IN OUR OWN IMAGE - ANTHROPOMORPHIC CATS
Why do we project human personalities onto our cats? And why do we like depicting cats in humanoid form? This page looks at exampled human-like cats and cat-like humans in art, literature and real life. There are different types and degrees of anthropomorphism and I've tried to give a few examples of each, but this is not intended to be an exhaustive resource and most readers will know of plenty more.
WHAT IS ANTHROPOMORPHISM?
Anthropomorphism means attributing human characteristics to non-human animals or inanimate objects. It's common in storytelling, for example in the fairy tale "Puss in Boots" and the "Brer Rabbit" stories. It's found in some cultures and religions, for example depicting deities as part-animal-part-human. Many cultures have envisaged their deities in the forms of familiar creatures. One of the oldest known anthropomorphic characters is a 32,000 year old ivory figurine of a Lion man from the Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany. It might represent a lion being revered as a deity, or it might represent a man with the strength and regal bearing of a lion.
Owners frequently attribute human characteristics to their pets. How often have you heard someone say "S/he understands everything I say"? Cats can learn to respond to a number of sounds - their name, key-words such as "din-dins" and maybe even commands such as "sit" or "jump". They are sensitive to the tone of voice, knowing if the owner is upset, angry, calm or soothing. However, they won't understand speeches from Shakespeare. However much I revised out loud, my cats were interested in my tone of voice, not the content of my conversation. I admit to a certain degree of inane chatter when one of my cats is sat on my lap; telling our cats they are handsome, clever or content makes owners feel good. As humans, we have an instinctive need to communicate. We often instinctively talk to baby-sized animals the same way we'd talk to human infants.
Some owners go further in treating their cats as pseudo-children, including dressing them up in outfits. This sort of anthropomorphism can become harmful if taken too far. A cat won't think or behave like a child and may develop behavioural problems from being misunderstood. Sensible owners always keep in mind the fact that cats are non-human and may not appreciate being dressed up. Plenty of human-oriented family pets don't mind small amounts of dressing up (special occasions) if it isn't forced. For them its just another perplexing way in which humans interact ... and it involves being admired or getting treats!
The main thing is that it's necessary to keep a sense of proportion. Dangers arise if owners forget that the feline emotional repertoire is not identical to that of humans. When I tell one of my cats it is on the "naughty step" I don't expect it to have any idea what I'm on about, but it amuses me to say it when the cat is sitting on the stairs watching me clear up after it has wreaking havoc in the house.
During the 1960s and 1970s, British presenter Johnny Morris ("Animal Magic") narrated video clips from a zoo animal's perspective, giving them personalities. I think he was the first presenter on British TV to do so. Being entertainment, it was often more amusing than educational. Half a century later, the RSPCA and Dogs Trust both ran series of TV ads narrated by the rescued animals. In this case it was meant to be educational - consider how scared an abused or abandoned animal would be.
At the other extreme, scientists avoid anthropomorphising animals and are taught not to assume animals share any of the mental, social, or emotional capacities of humans, and to rely on observable behaviours. This has taken things too far in the other direction so that animals are too often treated as experimental tools without the capacity to feel fear or pain. Vet Bruce Fogle wrote in "If Your Cat Could Talk" (1992) "both humans and cats have identical neurochemicals and regions in the brain responsible for emotion" to support the view that "it is not anthropomorphic to credit cats with [certain] emotions".
Some degree of anthropomorphism helps us understand cats, but taking it too far makes us lose sight of their "cat-ness". The following sections look at more playful uses of anthropomorphism and a couple of more unusual forms.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM IN LITERATURE, ART AND ENTERTAINMENT
It's impossible to know when humans first produced images that blended human and feline characteristics. One of the earliest examples of anthropomorphic art is around 32,000 years old and shamans have probably dressed as animal-human deities ever since humans developed cultures. So I'll start with the better-documented 19th Century.
Some Victorian portrait photographers, such as Harry Pointer depicted cats posed in various situations. The photographers often used props and added amusing text intended to increase the appeal of the photos. Around the same time, the bodies of unwanted kittens were used in taxidermy tableaus (the Walter Potter collection) where they were dressed in costume and put in human poses with props to represent the "Kittens' Wedding", tea parties and school-rooms.
A number of artists of that era depicted cats engaging in human pursuits; the best known probably being Louis Wain. Like the Walter Potter taxidermy, the cats adopt human poses and even wear clothing or jewellery.
