homes with previously homeless animals sounds like a win-win situation to me, and one the world needs now.
The number of people living alone is rising – by 80% over the past 15 years according to one estimate. Pets, given their benefits for human health and quality of life, might be just the magic charm to help stave off the depression and stress that can accompany isolation.
But crazy cat lady cliches could deter some women from discovering the joys of feline ownership. Some men too, scared they'll be called girly or gay. This is absurd of course; there are more cat ladies than cat gents, but there are tens of millions of the latter too. (The cat lady stereotype probably arose in part simply because women outlive men on average. Thus there are more elderly women living alone with a pet, a cat more often than a dog because of the lower maintenance required.)
Casting call for black cats to appear in the movie 'Tales of Terror', 1961. Los Angeles Times archive.
The crazy cat lady's notoriety also obscures a far more prevalent and entirely positive type of cat owner who deserves better media exposure: the TFF, or True Feline Fancier. To qualify as a TFF, you need to meet the following five criteria:
1. You are smitten with cats, all cats, from Felis domesticus to the Bengal tiger, and can't bear contemplating a world without them. You probably like animals in general (you may have reservations about certain dogs), but there is something about that feline mix of fluffy and fierce, friendly and free...something just SO COOL about cats. If you'd lived in Ancient Egypt, you would have worshipped at the shrine of the cat goddess Bastet.
2. You appreciate the cute cuddly factor of the domestic cat, but for you the main appeal is that you have a miniature leopard prowling around your house. There is no other tame species that imitates its big bloodthirsty counterpart so perfectly in all respects except size. TFFs have no Hello Kitty illusions: they know that were their Munchkins and Snowflakes five times bigger, they would have mortally savaged their owners from the very first moment they held out on the tuna. TFFs, most of whom live in urban areas along with the majority of 21st century humanity, love this touch of the wild.
3. Your cat is not a plush toy, living objet d'art nor small furry person, but a fellow mammal and different species, both touchingly familiar and mysteriously Other. A cat is not a substitute for human companionship. But then neither can a human subsitute for the unique presence of a cat. TFFs do not lose interest in their cat if they have kids, nor would they consider dating anyone who showed the faintest whiff of hostility towards Tigger. There are cherished people in your life, but sometimes you just want to stay home alone and hang with the kitties, ok?
4. Your cat's life and well-being is your sacred responsibility, not to be casually set aside should it become inconvenient. You feel utter disbelief that people could euthanase a pet because they are emigrating (oh yes, it's not uncommon), or flit off on holiday leaving an animal, usually a cat, to fend for itself. You, on the other hand, would be one of those problem cases refusing to evacuate in a disaster unless your animals could come too.
5. And finally, this unlikely quote from a most unlikely cat-fancier, Kinky Friedman(2), will ring absolutely true:
“People may surprise you with unexpected kindness. Dogs have a depth of loyalty that often we seem unworthy of. But the love of a cat is a blessing, a privilege in this world.”
- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, May 2012
Crazy cat gent, 1870s.
1. Animal hoarders, who compulsively “collect” pets in numbers way beyond their means to humanely care for them, are mentally ill. Without medical help they often end up harming the animals and themselves. This is very different to someone who has lots of animals but looks after them appropriately.
2. Musician (of Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys), writer of detective fiction and one-time candidate for governor of Texas. The piece from which this quote comes is really worth a read.