By Robert A. Vella
The Secular Jurist takes a break today from its regular news coverage to highlight a much more pleasant topic. Last week, PBS aired a fascinating new Nova documentary on domestic cats (i.e. Felis catus). It details their evolution from the wildcat (i.e. Felis silvestris) about 10,000 years ago when Neolithic humans accepted them as helpful in keeping rodent infestations down (which were ravaging grain stores) and also as pets.
Watch the PBS Nova documentary: Cat Tales – Goddess, demon, house pet? What does science say about the human relationship with cats?
Worshipped as a goddess, condemned as satanic, and spun into a stunning array of breeds, cats have long fascinated humans. But did we ever really domesticate them? And what can science tell us about our most mysterious companions? (Premiered February 19, 2020)
In ancient Egypt, cats were revered as gods. Unfortunately for them, such reverence by people also resulted in the ritual sacrifice of large numbers of cats. Human beings… we always hurt the ones we love.
In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX issued a Papal Bull (i.e. public decree) declaring that cats (especially black cats) were instruments of Satan. How many cats were senselessly slaughtered or otherwise mistreated isn’t known, but judging by the ruthlessness of the Church during the Medieval Period, the actual number is probably very high. Shortly thereafter, in the 14th century, the Black Death devastated the population of Europe. The bacterial plague was transmitted to humans by flea-carrying rats which might have proliferated explosively in the absence of predatory cats. Leave it to religious fanaticism…
But, the most intriguing revelation in the documentary was the study of cat vocalization. You see, cats only “meow” to people. They do not vocalize so with other cats or with any other animal besides humans. Researchers discovered, by studying human brain activity, that people have an instinctual response to the sound of baby cries. This isn’t at all surprising since the response is perfectly understandable as an evolutionary survival mechanism. What is very surprising, however, is that the only other sound which triggers this response in people is the cat meow! While it’s fun to speculate about this, it is far more likely that cats evolved the behavior as an adaption to living with humans. In any case, it raises the question: Did humans domesticate cats, or did cats domesticate humans?
I’ve had four cats in my life (Boots, “Raz” Rasputin, Yoda, and Doobie) which I loved dearly and which gave me immense joy. I’ve also been close friends with many other cats including Rawley (a male orange tabby) who once saved me from a yappy little dog who was biting my leg. After Rawley unleashed a storm of claws on my assailant who ran away in defeat, I thanked him and rose my glass of wine to him in honor. Rawley nodded his head in recognition like the regal monarch that he was. All six of us humans watched in awe… and, laughed merrily!
Here’s my brother’s cat Kitty-X. She later had four kittens – Bud (very handsome but a real jerk), Columbus (the explorer), X-Head (the conformist), and Little Girl (the sweetheart).