Depicting a character as a cat can be visual shorthand - cats can be sly, cunning and crafty, but also slinky and alluring (hence the term "sex kitten" for an alluring woman!). They are resourceful, but often aloof or mysterious. Adult cats are mostly dignified (though obese cats tend to be buffoons), while kittens are cute and clumsy. Even when depicted as four-legged cats interacting with other cats, they are often given humanlike thought processes allowing them to reason and deduce, though it could be argued that the characters only do these things in order to communicate with the all-too-human reader.
A well-known example is "Puss in Boots". In the original story, Puss embodies feline craftiness and resourcefulness. The depiction of Puss has been re-imagined through the ages with the most recent example being a swashbuckling musketeer cat, but even the swashbuckling Puss can play the sad-eyed cat when occasion demands. Disney's "The Aristocats" is another example, though this time the cats retain their feline form. Japanese anime includes "The Cat Returns" where a girl enters a world of anthropomorphic cats, while western cartoons have the likes of Felix, Tom, Mr Jinks and Top Cat. Sometimes, cartoon cats are simply endowed with human thought, for example Jim Davis' "Garfield" cartoon character who comments on those around him.
Aesop's fables used animals to represent human foibles around the 1st century AD. In his moral tales, certain human attributes such as slyness or pride are associated with certain animals. Beatrix Potter's cutesy animals wore clothing and in George Orwell's "Animal Farm" the cat is vain and simply defects to another home. Lewis Carroll's "Cheshire Cat" is philosophical, cryptic and magical. In Molly Lefebure's children's book "The Hunting of Wilderforce Pike" (one of my childhood favourites), the cats are resourceful and have distinct personalities, but manage to remain four-legged cats despite one of them carrying a handbag and powder compact and speaking in a Cockney dialect.
In "The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr" by ETA Hoffmann (1821), the feline voice comments, somewhat pretentiously, on aesthetics. "I Am A Cat" (1905) by Soseki Natsume describes Japanese society in a period when Japanese tradition and western customs are mixing uneasily. "Stray" (1987) by AN Wilson is presented as a feline autobiography tracing how a housecat became a stray. In "Felidae" (1994) by Akif Pirincci, the feline narrator turns detective in some dark and disturbing stories. These are just a few examples of feline narrators.
Big cats are generally depicted as noble or regal. The Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz" seems an exception, but in the end it turns out that he's brave. The domestic cat is more versatile and may be shown as sly, manipulative or fickle, though these same qualities can also be portrayed as resourceful and independent depending on the plot. This reflects our relationship with cats and what we perceive as their dual natures; lap-cats one moment and ruthless hunters the next. As with Aesop, they may be metaphors for human attributes.
More recent films have used CGI and animatronic cats (and other animals). In these, the cats are not portrayed as bipedal, but as normal cats, albeit with human ambitions and abilities. In the spoof spy movie "Cats and Dogs" Mr Tinkles is a white Persian cat that plans world domination by making all humans allergic to dogs. Ever since the Blofeld character in James Bond, white Persian cats have been associated with evil geniuses plotting world domination. So much so, that on usenet/internet, white Persians have been nicknamed "Sekrit Evil Overlords' Cats". Previously Mr Tinkles' agents had kidnapped dogs. The feline agents include a Russian Blue and some ninja cats (ninja kitties is another internet meme). Mr Tinkle's comeuppance involves the indignity of being dressed up in ridiculous outfits by children. The sequel, "The Revenge of Kitty Galore", features a hairless cat agent called Kitty Galore (aka Ivana Clawyu); a reference to Pussy Galore and to the hairless Mr Bigglesworth in the Austin Powers films. Kitty Galore plans world domination by broadcasting a sound that sends dogs insane. The cat spy agency is called M.E.O.W.S. (Mousers Enforcing Our World's Safety); much like U.N.C.L.E. and T.H.R.U.S.H. in "The Man From Uncle". Just as hairless Mr Bigglesworth had been a white Persian prior to cryogenic preservation, Kitty Galore used to be furry until falling into a vat of hair remover cream. In more references to the Bond movies, there is robotic Maine Coon "Paws" who has metal teeth (a parody of Jaws) and Kitty has a white mouse (a reference to Blofeld's white Persian). Former Bond actor Roger Moore voices Tab Lazenby (referring to another Bond actor, George Lazenby). Part of the fun of these movies is seeing how schemes and gadgets are adapted to be used by the cats, and looking for references to James Bond, Austin Powers and other spy movies.
