argue that the cat has never been domesticated.
Technically, a species is considered domesticated if it has been bred and
raised by humans for many generations, and has been substantially altered in
appearance and/or behavior. Others believe the cat is self-domesticated—implying
it saw certain benefits to befriending us and climbed aboard the domestication
train by choice. Either way, it appears to have been a great challenge to get
felines under our control. Unlike dogs who are pack animals and instinctively
aim to please their leader, cats are independent, nocturnal and largely
solitary creatures by nature. Domesticating them was apparently about as easy
as, well, herding them.
first sign of cat domestication dates back about 8,000 years to graves of cats,
mice, and humans buried together on the island of Cyprus. Animals were of vital
importance as humans moved from primarily nomadic to primarily agrarian
lifestyles. Many tasks became quicker and easier with the help of domestic
animals who provided protection, assistance with farm work, clothing, and food.
As hard as it is for us to imagine with our every-expanding waistlines,
throughout most of human history starvation was one bad decision or dry season
away. Every available option for success was utilized, including the elusive
and sometimes ornery cat.
crops became a way of life for ancient Egyptians, as it did for the tribes of
Africa and primitives of southwestern Asia. Since crops could only be harvested
once or twice a year, the question became how to store the life-giving grain?
The solution for this conundrum brought about another. How to deal with the
sudden surplus of vermin who also found the grain delectable and appreciated it
being in one big easy-to-access pile? While the humans were scratching their
heads on this the local cat population began eating the local rat population
that was eating the life-giving grain. This made the local humans as glad about
the cats as they were mad about the rats.
four-legged, non-toxic pest controllers became minor celebrities as they
systematically roamed and ridded rodents from each town and village. In much
the same way Santa is lured to our houses with milk and cookies, farmers
encouraged cats to stick around by leaving out milk soaked bread, fish-heads
and other feline-friendly foods. It was most likely at this moment that cats
realized they had us in the palm of their paws—we’d do whatever it took in
return for them eating all the rats they could catch. Not a bad deal for an
animal that finds killing most amusing (and no wonder Sweet Pea expects praise
and adulation when she drops her “gift” at our feet!)
Egyptians owned all kinds of animals, but their relationship with the cat was
unique. If a house caught fire, cats were saved first and lowly humans second.
If a cat died there was much chanting, pounding of chests, and shaving of
eyebrows as a sign of mourning. The body of the cat had to be wrapped in linen
and delivered to the priest who inspected it to be certain the death was of
natural causes. Cats were held in such high regard that laws were created to
protect these protectors of the food supply. During the reign of the Pharaohs,
it was considered a capital crime to kill or injure a cat, even accidentally.
Punishment was swift in either case. According to scribe Diodorus Siculus, “Whoever
kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime
deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who
had accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of
Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.”
the priests’ inspection the cat’s body was embalmed, wrapped again in linen,
decorated and either buried in special cemeteries or entombed in temples. Over
300,000 cat mummies were found in a single 19th century excavation. In fact,
the mummies were not only often accompanied by mouse mummies to ensure snacks
for the afterlife, they far outnumbered the human mummies that were excavated in
were so revered, a religious order of cat worship developed that lasted for
more than 2,000 years. The cat goddess Bastet became one of the most honored
figures of worship. Bastet, who was associated with fertility, motherhood,
grace, and beauty, had the body of a woman and head of a cat. Cats are also
represented in ancient artwork, often appearing as protective elements in
Gods to Devils
the constant worship and exaltation became tiresome as certain adventurous
felines chose to climb aboard caravans bringing them east to India, China, and
Japan. Others sailed to Greece and Italy, from there moved westward across
times brought an end to most anything fun, including feline reverence. The cat
was again linked to religion, but this time not in a good way. Instead of
incarnations of goddesses, they were thought to be witches and even the devil
himself. Cats were believed to be
able to change form from cat to witch and back at will.
church really got into the swing of things when Pope Gregory IX declared the
cat a diabolical creature who was the embodiment of the devil and a symbol of
heresy. Thus, being a symbol of Satan, cats were burned, killed and buried
alive, walled up in brick buildings, thrown off towers and tortured as part of
religious rituals to drive out the devil.
England was no more enlightened. Persons who kept cats were suspected of “wickedness”
and were often put to death along with their cats under the authority of the
Witchcraft Act of 1563. Agnes Waterhouse, who owned a cat with the unfortunate
name of “Sathan,” was the lucky gal to be the first tried and executed as a
witch under this law in July of 1566.
Back into Popularity
Undaunted by their mistreatment, cats and the people
who “possessed” them regained favor during the outbreak of the Black Plague.
Rats again paved the way for cats to shine. A good example of there always
being a silver lining, the plague gave cats the opportunity to once again demonstrate
their expert elimination techniques of these rodent disease carriers. This made
the people who’d survived the plague reconsider the Satan thing, and feline
popularity again began to grow.
cats again hopped aboard ships heading west, this time arriving in the New
World with the Pilgrims, who apparently let them kill their rats in peace.
(Although those accused of witchcraft in 1692 Salem were thought to control
cats and other animals, it appears only the people were persecuted for this offense.)
modern times, writers and artists such as Mark Twain, e.e. Cummings, T.S. Eliot
and Pablo Picasso were inspired to create works expressing joy over our modern “wild”
cats. Ernest Hemingway was also a cat lover. His estate in Key West, FL continues
to provide shelter to felines who are the offspring of the polydactyl cats he
cared for, many of whom have retained the extra toes inherited from the author’s
some continue to debate whether cats are truly domesticated, or even still
worshipped, they have in fact overtaken dogs as the number one pet in the US.
Will they always do what you want, come when you call them, or show an ounce of
gratitude for their daily care and meal delivery? They answer to all these questions
is a resounding no, and anyone who expects otherwise is in for a real shock.
But it is exactly because of their independence, their self-respect, their
refusal to jump when someone says “jump!” that many of us find them so
irresistible. Their self-assurance conveys a confidence in who they are in a
way a conformist or “team player” never could. Perhaps those of us drawn to
them aspire to possess these qualities in ourselves, and perhaps their real
reason for being here is to teach us how to be more like them.
But in the meantime, my guess is they’re pretty
of the fact they’ve trained us to do their bidding more than we’ve ever trained
them to do ours. NWGN
Diane Dash works to
educate the public about animal issues and how they
affect human beings. She has many
years shelter experience and as a voice for the voiceless and furry.