Chapter One The Domestic Cat
History, Folklore, Ecology, and Behavior
Over the course of recent history, humans have tamed and domesticated manydifferent animal species, the first of which was probably the dog some12,000 years ago. Felis silvestris was almost the last species to betamed, being added to the list of domesticated animals after goats, sheep,cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, and even water buffalo. However, fromthese modest and comparatively recent beginnings, the cat is now on theverge of becoming the Western world's most popular pet; currentpredictions are that cats will soon overtake dogs as the most commonlykept pet. According to the Pet Food Institute in Washington, D.C., catsalready outnumber dogs in the United States. In 1997 there were anestimated 70.2 million pet cats in the United States, compared with 55.9million dogs.
Though many millions of cats are well-fed, well-loved family pets,millions more are feral, scavenging human leftovers. Many others live withand are fed by humans but supplement their diets with birds, rodents, andlizards.
Cats are believed to have been first domesticated in Egypt, some fourthousand years ago, but the problem of identifying the exact period whendomestication occurred is complicated by the fact that domestic cats areonly recently descended from the African wildcat (Felis silvestrislybica). For this reason, the skeletons of domestic cats and wildcats aredifficult to differentiate. When cat bones are excavated fromarchaeological sites, it is difficult to establish whether they belong towildcats that were scavenging and hunting around human dwellings or todomesticated wildcats living with people.
Though most of the evidence points to Egypt as the birthplace of thedomestic cat, bones of small felids have been found at olderarchaeological sites in other areas. The remains of African wildcats havebeen excavated from Jericho and dated at 6000 to 7000 B.C., but there isno evidence that these were from domesticated animals; rather, they mayhave been the bones of cats killed for fur.
Recent excavations of a six-thousand-year-old settlement on theMediterranean island of Cyprus have unearthed a cat's jawbone, suggestingthat cats may have been associated with people for longer than waspreviously thought. Wildcats do not occur naturally on Cyprus, so theanimal on the island must have been brought there in a boat, either as anaccidental stowaway or as a pet.
Archaeological evidence shows that African wildcats were certainlyspending time around Egyptian towns and villages some four to fivethousand years ago, but their exact status and the process ofdomestication remain unclear. One theory is that wildcats simply began tohang around farms, granaries, and town middens, drawn by the abundantrodents that were attracted by the grain and garbage. Historical andbiblical accounts record plagues of rats and mice decimating grain storesand spreading disease, and almost any predator that reduced the numbers ofthese rodents would undoubtedly have been encouraged.
Others argue that the most likely route to domestication was throughpeople taming captured kittens, just as many South American and Asianpeople tame monkeys and birds today. It is known that the Egyptian peopleof that time had an extraordinary passion for taming wild animals, and itwas common for wealthy families to have large menageries containingbaboons, lions, mongooses, hyenas, and gazelles. Given that cats wereobjects of worship and thought to be the earthly representatives ofvarious deities, it is highly likely that the Egyptians attempted to tamethem in order to add them to their animal collections.
For the Egyptians, the process of domestication was aided by the fact thatthe local subspecies of wildcat, Felis s. lybica, was a much lessaggressive animal than the virtually untamable European wildcat, F. s.silvestris. Even so, pure F. s. lybica kittens are reported to be quitedifficult to handle. The veteran South African zoologist Reay Smitherskept several purebred F. s. lybica, along with some lybica-domesticcrosses. Smithers wrote that "the progeny of Komani and a pure male fromBotswana, Igola [both F. s. lybica], were long-legged with red ears andfrom the earliest stages, unhandleable, spitting and scratching or divingfor cover when approached." However, Smithers adds that crosses betweendomestic cats and wildcats are easy to handle and tame easily. WhenSmithers's wild-caught female mated with a domestic cat, the offspring"turned out to be splendid house cats, great hunters and reached an adultweight of 12 to 14 pounds, some two pounds heavier than their mother."
Beginning about two thousand years B.C., the domestic cat's historybecomes easier to follow, as this marks the time when Egyptian artistsbegan to depict the cat in mosaics and paintings. Statues, amulets, andpictures show cats in a variety of contexts, sitting under chairs, ridingin boats, and being worshipped as deities. In Thebes, in the tomb ofNakhte, dating to 1415 B.C., there is a painting of a cat killing a mouseunder its owner's chair. In another tomb dated about 1900 B.C., the bonesof seventeen cats were discovered, along with several small pots believedto be for offerings of milk.
At that time in Egypt, the cat was associated with a confusing array ofgods and religious beliefs. One papyrus depicts the sun god Ra as a catwith spots and barred markings, holding a knife in its paws. In thedrawing the cat is cutting off the head of the serpent of darkness, whowas believed to swallow the sun every evening. This association with thesun apparently gave rise to the string game "cat's cradle," versions ofwhich are played all over the world. Though the meanings of the variouspatterns have been obscured by time, the string cradles were used as ameans to control the movements of the sun.
Lions were also associated with the sun god, and cats were seen as closelyrelated to lions. The lion-headed goddess Sekhmet represented thedestructive aspects of the sun and was associated with wrath andvengeance. According to one version of the myth, Bastet was the sister ofSekhmet, the daughter of Isis and Osiris the sun god. Though Bastet wasoriginally lion-headed, she became more and more frequently depicted witha cat's head and came to represent the good and benevolent aspects of thesun. Bastet eventually became the great cat goddess who was in charge ofall growing things; she was a symbol of fertility for both crops andwomen, 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 thefamous cat cult. The center of the cult was the great temple of Bastet inthe city of Bubastis, which is east of the Nile delta and is today markedby 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 islandcompletely surrounded by water except at the entrance passage." Accordingto Herodotus's detailed description, the shrine itself was built of finered 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 shrinecontained thousands of cats, which were fed and cared for by innumerablepriests and attendants.
