Cats are threaded through the whole of Harry Potter, it’s a wonderful thing to see – maybe that’s one of the reason I feel so at home in that universe? Although, in researching for this article, I discovered the not-so-secret secret that JK Rowling is allergic to cats, and doesn’t like to be in the same room with them for too long. She isn’t particularly fond of them, either.
However, she’s very fair: the first book tells us nearly everything about cats that JK Rowling wants us to know, and that is that cats are almost exactly the same as people. Some are good, some are bad, according to their own nature. The only difference between cats and people is that there’s no cat as evil as Voldemort, not that I can see, anyway, and that’s kind of JKR when she’s not fond of cats herself. Cats are integral to the wizarding world, just like they are to the muggle world.
The very first cat we see is Professor McGonagall, when she’s already Transfigured – Mr Dursley, on his way to work on the morning of that fateful day, sees a tabby cat reading a map. And she’s sitting on his garden wall when he comes home in the evening, but she waits for Professor Dumbledore, who doesn’t arrive till nearly midnight, and that’s Minerva McGonagall to a T – always active, and always supporting Dumbledore.
We only hear about the next cats, we don’t see them. These are the ones belonging to Arabella Figg, who used to babysit Harry during Dudley’s birthday trips out. But on those days, “Mrs Figg made him look at photographs of all the cats she’d ever owned … Tibbles, Snowy, Mr Paws and Tufty”. We soon find out that she’s gone off her cats a bit because she broke her leg tripping over one of the cats. Mrs Figg has her own secrets, of course, but we don’t even know that they exist until much later in the series.
Cats are one of the three sorts of animals allowed for first-years at Hogwarts: toads and owls are also on the list. So when Harry gets to platform nine-and-three-quarters for the first time and sees the wonderful engine building up steam for the journey to Hogwarts and the chattering crowd on the platform, “cats of every colour wound here and there between their legs”.
And that’s the point, really: they’re there, all the time in the background. Occasionally, one steps forward into the foreground and in this book, that’s really Mrs Norris, the cat of Mr Filch the caretaker. She has “bulging, lamp-like eyes just like Filch’s”, and quite like this Cat Pottery cat in a recent post of mine:
“She patrolled the corridors alone. Break a rule in front of her, put just one toe out of line, and she’d whisk off for Filch … it was the dearest ambition of many [students] to give Mrs Norris a good kick.”
Mrs Norris patrolled on her own! Wizarding cats are more than our cats – more than our cats let us see, anyway … but Mrs Norris definitely isn’t likeable. Even Hagrid, when Harry and Ron go to tea with him for the first time, says “An’ as fer that cat, Mrs Norris, I’d like ter introduce her to Fang some time. D’yeh know, every time I go up ter the school, she follows me everywhere? Can’t get rid of her – Filch puts her up to it”.
No matter what – in the first film, Mrs Norris is a beautiful, beautiful slim long-haired Maine Coon – actually, three Maine Coons, according to the website Showcatsonline, which even shows behind the scenes training moments. I’ve not seen that anywhere else, and I really, really like Harry Potter.
Interestingly, there’s an interview on with Gary Gero on Scholastic, the wide-ranging learning website. Gary is the animal trainer who provides many of the animals on the Harry Potter sets, and he has this to say about Mrs Norris (well, Tibbles): “we have to very carefully select cats. That’s one of the keys—you get a cat who enjoys work and enjoys the environment and enjoys new people and new situations. And then, it’s all about dinnertime with cats, isn’t it? We take their dinner and we divide it up into training sessions, and they’re pretty much working for their dinner. Then, they get a bowl of food at night as well. But they’re food is all regulated, and they’re fairly intelligent. Their training method is a little less direct than, let’s say, a dog. You make smaller steps. And again, once you understand exactly how a cat learns and what progress it makes, it’s not difficult. They try—you just have to be careful that you don’t expect too much of a single training session.”
Mrs Norris pops briefly into the story again when Harry and Ron visit the Mirror of Erised together at Christmas. They’re wearing the Cloak of Invisibility, but they can’t tell whether or not it works on cats. And JK Rowling doesn’t tell us at this stage!
She also pops in at the very start of the evening when Harry has his first confrontation with Voldemort, but it’s more a case of remembering that she’s there, and adding colour to the journey. It’s important to remember, though, that Mrs Norris looks at our heroic trio, even though they’re under the Invisibility Cloak. She doesn’t betray them, either.
And that’s it! For the first book, anyway. Though I should say, Gryffindor House has a lion as it’s symbol. Cats rule Hogwarts, just like they rule the Internet.