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Walking on the Beach with Jeffrey Masson’s Cats

Jeffrey Masson lives in a beach house in Auckland, New Zealand, with his wife, two sons, and four cats. He'd previously been sharing his home with five cats, but then Miki decided to live next door, instead.

"He's moved out," the revered author admits. "He will not come to visit, even. And if he sees me walking down the road he turns his back; he won't look at me. The only exception is when I shout, 'Walk on the beach, cats!' All five cats come, and we go for a long walk on the beach. Then we come back, and Miki goes to his house. Go figure. Who knows what that's about?"

Jeffrey Masson The idea of five cats sharing long walks on the beach with a middle-aged man struck me as strange until, oddly enough, shortly after I finished Masson's new book my cats began trailing my dog and me around the neighborhood every time we left the house. Was the timing of their new habit pure coincidence? I've never seen either of them open a book. Maybe they overheard me talking about Masson. I tell them there's no beach for miles, but still they want to come along.

The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats follows Masson's bestselling investigation of animals in the wild, When Elephants Weep (co-authored with Susan McCarthy), and Dogs Never Lie About Love, which the L. A. Times Book Review called "a veritable valentine to man's best friend." Now, drawing from literature, history, animal behavioral research, and the day-to-day experience of cohabiting with five felines, the former psychoanalyst and controversial Freud scholar identifies and describes nine primary emotions in cats: narcissism, love, contentment, attachment, jealousy, fear, anger, curiosity, and playfulness.

Of Masson's latest, Kirkus Reviews cheered, "Anyone who has ever been owned by a cat will find these speculations engaging, finely tuned, and always with plenty of fond anecdotal evidence as they charge across the species barrier."

Dave: Five years ago, you published Dogs Never Lie About Love. Now comes The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats. Was it more challenging to write about cats? Dogs tend to be a lot more transparent.

Jeffrey Masson: It was a lot more work to write about dogs because there's a vast literature out there, and a lot of it is excellent. Plus you've got all the literature on wolves, which you really need to know before you can understand dogs. I had my hands full with the research. There was a lot of reading, and I built up a huge personal library, almost a thousand books.

When it came to cats, I suspected I would have the same problem, but I did not. There are maybe four thousand books in print on cats, but most of them are pet manuals: how to find a kitten and that kind of thing. And there was nothing at all to read about the ancestors of cats, the European or African wildcat. Just a few pages. It's not like wolves. In that sense, it was much quicker to write about cats.

Also I found that the writing was much easier for me. It may just be a function of so many people looking over your shoulder when you write about dogs, a lot of people who know an awful lot about them. Surprisingly, not a lot of people have written about cat behavior. With the few people who do it very well, like Doris Lessing, it's purely anecdotal. The writing is as good as the writer.

Dave: Why isn't there more writing about cat behavior? They're not hard to find or observe.

Masson: No! Cats are everywhere. There are seventy million "owned" cats (if you'll excuse the expression, because I don't believe you can own a cat) and there are fifty million feral; that's a hundred twenty million cats in America. More households now have cats than have dogs.

The reason, I think, is that they're easier to have. If you don't want much interaction with an animal, having a cat is not a problem. For cats, it's like What level are you at? You want intense, I'll give you intense. You want to ignore me? Fine. That's okay with me.

It's important to understand where cats come from. Everybody says it, but sometimes it's hard to wrap our mind around this: this is an animal that descends from an entirely solitary species. They don't have friends; they don't have affectionate encounters; they don't experience love or hatred. They don't even experience anger. If you think about it, an animal that lives entirely by his or her self, where are they going to get their emotions? It's a real puzzler.

But, of course, our cats are different because somehow—and this is what I think is so fascinating—they have made the transition. Somewhere along the line, they've chosen to live with people and to form an intimate bond with them. And that has allowed them to become a social species. They haven't changed genetically in four thousand years. I just don't see any scientific explanation except that they've made a choice. It goes against their evolution to bond with an alien species.

Dave: But that bond is different than the one between dogs and people. In the book, for example, you write about Miki, one of your cats, who for some reason decides to spend less and less time at your home.

Masson: The book ends with Miki announcing his independence, being the adolescent who leaves home. Well, he's gone further now: he's moved out. He lives next door. He will not come to visit, even. And if he sees me walking down the road he turns his back; he won't look at me.

The only exception is when I shout, "Walk on the beach, cats!" All five cats come, and we go for a long walk on the beach. Then we come back, and Miki goes to his house. Go figure. Who knows what that's about? Clearly something's going on with him, but I don't have access to it.

Dave: From a strictly commercial standpoint, it doesn't make sense that there hasn't been more written on the subject of cats' emotions and behavior.

