The Connection Between Humans and Cats
Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this.
The feline we know as the domestic cat or housecat has cohabitated with humans since long before the dawn of recorded time. Whatever it is that sustains the mutual attraction that first spurred this partnership, it has continued to this day. Perhaps the explanation is that humans and cats were made for each other.
There is evidence from a genetic study that the direct ancestors of today's domestic cats broke away from their wild counterparts and began living with humans more than 100,000 years ago. The study's coauthor, Stephen O'Brien, chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National CancerInstitute in Frederick, Maryland, remarked about the housecat's special character. "The felidae family is well known as a successful predator--very deadly, very ferocious, very threatening to all species including humankind," he said. "But this little guy actually chose not to be that. He actually chose to be a little bit friendly and also was a very good mouser."
Good news for it. The bearlike saber-toothed tiger has been extinct for thousands of years. The clever little housecat is thriving. Estimates indicate there as many as 600 million of these creatures in the world today.
A question arises: Who made the first move in the bonding between cat and human? What drew this curious subspecies of feline toward the fires and shelters of human settlements?
Knowing the independent nature of cats, it is likely that they initially sought out the company of humans, not vice versa. And what, exactly, did these upright, two-legged, rather naked creatures have to offer their much smaller, four-legged and furry, fellow mammals?
The explanation is simple: farms. Early agricultural settlements were infested by rodents attracted by grain stores. The mice and other vermin, in turn, attracted cats. And the cats--being lethal hunters--garnered the gratitude of the farmers. The partnership deal likely was sealed by the cats' openness to establishing permanent residence in the farming communities, partaking of shelter and food offered by human settlers in return for their mouser duties. But we shouldn't ignore two other appealing qualities: the relative ease in caring for pet cats, and cats' affectionate manner toward their human providers.
ONCE THE DOMESTIC CAT had made its move to live alongside humans, it has been this unique animal's fate to have been venerated as well as vilified, depending on the period of history.
In Egyptian civilization, founded on the grain harvest, the cat gained godlike stature. Many Egyptians owned cats, and when a pet cat died, families customarily shaved their eyebrows in mourning. Cats were mummified and buried in special cemeteries. Killing a cat was a capital offense, even if done accidentally. The sight of a dead cat could cause people to flee from the scene--fearing they'd be implicated in the crime. Egyptians were so fond and jealous of their cats that they sent missions to neighboring lands to buy cats that had been illegally exported. But such programs could not contain the popularity of cats inside any one nation's border; the animal's usefulness in catching rodents, as well as cats' suitability as pets, guaranteed their eventual spread around the globe.
The Romans, conquerors of Egypt and much of northern Africa, southwest Asia, and Europe, discovered that cats were more effective at controlling vermin than the ferrets the empire builders had been using. And so the Romans introduced cats throughout their expanding realm. Sailors and traders found cats to be perfect for controlling populations of rats on ships--and so cats traveled the oceans and seas to more distant lands.
As in Egypt, cats gained status in many religions. But that proved a liability to this popular pet as Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire. Church officials wanted to abolish paganism. Their efforts made cats a target for a crusade to change people's perceptions about these widely worshipped animals. By the middle ages, the popular perception of catshad shifted from veneration to vilification; common folk considered cats to be cunning creatures, and associated them with witchcraft. Strays were hunted and killed under the belief that they could be used in pagan rites, or even be witches in disguise. The lingering superstition that a black cat brings bad luck stems from this medieval belief. In some locales, the killing of a cat became part of an official public holiday program, to symbolize the banishment of the devil.
Throughout the ages, cats have proved useful to humans in numerous ways--including as mousers, companions, and even objects of religious devotion. They also have been targets of superstition.
A woman, full of anxiety, approached a well-known dermatologist and asked, "Doctor, is it true that you can make warts disappear forever by burying a black cat in a cemetery under a full moon?"
"Hmm," said the doctor, adopting a pensive look, chin in hand. "Well, yes. This result would be a certainty--providing the warts were on the cat."
Fortunately, such inhumane cruelty is rare in modern times. Today, cats' age-old function as mouse hunters continues in agriculture. Researchers have calculated that in one year, one mouse-hunting cat can save ten tons of grain from mice. Science may have no better substitute as a controller of vermin. But cats' usefulness to humans has extended beyond being rodent killers. Some people ardently believe that cats are psychic.
Reports have come from around the globe of cats predicting natural disasters. For example, officials ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, China, in February 1975 following reports not only of seismic activity but peculiarly anxious behavior of cats and other animals. A magnitude 7.3 temblor struck a few days after the evacuation of the city of 1 million. Stories have been recorded of cats hiding or trying to escape the house, or of mother cats dragging their kittens to safer spots, before humans were aware of impending storms, floods, or volcanic eruptions. A legend from World War II (never confirmed by scientific study, as wartime resources were needed elsewhere) holds that cats could predict air raids by their fur standing on end before a siren wailed.
But scientific explanations surely can be discovered for why cats may be able to sense incoming aircrafts, earthquakes, or thunderstorms before their human masters know what's coming. In relation to sirens, perhaps cats hear distant sound waves or feel vibrations before we humans do. As for storms, electrical discharges in the atmosphere can send electromagnetic waves that saturate the air with positive ions, and which can act on chemical substances in the brain. (Some people suffer headaches during these periods.) Cats may be more sensitive than we are to these ions. Similarly, cats may be more attuned to gases that emanate from a volcano before it erupts. As for detecting earthquakes, cat paws are very sensitive, and perhaps can feel very slight earth tremors as they build.
Whether cats are more sensitive to environmental cues--or actually are prescient--the fact remains they often seem able to sense coming disasters before we humans can.
ONE PARTICULAR ROLE in which housecats excel is in their companionship with their human masters--providing their owners sheer comfort and pleasure just by coexisting with them. One possible explanation is that humans are hardwired for parenting, and relate to pet animals as helpless children, tapping into the emotional fulfillment that comes from parenting. Pets also are known to lower their owners' blood pressure. My late mother, who was plagued by hypertension in her latter years, told me that when her cat curled at her feet, her stress dropped and she felt deep relaxation.
Dr. James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, at the University of Pennsylvania, has written that keeping a pet reduces the number of the owner's visits to the doctor, lengthens survival following a heart attack, and wards off depression.
IT IS OBVIOUS TO ME that the ancient bond between cats and humans will continue for the rest of civilization. As founder of the World Famous Popovich Comedy Pet Theater, I have a closer relationship with cats than do most people. My silent communication with cats has allowed me to train them to perform consistently on stage. My connection with cats is very well developed, and I credit this skill to my careful tuning in to these animals' abilities to understand us, and to perceive their environment. Most people are unaware of just how sensitive cats are. I myself continue to be astonished by my own cats' intelligence and sensitivity from time to time.
In fact, I've even come to suspect that an intelligent cat can read its owner's thoughts. One day I was working at my computer at the kitchen table, and decided I would skiplunch and continue typing away. I uttered nary a word about this decision. Within seconds, my cat Martin--a small but feisty gray mix--appeared at my feet. I realized he was begging for a piece of cheese from the refrigerator--whose door I had resolved not to open. I'd occasionally given him this sort of treat at luncthime. Sure enough, Martin ran to the fridge the moment I stood up, as if he were expecting the tasty morsel (which he readily received and devoured).
Yes, Martin is keenly perceptive. Another example: He hates riding in the car. Whenever my wife, daughter and I prepare to leave the hou...