Lately, cat ladies have been in the news, prompting legislation, a documentary, and a new inquiry from Slate's "Explainer": "What's the deal with cat ladies?" And why are they always, well, ladies?
Slate, which ran its initial inquiry in 2005, was prompted to revisit the subject by the passage of the new Dudley, Massachusetts law that prohibits residents from owning more than three cats - which was prompted in turn by the out of control cat population of a resident C.L. Of course, one could argue that no self-respecting cat lady (or, for that matter, mere cat fancier) is going to heed any such injunction - either through obliviousness (the stereotypical cat lady isn't exactly glued to local news) or on animal-loving principle. So one wonders how effective such a law might prove.
Of course, as Slate's Daniel Engber points out, most of those whom we consider "cat ladies" are not mere animal-lovers, but those whose compulsion to collect and shelter has led to neglect, and often squalor - circumstances of which the perpetrators seen unaware. People toss the term around, but there's a difference between a woman with cats and someone who's a clinical animal hoarder.
Animal hoarding has also been viewed as an addiction, like compulsive gambling or alcoholism, or as a form of dementia. Though hoarders are usually quite old, many recall a history of neglect or abuse by their parents. Obsessive-compulsive disorder provides another psychiatric model; about a quarter of OCD patients exhibit object-hoarding behavior. No one knows why women are more susceptible than men. One member of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium points out that women are also more likely to become veterinarians and less likely to perform acts of animal cruelty.
As the sympathetic new documentary Cat Ladies explains the phenomenon,"It's not the number of cats that defines someone as a 'cat lady', but rather their attachment, or non-attachment, to human beings. They create a world with their cats in which they are accepted and in control - a world where they ultimately have value." Of course, even from the preview, there seem to be a number of different types represented - and not everyone's motivations seem just the same. That's why legislation seems problematic; there are people who can take in a lot of animals and give them good lives. And then there's hoarding, which is a real concern for the Humane Society and the ASPCA.
And while it's clearly a phenomenon more common to women - no one knows why - it's obvious that the tendency has been conflated with witch mythology in ways we don't even question. You don't need to watch the Cat People movies (although you should, because they're fantastic) to know that felines have evil historical associations - and have often been regarded as the familiars of the sort of lone woman who was an easy target in Salem. Take this (which mythology I've long heard, but can't verify or cite to my satisfaction, so take it as lore)
A very early record of the linking together of witches and cats concerns the ceremony of Cat Wednesday which took place in the city of Metz in Northern France. This involved hundreds of cats being burnt alive in the belief that they were witches in disguise. Papal might was brought down upon witches and cats in the 13th century when horrible acts of atrocity were carried out on humans and felines. Black cats in particular were believed to be agents of the devil, especially if owned by an elderly woman.
Clearly, our cultural aversion goes deeper than we know. Of course, when it comes to the Rat Ladies - well, that's another matter. And another documentary.
Hot Docs 2009 Trailers: CAT LADIES [YouTube]
Behind Closed Doors: The Horrors of Animal Hoarding [Humane Society]
Witches And Cats [Best-Cat]