My three-year-old cat spends most of her time lounging by the window. It faces the high branches of the tree outside our apartment, and she stares intently out at the rusty-red wood thrushes and brown house sparrows that perch there; her eyes dilating when the occasional squirrel rustles the branches.
Shes a seventh-floor housecat who longs for the outdoors. But even if there was a feasible way of letting her go outside, I wouldnt let her loose on native wildlife on her own (if youre not familiar with the war being waged between cats and birds, my colleague Rachel Gross has chronicled it in all its gory detail here).
So, as a compromise, last year I bought her a leash. After some initial hiccups, we have settled into a rhythm where I buckle her into her harness, scoop her up and carry her down to the soft grass adjacent to a nearby duck pond. There, I let her down, and her whims dictate our path.
Often, people stare. Sometimes, theyre walking their dogs: big ones, small ones. They squint at my cat, trying to decipher if perhaps she, too, is just a poorly shaped one of them.
Shes not. Shes a cat on a leash, and shes not alone.
Earlier this summer, Laura Moss, a human at the center of a community helping introduce housecats to the outdoor world, published a book, Adventure Cats, bringing awareness to some remarkable cats who are out there hiking, campingeven surfing.
Moss, who also runs a website by the same name (adventurecats.org), explains that this kind of cat is far from a new phenomenon. People have been doing this withtheir cats long before social media existed, she tells Smithsonian.com. But in recent years, the community has received new recognition, she says, in large part thanks to people sharing photos and videosof their furry friends on various media accounts.
Its not exactly surprising that it took the internet (which, undeniably, has done much for cats) to bring new awareness to this kind of anti-Garfield feline.While cats have been arguably unfairly stereotypedas anti-social, afraid of water, lazyhistory contradicts that narrative.
From their beginnings in Egypt, the Middle East, and Europe, domestic cats have accompanied people to almost every corner of the globe, write Mel Sunquist and Fiona Sunquist in Wild Cats of the World. Wherever people have traveled, they have taken their cats with them. Geographic features such as major rivers and oceans that are barriers to most animals have the opposite effect on cats. Almost as soon as people began to move goods around on ships, cats joined ships’ crews. These cats traveled the globe, joining and leaving ships at ports along the way.
While evidence of domestication dates back at least9,500 years (originatingfrom the wild catFelis silvestris lybica), it wasn’t until the Egyptians got their hands on the felines that they became intensely documented.As early as 2000 B.C., Egyptian-made images of catsofferevidence that some of the earliest domestic cats were put on leashes. (Ancient Egyptians used cats to control their vermin population, and likely, these leashes were used so thattheir valuable pest control solutions wouldn’t escape.)
Cats proved so apt at their duties that the Egyptians linked the ratters to their religious deities. By 525 B.C., cats were so revered that legend has it the Persians were able to invade Egypt in part by having soldiers bring cats to the battlefield. TheEgyptians, the story goes, chose to flee rather than harm the animals.
Though it was illegal in ancient Egypt to export domesticated cats, people snuck a few out, andcats began to spread throughout world, with the earliest record of a domestic cat in Greece coming from a 500 B.C. marble carving of a leashed cat challenging a dog.
But the rise of Christianity signaled a sharp change in the way cats were perceived. To counter their Egyptian associations with divinity, in1233 A.D., Pope Gregory IX issued the bull Vox in Rama, which linked catsespecially black catswith Satan, writesJohn Bradshaw inCat Sense.For the next four centuries, cats faced gruesome deaths in Europe due to superstitious associations with witchcraft and bad luck. Still, despite the cat’s poor reputation, itsability to keep rodent populations at bay on ships meant that even during this turbulent time, more and moredomesticated cats were undertaking what Gloria StephensinLegacy of the Catcalls a widespread migration to seaports of the world.”
These adventurous cats didn’t just keep cargo rodent-free, they also provided companionship to sailors and explorers, the U.S. Naval Institute notes.Mrs. Chippy, a tiger-stripedtabby, for instance, witnessedErnest Shackleton’sill-fated expedition to theAntarctic in 1914. The cat belonged toHarry “Chippy” McNeish, the carpenteron board theEndurance.As the crew soon found out, Mrs. Chippy was actually a Mr., but hisname stuckandhis personality soon endeared him to the crew.Unfortunately,Mrs. Chippy met a sad end. After the Endurancewas caught in ice, Shakelton ordered that the crew reduce down to its essentialsandhadthe menshoot Mrs. Chippy. Today, a bronze monument to the cat stands inWellington, New Zealand, by McNeish’s grave.
Other ship cat stories abound. Viking sailors took cats with them on long journeys, and ifNorse mythology is any indication, Vikings enjoyed a healthy respect for their cat companions. (Freja, considered the greatest of all goddesses, employs two cats, Bygul and Trjegul,to pull her chariot. In her honor, it even becametradition among Vikings to gift a new bride with cats.)
Later, when the First World War broke out, cats found favor amongsoldiers who kept them for pest control,as well as company,on thebattlefield. An estimated 500,000 cats served on warships and in the trenches.Mark Strauss details the “brave and fluffy cats who served” over atGizmodo, highlighting felines like”Tabby,”who became the mascot for a Canadian unit.
During the Second World War, one of many cat tales involved Winston Churchill, who famouslytooka shine to Blackie, theship cat aboard HMSPrince of Wales. The large black cat with white marks, who was later renamed Churchill,kept the prime minister company across the Atlantic on his way to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Newfoundland in 1941. (Controversially, some cat fans took issue with a shot snapped of the two, however, where the prime minister is pictured patting Blackie on his head:[Churchill] should have conformed to the etiquette demanded by the occasion, offering his hand and then awaiting a sign of approval before taking liberties, opined onecritic.)