Masson: It doesn't make sense to me that When Elephants Weep was the first book since Darwin that specifically addressed the emotional lives of animals. It makes no sense. Commercially, it makes no sense.

But it's interesting: commercially is the key word here. When that book became a New York Times Bestseller, suddenly the topic became acceptable even to scientists.

Now you have a burgeoning literature by people like Marc Bekoff, people who are much more qualified than I am to write about animal emotions. Sooner or later very serious scientists will take up the theme of animal emotions and write about it in a more interesting way than I was able to because a lot of what I do is anecdotal. They're stories. I didn't live with elephants. I didn't live with any of those animals. I had to collect things. Ideally you'd live with any animal that you write about for twenty years.

Dave: In The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats, alongside your description of day to day life with five cats you incorporate references from everyone from William Blake to Rudyard Kipling. I think that method speaks to readers in a way that dry science won't.

Masson: No. Even my hero, Donald Griffin, the man who started what's called cognitive ecology, the study of animal intelligence—he's brilliant, a great scientist, the man who discovered bat sonar, one of the real pioneers of animal studies—he wrote these books that I think are wonderful, but they're scientific; they're not for the general reader. Even he, great scientist as he was, was heavily criticized, not to say insulted, by colleagues who said, "This is ridiculous. How dare you attribute this kind of intelligence to animals!"

That's changing, definitely, but we still need somebody who has the scientific grasp of a Donald Griffin yet writes for a general audience. That person has not appeared yet.

Dave: What made you write When Elephants Weep?

Masson: I'd written a whole series of books about psychiatry, and nobody bought them. Nobody liked them. Nobody. Psychiatrists hated them, and they were much too abstruse for the general public. It was very hard to make a living, and I thought, As long as I'm not making a living, I may as well write about something I really love: animals.

Actually I just wanted to do research, so I called Donald Griffin and said, "Name ten good books for me on animal emotions." He laughed and said, "There's not a single one since Darwin. Why don't you write one?" I said, "I can't. I don't know anything about it." He said, "Neither does anyone else."

That was worth thinking about. As you said earlier, Why wouldn't people write about a topic that was of interest to everybody? Everybody who's ever lived with an animal wants to know about its emotional life.

Dave: But you decided specifically in When Elephants Weep that you didn't want to deal with domesticated animals.

Masson: You're right to remind me of this. At that point, I didn't want any contamination, if you'll excuse the word, from our emotions to theirs. That's still something of a puzzler. Are dogs as emotional as they are because of us? Or are we as emotional as we are because of dogs? Is there a symbiosis there?

In any event, I wasn't thinking of dogs. I wanted to know about animals that have no contact with people, animals that live in a forest or a jungle—do they also have emotions?

Dave: People quite naturally try to define animals' emotions according to the ones we experience, but that's not necessarily an effective approach.

Masson: The astonishing thing is that there is such similarity. Darwin was right: If we're similar physiologically and we're wired the same way, then it stands to reason we're going to have some of the same emotions.

Sometimes with people I really wonder, What kind of an internal life does this person have? Do they feel the same sort of humiliation I feel or is mine more intense? Or jealousy...whatever it is. We don't really know. That's one of the reasons we read. I read a lot of novels, and I'm trying to find out: Are people like me? Do they have the same kind of feelings that I have, the same kind of internal life? After reading thousands of novels, I still don't know. I think they do, but I couldn't be sure.

Even when you live with someone in great intimacy, with your own wife or child, you don't really know what his or her internal experience is. Of course, the advantage is that people can tell each other. But it's only an approximation.

Think about it: Have you ever tried to tell someone about an intense feeling in a dream that's not an obvious one? You say, "I can remember the feeling, but I just can't describe it." I think that's not very far removed from what goes on with animals. Any animal scientist who spends time around elephants will tell you that they grieve. They are sad when a companion dies, and that's very similar to our reaction. Maybe it's deeper than our grief. That was one of the things that got me interested in the whole topic: Is it possible that we have something to learn from animals like elephants, dogs, and cats? Especially I was thinking of those three. Could they feel something more deeply than we do, and if so, could we learn from them?

I'm convinced that it's true of elephants, it's true of dogs, and it's true of cats.

Dave: What particular anecdotes serve as good examples of lessons we can learn?

Masson: I see all the time with cats a kind of self-sufficiency that is so pronounced and profound that it seems to me it's a different kind of emotion; it's nothing we know. You never hear about a cat with a self-esteem problem. When a cat is totally content and happy and purring, with semi-closed eyes, staring off into the distance...just watching that is fascinating. That feeling they have of I am sufficient unto myself must really be quite wonderful. We always want to learn; we're always looking for mentors. Well, there's a good mentor: the cat.

