Cats v Dogs: Which is Best? BBC Two pits man’s best friend against the faithful feline but which do Suffolk pet lovers prefer?
16:07 06 February 2016
The BBC has set the cat among the pigeons with the launch of a short series with a provocative title – Cats v Dogs: Which is Best?
Steven Russell asks two local animal-lovers, cat expert Roger Tabor and The Fairydogmother, what they think
Cats v dogs: which is best? Don’t expect my conscripted local animal enthusiasts to pull on their boxing gloves and fight it out. It’s the wrong question, they say. Dogs and cats are different beasts. Both have their good points, some not so good, and both have traits some people find unappealing. But we can love and admire both.
In fact, says naturalist Roger Tabor, we really ought to take a look in the mirror first.
“What you like reflects who you are, and a programme like this really ought to be shining a light on ourselves as much as it does those animals,” he says. “Why do we choose to have a dog? Why do we choose to have a cat?”
More of that in a moment.
When I heard of the BBC’s two-part programme, I was irked by the premise. The kind of ridiculous headline-grabbing comparison we really shouldn’t be making, I harrumphed. “Armed with the latest global scientific research, Chris Packham and Liz Bonnin battle it out to find the definitive answer to the burning question – which are best, cats or dogs?” ran the publicity blurb. It all sounded a bit over-hyped and naff.
Do we really need to test which species better understands numbers, or has the better vision, sense of smell, hearing, agility, endurance and ability to sprint? Why, for goodness’ sake, are we so keen to turn everything into a competition?
I seek the views of Roger, and Tracy Root, about this Cats v Dogs issue. Roger is a biologist and behaviourist. He was a founder presenter of Countryfile, and a co-presenter of Animal Magic in the 1970s.
Roger led the Secret Lives of Cats study about five years ago or so, which with GPS trackers and lightweight “cat-cams” plotted where they went in an average day and what they did. The author, who lives near Colchester, has had a series of felines over the years and is currently “dad” to Tiger.
Roger might in the past have written and presented a BBC TV series called Cats – filmed over three years and in 14 countries – and published many books on cats, but he’s not blinkered to the virtues of canines. “One is not better than the other,” he says.
Tracy, from Ipswich, is The Suffolk Fairydogmother – covering eight to 10 miles a day, on average, with her dog-walking business. She’s got two dogs of her own, too – and, for good measure, a cat.
I put them on the spot a bit, since the two-part series hadn’t begun when we spoke, but they happily talked about the animals they love.
Roger says Chris Packham is a mate, but they have crossed swords in the past about the risks cats pose to birdlife. Roger insists it’s not as great as some people think. And he’d hate moggies to become demonised again. For it’s only since about 1880 that they’ve been popular pets here.
The cat was a deity in Ancient Egypt, he explains, and part of the reason it’s been worshipped was because “it sits very symmetrically, which most animals don’t. It has night-reflective eyes, because of a mirror system that makes the most of the little light around at night”.
By medieval times, though, it’s all going horribly wrong in our part of the world. Paranoia about witches, which led to innocent and gentle older ladies being targeted, left their cats guilty by association.
“Eyes that glow in the night… obviously you’re in league with the devil. Light would have been from open fires, so those eyes would have glowed red. How much more demonic do you want?! Coming towards you with glowing eyes, and it can leap onto your thatched roof. You can’t do that with an easy spring. Your dog can’t do that. So this is obviously a magical animal and therefore in league with the devil,” says Roger.
Look at our language over the years and much of it presents “a dodgy misogynistic view of the world”. Cat-related phrases and metaphors have often been used, disparagingly, about women.
“Cathouse” was one label for a brothel, for instance. “It’s there in the language of the 18th Century and it’s there even now.”
The tide began to turn once men living alone – often writers and artists toiling quietly at home – presented in their work a better image of cats.
That set the ball rolling. Then, in 1871, gentleman and artist Harrison Weir organised the first cat show in England, at The Crystal Palace in London, “and everybody went ‘Woah, they’re lovely!’ It changed things”.
Before that, says Roger, people would have kept cats – but simply to control vermin. “A ‘necessary cat’, as Shakespeare called it.” So, it was only from about 1880 that cats started becoming popular as pets.
The dog, meanwhile, has always been man’s companion – but not, traditionally, the woman’s. Historically, men would be out hunting; their dogs content with being a pack animal ruled by their owners. Cats – much happier with a quieter and secure territory of their own – gravitated towards women, who traditionally looked after the home.
If we generalise, suggests Roger, we can see today that many people who prefer firm hierarchies often prefer dogs, while those with a more flexible live and let live attitude usually make a good friend of the cat.
What about this lingering allegation on the charge-sheet: that cats kill many of our feathered friends?
“They don’t catch many birds, contrary to popular belief. The highest in any regular study is only about 20% of birds, but in a lot of studies it’s less than 5%.” Outside, cats generally go for field voles or bank voles, and possibly the odd small rat.
Roger – chairman of the British Naturalists’ Association – says bird populations are dropping in the countryside and rising in towns, where the number of cats is higher. We’re feeding birds in gardens, for one thing. And, in the countryside, “we’ve changed habitat, we’ve robbed habitat, and all we’re after is cheap food. The more we push for that, we’re losing track of the reality: that we are the culprit, not the cat.”
He talks of changes since the Second World War: the loss of small farms whose hedgerows nurtured the earthworms and invertebrates on which birds fed; a drop in the amount of dung put on fields, which also encouraged worms.
Birds, Roger argues, were being starved to death.
He talks, too, of a real crisis not linked to cats: the decline in the sparrow population caused by a shortage of invertebrates for chicks to feed on.
Another: the significant drop in our numbers of butterflies. “Now, that’s not the cat to blame.” We spray our roses to combat pests; treat our lawns to get rid of worm-casts. The butterfly cops it.
“Without realising it, we are changing the wildlife of our gardens, and not for the better. And we are compensating by putting out more food (for birds). Why? If we maintain a better balance, things are much better to start with.”
Cats v Dogs: Which is Best? continues on BBC Two on Thursday at 8pm