Even today, thetradition of the ship’scat sails onthe Russian Navy sentits first caton a long-range voyageto the Syrian coast just this May. In modern times, though, ship cats are no longer are allowed towander off seaports uncheckeda situation that once proveddevastatingtoclosed ecosystems.
Not until themid-18th century,though, did the cat start clawing its way back to good graces in Europe. Bradshawnotes that Frances Queen Maria made the cat more fashionable in Parisian society, while in England, poets spoke highly of the felines, elevating their status. Then, during the late 19th century, cats found a champion: writer and cat lover Harrison Weir. Weir, considered the original Cat Fancier, created the first contemporary cat show in 1871 in England. (Its considered the first contemporary show because technicallythe very first-known cat show was held at the St. Giles Fair almost 300 years earlier, but those cats were judged solely on their mousing abilities.)
He had been distressed by the long ages of neglect, ill-treatment and absolute cruelty towards domestic cats had suffered, and his main objective in organizing the first show was promoting their welfare rather than providing an arena for competitive cat owners, writesSarah Hartwell in a Brief History of Cat Shows. One of the cats entered in the showwas his own, a 14-year-old tabby named The Old Lady. The show brought cats back into the spotlight, celebrating them and raising their status as domesticated pets.
But just because cats were put on leash in these early exhibitions, that didn’t mean they were also promenading around London.
I wouldnt say that putting cats on leashes was a particular fashionat least, not one Ive come across in my own research, Mimi Matthews, historian and author of the upcoming book The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, tells Smithsonian.com in an email. For cat shows, it was simply a practical way to restrain a cat when it was out of its cage.
Still, thanks to the success of the cat show, the first cat associationthe National Cat Club of Great Britainwas formed in 1887 (followed shortly by a national mouse club in 1895). It was around this time that the first “viral” images of cats circulated: AnEnglish photographer named Harry Pointer had graduated from shooting images of cats in natural settings to placing his”Brighton Cats” in amusing situations where the cats appeared to be riding a bicycle or drinking tea from a cup. His Victorian-era pet portraits reinforced the ideathat cats could be seen as more than just pest control.
Thetransition from ratter topampered housecat had a ways to go, though. As Abigail Tucker writes inThe Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, until the mid-20th century, cats were still mostly used to eradicate rodents, something a journalist for theNew York Timesillustrates whilechronicling his observations on daily life abroad in Moscow in 1921.
“The queerest thing I have yet met in this land where everything is so different and topsy-turvy is cats on leashes like dogs in the streets,”he writes. That wasn’t because Russians viewed the house pets similarly. Instead, as the reporterexplains, the reason came down to rats:”There are so many rats nowadays, and cats are relatively so scarce, that they are too valuable to be allowed outside alone, so their owners give a good ratter an airing on a leash.”
For the domestic cat to become the family pet, technology had to advance. The advent of cat litter in 1947 proved crucial, as did moreeffective pest-control methods that while not retiring cats from their centuries-old job, certainly made it less pressing. Of this shift frompest control to household companion, Tucker writes, perhaps our firesides were as good a place to retire to as any.”
But why were cats treated so differently than dogs when they took on their new role as companions?
It’s true that dogs are much easier to take out for a walk. Domesticated roughly13,000 to 30,000 years ago, they have been selectively bred for companionship. Domesticated cats came on the scene relatively recently by comparison, and as a cat genome sequencing projectpublished in 2014shows, moderncats remain only semi-domesticated, and because of that, training a cat to walk outdoors isn’t as simple as snapping on a leash, somethingJim Davis’ Garfield comic strips pokes endless fun at. When Garfield’sowner,Jon,tries to take the famed feline for a walk, Garfieldrepeatedly resists his efforts, until John comes to theconclusion in 1981 that leashes just arent right for cats.
Gender stereotypes might also play a role in why more haven’t tried, though. Cats have historically read as female. In a study of greeting cards,Katharine M. Rogerslinks”[s]weet, pretty, passive kittens” with how girls and women were pressured to beinThe Cat and the Human Imagination.
“They attend on little girls on birthday cards, and they fill in the image of home, whether they sit by the rocking chairs of nineteenth-century style mothers doing embroidery (1978) or perch on a pile of laundry that Mother should leave undone on Mother’s Day (1968),” Rogers writes. Promisingly, however, she observes that contemporary cards have started to reflect a larger imagination for its subjects(“as women appear in nontraditional roles, cats are shown with men”), which could help fight the idea that the housecat’s place is only in the home.
Of course, not all cats are made to roam the great outdoors. AsMoss observes, cats are like humans. Some housecats are more than happy to spend their days relaxing by the couch, and indeedhave no desire to venture outside.
But they’re not the only cats out there.
The “adventure cats” that shechronicles, likea black-and-white feline named Vladimir, who is on his way to traveling to all 59 U.S. national parksor a polydactyl Maine Coon named Strauss von Skattebol of Rebelpaws(Skatty for short), who is sailing the Southern Atlantic ocean, show another kind of cat onethatnods back to the fierce felines of history who sailed the world, survived Europe’s crusade against themand made it all the way to Memedom.
Unlike outdoor cats and feral cats, who pose a danger to local species populations in the wild, these cats are safely exploring the world. Their stories, which today are enthusiastically shared and liked on social media verticals, break open the role of the house catand show off acommunity of cats that have long been takingthe world by the paw.
Enjoying the breeze!
A post shared by Strauss von Skattebol (Skatty) (@straussvonskattebol) on Mar 7, 2017 at 11:34am PST
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A Brief History of Traveling With Cats | Travel | Smithsonian – Smithsonian