“In creating new characters for our cartoon films, one of our main sources of inspiration has been the world of animals. And we’ve always been very much impressed with the cat family. This group of carnivora includes more than forty species from almost every part of the world. Some of which are the most handsome, and yet the most savage, of all animals.”
– Walt Disney, The Great Cat Family (1956)
The Walt Disney Studios are well-known for their overly-saccharine pro-social (non-human) animals. However, some animal species, such as the dog and the deer, have been depicted much more fondly than others. Most harms that pro-social animals experience are reflected upon sympathetically. For example, the unjust death of Bambi’s mother is famously emotional. In contrast, other species, such as the snake, are often depicted as villainous. As a result, any harms they face are often presented un-sympathetically. One species that has often been widely vilified by Disney is, of course, the cat. Cats, both wild and domesticated, are the most common species of villainous animals in Walt Disney Studios’ films. Ten (21%) of the forty-eight animated films produced by the studio between 1937 and 2008 feature cat villains: 1940’s Pinocchio (Gideon); 1950’s Cinderella (Lucifer); 1951’s Alice in Wonderland (the Cheshire Cat); 1955’s Lady and the Tramp (Si & Am); 1967’s The Jungle Book (Shere Khan); 1973’s Robin Hood (Prince John); 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective (Felicia); 1994’s The Lion King (Scar); 1999’s Tarzan (Sabor); 2008’s Bolt (Calico’s cats).
But why is this the case? And why are the harms experienced by these cats depicted un-sympathetically? It doesn’t make sense considering the massive popularity of cats in the wider culture. After all, domestic cats are one of the most common species of pet. Moreover, big cats are one of the most sought-after circus/zoo species. So why are they so often depicted as antagonists by the Walt Disney Studios? The reality is that cats are vilified in many areas of culture, not just in Disney’s films, or in animation generally. Moreover, this vilification has been the case for much of human history. For example, during the infamous Salem Witch Trials, those that owned cats were accused of devil-worshipping. As a result, many cats were apparently burned alive. The prevalent association cats have with villainy is likely because, unlike other species that evolved alongside humans, cats are famously disobedient and fiercely independent. Therefore, they cannot be controlled as easily as other popular species, such as the dog and the rabbit. It is well-known that humans often vilify what they cannot control, which has likely led to the widespread vilification of cats throughout history and culture. This vilification is particularly evident when cats are anthropomorphized, as it occurs in Disney animations.
Disney’s first-ever villain was an anthropomorphized cat named Pete (see Figure 1). Pete was originally a bear when he was first introduced in the Alice Comedies, but he was later revived as a cat and characterized as Mickey’s arch-nemesis. Pete is usually trying to harm Mickey or other pro-social characters in some way. However, he is usually severely punished for this harmful, often malicious, behavior. For example, in 1932’s Building a Building, Minnie pours hot coals down Pete’s trousers; in 1942’s Donald Gets Drafted, Pete is repeatedly shot; in 1942’s The Vanishing Pirate, a pile of active grenades falls onto him. In all of these instances and many more, the harms Pete experiences are depicted as justified because of his earlier malicious actions towards other, pro-social, animals. The apparently-justifiable harms that affect Pete are not unique to him. Walt Disney Studios have often depicted violence towards antagonistic cats as deserved. For example, Lucifer (Cinderella) falls out a high window to his presumable death; Shere Khan (The Jungle Book) has a stick of fire tied to his tail; Prince John (Robin Hood) is incarcerated; Sabor (Tarzan) is violently killed by Tarzan, and so forth. Yet, these harms, or even implied deaths, are always depicted as deserved rather than cruel or unfair, which is in contrast to how Walt Disney Studios presents the harms faced by pro-social characters.
One character that demonstrates these points is Felicia from The Great Mouse Detective (see Figure 2). Felicia is Professor Ratigan’s obese mute pet cat. She eats other animals whole on Ratigan’s cue. Thus, she serves as Ratigan’s merciless “hit man”. As a result, she is widely-feared by the film’s many animal characters, both pro- and anti-social. Like most other cat villains, Felicia meets a gruesome end. It is implied that she is mauled alive by guard dogs. However, this vicious incident is off-screen. The film only depicts flying pieces of fur, barking dogs, and (off-screen) cat shrieks.
It is not just domestic cats that have met gruesome, yet off-screen ends in Walt Disney Studios films. Almost half of the studio’s cat villains (Shere Khan, Prince John, Scar, and Sabor) are big cats, and they are all punished for their malicious actions. The most notable among these villainous big cats is undoubtedly Scar from The Lion King. When Scar is first introduced, he remarks that his nephew Simba would make a “handsome throw rug”. As the film progresses, Scar’s character worsens. For instance, he famously kills his brother Mufasa so that he can lead the pride. Again, Scar meets a gruesome end: he falls from a cliff and is ungraciously eaten alive by his hyena minions. Again, this grisly death is off-screen, but it is heavily implied through sound and shadows (see Figure 3).
Of course, not all of Walt Disney Studios’ cat characters are villains. For instance, The Aristocats, The Rescuers, and Oliver & Company feature pro-social cat characters. These characters are rarely harmed, and any harms that they do face are reflected upon sympathetically. For example, the abandonment of Oliver during the opening montage of Oliver & Company presents Oliver’s circumstances sympathetically. However, the fact remains that cats are Walt Disney Studios’ most common (non-human) species of antagonist. The interesting aspect of these villainous cats is that any violence and gruesome deaths they face are portrayed as deserved, which is the opposite of how the studio has depicted violence towards animals generally. However, the fact that these grisly harms are usually off-screen, rather than explicitly depicted, suggests that the Walt Disney Studios are not celebrating the deaths or harms that villainous cats face, but they are not sympathetic towards them either.
Disneyland, Series 3, Episode 2: “The Great Cat Family” (1956). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NX0C_An_LSU (Accessed on October 29, 2019).
Pręgowski, M. P. (ed.) (2016) Companion Animals in Everyday Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Zax, D. (2007) ‘A Brief History of House Cats’, Smithsonian Magazine, 30 June. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-house-cats-158390681/ (Accessed on January 5, 2019).
Rebecca Rose Stanton has recently completed a Ph.D. at Northumbria University. Her thesis studies depictions of animal abuse within animated Disney films (1937-2016). Since 2018, she has been the conveyor of the ‘Animals and Animation’ group within SAS. She is an associate fellow at the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics, and she is also a member of the Vegan Society’s researcher network.