16 NOVEMBER 2002, Page 55

Jellicles, Gumbies and others

Doris Lessing

THE NINE EMOTIONAL LIVES OF CATS by Jeffrey Masson Cape, £16.99, pp. 264, ISBN 0345448820 he cat books I like least generalise: All cats are proud ... selfish ... manipulative ... independent ... adorable. I like better 'My cat Fluff enjoys ..."Next door's cat ...' The anecdotal; and what's wrong with that? We deal in anecdotes all the time, getting information about people and cats. And they tell about the variations in cat behaviour, for cats are as different from each other as people. I look back at a long tale of cats, and see individuals. Those who have read this author's When Elephants Weep and Dogs Never Lie about Love know that he achieves his empathy with animals by what has to be described as total immersion. Wanting to learn about cats, he put a random assortment into what is near to cat heaven as you can get. New Zealand: a rain forest, interesting walks, a beach, a catfriendly house and cat-liking people. The freedom gave their natures scope, and we may contrast a beast's behaviour at the beginning of the experiment with how it develops.

Jeffrey Masson is reacting against an academic statement that cats are not emotional. The nine chapters are Narcissism, Love. Contentment, Attachment, Jealousy, Fear, Anger, Curiosity and Playfulness. He is not sentimental: one cat, taken from a refuge, was emotionally damaged by early mishandling and never recovered. One may cavil at the length of his experiment: a year. It may take four years, more, or never for an ill-treated cat to learn trust.

Reading about these animals' happiness it is hard to think of cats locked out of their homes all day and half the night without food or water 'because cats like their freedom'; cats locked out all night 'because cats are night creatures': cats left locked up

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all day by people at work: cats lonely, neglected, sad. The cats in this tale are in a different world from your average London mog or any urban cat: cats in luck, cats de luxe.

Jeffrey Masson learns a good deal, but says that while we may infer from what we observe and from the species' evolutionary history, a lot remains in question. Interpreting what they do by our yardsticks, we must miss not only subtle messages but, perhaps, the obvious. To call cats 'mysterious' has not always been to their benefit, but every cat owner has moments of frustration: just what is this creature thinking? What does it mean by that movement, that miaow, that purr? Here is the companion of your days and nights, but what does he really make of you, of us? And when she gazes off into nothing with those calm eyes, what is she looking at? Gazing into memories, the author suggests, or perhaps daydreams. If cats dream — they do — then why not fantasies?

This enjoyable book is useful for its insights, is full of guidance, but its virtue is, simply, pleasure. What fun these cats have in their paradise. They go for long walks with their human friend, chasing him and each other, play games with him, leaping out from bushes or hiding. often behaving more like dogs. I shan't forget those cats sitting along the beach beyond the water's reach waiting for him and his wife Leila and their little boy to finish swimming and return safely from the strange element; or the cat who learned to lie on the sand and allow the waves to just lap her; or the cat who at last trusted enough to accept an invitation to jump on to the kayak and go for a trip. The luxurious contentment of these cats: that is what he conveys so sell.

I do not always agree with him. He says there is no record of a male cat consistently tending kittens. But I've watched a tom who fathered kittens on a — I think — feeble-minded cat, and he taught them everything, how to eat and drink, use litter boxes, then the garden. climb trees, play, while she lay and watched.

He does not record anything like this: my cat Butchkin, otherwise El Magnifico, came up to where I was reading in bed at the top of the house and yowled, and went to the door, came back and yowled, until I followed him down and found a forgotten gas flame beginning to flare on the cooker.

Some cats are like this. Some are not.