It's not the first time cats have garnered a bad rap in the media. Cats do kill birds and small mammals, but the exaggeration of the numbers has been a problem, as Vox Felina blogger Peter J. Wolf notes. And the sensationalist "cats may want to kill you" meme is even worse.
This whole thing started when researchers Marieke Cassia Gartner, David M. Powell and Alexander Wess published an article in the Journal of Comparative Psychology in 2014 called "Personality structure in the Domestic Cat (Felis silvestris catus), Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia), and African Lion (Panthera leo): A Comparative Study."
Somehow, a whole year later, the murderous headlines went viral — based on a misunderstanding of what the paper actually reports.
The research aimed to assess personality in four zoo-housed wildcats — two types of leopards, the lion and the wildcat of Scotland — and also in shelter-housed domestic cats. Based on ratings of the cats' caretakers, three major personality dimensions were found per species.
The trouble came when the lion and the cat were both described with the same terms: dominance, impulsivity and neuroticism. Definitions in the article weren't as clear as I'd hoped, but this last term seems to involve anxiety, suspicion and fearfulness of people.
(If you are interested in the results for the others, here they are: Wildcats' personality dimensions were dominance, agreeableness and self-control; clouded leopards' were dominance/impulsiveness, agreeableness/openness and neuroticism; and snow leopards' were dominance, impulsiveness/openness and neuroticism.)
Here's the thing: The researchers' specific framing of the shared cat-lion terms must be grasped if the study itself is to be interpreted properly. Lead researcher Gartner notes that personality factors aren't the same thing as individual traits. In other words, each lion and each cat can be assessed along a spectrum of the three factors, and each individual will differ in where it falls. It's not inevitable that lions or cats will act any certain way.
Somehow, though, the media meme was unleashed that if cats were only as big as their lion counterparts, they would leap for our throats.
That's too bad, because the lion–cat similarity that was uncovered is quite interesting. Lions are certainly the most social of all the cat species included in the study; the others are all solitary or semi-solitary, making the high degree of overlap across all five species an unexpected finding. As Gartner et al. write in their journal article:
"This indicates that overall felid personality structures may have evolved early on in cat species, but that some part of lion personality structure may have evolved more recently, and that that evolution may be due to behavioral traits (such as social behavior) that are found only in that species. This is an indication of the adaptive nature of personality."
But, rest assured, all of us can sleep soundly tonight. We know that our cats can love us back — and that our cats are not pint-size lion wannabes.
Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape