Among the duties and responsibilities of a prime minister, inaugurating new animal shelters does not likely rank particularly high. But there was Stephen Harper last week, alongside his wife, Laureen, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, cuddling with a black cat for the cameras to mark the opening of a new facility for the Ottawa Humane Society.
From his earliest days as leader of the Opposition, when journalists were eager for any noteworthy detail of his personal life, Harper’s fondness for cats has been well documented. But with the Prime Minister now assured at least another four years in power, and thus a more prominent place in Canadian history, the image of him as a cat lover is taking on a certain iconic status. And his feline fixation is being pushed more proudly than ever.
The day after the Speech from the Throne in June, the Prime Minister polled his Facebook fans on the name of his family’s new grey tabby—asking voters to choose between Smokie, Vingt-quatre, Stanley, Earl Grey, Griffin and Gandalf. The poll drew more than 11,000 responses, the plurality of them going for “Stanley.” A week after the results were announced, video was posted to the Prime Minister’s official YouTube account of Stanley frolicking around 24 Sussex. Both the poll and the video were apparently Laureen Harper’s ideas.
This public cuddling and cooing might have something to do with presenting a warmer image of the Prime Minister, but the Harpers seem legitimately committed to the cause of feline welfare. The Prime Minister’s official website has long included information on how to foster or adopt pets. Stanley joins incumbent cats Cartier and Gypsy at 24 Sussex and, according to the Ottawa Humane Society, the Harpers have hosted some 87 foster cats during their time in the capital. Mrs. Harper is the honorary chair of the humane society’s annual fundraising gala. And on one occasion, the Harpers took in 11 kittens after a fire at an animal shelter in Cornwall, Ont.
The couple’s affection for cats is apparently quite immersive. During the last campaign, when Harper and his wife invited cameras to watch them watch the royal wedding from a hotel room in Montreal, they recalled their comparatively humble nuptials. “Six people and two cats,” recalled Laureen. “I had a little bow tie made for my one cat and a little lace collar made for the other cat.” In an early profile of the Prime Minister’s wife, written shortly after her husband became leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002, it was noted that the couple threw birthday parties for their cats.
Aside from William Lyon Mackenzie King, who drew great companionship from a series of Irish terriers, Canadian prime ministers are not particularly noted for their pets. In the United States, the presidential pet has reached exalted status (witness the attention heaped on Bo, the Obama family’s Portuguese water dog), but dogs have mostly ruled the White House in recent administrations. Winston Churchill, the revered British leader, kept a series of cats as beloved pets and they have long been employed by prime ministers to deal with rodents around the official residence at 10 Downing Street. Earlier this year, David Cameron appointed a four-year-old tabby named Larry to the position of “chief mouser” after a rat was spotted scurrying by the front steps. (After two months without success, Larry was reported to have made his first kill in April.)
The psychology of pet preference was the subject of a study conducted in 2009 by University of Texas psychology professor Sam Gosling, author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. Using an online personality test based on five general traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism), Gosling and his team found that dog people were more extroverted, more agreeable and more conscientious, while cat people were more neurotic and more open: the latter a measure of how curious, imaginative, creative and aware an individual is.
But if there is indeed deeper meaning to be drawn from Harper’s cats, the Prime Minister has already himself offered a couple of flattering suggestions. He has, for instance, argued that politicians who prefer dogs want to be loved, while those who prefer cats want to serve. For that matter, he has compared his entire political career to the mythology of a cat. “Cats have nine lives,” he told reporters on the eve of the Conservative party’s election victory in 2006, “and evidently I have many lives.”