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“An essential guide for felinophiles and a valuable handbook for conservation professionals.”
Wild Cats of the World is a treasure trove of answers to questions like these, and many others, for anyone who's ...
Wild Cats of the World is a treasure trove of answers to questions like these, and many others, for anyone who's interested in learning more about the world's felids, including the ones with whom we share our homes. Mel Sunquist and Fiona Sunquist have spent more than a decade gathering information about cats from every available source, many of them quite difficult to find. They draw on historical documents such as descriptions of hunts and observations by naturalists and travelers, as well as more recent information in scientific journals, archaeological research, reports from government agencies, and newsletters from a wide variety of organizations. Weaving information from these sources together with their own experiences observing wild cats around the world, the Sunquists have created the most comprehensive reference on felids available. Each of their accounts of the thirty-six species of cat contains a description of the cat, including human interactions with it, as well as detailed data on distribution, ecology and behavior, status in the wild, and conservation efforts. Many photographs, including more than forty in full color, illustrate these accounts.
From the two-pound black-footed cat to the five-hundred-pound tiger, and from the African serval with its satellite-dish ears to the web-footed fishing cat of Asia, Wild Cats of the World has information that will fascinate and educate felid fans of any stripe (or spot).
History, Folklore, Ecology, and Behavior
Over the course of recent history, humans have tamed and domesticated many
different animal species, the first of which was probably the dog some
12,000 years ago. Felis silvestris was almost the last species to be
tamed, being added to the list of domesticated animals after goats, sheep,
cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, and even water buffalo. However, from
these modest and comparatively recent beginnings, the cat is now on the
verge of becoming the Western world's most popular pet; current
predictions are that cats will soon overtake dogs as the most commonly
kept pet. According to the Pet Food Institute in Washington, D.C., cats
already outnumber dogs in the United States. In 1997 there were an
estimated 70.2 million pet cats in the United States, compared with 55.9
Though many millions of cats are well-fed, well-loved family pets,
millions more are feral, scavenging human leftovers. Many others live with
and are fed by humans but supplement their diets with birds, rodents, and
Cats are believed to have beenfirst domesticated in Egypt, some four
thousand years ago, but the problem of identifying the exact period when
domestication occurred is complicated by the fact that domestic cats are
only recently descended from the African wildcat (Felis silvestris
lybica). For this reason, the skeletons of domestic cats and wildcats are
difficult to differentiate. When cat bones are excavated from
archaeological sites, it is difficult to establish whether they belong to
wildcats that were scavenging and hunting around human dwellings or to
domesticated wildcats living with people.
Though most of the evidence points to Egypt as the birthplace of the
domestic cat, bones of small felids have been found at older
archaeological sites in other areas. The remains of African wildcats have
been excavated from Jericho and dated at 6000 to 7000 B.C., but there is
no evidence that these were from domesticated animals; rather, they may
have been the bones of cats killed for fur.
Recent excavations of a six-thousand-year-old settlement on the
Mediterranean island of Cyprus have unearthed a cat's jawbone, suggesting
that cats may have been associated with people for longer than was
previously thought. Wildcats do not occur naturally on Cyprus, so the
animal on the island must have been brought there in a boat, either as an
accidental stowaway or as a pet.
Archaeological evidence shows that African wildcats were certainly
spending time around Egyptian towns and villages some four to five
thousand years ago, but their exact status and the process of
domestication remain unclear. One theory is that wildcats simply began to
hang around farms, granaries, and town middens, drawn by the abundant
rodents that were attracted by the grain and garbage. Historical and
biblical accounts record plagues of rats and mice decimating grain stores
and spreading disease, and almost any predator that reduced the numbers of
these rodents would undoubtedly have been encouraged.
Others argue that the most likely route to domestication was through
people taming captured kittens, just as many South American and Asian
people tame monkeys and birds today. It is known that the Egyptian people
of that time had an extraordinary passion for taming wild animals, and it
was common for wealthy families to have large menageries containing
baboons, lions, mongooses, hyenas, and gazelles. Given that cats were
objects of worship and thought to be the earthly representatives of
various deities, it is highly likely that the Egyptians attempted to tame
them in order to add them to their animal collections.
