Saturday, 15 June 2013

TV Review - Horizon: The Secret Life of the Cat

Not a book review for once but a TV review. However as it features one of my favourite animals I felt I had to comment.

This was a Horizon special which comprised of 2 programmes following the study of a group of 50 cats in a Surrey village, fitted with GPS collars and special cameras. The aim was to find out just what cats get up to when they leave the house and their life of domestic bliss.

Although it was nice to see a documentary about one of my favourite, and most fascinating of animals, I was slightly disappointed in the main programme (The Secret Life of the Cat). I felt that there wasn’t enough actual ‘cat action’ in the programme. Bleeping computer screens, guff about how various technology had been developed and countless cat owners blathering on about their pets filled up most of the hour. The few minutes of actual cat footage which remained seemed to be almost shoved in as an afterthought, perhaps as the producers thought, oh dear this was supposed to be about cats we’d better actually show a few. Nor was there really much the average cat person didn’t already know about moggies: they like to roam about at night, they fight, they kill rats, mice and other furred and feathered critters, they sneak into other people’s homes and nick other cat’s dinners. The most telling information garnered was that about cats roaming habits. The revelation that cats shared the same territory at different times in a kind of ‘time share’ was very interesting. The ‘cats  eye’ view from the cameras was too, although once again they didn’t show enough of this fascinating angle.

The shorter follow-up programme the next day (Little Cat Diaries) was however a bit more insightful and showed more of the actual cats. In this instalment the focus was on three particular cats from the larger study: the top hunter, the top roamer (and boss cat of the neighbourhood) and a cat who had packed its fur and left its owners to take up residence in a house across the street. It also focused on a stray cat which was lurking around the neighbourhood and taking liberties with other cat’s homes and dindins. Hermes, the ‘top cat’ was particularly interesting as it was a hermaphrodite - although it seemed to actually have an overdose of testosterone judging from its propensity to ride rough shod over other cats' territory!

Having a background in psychology, I was particularly interested in the recreation of a classic experiment into infant attachment, in which dogs were seen to display the same reliance and separation anxiety to their owners that infants did to their mothers. Cats however frankly didn’t give a toss when their owner disappeared and weren’t too ecstatic when they were re-united with them either. But I don’t feel that this demonstrated that cats didn’t love their owners, as the programme seemed to suggest, rather that they don’t have the same reliance on them for comfort or security.

In some ways the programme seemed to perpetuate the criticism non cat-lovers make about cats – that they are cold, unfeeling creatures who go around killing everything in sight. The latter point was exacerbated by a grisly chamber of horrors section in which an array of dead animals (and animal parts!) were paraded in front of the viewer. Watching this,  I began to think I had accidentally tuned into a re-run of a Saw film rather than a documentary! The single eyeball (which was all one cat had left of its prey) peeping coyly at me from inside a tupperware box was not a sight that will leave my mind in a hurry. One of the cat experts was quick to point out that the actual ratio of kills to cats was fairly low: only half a victim to each cat per week. What he should have added is that if the owners didn’t let their animals out at night when most cats do their hunting, the death toll could be lessened even further.

Strangely enough, by the end of the 2 programmes I felt that the study had actually provided as much insight into the behaviour of human being as cats. In fact the cats came off as considerably more capable than many of the humans, and in some cases more intelligent too. Cats seemed to have had the upper hand in most of the relationships, with one family admitting that they organised their life around the cat, another calling themselves the cat’s staff, rather than owners. The neighbourhood stray managed to inviegle itself into a new home without too much trouble. (Not a rare occurance for a cat in my experience, as most of our family cats have chosen us rather than the other way round.) I had to smile at the pride some of the owners displayed in their cats’ various accomplishments. As one owner said, it was like parents preening themselves at school parent’s evening!

Sadly though, some of the owners did not really understand their cats at all. The owner of Orlando, the best hunter in the village, proudly announced that his decimation of the local bunny population was because he didn’t eat cat food but preferred a diet of rabbits. However perhaps if she had actually fed him cat food and kept him in at peak hunting times, the bunnies may have been a lot safer. The ex-owner of Obi, the cat who had abandoned its old home for a neighbour's seemed rather peeved that the cat had left after 10 years, seemingly clueless that it was her own thoughtless behaviour in letting a new dog into the home and allowing it to attack the cat, which had caused the poor animal to up sticks. I was also surprised and disappointed that the old chestnut of putting the cat out at night is still going strong. Despite statistics showing that most cats are killed at night (being run over by motorists who cannot see them in the dark) and also the preponderance of hunting and killing taking place at night, most of the owners in the study were happy to let their cats roam in the small hours.

All in all, perhaps not as much new data garnered about cat behaviour as would be hoped, but worth a look. In fact worth the watch alone just to find out that ‘Pet Detective’ is actually an official job! Now that’s something they never mentioned as an option at school careers day...

Both programmes are available on BBCiplayer until 17th July

Horizon the Secret Life of the Cat

Horizon - Little Cat Diaries


  1. Agree completely Claire.

  2. I agree that woman who let the dog attack her cat was an idiot! But there were some decent cat owners on there too.