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CATS don't always land on their feet
Hundreds of Fascinating Facts from the Cat World
By ERIN BARRETT, JACK MINGO
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo
All rights reserved.
Cats Through History
"Cats, as a class, have never completely got over the snootiness caused by the fact that in Ancient Egypt they were worshiped as gods. This makes them prone to set themselves up as critics and censors of the frail and erring human beings whose lot they share."
—P. G. Wodehouse
Scientists believe that the entire cat family developed over time from a small, weasely animal called Miacis, which lived more than 50 million years ago. They believe that Miacis was the forebear of dogs, bears, and raccoons, too.
The first members of the cat family appeared about 40 million years ago.
Scientists believe that the ancient cat's original coat color was grayish-brown with darker tabby stripes. Such a color combination would provide excellent camouflage in most natural surroundings (as well as on bookshelves and in closets).
Where did the modern cat come from? Scientists believe that the modern pet cat actually derives from two different sources. Shorthaired breeds descended from a species of African wildcat called the Caffree cat (Felis libyca), which was tamed by the ancient Egyptians sometime around 2500 B.C.E. Crusaders brought Caffrees back to Europe, where they bred with small European wildcats to create the modern shorthaired housecat.
Longhaired cats, on the other hand, seem to have descended from the Asian wildcat (Felis manul). The Asian longhaired cat was domesticated in India about the same time that Egypt began domesticating the shorthair.
Unlike most domesticated animals, the size of cats has remained virtually unchanged during their association with people.
The man who created the method of zoological classification still used today was Carl Linnaeus, who lived in the eighteenth century. In 1758 he dubbed the domestic cat Felis catus. Despite their differences, all current breeds of house cat are considered the same species.
There are plenty of dogs depicted on prehistoric cave paintings, but not one cat.
Actually, there's a reason why there are no cats on ancient cave paintings. It's the same reason why archeological digs of ancient remains find bones of goats, dogs, cows, and dogs, but no ancient cat bones or toys: People and cats began their association together only about 6,000 years ago.
Cat o'Nile Tails
Cats do appear regularly on tomb paintings and frescos from ancient Egypt (4,000–5,000 years ago). They were an important part of Egyptian society. In fact, they were worshiped as gods in ancient Egypt.
There were practical reasons for worshiping cats. The Egyptians were very dependent on grains for their main staples of bread and beer, and they knew how much the cats contributed to their lives and economy by keeping rats and mice in check.
In ancient Egypt, the penalty for killing a cat was death.
Egyptians followed this procedure in the case of a house fire: Save the house cat first.
Ancient Egyptians first tried to domesticate the hyena to take care of their rat problem. When that didn't work out, they tried the cat, with a little more success.
Egyptian cats also acted as a sort of hunting dog—their owners stunned birds with boomerangs, and then cats were unleashed to finish off the birds and bring them back.
If a household cat died in ancient Egypt, its owners would shave their eyebrows in mourning and lovingly transport the cat carcass to one of the cities devoted to mummifying cats for their journey to the next world.
The cats apparently didn't make it all the way across the River Styx. In 1888, about 300,000 cat mummies were discovered still lounging around this world in a burial ground at the ancient city of Beni Hassan. We guess it illustrates once again how hard it is to get cats to go where you want them to go.
What happened to the 300,000 cat mummies? They were dug up with tractors and sold for $18.43 a ton to an English fertilizer company.
Egyptians thought that a cat in the house would ensure that the household would have many children, because the goddess Bast, with the body of a woman and the head of a cat, was also the goddess of love and fertility.
It was against the law to smuggle cats out of Egypt. (Not that the law did much good—Phoenician sailors smuggled them out of the country and traded them around the Mediterranean.)
Unfortunately, this worship of the cat had its downside, too. In 525 B.C.E., the Persians went to war with the Egyptians. Mindful of the Egyptians' religious reverence for cats, the Persians lined up a row of cats in front of their warriors. Egyptian soldiers were put into a crisis of faith—they quickly discovered that they couldn't swing a sword or fire an arrow for fear of hurting a cat and hissing off the cat goddess. In a cataclysm and a catastrophe, the wily Persians quickly defeated the Egyptians.
The people of ancient India used cats to protect their grains from rodents. The Chinese and Japanese also used them against rats, but in this case, to protect their silkworms from the pests.
For the Romans, the cat was the embodiment of freedom. Statues of the Roman goddess of liberty showed her with a cup, a broken scepter, and a cat, the most independent domestic animal, lying at her feet.
The Japanese once believed that owning a cat as a pet was inhumane. In the year 1602 the Japanese government declared all cats free and forced civilians to free all adult pet cats. The new laws forbade the buying, selling, or trading of cats.
In the Dutch struggle for independence from the Spanish in the sixteenth century, the Dutch used the image of a cat to symbolize freedom. During the French Revolution, cats were also used as emblems of freedom.
The Truth about Cats and Gods
Besides ancient Egypt, there were catworshiping religions among the Incas in South America. In fact, there still are cat worshipers in Thailand, China, Burma, and India.