For the Egyptians, the process of domestication was aided by the fact that
the local subspecies of wildcat, Felis s. lybica, was a much less
aggressive animal than the virtually untamable European wildcat, F. s.
silvestris. Even so, pure F. s. lybica kittens are reported to be quite
difficult to handle. The veteran South African zoologist Reay Smithers
kept several purebred F. s. lybica, along with some lybica-domestic
crosses. Smithers wrote that "the progeny of Komani and a pure male from
Botswana, Igola [both F. s. lybica], were long-legged with red ears and
from the earliest stages, unhandleable, spitting and scratching or diving
for cover when approached." However, Smithers adds that crosses between
domestic cats and wildcats are easy to handle and tame easily. When
Smithers's wild-caught female mated with a domestic cat, the offspring
"turned out to be splendid house cats, great hunters and reached an adult
weight of 12 to 14 pounds, some two pounds heavier than their mother."
Beginning about two thousand years B.C., the domestic cat's history
becomes easier to follow, as this marks the time when Egyptian artists
began to depict the cat in mosaics and paintings. Statues, amulets, and
pictures show cats in a variety of contexts, sitting under chairs, riding
in boats, and being worshipped as deities. In Thebes, in the tomb of
Nakhte, dating to 1415 B.C., there is a painting of a cat killing a mouse
under its owner's chair. In another tomb dated about 1900 B.C., the bones
of seventeen cats were discovered, along with several small pots believed
to be for offerings of milk.
At that time in Egypt, the cat was associated with a confusing array of
gods and religious beliefs. One papyrus depicts the sun god Ra as a cat
with spots and barred markings, holding a knife in its paws. In the
drawing the cat is cutting off the head of the serpent of darkness, who
was believed to swallow the sun every evening. This association with the
sun apparently gave rise to the string game "cat's cradle," versions of
which are played all over the world. Though the meanings of the various
patterns have been obscured by time, the string cradles were used as a
means to control the movements of the sun.
Lions were also associated with the sun god, and cats were seen as closely
related to lions. The lion-headed goddess Sekhmet represented the
destructive aspects of the sun and was associated with wrath and
vengeance. According to one version of the myth, Bastet was the sister of
Sekhmet, the daughter of Isis and Osiris the sun god. Though Bastet was
originally lion-headed, she became more and more frequently depicted with
a cat's head and came to represent the good and benevolent aspects of the
sun. Bastet eventually became the great cat goddess who was in charge of
all growing things; she was a symbol of fertility for both crops and
women, and eventually came to be known as the goddess of joy and love.
Around 1000 B.C. Bastet emerged as a major deity and the focus of the
famous cat cult. The center of the cult was the great temple of Bastet in
the city of Bubastis, which is east of the Nile delta and is today marked
by a mound called Tel Basta. Herodotus, who visited the city in 450 B.C.,
describes the shrine of the goddess Bastet as "standing on an island
completely surrounded by water except at the entrance passage." According
to Herodotus's detailed description, the shrine itself was built of fine
red granite and encompassed a sacred enclosure about 600 feet square,
beyond which was a larger enclosure containing a canal, a grove of trees,
and a lake. In addition to a huge statue of the goddess Bastet, the shrine
contained thousands of cats, which were fed and cared for by innumerable
priests and attendants.
As the goddess of joy and love, Bastet was an extremely popular deity, and
each year thousands of people celebrated the festival of the cat goddess
with a pilgrimage to Bubastis. The event was one of the principal
festivals in Egypt and seems to have been somewhat akin to a weeklong
party; the mood was festive, and there was much drinking, singing, and
During the cat cult of Bastet, images of cats were carved and sculpted in
every material from gold to mud. Paintings depicted cats of various
colors, including ginger, orange-brown, and gray tabby. Cats were shown
eating fish, springing at waterfowl, and catching mice. Bronze cat statues
were used as votive offerings at shrines, and cat amulets made of gold,
glass, jasper, and stone were worn around the neck and buried in cat
graves. The penalty for killing a cat was death, and people would flee if
they saw a sick or injured cat in the street for fear of being held
responsible for the creature's demise. Cats were also highly esteemed as
pets; many people owned cats, and the death of one of these pets sent the
entire family into mourning. Behaving almost as if a human family member
had died, people shaved their eyebrows as a sign of respect and had the
dead animal embalmed and buried in a special cat cemetery. The embalming
procedure and funeral trappings varied depending on how wealthy the family
was. A poor man's cat was rolled in a piece of plain linen, whereas a rich
man might commission an elaborately embalmed cat mummy with a decorated
papier-mache mask. Thus embalmed, the body was placed in a mummy case, or
if it was a kitten, in a small bronze coffin. Food for the afterworld, in
the form of mummified mice and small pots of milk, was buried with the
It was during this period that the great cat cemeteries were laid out
along the banks of the Nile, where huge underground vaults and
repositories held the mummified remains of several hundred thousand cats.
