Of Cats, Egyptians, Warships and Viral Videos

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Cats have been around humans almost as long as civilisation. This is no coincidence.

It was over 10,000 years ago that cats first befriended the man, in the fertile crescent of the Middle East. The real reason behind this is unknown, but it is considered likely that as man developed agriculture, the granaries become infested by rats. This presented an opportunity to local wild cats.

As nature would have it, those wildcats that learned to live alongside man received more access to thriving rat buffets. And so, natural selection saw to it that the cats deemed themselves domesticated. The findings belie the long-held belief that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate the cat.

But if you think that changes anything about your local domestic cat, think again. All domestic cats are descendants or sub-species of F. S. lybica; a wildcat that hails from the Middle East. These cats were known in the fertile crescent over 9,000 years ago (in Europe, they appeared over 2,000 years ago, roughly the same period as in India. Cats turned up latest in Australia and the Americas, at 400-500 years ago respectively).

Dating the beginning of man’s friendship with the cat would seem an impossible task. But as far special relationship could in part be due to the feline’s prowess at hunting rats. But it may also be that they’re cute creatures. The shape of a cat’s face plays into many of our genetic predispositions towards what we find cute – large eyes, a snub face and round features for one.

Cats also know this about us. They can even meow/purr to mimic human babies because they know that evokes a protective response from their human. They know that certain behaviours make us more likely to feed them; such as rubbing against us or waking up at the same time as we do.

How successfully have cats manipulated humans into liking them? In the United States, they are the second most common pet of choice (after freshwater fish), numbering at 88.3 million (dogs are number three at 74.8 million). It’s a trend that holds true worldwide – with over 600 million cats estimated in the world. It should be noted that measuring pet ownership is a statistically challenging process – and an alternate study by petfoodindustry.com found dogs to be the most popular pet worldwide.

Given this, it’s no surprise that in Egypt, cats were historically worshipped. The Egyptian deity of Bastet is popularly depicted as a cat and represents fertility, domesticity, women’s secrets as well as protecting homes from evil spirits and disease. Bastet is believed to be the daughter of Ra, the Egyptian sun deity. The Egyptian Mau is among the oldest known breeds of domesticated cats.

During World War II, the Mau faced extinction in Egypt. The species received its second life after a Russian princess living in Italy found one by accident that hailed from a diplomat in Egypt – and decided to rescue as many as she could by using her political connections.

In other parts of the world, cats were seen as omens and tokens of good luck alike. In Islam, they are considered ideal pets that are ritually clean (and therefore allowed to roam unhindered inside a mosque, unlike dogs). In Europe, the sight of a black cat was long viewed as an omen. But in a ship, a black cat came to be seen as a lucky talisman. The tradition of having a “ship’s cat” dates back centuries, during the reign of Louis the XIVth, it was custom to have two ship’s cats on every ship to control mice.

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One such cat, during World War II, was originally the cat of the German battlefield “Bismarck”. When Bismarck was sunk, ‘Sam’ survived and was rescued by the HMS Cossack. But Cossack was also sunk, by a torpedo; earning the cat the nickname ‘unsinkable Sam‘. Sam’s next ship, the HMS Ark Royal, was also sunk. Ultimately, Sam survived all the attempts on his life and died of natural causes much after the war. From 1975, the Royal Navy banned cats from its ships on hygienic grounds.

Since the advent of the internet, cute cat videos have buzzed viral feeds, dominating the human emotions like never before, driving up valuations of internet media companies by over $100 Million. An alien species attempting to make sense of our internet would wonder why there are so many cats in it. But some are concerned about the free reign cats enjoy in our cities – particularly when you take into account their death toll.

Free-ranging cats can kill up to two animals a week. But amidst fears that cats were responsible for the deaths of billions of birds and mice annually, cat-rescuers have pointed out that there is no reliable data for how many critters cats hunt to the death every year.

Modern day supercomputing is the grounds of a race to fully simulate the first mammalian brain – and that of the cat is top of the list. Cats are highly intelligent (one cat has even co-authored a paper – albeit in an act of jest by its author) and random creatures, so it will be a while before any machine can truly replicate their patterns.

It might be arrogant to imagine that we can train cats though recent studies have disproved the long-held belief that we could not. Arrogant, because if your cat has ever brought a dead piece of prey back home, it was most likely trying to train you – to hunt.

History continues to play a part in how we treat our cats. As Terry Pratchett said:

“In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.”

Hopefully, neither will we.


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