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HISTORY CORNER: CATS

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| December 12, 2021 1:00 AM

There are two means of refuge from the misery of life: music and cats. — Albert Schweitzer

Though they were not worshipped, cats in ancient Egypt had a role in life — and in the afterlife. They were considered to be magical creatures who could bring good luck, and in wealthy families, they were dressed with jewelry and fed special treats.

When cats died, they were mummified and their owners shaved off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning — and continued to mourn until the eyebrows grew back.

The cat was revered because of the ability of wild cats to kill scorpions, snakes and especially rats, that infested their fields and granaries.

For more than 3,000 years, cats have been important in Egyptian art forms — appearing in hieroglyphs and statues, symbolizing justice, fertility and power. Hundreds of cat mummies have been found in Egyptian graves and cat cemeteries.

Historians say that there were probably millions of animals mummified in ancient Egypt.

The most common breeds of those cats were the African wildcat (Felis lybica) and the jungle cat (Felis chaus), ancestor of today’s Chausie cats, introduced into America in the 1990s. The Abyssinian may also have originated in Egypt.

Cats were so important to early Egyptian culture that anyone who killed a cat — even accidentally — would be sentenced to death.

National Geographic Kids says, “According to Egyptian mythology, gods and goddesses had the power to transform themselves into different animals. Only one deity, the goddess named Bastet, had the power to become a cat.”

Commonly depicted as a cat or as a woman with a cat's head, Bastet was among the most popular deities of the Egyptian pantheon.

A study headed by zoologist Andrew Kitchener at the National Museum of Scotland claims DNA evidence “shows that the origin of domestic cats was not Ancient Egypt — which is the prevailing view — but Mesopotamia and that it occurred much earlier than was thought.

"The last common ancestor of wildcats and domesticated cats lived more than 100,000 years ago.”

One of those ancestors was the famous saber-toothed tiger, called the Smilodon, with the huge fangs. They are not closely related to today’s tigers and became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Bones of about 2,000 of them have been excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

Vegetarian animals such as the woolly mammoth would get stuck in those pools of tar and become easy prey for the saber-tooth — who would also get stuck in the tar and perish.

The saber-tooth roamed North and South America and were “more robustly built” than any of today’s big cats, and were a threat to ancient people.

There are 38 species of wild cats in the world today, says National Geographic and 70 or more breeds of other cats, the number depending on the data source. The largest are tigers. They’re heavier than lions and can weigh as much as 660 pounds, according to the World Wildlife Federation, and grow up to 10 feet long.

All are in Asia, from the Russian Far East to parts of North Korea, China, India, and Southwest Asia to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Britannica says they are divided into six sub-species: the Siberian tiger, Bengal tiger, Sumatran tiger, Indo-Chinese tiger, South China tiger and the Malayan tiger.

Due to genetic mutations, one tiger in 10,000 is born white with black stripes. Some have no stripes at all — but they’re rare.

Though protected almost everywhere today, poaching is a big problem for tigers. Organs, hides, bones, teeth and claws are in big demand — especially in China, where tiger parts are believed to help cure ailments from arthritis to epilepsy.

Today, lions (Panthera leo) that have survived extinction live in the wild only in sub-Sahara Africa and in India. Sub-species mountain lions are scattered across North and South America. They’re also known as the cougar, puma, panther, catamount and by other names. The closer they are to the equator, the smaller they are.

Lions have great night vision — six times better than humans — and their roar can be heard as far as 5 miles away.

Unlike other big cats, mountain lions can’t roar because they don’t have the same larynx and hypoid apparatus, but they can growl, hiss and purr.

The spotted leopard (Panthera pardus) is found in sub-Saharan Africa, northeast Africa, Central Asia, India and China. Humans are not usually on their menu, but in the early 1900s, a leopard in India killed nearly 150 women and children during a two-year rampage. No men were killed.

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is another large cat, found in Africa and central Iran. It’s the fastest land animal in the world, chasing its prey at speeds as high as 80 mph.

There are four species of lynxes (Felis lynx) that also includes the bobcat. The others are the Canada lynx, Iberian lynx and Eurasian lynx. They are found in forests in North America, Europe and Asia.

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is a large cat species and is the only living member of the panther family of cats native to the Americas. They will eat almost anything they can catch — including capybaras, deer, tortoises, iguanas, armadillos, fish, birds, monkeys and tapirs.

They have the most powerful jaws of any big cats, and can even crunch into a cayman.

Cats have long been part of the American scene, arriving from Europe in colonial times aboard ships where they protected food supplies from rodents.

In Europe in those days, cats were persecuted, but in America they were welcomed and continued their job of rodent control, and by the end of the 19th century, they had graduated to becoming house pets.

The U.S. Army used cats even before enlisting dogs for military purposes, according to cat historian Paul Koudounaris, using the felines to protect the commissaries from rodents.

Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain both loved cats — and that helped boost their popularity.

In World War I, the trenches were wet, dingy and dirty — a perfect breeding ground for rats that would carry and spread deadly diseases. Some of those rats were as big as cats. Rat traps were impractical, so cats were brought in to do the job.

The troops loved them.

