3 Cool Mean Cats, Man! What Good is a Stereotype?
Right after finishing college, I went off to Rothenburg (on The Tauber River), Germany, back when there was still a West Germany, to study German language at a Goethe Institute. The class was full of about 25 young adults from all over: Sweden, Iran, Libya, U.S.A., Switzerland, Italy, Canada, Norway, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Greece, and Spain. On the first day of class, the teacher said he wanted us all to pitch in and create a list of stereotypes we conjure when we think of our own nationalities. He wrote them on the chalk board: Swedes and Norwegians were polite and of few words. The Greeks talked a lot, and fast. The Italians were very touchy and stood perhaps a bit too close. The Americans were confident and a little arrogant. The stereotypes seemed to be fitting like a glove, even on the first meeting of this class. Then he erased the board and we moved on with the day. But by the end of my first week in Rothenburg my stereotype of the local Germans as being rather cool and efficient had quickly flipped to smart and caring peaceniks.
It was a fun and funny exercise, but the teacher never drove home the point of it. Or, at least, I didn’t get the point. To this day I’m still not sure what the point was. Was it to illustrate our prejudices about people from other countries we know very little about? It seemed those stereotypes were rooted in some reality.
Can stereotypes have any beneficial function?
“Are you a cat person or a dog person?” she asked, while studying the signage on my car featuring an image of a cat and one of a dog.
“Both,” I said.
“Do you understand cats?” she asked.
Then, “Which do you prefer?”
I said, “They both fascinate me.”
“But which do you have in your house?”
I said, “Both!”
We hear it all the time: “I’m a cat person.” “I’m a dog person.” “I can’t stand small dogs.” “Gawd, I’d never want a big dog like that.” These comments almost certainly come from a place of ignorance; or, to be more polite, they come from a place of inexperience. The lovelies and the jerks in the animal world (that includes humans) come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Deep seated prejudice comes from deep rooted ignorance.
Walk into a household with dogs and 99 times out of 100, those pups will run to greet you; maybe not with much grace, but they will come running, or at least sauntering, to say Hello.
Walk into a household with cats and what greets you is a lot harder to predict. 9 times out of 10 you won’t be greeted, at least not immediately or obviously. But you most certainly will have been noticed.
Cats and Dogs. We often hear it’s not good to “pigeon-hole,” to stereotype, to “profile.” Some people are pigeon-holed by others; some people pigeon-hole themselves. But, for most of us, putting things and ideas into categories is how we make sense of them and organize them to get better understandings. On the surface, dogs are “simple” and straightforward. Cats are “finicky.” In my own house, one of my own cats acts more like a dog. And of course there are always exceptions. Always. So, what good are stereotypes?
I feel I can say with confidence that certain dog and cat breeds do have certain behavior tendencies in common. The confusion is that there are so many exceptions and nuances to those behaviors. I tend to favor the American Pitbull Terrier for their emotional intelligence. They are such loving dogs. But they are also very powerful and allegiant. The stereotype of pitbulls being “killers” only hits that mark in a tiny percentile. Until recently, banned in cities including Denver, Colorado, Pitties carried a big reputation and celebrity as being dangerous, at least among the uninitiated. If, another of my favorites, the Chihuahua, were 10 times bigger, they would undoubtedly be on that Most Dangerous Dog Breed list. (I cringe a little bit when using the word “breed” since my favorite pups over the years have come in the guise of all sorts of breeds.)
In my experience, dogs, by temperament, mostly fall into a fairly narrow category of being open and curious to human strangers, though dogs vary immensely in size: from a 2-pound Chihuahua to the 150-pound Tibetan Mastiff (yes, human engineering can be quite cruel and ridiculous). Cats, however, typically fall into a weight range of 8 to 12 pounds , but have a huge range of temperament: from super outgoing and friendly “like a dog” to performing an amazing disappearing act, seemingly gone without a puff of smoke. Not to be found until they choose.
I could talk about humans. Or dogs. Today I’ll stick with cats, and what a stereotype entails.
I googled a list of the “10 meanest cats.” I have had acquaintance of just about every cat on that list, including: Bengals, Bombays, and Siamese. Not one falls into my personal list of mean cats. Keep in mind these are my personal experiences. I’m sure other people somewhere have had different experiences that have given these sweet kitties reputations as a Bad Cat.
Bengal. Bengals by reputation could be put into that same “killer” reputation as Pitbulls. I’ve only had the acquaintance of 5 Bengal cats, and like Pitties, none lives up to that reputation. Not in the slightest.
Bombay. It’s true that all the Bombays I’ve met (I can think of 7) have all been cool and confident and moderately interactive with humans. Many of them may take a seemingly random swipe at you. But that does not define them as mean to me. One quirky thing they seem fine with is rubbing face to face (human to cat). I feel safe (maybe dumb and innocent) doing that, although it feels like a heartfelt connection.
Siamese. Somehow all the Siamese cats I’ve met have been rather old (18 years and up). No doubt that plays into the behavior of Kitty. In my 3 years with her, she was nothing but super sweet. The same with the other Siamese I’ve met.
In fact, some of the sweetest cats I’ve known are on that “mean cat” list. Of the 100-plus cats I’ve interacted with over the past 10 years, the only common denominator for mean cats I can think of is the color “orange.” (Think: Jonesy the cat in the 1979 horror sci-fi film Alien; actually a very sweet kitty with the humans but not so much with marauding aliens.) But that’s some sloppy science. And the meanest cats I’ve known aren’t even on that list. The few mean cats I’ve encountered are rare but indeed unnerving. I’ve not been able to formulate any clear rationale for their behavior other than they are protecting their territory or their people.
The one cat that has unnerved me the most was 4-pound Sweatpea. By appearance she would be, as her name connotes, a very sweet and gentle little thing. But looks can be deceiving. She would be in hiding when I arrived and then suddenly appear in a doorway, sitting, staring, trapping me in a room. And then she would do a 3-tiered caterwaul to serve as the soundtrack to this little horror movie. Growling, hissing, and mewing all in one vocalization. I got in the habit of carrying a broom at my side to shield me from any possible strike of claws or teeth.
So, back to that initial question:
Can stereotypes have any beneficial function?
There’s no doubt that stereotypes all have an origin story. And a stereotype may put you in the ballpark of general behavior of a certain cat or dog. Huskies are “aloof” and a Bombay cat may seemingly randomly take a swing at you. But, due to the fact that there are so many overwhelming exceptions to the rule, I have to say No.
Stereotypes, though sometimes seem glaringly accurate, in the end are mostly shallow assessments that most often blind us to being open to the real nature of whatever creature stands before us.
If you had asked me 20 years ago if I were a cat person or a dog person, I probably would have said “dog.” But I did not know the ways of the cat. Running the Front Range Pet Care, LLC, business for the past 11 years has, among other things, enlightened me about the amazing world of cat. I still have a lot to learn!