A more modern trend has genetically modified humans with feline traits e.g. M G Coney's "Cat Karina", where the GM humanoids are termed "specialists", and the anthropoid cats in Aishling Morgan's erotic books ("Tiger Tiger"). Anthropomorphised cats feature in dozens of science fiction and fantasy books. In the TV series Dr Who (the David Tennant incarnation) anthropoid cats feature in a couple of episodes; in one they are nurses that run a hospital, while in another they live among other humanoid races and even interbreed with humans. These all explore a "what if" scenario - what if cats continued to evolve (or are genetically altered) and became sapient as well as sentient? How would they look? Would they exhibit the personality traits we often ascribe to domestic cats? The Speculative Fantasy genre is full of such what-ifs.
In a TSR fantasy novel (whose name I have sadly forgotten) a race of cat-like alien explorers visit a future Earth and find it devastated when a bacteria meant to recycle waste paper/dead wood also attacks living trees. The author takes some interesting ideas from a feline perspective. For example the explorers have to adjust to the human convention of "red = danger" because to then red = blood = safe, while blue = water = danger. This has deadly results when one of them instinctively interprets a red light in an abandoned human facility as meaning it is safe to proceed. On board their spaceship, they also like to toy with their live prey at meal time before killing it and eating. Like cats they are obligate carnivores and the idea of eating carrion or vegetables is repugnant to them.
THE MEOWCHAT AND LOLCATS PHENOMENA
People writing to each other on behalf of their pets is not a recent trend. James Herriot mentioned it when Mrs Pumphrey's Pekinese dog Tricky-Woo "wrote" to a doggy pen-friend. Over the years, many cat newsletters had a column written by a cat, while many adopters wrote back to the cat shelter adopting the persona of their cats(s) (and a cat shelter "spokescat" has written back). Some of those cat-to-cat letters used simplified English; others went further in using idiosyncratic spellings. Possibly adopting a pet's persona allows the writers to make observations that would otherwise be considered mundane or tactless.
In 1995, shortly after I got online, the usenet group rec.pets.cats spawned "meowchat" threads where owners communicated in stylised, misspelled English pretending to be cats communicating with each other. Adopting the online personae of cats allowed users to comment on human habits and introduced a cutesy/naive quality to their conversations. Like Marmite, people either loved it or loathed it. Those who disliked it found it too twee. Aside from the anthropomorphisms about "mommy did this", meowchat demonstrated that badly-mangled English could be understandable. Words were often spelled phonetically such as "attenshun" and "kommunikayshun" while "the" or "a" were often omitted. It came across as a sort of kitty baby-talk and it was netiquette to prefix the subject with [meowchat] so others could filter it out. The doggy version was called "woofchat". There was an attempt to allow cross-posting between rec.pets.cats [meowchat] and rec.pets.dogs [woofchat] using the prefix [clowder], but by then the trolling and the rec.pets.cats signal-to-ratio was bad enough that I defected to the major-domo cat fanciers mailing list! meowchat eventually got its own rec.pets.cats.community Usenet group.
Marrying cat images with humourous captions has been going on since at least the mid 1800s when visiting cards and postcards were both immensely popular. From personal memory, some greetings cards and photo-story comics from the 1970s onwards featured animal photos with speech bubbles or thought bubbles.
In the late 1990s/early 2000s, as more people got connected to the internet and connection speeds increased, it became easy and feasible to put captioned cat photos online. Dial-up connection speeds in the first half of the 1990s were slow and many users, myself included, opted to switch off image content in order to speed up page-loading. With faster connections, kitty pidgin could move from text-only format into visual format. The "I Can Haz Cheezburger" website continues the tradition of kitty pidgin and the tradition of humourous captioned cat photos.
The term "lolcat" came from the 4chan website in 2005 or 2006 (the "caturday" photos) and perpetuations on "I Can Haz Cheezburger" from 2007 to date. A lolcat is a photo of a cat with a humourous caption in "lolspeak" ("kitty pidgin"). "lol" comes from the "laughs out loud" internet acronym. Over the years, this has evolved into an online mythos that includes Ceiling Cat (god) and Basement Cat (the devil) and efforts to translate the Bible into lolspeak. Some of the captioned photos are undeniably funny. The simplified syntax of kitty pidgin resembles the simplified syntax of "motherese" (or "parentese") instinctively used in the one-sided conversations parents have with babies. And since many humans view their pets as furry babies, they may instinctively simplify their language. In other words, it's a normal human behaviour that has found a new outlet!