In America, there’s a rivalry between cat lovers and dog lovers, according to a study by Heather Nicole Frigiola at Purdue University. “Cat lovers face certain stereotypes that are imposed onto them by the dominant culture,” she says. “Cat culture has a weaker social presence than dog culture and has a different set of values.”

A column by Lorenzo Jensen III in Thought Catalog outlines some of those differing values:

“Cat people are more intelligent than dog people,” he says, and more likely to be loners, sensitive, sophisticated and neurotic.

“Dog people are seeking companionship; cat people are seeking affection,” further noting that dog people tend to be conservative Republican, while cat people lean Democrat.

“Cat owners tend to be nonconformists, while dog owners generally follow the tide and obey all rules — just like dogs.”

Finally, Jensen says that “cat lovers generally score higher on … open-mindedness, imaginativeness, creativity, adventurousness, and holding unconventional beliefs.”

Nine U.S. presidents had pet cats, according to Fact Monster. Abraham Lincoln probably loved cats the most and he would play with them for hours. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, said cats were his hobby.

During the Civil War, a month before he was assassinated, Lincoln was visiting General Grant in City Point, Va., when he noticed three stray kittens in the telegraph hut. He picked them up and settled them in his lap and inquired about their mother.

When he learned that she was dead, he made sure the kittens would be fed and that a good home would be found for them.

Mark Twain loved his cat, Bambino, who went missing one day. Twain then took out an ad in the New York American offering a $5 reward for the return of his cat, whom he described as “Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.”

People came to his door with cats answering that description, but alas, none were his missing cat.

Then one day, Bambino came home on his own, and Mark Twain saved five bucks.

Will Rogers said, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went.”

Cat lovers probably feel the same way…

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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Secret of the Sphinx…

While in a trance, American psychic Edgar Cayce spoke of vaults, secret passageways and a hall of records containing ancient annals about the lost continent of Atlantis, at the base of the Sphinx next to the Giza Pyramids. They are yet to be found.

What happened to the Sphinx’s nose?

Napoleon’s troops didn’t shoot the nose of the Sphinx off with cannon fire. In 1378 A.D., Egyptian peasants made offerings to the statue with a lion’s body and human face, hoping for a good harvest and no flooding by the Nile. Supposedly outraged by this show of devotion, a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr wrecked the nose and was executed for the crime.

Cats and the Persians…

In 525 B.C., the Persians defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Pelusium east of Alexandria with the help of cats. Cambyses II of Persia knew the Egyptians revered cats, so his army painted images of cats on their shields and drove a horde of felines in front of them as they advanced on Pelusium. The Egyptians surrendered rather than risk injuring the cats.

America’s favorite cats…

The three most popular pet cats in America are the Persian — Number One since 1871 — the Main Coon, one of the largest house cats, that can weigh up to 18 pounds; and the Siamese, famous for their loud raspy vocalization to get attention or express their many moods.

World’s deadliest cat…

The nocturnal black-footed cat found in Southern Africa is considered the deadliest cat in the world, with a success rate of 60% on all of their hunts, according to San Diego Zoo specialist Chelsea Davis.

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PHOTO VCG WILSON/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Painting The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat by John Reinhard Weguelin (1849-1927), honoring the cat in ancient Egypt (1886).

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Cats are a common feature in ancient Egyptian art, going back 3,800 years.

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SATYENDRA KUMAR TIWARI/GETTY IMAGES

The exotic-looking Chausie cat dating back to the ancient Egyptians was bred with house cats centuries ago and then brought to America.

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PBS

Scientists say the Sabre-toothed tiger roamed North and South America until becoming extinct 10,000 years ago.

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ABC NEWS 13/SHUTTERSTOCK

Idaho Mountain Lion (cougar, puma).

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Kids remember the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland" — the cat with a smile.

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HUMANE SOCIETY

Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) are one of eight species of tiger, three now extinct.

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WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

A Buddhist temple tourist attraction in Thailand that featured “tame” tigers popular for closeup selfies was shut down, 86 tigers were rescued and arrests made after discovery of illegal sales of tiger meat, hides and body parts.

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WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is a critically endangered subspecies native to southeastern Russia and northern China.

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WORLD ATLAS/SHUTTERSTOCK

There are now fewer than 25,000 lions left in Africa.

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MARTIN HARVEY/GETTY IMAGES

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is the fastest land animal on Earth, chasing its prey at speeds up to 80 mph.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

There are four species of Lynx, including bobcats, living in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Bob-tailed Bobcats are found in many parts of the U.S., Canada and Mexico in forests, swamps, deserts and scrublands.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Cats are often mentioned in literature, at least 44 times by Shakespeare alone — such as greymalkin, an evil spirit in the form of a cat sent by Satan to help one of the witches in Act I of "Macbeth."

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Cats are found everywhere in artwork, including Henri Matisse’s cat “Puce” (flea) show here with the great French Post-Impressionist artist.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

The Sphinx in Egypt with a Pharaoh head and face has the body of a lion symbolizing power.

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IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM

During World War I, cats were put on patrol duty in the trenches to control the infestation of disease-carrying rats.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Lynea Lattanzio, has 1,100 cats at her home/cat shelter in California.

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