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Cats: The Little Assassins Who Have Become Human's Great Companions

Author:

JC Scull is an animal lover, in general, and a dog and cat-admirer, in particular, who enjoys writing about them.

an-extremely-brief-history-of-cats-and-a-short-tribute-to-our-felinefriends

The Assassin Awaits

The beady eyes shining from the moonlight betray her position on a dark night. As she crawls out of the burrow where her pups are huddled, an assassin patiently awaits. As she sniffs the ground in front of her, the smell of cat urine is ubiquitous and ominous. Unfortunately, for this brown rat, the Toxoplasma gondii parasite invading her system is preventing her from recognizing the bodily odors her predator has left behind. It might even be that these odors are luring her into the clutches of the same perpetrator that spritzed his scent around her dwelling.

The crazy-cat lady who owns the feline stalker and lives in the house no more than fifty yards from the rat’s burrow could also be infected with the parasite. Her behavior has been erratic for years. Her family has noticed a propensity for poor driving habits, even a couple of recent fender benders. Scientist have suspected a correlation between cat ownership in childhood and later development of schizophrenia. Could the rat and the woman who owns the house have a similar parasite in common?

As the cat takes a low-crouching position with his white mitten-like paws in front of him, the rat inches closer. Looking straight ahead she looks at the predator but does not recognize the imminent danger. Instinctively, the cat seizes on the opportunity and pounces. One swift crushing bite to the neck and the rat is immobilized. The cat makes a meal of the unlucky rat. One more of the most successful animals — second only to humans — becomes prey.

Aesthetically beautiful, sleek, with perfectly symmetrical bodies sporting a wide variety of colors, cats have been fascinating and bewitching humans since before ancient Egyptian times. The human-cat relationship goes back 12,000 years when the first agricultural societies began to blossom in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent.

While dogs had been domesticated long before, as they were hunting companions to humans and guardians of their campgrounds, cats did not make their appearance until people began tilling the ground. The storage of surplus crops brought mice and when the first wild cats wandered into a village, a symbiotic relationship was created. Cats enjoyed an abundance of prey in the storehouses, while people were overjoyed by their ability to catch mice.

Today, independent creatures that they are, the vast majority still depend on humans for shelter and companionship. While hunting has largely given way to canned and dry cat food, there are still a few good mousers roaming some urban neighborhoods as well as farms.

Their captivating mysteriousness has made cats the most popular pets worldwide. In the United States alone it is estimated that 90 million domesticated cats, or should we say visiting cats, sashay their way around homes and backyards. Aided by their affectionate behavior as well as their self-reliance, cats have managed to thrive worldwide as pets. But a big part of their success is that they make perfect companions to people of all gender and age, as they virtually need no training, groom themselves and can be left alone for reasonable amounts of time.

Egypt

Cats’ popularity and appeal to humans goes back thousands of years. The first civilization to elevate their status to icon level was ancient Egypt which worshiped many deities consisting of household cats as well as some of their other feline relatives.

Mummified cats in the Natural History Museum, London

Mummified cats in the Natural History Museum, London

Altogether, ancient Egypt worshiped a total of nineteen feline-like deities. These included Mafdet, the original cat-deity who was depicted in the form of a woman-cat as well as other feline species such as cheetahs, lynxes, lions, and house-cats. It was revered as a goddess that protected the home by killing poisonous snakes and scorpions, as well as the kingdom by killing the serpent Apophis.

The other eighteen gods and goddesses included Bastet, a warfare goddess associated with fertility; Hetmet “the Destroyer,” a lion-headed goddess; Nefertum, a god who is sometimes shown in lion form; Tefenet, a lioness-headed or sometimes lioness-bodied, goddess of the air.

Additionally, our feline seducers appeared all throughout Egyptian culture in the form of earrings, pendants, necklaces, bracelets, amulets of all sorts and statuettes. Cat eyes were often painted or carved onto human figures and especially the faces on sarcophagi. They were also the subject of superstitions that always led to positive outcomes; dreaming of a cat meant a good harvest.

They became part of people’s daily life to the point that a large array of paintings illustrate cats interacting with humans in all aspects of society. Even to the point of being mummified after death, with provisions like milk and mice placed inside their graves. These were meant as gifts in order to repay the feline friends for all the favors they did for their owners.

