Picks and Pans Review: The Tribe of Tiger

updated 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

With more than 30 million cat owners in the United States, The Tribe of Tiger may have nine lives on the best-seller list. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, whose previous blockbuster, The Hidden Life of Dogs, was optioned by Disney, has applied her animal-observation skills to felines and come up with fascinating insights.

Thomas, who is adept at seeming to write about animals from the animals' point of view, here considers cats in both their wild and domestic states. She makes the case that cats have a distinct culture, a set of behaviors that prove them to be more social than we might imagine. Purring, meowing, tail-twitching, body-arching, scratching and spraying make up only a part of their vast repertoire of expression. If they seem at times aloof, Thomas argues, it is only because we humans are not particularly skilled at communicating with them.

Thomas began her study of cats in the 1950s in southern Africa, where she observed the relationship between lions and the native Bushmen, a fascinating interdependence forged over millions of years of living side by side. She recounts, for example, how a band of hunters who had wounded a wildebeest were able to persuade a pride of lions not to eat the beast when it fell. As the Bushmen have recently given up their nomadic lives, however, that relationship has changed. Lions today live mostly in preserves away from humans, Thomas notes, and without that continued familiarity, they have become more dangerous.

Turning her attention to the current state of the big cats, she asks what might be the preferred lifestyle of a captive lion or tiger. She compares life in a zoo to life in a department store window display, with all its static, nonfunctioning objects. A circus, on the other hand, in her opinion gives cats more of what they need—an opportunity to interact and exercise their intelligence and powers of observation.

As she did in The Hidden Life of Dogs, Thomas draws upon her training as an anthropologist to create a unique bridge to the animal world, finding a common ground where all species meet. Balancing sentiment with science, The Tribe of Tiger is full of life and the wonder of life. (Simon & Schuster, $21)

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