Monday, May 08, 2006



Felis domesticus isn’t all that domestic, really, despite the scientific classification. Cats aren’t domesticated in the sense that livestock, or even dogs, which also live with us, are. I’m sure that if asked, they would deny they are domestic animals, or even pets—they’d probably go for some term like “independent contractor” or even “unindicted co-conspirator.”

It’s no mystery how cats and people got together. It happened in ancient Egypt, one of the places humans first invented agriculture, which meant that they grew more than they needed for immediate consumption. Which meant that they had to invent grain storage. Which meant that they had a rodent problem.

Meanwhile, Felis silvestris lybica was lurking in the bushes, wondering where its next meal was coming from.

It didn’t take long for F. lybica, the African desert cat, to realize that hanging around the granaries and barns and stables was a good career move. And the Ancient Egyptian, being no fool, was quick to note that these rather pretty little critters, which were no trouble, really, and didn’t make that good eating, were damned useful in getting rid of the rats and mice.

So no doubt they lived in a state of mutual tolerance and pretense of ignoring each other’s existence, much like people in a crowded elevator: Ancient Egyptian going off to the fields, nodding politely as F. lybica trotted by with a mouse in its jaws. As they got used to being tolerated, even welcome, the cats came to live near humans, not just hunt there. Perhaps the humans even put out scraps and offal for them, to encourage them to hang around.

And then, one day, an Ancient Egyptian—probably a child, around seven years old, old enough to be curious and too young to be afraid—came across a nest of kittens, most likely in a barn or stable. Maybe she was playing, maybe she was gathering eggs. And here were these adorable, cuddly little creatures, making soft, sweet, squeaking sounds.

Of course she petted them. Who wouldn’t? And the kittens, being still in the socialization stage of young cats, didn’t object. And one of the great discoveries of history was made: Not only do people like to pet cats, but CATS LIKE TO BE PETTED BY PEOPLE.

It was almost certainly this way. It’s very difficult to tame an adult feral cat, and it’s a small wild animal that even a child would be wary of approaching when it arched and hissed. The first cat-human bond was almost certainly a child and one or more kittens, and it was a tamed kitten that undoubtedly became the first house cat. And Man made another discovery: Cats can keep the house free of pests, too. And they curl up on your lap and make this wonderful buzzing sound that really makes a house feel like a home.

From this “domestication” of F. lybica came all the other domestic cats in the world, as far as we know. And F. domesticus remains pretty much unchanged from its ancestor, and can still interbreed with it. Consider the vast differences humans have induced in other domestic animals by selective breeding; dogs, if Konrad Lorenz is correct, all originated either from the wolf or the yellow jackal, yet today the breeds vary from Chihuahua to mastiff. Look at fancy chickens—you won’t believe what you see. Even horses and cattle and sheep come in considerable variety. But cats are pretty much cats—some bigger, some smaller; some furry, some unfortunate ones hairless. But they can still interbreed with each other (which is how I come to have a couple of meezer mixes).

And they still pretty much go their own way, even if they share our homes. Now they tend to be more dependent on us for food (except for working farm cats), though even the most pampered house cat may catch the occasional mouse. They are easily housebroken, but that’s because it’s their nature to be clean and neat, not because they wish to please us.

I think that their independence is a major part of their charm. Cats are beautiful, graceful creatures (except Sethra when she’s falling off the furniture). We enjoy playing with them. We still like to pet them, and they still like to be petted by us. But woe betide the human who tries petting when the cat doesn’t feel like being petted! It is their independence, their lack of a desire to please us, that makes one feel so privileged when a cat displays affection. Perhaps it’s really some atavistic manner of assuring the food supply, but it feels like love. And holding a cat—that small, vital, somehow both immensely strong and unbearably fragile little body—cuddling it, hearing it purr, is pure uncovenanted bliss.

I think I’ve figured out just who has domesticated whom.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Is My Cat Really an

Is My Cat Really an Alien?

I am getting very suspicious of Aliera.

She has been tearing around the house in what I consider a sinister manner, because there is no apparent reason for it. No catnip, no substance abuse of any kind, no stimulating activities. She’s gone from a typical cat who sleeps for 22 hours a day to a small tornado running an indoor marathon. And she keeps biting me.

I think she’s taking samples.

Sethra’s collar has somehow disappeared, too. I originally thought that she got it caught in the blinds, which she gets hung up in on a regular basis; but now I’m wondering if Aliera has sent it back to the mother ship for analysis and replication, so that the hordes of little furry aliens planning to invade us will have perfect disguises as ordinary house cats.

I’m not sure what they want, exactly, but it’s not Friskies Ocean Fish with Salmon Paté, that’s for sure. I got a batch of this flavor (or rather Michele, who was shopping for me, got them) because a vet on one of my forums said salmon was a very good food for cats; but I forgot that they’d earlier shown disdain for the paté-style cat food, and apparently that was the only one she found that had salmon. With each succeeding offering they’ve eaten less and less of it, and last night they simply turned up their noses without taking a single bite.

Maybe I’m onto something here. Remember Anthony Boucher’s short story “Nine-Finger Jack”? The narrator found he was married to an alien, an advance scout for an invasion force, and there was only one substance that could destroy them….

Literary note: Bruce and I went to Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s book signing for their new collaboration, Don’t Look Down. Bruce wrote a bit about it in his blog. (Hilde didn’t feel like coming.) I was a bit frustrated because my copy of the book hadn’t arrived yet, but I printed out a copy of the ad for the book for them to sign, and will paste it into the book. I have now read it, and can recommend it. A surprisingly high number of people on have given it bad reviews, and I’m not sure why. The book does have flaws, but I’ve read so many MUCH worse novels that I can easily overlook them; on the other hand, its virtues—wit, good dialogue, very likeable characters, lots of action—make it a definite keeper for me. Crusie writes the female PoV and Mayer the male, and they blend together seamlessly IMHO. She’s a director called in to film the end of a movie after the previous director dropped dead; he’s a Green Beret on leave hired on as advisor and stunt double by the clueless male star. Then we get stolen pre-Columbian jade phalluses, the CIA, multiple treacheries, a precocious five-year-old, and a one-eyed alligator who doesn’t know that eating people is wrong, and the fun just never stops.

Summer in Arizona is here. It was 99 degrees today, and is due to hit triple digits tomorrow. My furnace is dead and my A/C and swamp cooler are both in a state of desuetude, so I’m due to spend a fortune replacing the whole schmeer.

And the season for letting cats sleep on top of me—especially the fluffy one—is definitely over.