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Be kind to animals: Janet and Steven Alger with friend.

Copyright Infringement 101
Two Capital Region sociologists study cat behavior in a local shelter, and discover a strong sense of feline community

By Shawn Stone

The cat-shaped flag hanging in front of Janet and Steven Alger’s house is not simply decorative. It’s a friendly sign that “cat people” live within.

When you walk through this comfortable uptown Albany home, one thing is immediately apparent: There’s a cat of every color, shape and size around almost every corner. There is Petey, a wary long-haired tabby, and friendly Amber Lee, who will walk right up to strangers. There’s Calvin, who graciously permits visitors to rub his head, and Shelly and Cassidy, who wander off without betraying the slightest bit of interest. Finally, there’s orange-and-black Sydney, sitting in the window and staring longingly at the backyard. Sydney, it is learned, has an allergy, which is why she must endure the indignity of having one back paw bandaged. This keeps her from scratching; it also prevents her from being allowed out, which explains both the staring and the occasional bursts of loud, insistent meowing.

The Algers’ interest in cats is professional as well as personal. The couple have collaborated on a just-published book that aims to dispel some of the most common myths about cat behavior, as well as document heretofore unexamined patterns of social behavior. Cat Culture: The Social World of a Cat Shelter (available from Temple University Press) is the result of four years of research, and argues that, under the right conditions, cats are not only not loners, but will organize themselves into a society the French could envy for its liberty, equality and fraternity.

The Algers have long been interested in animal issues. The two sociologists—he’s an associate professor at the College of St. Rose, and she’s a professor at Siena College—were active in the early days of the local animal-rights movement, the late ’70s and early ’80s. At that time, Steven explains, the couple became aware of and began volunteering at the Whiskers, Albany’s well-known, no-kill cat shelter.

“We started volunteering,” he remembers, “and then Janet gave a course at Siena on the oppression of animals.”

“It was a peace studies course,” she explains, called Violence Against Animals. “That was really important because it got us to see relationship between sociology and animal issues—for the first time, we connected them.”

“And then,” Steve notes, “we decided that a shelter was a perfect setting from which to study human-animal relationships. As it turned out, a large part of the book is on the relationships between the cats themselves in the shelter.”

One of the oldest clichés about one of humankind’s oldest companions is the idea of the solitary cat. The Algers’ research has led them to believe that the solitary cat, as a concept, was more myth than reality.

Steven explains: “It’s certainly true that cats can be loners, particularly if they’re on their own, hunting, but one of the things that we discovered in the shelter was that under the conditions that existed there, that they were very social.”

Whiskers, Janet says, is unusual in that the cats are “free”—they’re not kept in cages. This means the cats not only have freedom of movement, but freedom of association. Under these conditions, she observes, the cats can “make some decisions about their own lives.”

These freely-made decisions, the Algers suggest, allowed the shelter cats—a mix of former house pets and feral strays—to create a unique social system that was not hierarchical.

“It was very egalitarian, and based on overlapping ‘friendship groups,’ ” Janet notes. “The friendship groups really provided the structure of the whole group, and it created solidarity within the whole group. So it was a very cohesive, affection-based system.”

“It was,” she says, “totally different from anything we had read about before.”

Steven remembers that this was in spite of the shelter being very crowded at the time. The cats didn’t freak out: “They chose to adapt to this situation, by really forming a very cohesive community rather than battling for space.”

This “system” included the effective integration of new cats into the community. New arrivals would be put in cages that would be left in the rooms with the free cats. While there was often a good deal of initial anger—especially among the cats that had been solitary house pets—the animals would eventually adjust and join the “community.”

It is important to note, Steven says, the special conditions at Whiskers. The cats are all neutered or spayed. All of their food needs are taken care of. They are kept healthy, with regular veterinary care. This, however, only underlines the positive things than can result when animals are treated humanely.

No matter how crowded, the cats remained nonterritorial during the four years the Algers conducted their study.

Janet laughs: “It wasn’t like we breezed in and out.”

The Algers’ own cats are all ex-strays. (“Their experiences have probably made their personalities more complex,” laughs Janet.) Sydney was found, abandoned and sick, in Saratoga Springs, left behind when her owners moved away. Calvin lost his home because of a particularly nasty divorce: Both partners claimed custody, and settled the dispute by turning the cat loose in the middle of winter. The rest of the cats came from Whiskers.

There’s an underlying philosophy of generosity and tolerance in the Algers’ work that squares with their relationship to their own pets, and they see clear policy implications to be drawn from their research.

“We [humans], in a sense, mistreat animals because we don’t see them as like ourselves,” Steven argues, “and so much of the recent research on animals is showing us that they are more and more like us than we had thought previously—they’re intelligent, and have emotions. The more we recognize that, the less acceptable [are] so many of the ways we treat animals.”

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