Majesty in a fur coat

Majesty in a fur coat

By Dr. Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

Neither wealthy tycoons of industry nor blue-blooded first families make up America’s real aristocracy. The nation’s cats, some in middle class homes, others in farmhouses and barns, and not a few in the mansions of the very rich, really comprise the patrician class. By some estimates there are about 50 million domestic felines in this country, but they have never been actually counted. An article in a recent issue of a cat lover’s magazine, however, said that for the first time in our history cats outnumbered dogs as pets in the United States.

With the recent announcement by scientists at Texas A&M University that a cat had been successfully cloned, the feline population is apt to increase further.

We proud and vain humans like to think that our pet cat belongs to us. Actually, it never has and never will. We are the servants who provide a warm home, expensive food and veterinary care. They are the masters, living with and tolerating us but never bowing to us.

No one knows just where and when the domestic cat originated. Many thousands of years ago, by a biological “sport” or mutation, the ancestor of all tabbies may have been created by the mating of two Asiatic wildcats. This, however, is only conjecture at best.

An Arabian legend gives an explanation of the origin of domestic cats that, surprisingly, is believed by many. As the story goes, the patriarch Noah became annoyed when rats and mice began to multiply on the ark. He tried to trap the pestiferous rodents but failed. Then he commanded the resident lioness to sneeze violently, and the first cat was produced.

However the first cats came into existence, they began to be pampered guests in homes about 5,000 years ago. Cats probably adopted man much earlier; with cat figures appearing in Egyptian tombs dating from 2,600 B.C.

Man began early in civilized times to improve on nature by selective breeding of felines, but he never succeeded as he did with other animals. Different races or types of horses, dogs, cattle, chickens, and a host of other animals have been modified to perform special tasks, but puss, basking before the fire in a home today, is essentially the same animal that contemptuously accepted the homage of humans eons ago.

Even the special breeds cat fanciers have produced quickly lose their distinctive features if crossbred. Such traits as long hair and blue eyes are genetically recessive and disappear unless preserved by careful and selective breeding. Mate an expensive variety with an ordinary “alley cat,” follow the process for two generations, and hardly a trace of the fancy Siamese, Abyssinian, or Himalayan will remain.

Few other domestic animals revert to the wild or feral state so rapidly and successfully as the cat. In some areas feral cats can control the environment where they undoubtedly do a great deal of harm to wildlife. Attempts to redomesticate these animals usually end in failure. If their numbers grow, a decision to destroy them has to be made. According to E.C. Chester in The Historic Notebook, an extreme example of domestic cats going wild occurred in Chester, England, in 1815.

At that time Napoleon was being prepared for transport to the island of St. Helena, so a Chester resident decided to perpetrate a hoax. He had a large number of handbills printed and distributed around the area, explaining that St. Helena was so overrun with rats and mice that the place was almost uninhabitable; on a certain date, a French government agent was coming to Chester to buy cats to be shipped to the place where the emperor was to be exiled. Supposedly, the agent would pay 16 shillings for toms, 10 for females, and 2 for kittens. On the appointed date, the city was inundated with felines brought in from far and wide. When the hoax was discovered, a riot developed . Four or five thousand cats were killed. However, at least a 1,000 escaped and reverted to the wild or feral state. These wildcats created such havoc with small game and domestic poultry that a unit of soldiers was dispatched to the area to hunt and kill them.

Don’t ever be deceived into thinking that cats intend to concern themselves with earning their board and keep. Work is for humans and not for such royal beasts as cats. Humans will continue to pay homage to them and tolerate their insults, as they have for as long as history has been recorded. His majesty may just occasionally show his appreciation for man’s subservience by permitting a few caresses while purring and drifting off to sleep. It has been said most cats sleep for 24 hours or more each day.

Dr. Robert A. Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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