The cat is the only domesticated animal not ever mentioned in the Bible.
Cats, however, are commended in the Jewish Talmud. A part written in about 500 C.E. waxes eloquently about cats' admirable qualities, encouraging people to own cats "to help keep their houses clean."
Confucius was a cat lover. So was Mohammed, who considered dogs unclean but heartily approved of cats. Legend has it that he once cut the sleeve off his garment to avoid disturbing a cat that had gone to sleep on it.
During the witch hunts of Europe, hundreds of thousands of cats were killed for being in league with the devil. As a result, the devil got his due: Rats suddenly had free reign and plagues ravished the continent. The Black Death in particular, transmitted to people by rat fleas, killed about one-fourth of Europe's population during the mid-1300s.
Perhaps the town elders of Salem, Massachusetts, learned something from the experience. When they conducted their own witch hunt in 1692, no cats were put to death. However, two dogs were. Not to mention twenty innocent people.
* * *
Cats have had an on-again/off-again relationship with medicine and science. For part of the Middle Ages, many Western Europeans believed cats had magical healing powers. Doctors prescribed a cat to patients believed to be going insane because it was thought a cat could cure insanity. Today, many cat lovers suspect that the reverse might be true.
The Renaissance was considered a golden age for cats. Nearly every home had them, from the castles to the hovels on the edges of town.
Who imported the first housecats to the New World? The Pilgrims did. They brought rat-catching boat cats with them on their Atlantic voyage.
Colonists during the 1600s and 1700s brought their cats with them from Europe. Most of the cats in the United States and Canada are descendents of these cats.
Early colonists also brought over catnip, but not for the cats—for themselves, because they thought it was medicinal.
History tells us that the first American to own a Siamese cat was Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, in the 1870s. It was a present from David Sickels, the ambassador to Siam (now Thailand). Lucy named the cat "Siam."
However, a mere Siamese cat wasn't the most exotic feline in the White House. Teddy Roosevelt kept a lion; Martin Van Buren, a pair of tiger cubs; and Calvin Coolidge, a bobcat named Smokey.
Unleash the Cats of War!
Unfortunately, the first casualties of war are often cats. Besides the Persians using them as shields in their war with the Egyptians and the attempts to use them during World War II, cats have been used as unwilling combatants for almost as long as people have been fighting.
Who Put the Cat in the Catapult? During the Middle Ages, besieging armies would catapult a variety of loathsome things into castles. The decaying bodies of long-dead cats were a favorite.
Man's Inhumanity to Cats: A fifteenthcentury Italian military engineer recommended using cats with flaming materials on them as a military weapon. He figured that the flame would scare the cats into running for cover in and under buildings, and the flames would do the rest.
"Garçon, a soupçon of feline mignon!" During the siege of Paris in the Franco-Russian War of 1870, the food shortage was so desperate that no zoo animal or pet escaped the stew pot. A gourmet Parisian restaurant switched its cuisine to incorporate dogs, rats, birds, and cats, including the menu item chat fricassèe.
During World War I, caged cats were brought to the trenches on the front lines. Not to kill the rodents, of which there were plenty, but as "canaries in the mines": their sudden deaths were meant to warn the soldiers of the presence of chemical warfare.
During the Nazis' 900-day siege of Leningrad (1941–1944), people ate their cats and anything else they could find. For decades afterward, the city celebrated an annual day of mourning in memory of the pets that involuntarily gave their lives to help keep their owners alive.
In the early '60s the CIA experimented with training dogs and cats as delivery systems for microphones and bombs.
Finally, there was the cat torture device, used during eighteenth-century America. Punishment involved a fearful, angry cat dangling by its tail, pulled back and forth across the victim's back.
Notables & Top Cats
"The cat always leaves a mark on his friend."
The last Royal British Navy feline mascot and mouse catcher was able sea cat Fred Wunpound Cat, so named because he was "found at the pound, and bought for a pound." He served from 1966 to 1974, traveling more than 250,000 miles in his career on the HMS Hecate. Fred retired to a school in Somerset when the Royal Navy passed anti-cat regulations.
An English cat named Henry was swept over the side of a neighbor's dock by a wave. After a quick search of the murky waters below, he was given up for dead. Seventeen days later, someone spotted eyes peering out of a crack in the supports. Henry had managed to hang on when the wave washed him over and found a crevice to hole up in, while waiting to be rescued.
The Brave Pet of the Year in 2000 went to a cat named Coffee from Cheshire, United Kingdom. When something on the stove caught fire in his sleeping owner's home, he didn't just stand around, helplessly mewing, he took matters into his own paws, head-butting his owner and biting him on the nose until he woke up, saving the lives of everyone in the house.
Here's to ol' Tipper, a cat from Tampa, Florida! While his collar was lodged on something and choking him, this lucky cat accidentally knocked the telephone off the table and hit the speed-dial option for 9-1-1. Tipper lived.