Rome

Romans too, loved their cats. They admired their vermin-catching abilities and adored their sleek exotic look. Cats reigned supreme in the Eternal City and were viewed not only as pets but also as sacred creatures. Allowed to roam freely around their temples, cats represented liberty and divinity. Even Libertas, the goddess of liberty, was often depicted with a cat at her feet

The Roman goddess Diana, the Queen of the Hunt was often associated with the Egyptian Goddess Bast, a feline goddess who was often seen as the guardian of the home and family. In fact, the Romans considered that their cats represented the warmth and safety of home. One story tells of how Diana escaped an evil creature named Typhon by transforming herself into a cat.

The modern city of Rome continues to be a cat haven. It is estimated that some 300,000 feral cats make the monuments and ancient buildings of the city that once idolized Spartacus, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, their home. These same four-legged purring machines are even protected by a 2001 law that endows them with being part of Rome’s “bio-heritage.” In essence
‘i felini intoccabili’ — the untouchable felines.

2013 A Roman cat on the gardens of Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia

2013 A Roman cat on the gardens of Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia

Fed daily by the women known as “gattara” (cat women), they catnap during the day and flounce through the shadows of the city lights at night. Could it be the gattara’s of Rome have also been infected by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite?

But even the soldiers of ancient Rome kept cats around their camps as not only traveling companions and mascots but also as mousers who would keep the vermin population from their grain stores. Since rats also like to chew on wood and leather, Roman soldiers feared their armor and equipment could be damaged by them, hence, the cats were also great contributors to the war effort.

Japan

Japan too, used cats as grain store mousers. They were first introduced to the Japanese islands around 500 C.E. Cats not only protected the food supply, but also fulfilled the important function of protecting the parchment used by Buddhist monks in books. Ancient manuscripts held great value to the Buddhist monks who kept entire families of cats guarding every corner of their temples from possible vermin invasions. Eventually, these pious but non-meditative walking whiskers would become known as the protectors of rare books.

Even today, Japanese culture considers cats as a sort of lucky charm. An old legend tells the story of a cat who saved the life of a great lord by beckoning him with a raised paw. As the lord approached the cat, a bolt of lightning struck where the noble had been. The cat had saved his life. From that day forward, cats have been seen as good luck in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Many shops in Japan today have a figurine of a cat with one paw raised. Often the paw moves back and forth as if beckoning the shoppers and at the same time bringing good fortune to the establishment.

Cat Café Nekokaigi, Tokyo, Japan

Cat Café Nekokaigi, Tokyo, Japan

Cat Cafés

The fascination with cats has even extended into a new phenomenon; the cat café. A place where patrons can take a little nibble of a sour cherry and pistachio danish, wash it down with a sip of a latte while simultaneously having one of the many resident cats rub up against their legs. Why own a cat, when anyone can go to a local bistro, get breakfast or a snack and watch a bunch of Felis catuss lounge around?

Cat cafés can be found in China, Japan, Canada, Russia, Scotland, Slovenia, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia, Belgium, Lithuania, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and of course, here in the U.S.A.

Comments

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 04, 2020:

Thank you for commenting Linda.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 04, 2020:

Thanks for sharing the interesting facts in this article. Cats are lovely animals. I enjoy reading about them.

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 04, 2020:

Thank you for commenting Peggy.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 04, 2020:

Your article gives a lot of background history about cats and why they are so popular. We have loved our feline buddies over the years.

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 04, 2020:

Thank you Ankita.

Thank you Pamela. Too bad about your tuxedo cat. I have one of those as well.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 04, 2020:

I am still grieving the loss of my tuxedo cat last year. I have always been a cat lover, so I enjoyed this read. This history was very interesting, JC.

Ankita B on December 04, 2020:

Very interesting article. It was a great read.

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 04, 2020:

Thank you for commenting Umesh.

Thank you for commenting John.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on December 03, 2020:

Very interesting for a cat lover like me. Thanks for sharing, JC.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 03, 2020:

Nice details about the cats.

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 03, 2020:

Yes. There has always been mousers at 10 Downing Street. Thanks for commenting Liz.

Liz Westwood from UK on December 03, 2020:

Cats are popular pets in the UK too. There have been famous ones in residence in Downing street with Prime Ministers. This is an interesting history.

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 03, 2020:

Thank you Amit.

Amit Masih from Jaipur, India on December 03, 2020:

This is so good! Thanks for sharing.