For the last seven months, I've been feeding a feral cat that lives in my neighborhood. It's a young cat, quite skinny, and very stealthy. I named it 'Ninja' because it will slip up, gobble the food from its bowl, and run. It is wary of humans, probably by instinct and also because some misguided neighbors tried to trap it. Apparently, they do not understand the benefits of having cats around.
When I was school boy, we learned the Egyptians domesticated cats 3,000 or 4,000 years ago. More recent evidence indicates the human and cat partnership may reach back 10,000 years to the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia. Ancient farmers adopted cats because they kept rats out of the grain stored up for the winter, and chased birds and other creatures from vegetable gardens. Cats are also good at keeping ships and boats free of rats. Anyone who's ever had birds eat the strawberries in their garden, or rats and mice gnaw holes in their walls understands the value of cats.
I have never petted Ninja. I feed her not because she cuddles in my lap, but because she is hungry. Between the steady supply of food and fresh water I put out, she appears much healthier. And the partnership works both ways. Last week she went under a neighbor's shed, killed a large rat, and brought it back to my yard.
Some historians speculate that part of the reason the Bubonic Plague (or Black Death) spread so quickly in medieval Europe was because superstitious people killed off so many cats. In their panic to find a cause for the plague, people also killed dogs, which eliminated another defense against rats. Without a healthy cat and dog population to keep the rats in check, the rats (and the fleas they carried on them) mixed with the human population and spread the plague.
People may debate the whole cat or dog thing and which makes a better pet or companion, but it's an unfair comparison. Both cats and dogs are predators, but they evolved in different ways and each is suited for different tasks. And while we categorize cats as being domesticated like sheep or cows, I wonder how deep this domestication runs? How many generations of cats being born without human contact would it take before we list them as undomesticated?
While scientists figure this out, I recommend you do a few helpful things. If you have cats, get them fixed and keep up to date on their rabies shots. If you see a feral cat in your neighborhood, don't grab it unless you want a nasty bite and a trip to the hospital. Don't run them over or trap them, unless you like having rats and mice in your yard--and maybe your house.