One such burial ground was discovered at Beni Hasan in 1888 when a farmer
accidentally dug into a vault containing thousands of mummified cats. The
contents of this particular vault were so numerous that a businessman
hired people to strip cloth and dried fur from the bones so that the
bodies could be turned into fertilizer. Nineteen tons of mummified cat
bones, or the remains of some eighty thousand cats, were shipped to
Manchester in England to be ground up for use as fertilizer.
Fortunately, a few of these cat skeletons survived to be examined and
described by scientists. Eighty-nine skulls from Beni Hasan have been
dated from 1000 to 2000 B.C., and of these, four or five are thought to
belong to Felis chaus, the jungle cat, while the rest are Felis s. lybica.
Another collection of skulls and mummified animal remains from Egypt,
dating from 600 to 200 B.C., was presented to the British Museum in the
early 1900s, but the box containing the specimens was put into storage,
misplaced, and only rediscovered some fifty years later. When examined,
the collection was found to contain one hundred and ninety-two cats, seven
mongooses, three dogs, and a fox. Three of the skulls were from Felis
chaus, the jungle cat, but the remainder were those of the African
The Egyptians kept their cats under close guard, and by making their
export illegal, essentially prevented the spread of domestic cats to other
countries. The earliest record of a domestic cat in Greece is a 500 B.C.
marble bas-relief scene of a cat on a leash confronting a dog. This must
have been an unusual event, because at that time cats were almost unknown
in Greece and Rome; ferrets were the animals of choice for rodent control.
Cats remained rare until the fourth century A.D., when the Roman writer
Palladius recommended cats as an alternative to ferrets for getting rid of
moles in artichoke beds.
F. E. Zeuner, in his classic work A History of Domesticated Animals,
suggests that cats began to spread from Egypt to the rest of the world
soon after Christianity arrived in Egypt because this change released the
restrictions on the movements of cats and eventually led to cats being
imported to Rome. Others believe that the cat's spread through Europe was
linked to the spread of the brown rat and the house mouse. Once the cat
had arrived in Rome, it was almost inevitable that it would spread
throughout Europe, quite likely as a camp follower and companion to the
constantly traveling Roman armies. The domestic cat was introduced to
Britain by the Romans, and the remains of cats have been found in many
Roman settlements in England.
By the tenth century the cat was becoming more common throughout much of
Europe. In Wales in the tenth century, a hamlet was defined as a place
that contained "nine buildings, one herdsman, one plow, one kiln, one
churn, one bull, one cock and one cat." According to the laws of Hywel
Dda, a Welsh king who lived about A.D. 945, a cat was worth four pence.
Thus it had the same value as a dog, but was worth more than a small pig,
a lamb, or a goose, each of which were said to be worth one penny. In
Germany in the twelfth century the punishment for killing another person's
cat was a fine of sixty bushels of corn.
Cats most likely spread through Europe and around the world by way of
barges and sailing ships, and there are many nautical terms and weather
descriptions that make reference to cats. A light breeze that ripples the
surface of the water is known as a cat's paw, and a cat scratching the leg
of a table or chair was thought to foretell a storm. Many other words with
nautical associations began with the word cat, such as cat-o'-nine-tails,
catboat, catwalk, and cat rig. Carried across oceans or walking from
village to village, cats gradually spread across the globe, and by the
tenth century they had reached Japan, by way of China.
Cats seemed to attract more than their fair share of myths and
superstitions. In Scotland and Japan, tortoiseshell cats were believed to
be able to foretell storms. People in eastern Europe thought that evil
spirits took possession of cats during thunderstorms and that lightning
was produced by angels in an attempt to exorcise the spirits. In that part
of the world, cats were pushed outside as soon as a storm began so that
the lightning need not strike the house to reach the cat. In other places,
such as Indonesia, cats were used as rainmakers. They were carried three
times around a dry field, then dunked into a container of water.
The Middle Ages marked the beginning of three centuries of persecution of
the cat, and by the fourteenth century cats were in serious trouble in
Europe. Long associated with the moon, cats were now considered to be the
familiars of witches and disciples of Satan. Witches were believed to have
a unnatural nipple with which they suckled their cats, and several witches
are said to have confessed to feeding their cats milk and blood. At the
trial of one woman in Essex, evidence was given of a cat who would "suckle
bloud of her upon her armes and other places of her body." Women,
especially the old and ugly, became special targets of investigation, and
many were tortured and persecuted for being witches; their ability to
transform themselves into cats was accepted as fact, and taken as evidence
that they were witches.
Witches were thought to be able to bring all kinds of misfortune upon people, and as the servant of the witch, the cat-
familiar took an active role in spreading the havoc.
Excerpted from Wild Cats of the World
by Mel Sunquist Fiona Sunquist
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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