And dogs, too: the fidelity; the intensity with which they play and greet you. We don't do that with one another: You're home! You've been gone for five minutes! Let's celebrate! We're not capable of that, but dogs are, and it's totally unfaked. Totally. There is no deception in emotional lives of any animal that I know, but especially dogs and cats. Nobody has ever described a hypocritical cat. Pretends to purr—we can't even use the phrase, right?

Dave: The idea that you can't punish a cat is interesting to me. So much of the dog/cat dichotomy derives from such fundamental differences. It's very easy to punish a dog and teach it a lesson.

Masson: That's fascinating to me, too, because dogs are like us that way. We understand the word "no." Cats understand; they just don't give a shit. "What part of no do you not understand, cat?" "All of it. I don't know what you're talking about. How dare you speak to me like that!"

That's an interesting take on things. You do not discipline a cat. I remember years ago vets were saying, "They do something you don't like, you grab them by the back of the neck and you..." Nonsense! How to quickly alienate a cat. You do not discipline a cat.

It's very annoying sometimes. The one expensive item I've ever bought in my life was an incredible reading chair. I spend a lot of my life sitting and reading, so okay, I'm going to buy a $2000 reading chair. Never in my life had I done that. I bring it home, and it has this beautiful cloth material. I pull off the plastic and the five cats go right over to it and start sharpening their claws. I scream, "No!" and they turn around and look at me like Has he got a problem or what? Within two days it was shredded. So I now live with this shredded chair.

I think they know I don't want them to do it. I just don't think they care. I really don't. It's like, We did not evolve to have anyone tell us what to do. If you want to live with us, it's on our terms.

Dave: I have a dog and two cats. The dog likes to start the night sleeping on the bed, but he'll generally go off after a little while to sleep somewhere else. Until then, he sleeps on the corner of the bed down by my feet. The cats, meanwhile, insist on sleeping by my head or the pillow. My dog will get off the bed if I ask—reluctantly, but he will—whereas you can throw a cat off the bed five hundred times, but it's going to get right back on if it wants to.

Masson: That's right. And I'm so glad to hear you have cats and dogs—I like the thought of having cats and dogs, together—but so many men do not like having cats for that very reason: you cannot control them. You cannot exert power over them. They are non-hierarchical. They don't get it, that we're in charge here.

The most simple cat has no interest in dominance. That was a surprise to me because there are scientists who write about dominance in cats; I think it's absolute nonsense. They avoid each other, but they don't really pay that much attention to who's on top. The whole idea of dominance is for me an example of anthropomorphism. It's our trip. And it's dogs' trips, definitely: dogs understand dominance, alright. They really do. They feel guilt. But have you ever seen a guilty looking cat? No.

Dave: I live on the other side of the river here in Portland. Evenings in my neighborhood you'll find a cat or two on practically every stoop. This to me is the most fascinating part about cat life: Dogs, for the most part, are on a leash or fenced into a yard, but cats pretty much have the run of things. They exist within their own culture over the geography of the neighborhood, and you have no idea what they're up to when they're out of sight.

Masson: I love that. You're living with them in something like an egalitarian environment. They really need their independence. If they come back to the house, they choose to do it.

I'm fascinated by birds. I'd love to live with a parrot. But I keep thinking, If I open the window, the parrot will leave and will not come back. That's it. He has no interest in staying with me. My cats go outdoors all day and they come back. It's our house. They share it with me. It's not mine. It's not theirs. It's a shared space. That's different.

You can't just let your dog out to wander. You see signs: Keep your dog under control. You don't see signs like that for cats: Keep your cat under control. Ha ha. How do you expect me to do that exactly?

One thing that some people don't like about my cat book...There's a dispute right now: The American Veterinary Association says never let your cat outdoors. And there are shelters that will not let you adopt a cat if you don't agree never to let them outdoors. I understand, but philosophically I find it an appalling idea. You are depriving a cat of what makes it a cat. It's in the nature of a cat to be free. They hate confinement. I think to deprive them of freedom—to be outdoors, to be climbing trees, to be meeting other cats—you're taking away their happiness. They can be contented, and they'll live longer, and they may even bond more closely with you, but they'll never be true cats.

Imagine being confined to your house. Sorry, we're not going to put you in a prison, but you can never leave the grounds of your house. What kind of life would that be for us?

Dave: You mention having dogs and cats together. Granted I have a very friendly dog that pretty much loves everybody, but I was amazed how friendly he was when we first brought a cat into the house. In no time at all he tried to be friends.

