Thursday, June 2, 2016

Book Review: The House of Thirty Cats

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The House of Thirty Cats

("Book Rescue"? I love it! Who better to sell a book about an early Cat Sanctuary?)

Author: Mary Calhoun

Date: 1965

Publisher: Harper & Row

ISBN: none

Length: 214 pages

Illustrations: drawings by Mary Chalmers

Quote: “‘This is my property!’ the old lady cried angri­ly. ‘I can keep cats if I like!’”

This is a story from a more realistic, less politically correct time. Miss Tabitha, who does in fact live with thirty cats—eight of whom come indoors—is not a “cat hoarder” with either emotional problems or a failing mind; she’s a sensible, independent senior citizen who started out living with three cats but always found food for every stray, and now regularly feeds all the free-roaming cats in town. None of the cats has been sterilized. The population is starting to get out of hand.

In real life, the most likely development when a “cat colony” becomes so crowded, and none of the cats wants to move away, is a plague. This would, however, make an unbearably dull and depressing story, so instead the problem facing the House of Thirty Cats is a grumpy cat-hating neighbor. Although nobody has complained about Miss Tabitha’s cats before, Colonel Mace calls everyone’s attention to the fact that the cats are starting to become a nuisance: there are too many of them, they’re scavenging and fighting and disturbing the peace all night.

In real life, this is the stage in the development of a “cat colony” when neutering is indicated. (The concept of neutering was not unknown in 1965, but possibly Mary Calhoun was remembering something that happened longer ago than that, or possibly the idea violated her religious beliefs.) Although the Cat Sanctuary disputes the claim that cat overpopulation is inevitable, commonplace, or even likely, and does not endorse the idea of sterilizing all domestic animals, there are times and places when cats manage to become overpopulated—say, thirty cats around a suburban house. That’s when we recommend neutering most of the colony.

While Miss Tabitha understands the problem facing her cats in the way adult readers probably will—crowded living conditions are the problem—Sarah, the little girl through whose eyes the story is told for middle school readers, wants to blame it all on the thirty-first cat, a stray tom called Tarnish whom she perceives as evil. Sarah’s perception of Tarnish interferes with my suspension of disbelief, although the story of the overcrowded cats’ social relations is plausible. Although Tarnish doesn’t actually do any more harm than the other brawling male cats, Sarah projects onto his behavior a murky notion of pathological power-seeking, cruelty, and possibly rape-terrorism; she thinks he’s likely to rape one of the kittens. 

In fact, it’s not unheard-of for female cats to become sexually active when they’re four months old...or for male cats to try to encourage this. That's why so many young males have been banished from my social cat family. They don't exactly commit rape but they do encourage the natural hormone process to speed up in a way that's probably not good for the female and definitely not good for an overcrowded cat colony. 

In what I read as a territorial display, Tarnish does grab a two-month-old kitten; the kitten’s mother and another female attack Tarnish at once, and one of the female cats dies in the melee. Sarah construes this as an attempt at premeditated murder...although she’s perfectly willing to catch Tarnish and have him killed!

Anyway, Colonel Mace, who really is evil, has persuaded the town council that twenty-eight of the thirty-one cats have to be relocated or killed within two weeks, and Sarah takes it upon herself to find homes for the cats. Naturally she has some pleasant learning experiences and makes some new friends as she scrambles to place the cats. Naturally the cats, many of whom probably have other primary homes already, find their way back from their new homes to the free food and the company of their friends at Miss Tabitha’s house, showing Colonel Mace how useless the town council’s orders will be.

Luckily for Miss Tabitha, Sarah, and the twenty-nine cats and four new kittens who survive to the end of the book, at this period in history the majority of humans have more sense than the Humane Pet Genocide Society now display. The town dogcatcher offers to resign from his job rather than kill fifteen cats. Nobody else wants to kill fifteen cats either. The town council decide that, since the official population around Miss Tabitha’s house has been halved, the cats are no longer a real nuisance, and if Colonel Mace can’t live with eighteen cats, he needs to move. We need more town council members like this today.

Not so luckily, at the end of the book Miss Tabitha still hasn’t considered neutering any of her cats. In a few more years, either the cats will become a nuisance again, or they’ll die horribly from distemper or enteritis.
The House of Thirty Cats was hailed, when published, as a book with “many homely hints on cat care.” It’s strong on hints about how to make friends with cats, but, I think, weak on hints about how to manage a burgeoning cat population—if you’re lucky enough to have one. Still, this book deserves to be "rescued," reprinted, and kept on library shelves for its common-sense approach to animal population problems. Miss Tabitha is a poor role model for cat owners, but the town council are an excellent model for local government officials.

You can buy it from Book Rescue by clicking on the link above, or buy it here by sending $10 to either of the addresses at the bottom of the screen. If you choose to buy it here, you'll get a more recent paperback edition, and I'll send $1 to Mary Calhoun (I checked; the publisher says she's still living) or a charity of her choice. As usual, the $10 breaks down to $5 per book + $5 per package for shipping. Eight copies of this one would fit into the last package I bought for this purpose; if you bought eight copies you'd send $45, and Calhoun or her charity would get $8.