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When your pet cat brings you a dead bird or rips apart your couch, that's a reminder that your little fuzz ball is not too far removed from a wild animal. There are different theories about where and when cats were domesticated.

As NPR's Nell Boyce reports, scientists may now have some answers after looking at the genes of nearly a thousand pet cats and their closest wild relatives.

NELL BOYCE: When Americans talk about wildcats, they usually just mean cats that live in the wild - cougars, bobcats, tigers, any cat that doesn't hang around with humans. But in other places, like Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, when people say wildcat, they mean a specific species.

Mr. CARLOS DRISCOLL (Researcher): The species that we're talking about is Felis silvestris.

BOYCE: Carlos Driscoll studies these small, striped cats.

Mr. DRISCOLL: So the wildcat, in a strict sense, Felis silvestris, looks very much like a domestic cat. And, in fact, that's part of a problem.

BOYCE: Some governments want to protect the species, but Driscoll says that's hard to do when the wildcats look like pet tabbies. They sometimes even mate with them, creating hybrids.

Mr. DRISCOLL: This issue came to a head in a court case. I think it was, like, nine years now, eight years ago. Somebody was taken to court for having killed a cat, presumably a Scottish wildcat. You know, he was on the stand there. And he said - it doesn't look like a Scottish wildcat to me. And, of course, there was nobody that could say for certain that that was a Scottish wildcat. And their case fell apart.

BOYCE: All this made scientists say, hmm. Maybe, we could sort everything out by looking at their genes. To do that, you have to get DNA from cats - lots and lots of cats. The house cats were easy. Driscoll got samples from over 30 breeds recognized by the Cat Fanciers' Association. He also got DNA from pet cats in Japan and Europe. But for the wildcats, he needed dead birds and a passport.

Mr. DRISCOLL: I traveled to Southern Africa, trapped cats in South Africa, in Namibia and Botswana. Trapped cats in Israel, and then, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

BOYCE: Once he'd actually trapped a wildcat, he'd have to sedate it to take a small blood sample.

Mr. DRISCOLL: Oh, they hate you, yeah. They're really not impressed at being in a cage.

BOYCE: Driscoll took all these samples to a National Cancer Institute lab in Maryland. It's run by Stephen O'Brien, a pioneer in cat genetics. O'Brien says, when they looked at the genes of wildcats, they found a distinct subspecies in each region that this cat calls home - Europe, Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, China and the Middle East. Then, when they looked at the genes of pet cats…

Dr. STEPHEN O'BRIEN (Chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, National Cancer Institute): These all coalesce into a group that is virtually identical to one of the subspecies the group that comes from the Middle East or near East.

BOYCE: That's a strong indication that people domesticated cats or cats domesticated people in the Middle East. And this makes sense because agriculture first developed there over 9,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. O'Brien says, people started to store grain, the grain attracted mice…

Dr. O'BRIEN: Then, we think that the wildcats in the neighborhood came out from the wild and sat down. But, of course, the vicious ones were simply dispatched by the farmers themselves. The friendly ones, the tame ones, well, that's a different story. They were helping getting rid of the rodents. And maybe they were providing a little entertainment for the children, too.

BOYCE: The study is being published by the journal, Science. Other experts say, they're intrigued.

Dr. ROBERT WAYNE (Evolutionary Biologist, University of California): The simplicity of cats in terms of domestication is really surprising.

BOYCE: Robert Wayne is an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He says, the genes of other domestic animals reveal a more complex history.

Dr. WAYNE: With horses, for instance, it seems like horses were plucked out of the wild in many different places. And dogs also seem to have a pretty broad area over which they were domesticated.

BOYCE: Of course, once cats became pets in the Middle East, people then spread them around. Domestication was clearly a smart move for cats. Many cat species are endangered. But worldwide, there's an estimated 600 million house cats.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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