For the linguistically inclined, the evolution of meowchat and lolspeak is similar to a pidgin language developing into a creole. Pidgin is a simplified language that develops when two or more groups need to communicate, but don't share a common language. Pidgin is either constructed on-the-spot, or by convention, using words, sounds, body language and pantomime to get the meaning across (in the case of lolcats the photograph stands in for body language and pantomime). These are generally borrowed from the speakers' native languages and cultures. Pidgin is learned as a second language, but descendents of the original speakers may learn it as a first language in which case it is evolving into a creole language. A creole language gains consistent grammatical rules. Creoles are based on the more dominant of the parent languages, but the pronunciation, spellings and meanings may shift while the grammar often has original features differing from the parent languages.
Pidgins arise spontaneously when a need arises. While meowchat and lolspeak have similarities (both being based on simplified American English), they may have arisen independently. Or meowchatters may have found a new outlet in creating lolcats images. And likewise for woofchat and loldogs images.
How long will meowchat and lolspeak hang around? Until everyone gets bored of speaking kitty pidgin and currently that shows no sign of happening.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM IN ADVERTISING
CGI effects allowed realistic anthropomorphic cats such as the realistic cats in the Cravendale milk adverts on British TV. This depicts polydactyl cats (cats with "thumbs") and imagines what cats might do if they had opposable thumbs - knitting, reading .... and raiding supplies of milk (it seems a parody of "Cats & Dogs"). Other examples that are based on images of real cats include "Ninja Kittens" and Crusha milkshake cats. There is also the talking IAMS cat - undeniably a cat, but he speaks to the viewer and points to the different products, though he issues a disclaimer that he can't read because he's "just a cat". Many cat foods have switched from an "owners say their cats prefer it" approach to the cats themselves endorsing the product.
Representing anthropomorphic big cats, we have "Tony the Tiger" telling kids that Frosties are "Grrrrreat!" This character has been around for decades and over the years Tony the Tiger has been depicted as a cartoon, a person in costume and a CGI character.
Animals often appear in parodies of TV shows or films; for example Star Trek parodies where the crew are cats and the Klingons are dogs. In "To Boldly Go Cat" (a pun on the Star Trek Motto and the Go-Cat brand of cat biscuit), found on list-servs in the 1990s, breed traits are matched to Star Trek character traits. Spock, who has pointy ears, is described as a Siamese (the modern Siamese having bat-ears). In 2012, GoCat's "Brandon Meow" (a ginger neutered male) features in a TV advert styled like an action-show trailer "in a world where no-one knows a neutered cat needs special ....".
Certain cat types have become advertising shorthand for things like luxury (an obviously pedigreed breed), comfort (a tabby cat lounging in front of a warm fire), and athleticism, but they've also been the "cat about town" having a night on the tiles and advertising Bacardi Breezer alcoholic drinks. They are anthropomorphic only in the sense that they personify a human-ascribed value such as "luxurious" or "domestic comfort" associated with the product.
A number of people have been inspired to alter their appearance to resemble cats. This can range from face painting to costume to body modification. The underlying reasons include art, theatre (costume), religion (shamans), children's play, furry fandom or even a feeling that they genuinely have attributes of that animal.
One example is the were-creature genre, an extension of the werewolf theme. These are human most of the time, but turn into an animal, or humanoid-animal, form under certain conditions e.g. at the full moon. Outside of the horror/dark fantasy genres, they are sometimes termed "anthro-" (anthropoid) creatures e.g. anthro-cat, anthro-tiger and have a stable, predominantly humanoid, form with additional feline characteristics (e.g. fangs, claws, tail, markings, facial features). They live in societies that mirror human various human cultures.
Disney's "Robin Hood" cartoon (1973) is probably one of the best-known examples of humanoid animals in general. Not only are the characters depicted as bipedal animals, the actual animal is visual shorthand for their personality; the cunning fox, the sly snake; the regal lions etc. The children's cartoon series "Thundercats" (cat-like humanoid aliens) is another example. Humanoid animals are found in M G Coney's "Cat Karina" (and his other books set in that far future world) where they are termed "specialists" - different species of human created by genetic manipulation. Anthro-creatures also have a place in erotic fantasy books e.g in Aishling Morgan's "Tiger Tiger" and "Pleasure Toy". Because they are played by human actors, the cats in Andrew Lloyd-Webber's musical "Cats (an adaptation of TS Eliots "Old Possums Book of Cats") are necessarily humanoid.