Masson: The whole idea that cats and dogs are enemies, I don't know where that comes from exactly. It's just that when dogs are in a pack, anything that runs away triggers an instinct to hunt, and they do. But they get over it very quickly with cats and form intense friendships. And it goes both ways. Cats can fall madly in love with a specific dog: sleep with the dog—eat with the dog, cuddle with the dog, walk with the dog. And there's something about that that will never cease to give me joy: to see two members of alien species being buddies. There's something intensely wonderful about that. I like it when we do it, and I like it when they do it.

Whenever I hear a story, an improbable story...Yesterday in Seattle, a member of my audience insisted that she'd seen an Animal Planet feature on a crow and a cat who became best friends. That's really improbable, but it's those kinds of improbabilities that are so wonderful. I just love the idea of that. If it's possible with any animals, it's possible with cats because they have that same freedom we have to make a choice that goes against their own genetic inheritance.

Dave: Your next book is about farm animals?

Masson: It's finished. It's coming out in November [2003] from Ballantine. I don't have a good front title yet, but the subtitle is The Emotional Lives of Farm Animals, which is what it's about. It totally fascinated me. It's a much more research-oriented book, more like When Elephants Weep.

Dave: Did particular animals steal the spotlight?

Masson: I fell madly in love with pigs and chickens, so much so that I had to stop eating eggs. I can't do it now. When I see how they're raised, I can't stand it. These are birds, every bit as interesting as parrots—marvelous birds—and to raise them in the kind of conditions we do is a crime. It's going to be a very controversial book, but it was fun to think about. A very simple idea.

You've got how many books at Powell's?

Dave: In the store across the street, close to a million.

Masson: Wow. Well, I didn't check this, but I guarantee you that if we go look up "Farm Animal Behavior" we won't find anything. Nothing. You'll get sent to a children's section, or maybe to a few books on dairy cows or raising sheep for slaughter—those kinds of books. You won't get a book written for a general reader about what these animals are like. Never mind emotions, which is my field, but what's their behavior? What do they like to do? What's their life like?

Why is that? Isn't that weird? We've been domesticating these animals for thousands of years, and there's not one book about what they're like?! I promise you that'll change.

Dave: It seems like a good time for it. Our food sources are more and more a subject of debate. There's the whole trend toward genetically engineered food and on the other hand the organic food movement. And of course books like Fast Food Nation are making people ask questions they'd never considered.

Masson: You can genetically engineer these animals, but you cannot alter their emotions. They evolved to live a certain way. You can take away the legs from a pig so it just sits on the ground, but they're never going to stop feeling the desire to move. How are you going to deal with that? Often the response is, "That's nonsense. You're just anthropomorphizing." But of course you're not. You're asking fundamental, important questions, and those are questions they can't tolerate because the answer is very simple: You're not going to alter their emotional lives.

It's like Locked-in Syndrome. It reminds me of that French publisher who couldn't move anything except one eyebrow. He wrote a book just using that eyebrow [Only the Eyes Say Yes: A Love Story]. It was a very popular book about two years ago. That's how I feel about these genetically altered animals: They're going to have all these feelings and they're not going to be able to do anything, including move. They want chickens so heavy they can't move. It's wrong. And they're not even facing the question of the way they evolved to be. They won't say a word about that.

Dave: What titles would be on your reading list of favorites?

Masson: Donald Griffin is wonderful. Jane Goodall is always a good bet; she's not a great writer, but a great scientist. Marc Bekoff writes a lot about this. He edited a nice book called The Smile of the Dolphin where fifty scientists give their views of the emotions of their favorite animal. Cynthia Moss has a wonderful book, Elephant Memories. Mother Nature is well worth reading, by Sarah Hrdy. A brilliant piece of research that tells you a lot about primates and mothers.

Dave: You wrote a book about fatherhood among mammals, The Emperor's Embrace: Reflections on Animal Families and Fatherhood.

Masson: Not such a popular book, maybe because it's not such a popular topic. We're not great dads, the mammals, by and large, but that fascinated me, to find out why. And that theme, which seems to be my central theme, came up there as well: We are the only other species besides cats that can do something we're not programmed to do—namely, be a good dad. It's not in our genetic inheritance to be good fathers, but we can do it, whereas that can't happen for another animal. Now, I say cats can make choices, but I've never heard of a cat that chooses to be a father. No such thing.

Jeffrey Masson visited Powell's City of Books on November 14, 2002.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Particularly Cats Used Trade Paper $5.50
  2. The Expression of the Emotions in... Used Trade Paper $5.95
  3. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts... Used Trade Paper $9.50
  4. The Smile of a Dolphin
    Used Hardcover $18.95

  5. Dogs Never Lie about Love:...
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  6. When Elephants Weep
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  7. The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A...
    Used Hardcover $4.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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