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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?

You decide.

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).

Kitty-X

19 thoughts on “Cat Tales: PBS Nova documentary helps us understand our enigmatic feline friends

  1. We have seven. Characters each and every one.

    In case you’ve never heard/seen this before, it’s hilarious. Below is a 15th Century manuscript penned by a monk. A cat pissed on it one night, and rather than ripping the page out, he simply wrote a note on the page to explain the stain:

    Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.

    Translated:

    Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I haven’t had a cat for years and years and years … and it was a Siamese.

    I can’t have another one because my other-half is extremely allergic (he has asthma) but if my circumstances changed (not necessarily a good thing, considering), it would have to be another Siamese. They are awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robert, you may already know this, but white spruce here in NS is referred to as ‘cat’ spruce. Many a frustrated Christmas-tree-searcher has returned with what they believe to be a balsam fir tree, only to find they’ve ended up with an old ‘cat’ spruce. So named b/c it smells like cat piss when wet, and especially when brought inside . . . 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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