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History of the cat from ancient god to cuddly pal

by Tom Cox

The Observer

Outnumbering dogs by roughly three to one worldwide, cats have been the world’s most popular pet for a long time, but right now, in particular, they seem to be enjoying a golden era — possibly their most golden since the days of ancient Egypt, 3,000 years ago, when they were worshipped as gods. Even the most cat-indifferent social networker, with the most finely tuned Facebook or Twitter feed, will be hard-pushed to get through a day without seeing at least one cat meme, and one of the biggest-selling books of the last couple of years concerns a street cat who was rescued by a down-on-his-luck busker. We’ve never treated our cats more like children — the skin-crawling term “fur babies” being one of the slightly troubling by-products of this — and some of the food we now give them is so carefully nutritionally balanced and packaged that you half expect it to come with its own packet of pre-grated Parmesan and croutons.

CAT SENSE, by John Bradshaw. Allen Lane, 2013, 336 pp., $27.99 (hardcover)

But with cats’ greater presence in our lives has come the inevitable backlash. The Crazy Cat Lady barely existed in our collective psyche 20 years ago, but now is a figure mocked daily on the Internet (often by herself): supposedly a lonely spinster who has given up on men and lives instead with several cats, often in a personally neglectful manner. The worst portrayals of her hark back worryingly to the misogynistic persecution of supposed witches and their “familiars” in our distant past. Cats themselves are in the midst of a difficult transition from resident hunters to cuddly pals, and many of the wildlife lobby are up in arms about the damage they do to birdlife. Gareth Morgan, a New Zealand economist, recently mounted a campaign to confine or eradicate outdoor cats in his country.

As John Bradshaw writes in his exceptionally thorough new study of feline nature, “Cat Sense”: “Cats now face possibly more hostility than at any time during the last two centuries.” And Bradshaw knows his stuff about cat persecution in the past. In fact, as fascinating as “Cat Sense” will be for anyone wanting to understand their cat more deeply, feline lovers of a squeamish nature should be wary of its early chapters, in which we learn for just how long, and to what horrific lengths, the cats of the world have been the victims of superstition and cruelty.

The last really bad time to be a cat was the 1600s, when, along with falling foul of the Salem witch trials and the self-appointed Witchfinder Gen. Matthew Hopkins, they were persecuted by the church of Rome, which gave its official sanction toward cruelty toward cats. In the Middle Ages, many European cities observed a feast-day custom of suspending cats in a basket over a large fire, in the belief that their screams would ward off evil spirits. As recently as 1817, live cats were thrown ritualistically from the bell tower in Ypres (they now use stuffed toys instead) and in 1648 Louis XIV lit and danced in front of a bonfire in Paris whose prime purpose was to burn cats. Even the Egyptians might not have been quite as nice to cats as we think: on one hand, the members of an Egyptian household would often shave off their eyebrows in tribute to a cat who had died of natural causes, but on the other, many of their mummified cats had been killed by ritualistic strangulation.

The historical section is the best part of Bradshaw’s book and gives invaluable background to his analysis of the sociability — both with fellow members of their species and us — of cats and their special gifts, many of which you will probably no longer take for granted after reading Bradshaw’s description of them. As someone who currently lives with four cats and has had feline companionship all his life, I did not know that a cat can turn itself into a furry parachute in order to reduce impact after fall from a high building, nor that it has a second olfactory apparatus (a “double” nose, of sorts) beginning at the roof of its mouth. The latter fact certainly gave me a new understanding of why my own needy tabby, Ralph, shrinks away from me in a devastated way just after I’ve washed my hands as if I’ve hurt his feelings.

Bradshaw also gave me a different view of multi-cat households: that I, like many others, might have been too hasty in assuming my various cats can live happily together. Even though the core of the book is scientific and factual, and the style is often (necessarily) dry, Bradshaw’s concern and love for cats shines through: for their future, as somewhat redundant predators, for the physical damage being done to them by pedigree breeders, and for their happiness, on a day-to-day level. You could buy a dozen books by the many cat whisperers, cat gurus and cat therapists that exist in our feline-obsessed modern world, but their accumulated wisdom would probably not help you understand your cats — where they’ve come from, what they want from you, and where they might be going, if we’re not careful — as well as “Cat Sense.”