In furry fandom, the anthropomorphic cats have human-like traits including overall body shape, hands, clothing as well as humanlike personalities, intelligence and speech. Furries may also have some stylised animal behaviours such as mutual grooming. Costumes range from full costume to masks, tails and/or body- or face-painting. Furry fandom is misunderstood; many outsiders view it as a sexual fetish, rather than a form of role-play or artistic expression. For many furries, it's a grown-up version of children's games of pretending to be an animal; it allows them a more innocent and less inhibited form of self-expression. In non-tactile cultures such as the USA and UK, it also allows people to safely make physical contact in a playful, non-threatening, non-sexual way. I've seen adults perfectly happy to be hugged by a giant animal mascot, who would not be comfortable hugging the same guy if he wasn't wearing a costume!
Not all cat costumes are furry though. Catwoman in the "Batman" series wears a skin-tight leather or PVC costume that accentuates her female form rather than obscuring it. This is a much more sexual image (to adults at least) especially as female cats in heat are considered highly-sexed or promiscuous. The character's whip also sexualises the image. The male creators of the Catwoman character found both cats and women hard to understand: cool, detached and unreliable. Hence the character was portrayed as a cat-like woman with those traits and a sexy appearance.
TRANSFORMATION BY BODY MODIFICATION
Finally, and perhaps more worrying, some people have used body modification to make them resemble cats. This ranges from slit-pupil contact lenses through to tattoos or even cosmetic surgery. The effect may be alluring or mysterious (feline traits), or may be powerful or totemic (big cat traits).
One of the most extreme examples was a Nevada man named Dennis Avner. Avner underwent a series of radical body modification procedures including bifurcation (splitting) of his upper lip, surgical pointing of his ears, facial implants, hairline modification, tooth filing, tattoos and facial piercing. There were medical ethics issues as his surgical modifications were seen as extreme and non-beneficial. This meant a number of procedures had to be performed privately by a friend, rather than in hospital by a surgeon.
Avner claimed Huron and Lakota Indian ancestry and took the Indian name "Stalking Cat". He was better known in the media as "Cat Man". Implants on his forehead and cheeks allowed him to fit whiskers. Silicone implants changed the shape of his brow, forehead, and the bridge of the nose. His nose had been given a flattened appearance. He had face and body tattoos and wore green contact lenses with slit-pupils. He claimed to be following ancient Huron tradition in transforming himself into his totem animal; Avner's totem was the tiger although this is not a north American big cat. His appearance gave him celebrity status and he appeared on numerous TV programmes about unusual people. Before his death in 2012, aged 54, he held the world record for the most body modifications.
Katzen the Tiger Lady is the stage name of a tattooed female performance artist from Austin, Texas. Katzen is German for "cats" and her full body tattoo theme is that of a tiger. She also wears whiskers that attach into facial piercings on her face.
Jocelyn Wildenstein embarked on a radical amount of cosmetic surgery in an attempt to prevent her husband leaving her. She based her new looks on the exotic wild cats he loved, believing he might find her more attractive if she became "more feline". While her appearance in 1998 was curiously feline (especially with the mane of strawberry blonde hair), continued plastic surgeries undermined that exotic appearance.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM - GOOD OR BAD?
Hopefully you'll have worked out that anthropomorphism isn't intrinsically bad unless we lose sight of a cat being a cat and expect it to act and think like a human. Art, entertainment and literature can be playfully anthropomorphic. Taking a non-human perspective allows an author to make observations, question things we take for granted and even to poke fun at humans. In a sense, a feline narrator may become an anthropologist.
While recognising that cats share many of our basic emotions, we need to keep a sense of reality and not project human values onto cats. It is erroneous to ascribe human motives to their cat behaviour. Because we attribute certain personality traits to cats, we can use them as shorthand in the visual arts. Imagining cats in the place of humans, doing human activities (such as the "Cats and Dogs" movies), is a creative process. Rewriting "Star Wars" with a cast of cats is good, geeky fun.
Certain types of anthropomorphism can be fun by allowing otherwise responsible adults to enjoy childish pursuits!