Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Virtues of Cats

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.

(This article explains about cats and the medieval plagues.  I found the picture of the cat here.)


  1. Ok, I will apologize in advance to any pet lovers...I grew up with many pets and my sister especially always had at least one cat attacking my feet as we slept or clawing holes in the waterbed (it was the 80's). So today I am biased and emphatically anti-pet in my household. I have always admired cats though, for their independence. I have had many a stupid dog, but never a dumb cat! I definitely agree that we need them more than they need us. I do however applaud anyone who cares for and loves their pets. We should love all of God's creatures. I am sure someday I will cave into the pressures of my family and get a pet (we are currently in negotiations about a goldfish). Until then, I will allow my children to continue their unnatural attachment to the neighborhood stray who we have given the persona of a "kitty cat detective" that we can't keep because the animal world needs him to solve crimes. We always get excited when he visits though.

    1. 'Kitty Cat Detective' sounds like a charming children's book just waiting to be written. I'm picturing art in the style of Richard Scarry...

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. We have cats in our neighborhood and well I don't really like them because they always rip up the outdoor furniture covering. They also leave tons of fur on the chairs. But I do like that they eat all the mice and rats.

  3. Cats do like to sharpen their claws, and sometimes they sharpen them on furniture. Or maybe raccoons or possums did it. Also, rats and mice like to gnaw on things, so if it's the chair legs, it might be rats.

    Thanks for commenting!