Love ’em or hate ’em, cats are fascinating

Posted Aug. 22, 2010, at 5:53 p.m.

There are about 600 million house cats in the world. Two of them live at our house in Troy.

Recent DNA research indicates they’ve been around for more than 6 million years. Not our two cats, the species. It’s thought that house cats as we know them (Felis catus) are descended from five specific females of the wildcat subspecies Felis silvestris lybica who lived in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago. Felis sylvestris domesticated themselves (yes, it’s believed the cats chose us) because the hunting was good on farms, a new invention at that time. The humans encouraged the cats to stay around because they kept the rodent population down. Rodents wreck crops and housing and cause disease. This is all perfectly natural. Along the way, people and cats got to like each other.

A few years ago some French archaeologists found the remains of a cat and a human — who presumably were companions in life — in a 9,500-year-old grave on Cyprus. This was thousands of years before the ancient Egyptians were depicting cats with reverence in their painting and sculpture.

Felis catus spread east and west, and some cat pre-historians say that like humans cats probably came to North America over the Bering land bridge (though they can’t have been Felis catus because the land bridge was under water by 10,000 years ago). Domesticated cats most likely arrived in the vicinity of Maine with the Vikings in the 11th century. Whether they had attached themselves to native peoples before that is apparently not speculated upon, so far at least. Centuries after the Vikings, other Euro-settlers brought them along, too. Naturally, like everybody else, they have been developing their own evolutionary characteristics as time goes by, and sometime between the Vikings and the Victorians (it is believed) short-haired cats native to these parts mated with long-haired cats brought by Vikings, and others, and gave rise to what’s known as the Maine coon cat.

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Our cat Brian appears to be descended from coon cats, although how any of his progenitors could have survived in the wild is a head-scratcher because Brian is so lazy it’s hard to believe he’d last more than a couple of days with the food bowl empty. He has a big mane of orange and white fur, huge paws, strong-looking shoulders, and the wide, dreamy face of the Maitreya Buddha, and he scampers terrified from open doors when he detects temperatures lower than about 45 F. He also has no use for anything wet that is falling out of the sky.

It’s easy to believe, however, that the house matriarch, Mojo, is a direct descendant of one of the five cat Eves. She hunts rodents with authority and zeal; she understands daily routines better than most college students; and she never, under any circumstances, takes no for an answer — if she wants pats, she takes them; if the food is due, she insists on it; if flies are in the lamp shade, she pursues them.

Now cats have a lovable, angelic side, which cat lovers love, and they also have a demonic side, which cat haters hate. At our house we like them because they’re funny, affectionate, cheerful, gracious, beautiful, and vigilant against the rodents who, 10,000 years later, are still threats to house, health and crops. But cats are also cold-blooded murderers, who can be cruel, snotty, finicky and vindictive. They kill too many birds (though not around our house). Feral cats are an out and out eco-problem in some places. They have “been nominated as among 100 of the ‘World’s Worst’ invaders,” according to the Global Invasive Species Database, though nomi-nated by whom it does not say, and anyway it’s hard to figure out how after 6 million years they could still be invading.

Whether more birds have been killed by cats or by poison effluents from planes and automobiles is probably debatable. But cats are not genetic engineering experiments gone awry. They have been sharing the world with us for at least 10,000 years, not only keeping away the riffraff, but also intersecting deeply with our inner lives. Just ask the hospice workers who some years ago paid special reverence to their facility’s cat. The cat always knew which bed to curl up on — the one of the person who would die that day. The hospice workers loved the cat for providing unparalleled emotional comfort to the suffering. This is profoundly moral activity. Whatever its origins, we’re living in it together.

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