As the goddess of joy and love, Bastet was an extremely popular deity, andeach year thousands of people celebrated the festival of the cat goddesswith a pilgrimage to Bubastis. The event was one of the principalfestivals in Egypt and seems to have been somewhat akin to a weeklongparty; the mood was festive, and there was much drinking, singing, anddancing.
During the cat cult of Bastet, images of cats were carved and sculpted inevery material from gold to mud. Paintings depicted cats of variouscolors, including ginger, orange-brown, and gray tabby. Cats were showneating fish, springing at waterfowl, and catching mice. Bronze cat statueswere used as votive offerings at shrines, and cat amulets made of gold,glass, jasper, and stone were worn around the neck and buried in catgraves. The penalty for killing a cat was death, and people would flee ifthey saw a sick or injured cat in the street for fear of being heldresponsible for the creature's demise. Cats were also highly esteemed aspets; many people owned cats, and the death of one of these pets sent theentire family into mourning. Behaving almost as if a human family memberhad died, people shaved their eyebrows as a sign of respect and had thedead animal embalmed and buried in a special cat cemetery. The embalmingprocedure and funeral trappings varied depending on how wealthy the familywas. A poor man's cat was rolled in a piece of plain linen, whereas a richman might commission an elaborately embalmed cat mummy with a decoratedpapier-mch mask. Thus embalmed, the body was placed in a mummy case, orif it was a kitten, in a small bronze coffin. Food for the afterworld, inthe form of mummified mice and small pots of milk, was buried with thecat.
It was during this period that the great cat cemeteries were laid outalong the banks of the Nile, where huge underground vaults andrepositories held the mummified remains of several hundred thousand cats.One such burial ground was discovered at Beni Hasan in 1888 when a farmeraccidentally dug into a vault containing thousands of mummified cats. Thecontents of this particular vault were so numerous that a businessmanhired people to strip cloth and dried fur from the bones so that thebodies could be turned into fertilizer. Nineteen tons of mummified catbones, or the remains of some eighty thousand cats, were shipped toManchester in England to be ground up for use as fertilizer.
Fortunately, a few of these cat skeletons survived to be examined anddescribed by scientists. Eighty-nine skulls from Beni Hasan have beendated from 1000 to 2000 B.C., and of these, four or five are thought tobelong 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 theearly 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, sevenmongooses, three dogs, and a fox. Three of the skulls were from Felischaus, the jungle cat, but the remainder were those of the Africanwildcat.
The Egyptians kept their cats under close guard, and by making theirexport illegal, essentially prevented the spread of domestic cats to othercountries. 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 musthave been an unusual event, because at that time cats were almost unknownin Greece and Rome; ferrets were the animals of choice for rodent control.Cats remained rare until the fourth century A.D., when the Roman writerPalladius recommended cats as an alternative to ferrets for getting rid ofmoles 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 worldsoon after Christianity arrived in Egypt because this change released therestrictions on the movements of cats and eventually led to cats beingimported to Rome. Others believe that the cat's spread through Europe waslinked to the spread of the brown rat and the house mouse. Once the cathad arrived in Rome, it was almost inevitable that it would spreadthroughout Europe, quite likely as a camp follower and companion to theconstantly traveling Roman armies. The domestic cat was introduced toBritain by the Romans, and the remains of cats have been found in manyRoman settlements in England.
By the tenth century the cat was becoming more common throughout much ofEurope. In Wales in the tenth century, a hamlet was defined as a placethat contained "nine buildings, one herdsman, one plow, one kiln, onechurn, one bull, one cock and one cat." According to the laws of HywelDda, 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. InGermany in the twelfth century the punishment for killing another person'scat was a fine of sixty bushels of corn.
Cats most likely spread through Europe and around the world by way ofbarges and sailing ships, and there are many nautical terms and weatherdescriptions that make reference to cats. A light breeze that ripples thesurface of the water is known as a cat's paw, and a cat scratching the legof a table or chair was thought to foretell a storm. Many other words withnautical associations began with the word cat, such as cat-o'-nine-tails,catboat, catwalk, and cat rig. Carried across oceans or walking fromvillage to village, cats gradually spread across the globe, and by thetenth century they had reached Japan, by way of China.
Cats seemed to attract more than their fair share of myths andsuperstitions. In Scotland and Japan, tortoiseshell cats were believed tobe able to foretell storms. People in eastern Europe thought that evilspirits took possession of cats during thunderstorms and that lightningwas produced by angels in an attempt to exorcise the spirits. In that partof the world, cats were pushed outside as soon as a storm began so thatthe lightning need not strike the house to reach the cat. In other places,such as Indonesia, cats were used as rainmakers. They were carried threetimes around a dry field, then dunked into a container of water.
The Middle Ages marked the beginning of three centuries of persecution ofthe cat, and by the fourteenth century cats were in serious trouble inEurope. Long associated with the moon, cats were now considered to be thefamiliars of witches and disciples of Satan. Witches were believed to havea unnatural nipple with which they suckled their cats, and several witchesare said to have confessed to feeding their cats milk and blood. At thetrial of one woman in Essex, evidence was given of a cat who would "sucklebloud of her upon her armes and other places of her body." Women,especially the old and ugly, became special targets of investigation, andmany were tortured and persecuted for being witches; their ability totransform themselves into cats was accepted as fact, and taken as evidencethat 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.
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