Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Most Perfect Animal"

Tiny tiger, little emperor without an orb: the well-pampered house cat.

"[The cat] is a visible part of our household, and is both useful, quiet, affectionate, and ornamental."

Harrison Weir

Weir explained in the beginning of his book, Our Cats and All About Them, that his desire in creating cat shows was to elevate the status and treatment of all cats.

"I conceived the idea that it would be well to hold "Cat Shows," so that the different breeds, colours, markings, etc., might be more carefully attended to, and the domestic cat, sitting in front of the fire, would then possess a beauty and an attractiveness to its owner unobserved and unknown because uncultivated heretofore."

Weir's goal was realized in England, in America, in Europe, and gradually wherever the industrialization and modern life has touched the globe. He realized his dream in England hardly more than a generation after the cat was still being declared to be nothing but an unfriendly though necessary barn animal.

In Animals, Their Nature and Their Uses, Charles Baker writes in 1857, "The Cat must be considered as a faithless friend, brought to oppose a still more insidious enemy. The domestic cat is the only animal of the tribe to which it belongs, whose services can more than recompense the trouble of its education, and whose strength is not sufficient to make its anger formidable. Supple, insinuating, and artful, it has the art of concealing its intentions till it can put them into execution. Whatever animal is much weaker than itself is an indiscriminate object of slaughter, - birds, bats, moles, young rabbits, rats, and mice, - the last named being its favourite game." To Baker, the cat's value is that it preys on agricultural pests, while being small enough not to be a threat to humans.

The Reverend J.G. Wood complained in the same decade that the cat was unjustly maligned. "In the eyes of any one who has really examined, and can support the character of the Domestic Cat, she must appear to be a sadly calumniated creature. She is generally contrasted with the dog, much to her disfavour...The Cat is held up to reprobation as a selfish animal, seeking her own comfort and disregardful of others; attached only to localities, and bearing no real affection for her owners. She is said to be sly and treacherous, hiding her talons in her velvety paws as long as she is in a good temper, but ready to use them upon her best friends if she is crossed in her humours" (Illustrated Natural History).

Charles Darwin opined that the cat's "nocturnal rambling habits" (Origin of the Species, 1859) made long-term cat breeding impossible. He said that only women and children valued cats--insulting cats, women, and children all in the same sentence! 

The Rocky Road to Royalty

"Still it is better, under certain circumstances, to be a cat than a duchess." (Helen Winslet)

But the road to a higher status was not a smooth one, even for more special cats.  Helen M. Winslet, an American pioneer in cat breeding in the 19th century, wrote about her Pretty Lady, a long-haired cat "of Angora or coon descent." Pretty Lady was a pampered cat, but when the family vacationed in the country,  she was put outside to run freely, despite the fact that Mrs. Winslet noted the cat acted afraid. The cat fared well enough until Mrs. Winslet left her on the farm while she visited elsewhere for several weeks. Pretty Lady got lost, and was found only five weeks later, starving. It seems inconceivable today that a valuable cat used for breeding would be treated with such lack of care.

And, in the days of total ignorance about genetics, the hit-and-miss means of establishing the desired characteristics of a breed meant that a prized mother cat produced scores of litters, only to have most of her offspring drowned as "plebians," unattractive rejects. Mrs. Winslet told the story of her Lady Betty, who produced four Angora kittens (i.e., long-haired) in one litter. The royal Lady Betty was given a "wet nurse." Jane, whose own two "plebian" kittens disappeared (drowned), was put to nursing the Angoras. Adding insult to injury, Jane was Lady Betty's offspring, too, a plain cat kept only to nurse her mother's more special babies!

My cats enjoyed the luxury of being inside-outside cats
for many years, having an acre and a half of suburban land
to play in. But the yard is no longer safe. Ezra fell victim to
coyotes in the back yard.

My cat Ezra would certainly be considered "plebian" by Mrs. Winslet--a ginger cat like several I've owned over the years. My son Chris adopted him from the animal shelter. Yellow tigers are among the most friendly, easy-going cats, and usually fairly intelligent. Chris taught him to turn a somersault, with a little help.

He became mine when Chris moved away from home.  I then discovered few other tricks Ezra had learned. His nightly game was to turn over the kitchen trash container and look for food bits in it. In the winter, when we let the cats stay in the garage, I would leave the garbage cans outside. When my husband expressed concern about animals getting into the garbage, I told him I was far more worried about the varmint inside the garage. 

Ezra also climbed up the screen door, making holes in it. That was what an inside cat did for fun, indulged by his lenient young human. I solved most of these problems by letting him go outside, which he loved.

I was awakened one morning to a cat howling outside my bedroom window. And the bedroom was on the second story! Ezra was on the ledge, having climbed up the timbers of our English Tudor house. I let him in the window, which was a mistake. He was there the next morning. After that, I went downstairs and let him in the door. It took several more days to break him of climbing up to the window.


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