kind to animals: Janet and Steven Alger with friend.
Two Capital Region
sociologists study cat behavior in a local shelter, and
discover a strong sense of feline community
By Shawn Stone
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.
started volunteering,” he remembers, “and then Janet gave
a course at Siena on the oppression of animals.”
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
[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.”