The cat that appeared in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's with Audrey Hepburn was named Orangey. Orangey was also featured in the movie Rhubarb and the television show Our Miss Brooks. In both 1952 and 1962, Orangey won the Patsy Award (the name stands for "Picture Animal Top Star of the Year"—it's the animal equivalent of the Oscars).
The Dickin Medal for Valor is a British military award for animals that was created by Maria Dickin, who founded the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, a veterinary charity that now operates forty-five animal hospitals across Britain. The medal has been presented to eighteen dogs, three horses, thirty-one pigeons ... and only one cat.
The feline recipient was Simon, a cat that served as rat-catcher first class on the British escort sloop HMS Amethyst. In April 1949, the British were trying to preserve their colonial interests in China when the Amethyst was trapped and shelled by the Chinese Navy on the Yangtze River. Seventeen people were killed and twenty five were wounded. More important for our story, brave little Simon was wounded and trapped in the wreckage for four days. The Chinese besieged the ship for most of the summer. During this time, and despite his wounds, Simon continued his duties, hunting rats on the trapped ship, which helped to preserve the ship's dwindling food supply.
Of course, you could argue that Simon's actions were not particularly brave or altruistic—that he merely did what any hungry cat surrounded by water would do. Still, the story of the ship and the cat became a 1956 movie called The Yangtze Incident.
A group of Matterhorn climbers in the Swiss Alps were surprised in 1950 to find a four-month-old kitten following along behind them. The feline, owned by Josephine Aufdenblatten, managed to successfully reach the summit, the height of which is 14,691.
For more than a century, the British government has used an army of up to 100,000 civil servant cats to keep government office buildings free from rodents.
The most famous government cat was Humphrey, who served as official mouser at 10 Downing Street through the terms of three prime ministers (Margaret Thatcher, John Majors, and Tony Blair) until his retirement at age eleven in 1997.
The fattest cat ever recorded was Himmy, a tabby from Queensland, Australia. He weighed almost forty-seven pounds at his heaviest and often had to be wheelbarrowed around when traveling. The second largest cat on record is Kato from Norway. Kato weighs thirty-six pounds and his neck is fourteen inches around.
Poor Percy! He was a homing pigeon that won the France-to-Sheffield race in 1993. Or would have, anyway. The moment Percy landed, a cat attacked and ate him. Percy's owner attempted to retrieve Percy's tag to show the judges, but by the time she could wrench it away from the cat, two other pigeons had flown in ahead. The deceased Percy never got his day, and his owner took home a third place ribbon.
A woman from Chester, England, called the police one night upon hearing an intruder in her garage. Police cars converged on the scene, and the officers decided to call in the department's helicopter to minimize the burglar's chances for escape. Imagine everyone's embarrassment when police rushed the garage only to find that the intruder was Tumble, a neighbor's eighteen-year-old cat.
"Curiosity killed the cat, but for a while I was a suspect."
Originally, it wasn't "curiosity" that was said to kill a cat, it was worry. In Shakespeare's day, the saying went "Care kills a cat;" care being another word for worry. In O. Henry's 1909 work Schools and Schools, he wrote, "Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat," playing somewhat off of the earlier saying. The phrase was shortened to its current form by the time it appeared in Eugene O'Neill's Diff'rent in 1922: "Curiosity killed the cat."
Probably an imitation of the sound cats make, the ancient Egyptian word for cat was mau.
Ancient Syrians called it qato. In Latin, "cat" is cattus. In French: chat; in German: katze. The Danes say kat, while the Spanish and Italians go with gatto. The Russians say kot.
In old English, the common male name "Gilbert" came to be used mainly for male cats that were neutered. Over time, the name was shortened to "Gib." Neutered cats today are still sometimes referred to as gibs.
"Grimalkin" is a name used for old female cats. Originally it was "gray malkin"; gray representing "old," and malkin being an altered form of the names Malde and Maud, both derivative of Matilda. The dictionary tells us that grimalkin is also used for old hares and slovenly women, as well.
Prior to 1760, male cats were traditionally called "rams" or "boars," but in that year, an anonymous book titled The Life and Adventures of a Cat was published. Its main character was named Tom the Cat. Because it was widely read, the name stuck and was shortened in later years to Tom Cat or tomcat.
Several hundred years ago, an audience would hiss and boo at performers when they felt they hadn't gotten their money's worth. Since this hissing raucous so resembled cats caterwauling on the fence late at night, these audience theatrics became known as catcalls.
The cat's instinctual habit of quickly darting up a tree or under something for protection probably spawned the common insult, "scaredy cat."
If you're caught in a difficult situation or are suffering acute anxiety, you might be called "a cat on a hot tin roof." Although this phrase has been burned in our collective memory, thanks to the Tennessee Williams' play by the same name, it dates in America to around 1900. It came from the British "a cat on hot bricks," which had the same meaning and was first seen in writing in 1880.
Excerpted from CATS don't always land on their feet by ERIN BARRETT, JACK MINGO. Copyright © 2002 Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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