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The Tribe of Tiger
Cats and their Culture

by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

1994, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, USA
ISBN 0-671-79965-7
The Tribe of Tiger
Reviewed by Joe McCauley

The Tribe of Tiger is a very interesting and enlightening book about the cat family. It gives us a good deal of insight into the workings of the feline mind and body, with many intriguing stories and amusing anecdotes, yet is written at a level that is easy for the layman to understand.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a New Hampshire resident, is an anthropologist who has been involved in numerous field studies of animals and primitive peoples of the world. She has written several other books, of which the best known is probably The Hidden Life of Dogs. But unlike The Hidden Life of Dogs, which focuses primarily on the domestic dog (with a couple of sections devoted to the wolf), The Tribe of Tiger deals with the cat family as a whole. The species receiving the most attention in this volume are domestic cats, lions and pumas, but several others receive a good bit of coverage as well, including tigers, leopards, cheetahs, lynxes and bobcats. Numerous others receive anything from a passing mention to a brief discussion, including two extinct species, the saber-toothed tiger and the cave lion.

The book opens with a discussion of the natural history of the cat family and how these animals came to be the formidable hunters they are. Cats are carnivores in the purest sense. Unlike other families of carnivores that feed partially or exclusively on insects, carrion or plant matter, felines require a diet of fresh meat, the kind that wants to avoid becoming someone else's next meal. Cats must hunt, and to live this life on the edge, their bodies and their minds have become highly adapted for this purpose, and this explains much about thier physiology and their behavior. Although there are differences in size, geographic distribution and other aspects of various members of the cat family, the differences pale in comparison to the similarities they all share. Over the course of natural history, cats have managed to populate the entire world except Australia and have adapted well to life in a variety of climates and surroundings.

While much of this seems to have become hardwired into the brains of felines, there is still plenty of room for these animals to display a high degree of intelligence and personality, and some of the manifestations of this are discussed in later sections of the book. Cats even develop cultures, sets of practices and rules that a group of cats will live by, and different populations of the same species will often develop different cultures which will sometimes differ dramatically from one another. It would be wrong, for instance, to assume that lions in the Kalahari, or the Gir Forest, or in captivity, will act the same as lions in the Serengeti. This would be comparable to studying the behavior of people in, say, New York City, and expecting people to be the same in Los Angeles, or Tokyo, or Cairo.

An example of cats adapting and developing different cultures can be seen in the discussion on pumas in the northeastern United States. It was long believed that pumas had been eliminated from this region sometime last century, yet they are now making a comeback, and there is increasing evidence that they were never completely eliminated in the first place. Yet for years they were so reclusive that many officials believed they didn't exist and regarded the occasional sightings as hoaxes. This is in contrast to pumas in the western United States, where they have always been in evidence and at times are even bold enough to wander into cities near their habitats.

Perhaps even more noteworthy is the observation that the culture of a given population of cats sometimes changes over time, often in response to the activities of mankind. Some populations of lions have shown dramatic differences within a span of two or three decades, long enough that the population no longer includes any of the same individuals but far too short for genetic selection to have played a significant role. Clearly the animals were able to respond to their environment and alter their culture as needed. Observations of domestic cats have indicated that even groups of the same individuals will sometimes "change the rules" they live by.

If there is anything wrong with this book, it is that the material seems rather haphazard in its organization. There are many things in one chapter that relate closely to other things in distant chapters. The book is divided into three parts, The Animal, The Old Way, and New Ways, and each part has a particular focus, yet the boundaries between the topics are rather fuzzy and overlap a great deal. Yet that seems to be the nature of the subject matter. So much ties in with so much else that I'd be hard pressed to suggest any better way of organizing the material. It is in any case only a minor problem at worst that detracts little if any from the overall enjoyment of this book. There was much in here that I found fascinating, and it has left me with a better understanding of why cats of all kinds are the way they are and act the way they do.

The title is from the poem Rejoice in the Lamb, by Christopher Smart, of which an excerpt is often published as poem in its own right under various titles such as Of His Cat, Jeoffry. The book also features drawings by Jared Taylor Williams.

{Submitted by Author Joe McCauley}
{Scan by Jennifer Brook}
{Addition HTML by Thumper}

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