Pets, Pets, Pets
As you watch Whiskers peacefully snoozing on your lap, do you ever wonder where domestic cats come from? It is believed that a longhaired, short-legged, treeclimbing animal called “Miacis” that lived 40 to 55 million years ago was the first feline ancestor. It looked like a weasel and not much like the cat we know, but about a million years later, an animal called “Dinictus” who was fairly catty evolved from Miacis. That was, by the way, 10 million years or so before any dog-like ancestor surfaced.
However, domestication of cats began in Mesopotamia long after dogs accompanied cave dwellers on the hunt. It wasn’t until 3500 BC that certain types of cats began to domesticate, and no one knows why for sure. One theory is that a genetic change somewhere caused some early wildcats to become less aggressive and more like kittens.
As the cat was domesticated, further changes in temperament and appearance became apparent. Cats became more colorful (as the need to be almost permanently camouflaged lessened), their bodies became smaller and less muscled (due to changes in diet and activity), their brains became smaller (as a result of the reduction in necessary survival instincts) and they developed an increased tolerance for humans. This wild species, “felis sylvestris” (hence, two cartoon characters were born), was tamed further by the ancient Egyptian agricultural society needing guards against rodents and snakes in their stores of grain.
The ancient Egyptians took their cats on hunting trips instead of dogs, and statues of cats were placed outside the house to protect the inhabitants and to ward off evil spirits. This showed that the cat had become an integral part of ancient Egyptian family life. One of the most common representations depicts the cat sitting under or beside the chair of the mistress of the house offering her protection and friendship. All cats were known as “miu” (or “miut”) often translated as “he or she who mews.” Many Egyptian parents named their children after cats, especially their daughters. Some girls were called Mit or Miut.
Feline pest control services were so highly regarded by the Nile that cats were elevated to the status of semideities. The export of this sacred animal from Egypt was prohibited, and killing a cat, even unintentionally, was a crime punishable by death. Egyptians were the first people to think highly enough of cats to keep them in their homes as pets. In fact, the kohl eyeliner worn by Egyptian women was an attempt to imitate cats’ beautiful eyes. No one had seen Elizabeth Taylor yet to mimic her Cleopatra mystique.
The goddess Bastet (or Bast) was closely associated with cats and often depicted as a cat or a woman with the head of a cat. Her temple in Bubastis housed a huge colony of cats as supported by the discovery of a massive cemetery dedicated to these temple cats. Bast was a goddess of fertility, home life and childbirth but also acted as a guardian of the pharaoh. Her role in Egyptian worship echoed the central position of cats in Egyptian society.
Egyptian cats were given elaborate funerals; thousands were mummified. At one point, mummified cats were wrapped in linen and painted with clownish or surprised facial expressions. They were sold to temple visitors at burials or offered to the cat goddess, Bastet. Centuries later, cat mummies uncovered by foreign thieves sold as cheap souvenirs.
During the cat smuggling ban, the Phoenicians were able to sneak cats onto their ships and deposit them in various parts of the known world. Cats appeared in Europe by 100 AD, where in the Middle Ages, they had the misfortune to be associated with the “powers of darkness,” and were blamed for everything from souring beer to spreading disease. In Western folklore, black cats have often been looked upon as a symbol of evil omens, as well as the familiars of witches.
At times doomed cats, especially solid black or solid white, were burned at the stake. As for cats spreading disease, ironically their demise contributed to the death of thousands of people. Superstitions led people to persecute and kill black cats. This had the unintended consequence of increasing the rat population and the spread of the Black Death (bubonic plague) and other diseases carried by rodents, wiping out huge portions of the human population in Europe. Cats were slowly brought back to the continent, in an effort to control the rodents. As the rodent population dwindled, the prejudice against cats subsided. Soon it became acceptable to own cats, and eventually even fashionable.
In the 1600s cats were welcome aboard sailing ships to the New World because they helped control the rodents and protect food supplies. They were so well known as sea-going voyagers that National Geographic once reported that “cats, like people, found freedom from persecution in America. It is believed that they first came over on the Mayflower, although it may have been earlier – with the Spaniards in the 16th century. In any event, once here, they thrived.”
A researcher at a Plymouth institute confirmed that cats were common on ships, so common that they didn’t warrant mentioning. The first written proof that the researcher found of cats dates back to 1634, some 14 years after the Mayflower anchored. William Wood wrote in “New England’s Prospect” how cats saved the colony’s crops from squirrels and probably what we know today as chipmunks. Therefore, the cats on the Mayflower and other sailing vessels somehow resulted in Whiskers curled up in your lap.
Note: “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” is a current exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum on Eastern Parkway. Call (718) 638-5000.
For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: This exquisite female kitten #3-493 is uniquely marked. She is a Siamese/Calico mix with light blue eyes. Her sister has a smudge nose too. “Cheyenne” #13-534 a blue Boxer/Pit entered as a frightened stray and has really come out of her shell.
Cats: “Stewie” #3-428- orange & white adult; many kittens. Patient Pits: “Ginger” the Mom; “Holly”; “Koda” and “Parker.”