house cats, but in some way the ferocious saber-tooth cats are among the ancestors of today’s pets (or, at any rate, of cats in general). The sabertoothed tiger (Smilodon is the scientiﬁc name) lived in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America 35 million years ago. With its huge daggerlike teeth, it could bring down an elephant. Scientists think these cats’ combination of large body and small brain ensured they would not last forever. (An interesting tidbit: before the U.S. president Thomas Jefferson sent the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the American West, it was widely assumed that creatures like saber-toothed tigers still existed in the wilds of America.)
Europe around 12 million years ago. This species was smaller than Pseudaelurus though still larger than today’s house cat. Scientists assume that it had a fairly thick coat and the markings of a tabby cat.
purr), while the Panthera cats do roar (but can’t purr). Needless to say, your pet belongs to the Felis genus. Aside from the roar-purr divide, however, the members of Felidae are amazingly alike in shape and overall behavior, and there’s no doubt that one of the great attractions of cats as pets is that they remind us so much of graceful and powerful lions, tigers and leopards.
island, and its isolation from other land masses has resulted in wildlife very unlike the other continents. You probably are aware that many of its mammals are marsupials, mammals that carry their young in pouches. Many of these animals, such as the kangaroos and koalas, are not carnivorous, but there are plenty of carnivorous marsupials. They ﬁll the ecological niche that on other continents is ﬁlled by cats. There were no true cats in Australia until the Europeans settled there, and the vicious marsupial “tiger cat” of eastern Australia is not a true cat.
animals go by “cat” names but aren’t related to cats at all. Skunks are sometimes called “polecats,” while in Europe the “polecat” is a creature related to the weasel, but neither “polecat” is a true cat. Civets and genets are animals related to the mongooses, and you will hear people speak of “genet cats” and “civet cats,” but neither is a cat belonging to the family Felidae.
pet cats, but, as you will see, their capacity for being tamed varies greatly. Worth noting: all the silvestris wildcats possess larger brains than those of domestic cats.
house cats before Columbus arrived, there is some evidence that they had tamed a native cat called the jaguarundi. This long-bodied brown cat is still found from Arizona to Argentina. Its lanky body and otterlike head have led to its being called the “weasel cat” or “otter cat.” Pre-Columbus, the native peoples of South America tamed it and used it to kill rodents. Whether they really made a pet of it and doted on it the way Europeans and Asians doted on their house cats is not known.
four feet long, and their close relative the margay (Felis wiedi) is a sort of mini-ocelot, only about two feet long, tail included. In other words, this beautiful spotted creature is only slightly larger than a house cat. It ranges from Mexico to Argentina, and it is still occasionally seen in southern Texas.
sea level. High altitude means cold nights, so this grayish cat has dense shaggy fur. The tail’s wide stripes make it look like a raccoon’s tail. It is only slightly larger than a house cat.
Japanese island of Iriomote. The small cat hunts by night, stalking birds and small mammals, and it also ventures to the water’s edge to catch crabs.
Persian lynx, is found over much of Asia and Africa, where it preys on gazelles, small deer and birds. No other cat quite resembles it, thanks to the long black tufts of hair on each ear. The beautiful reddish brown cat, somewhat larger than a fox, can be tamed, and in some regions it has been trained to hunt small antelopes and deer.
lion is the only social cat, living in small groups called prides that are composed mostly of related females and one dominant male.
black, and so are the spots, so the panther gives the overall appearance of being jet black. In fact, you can see the spots clearly at certain angles.
Hunters would take them blindfolded to the hunting site and release them when the prey was sighted. Aside from the domestic cat and the caracal, the cheetah is the only cat to be truly tamed by man. Incidentally, cheetahs, since they are spotted, were often referred to in the past as “hunting leopards,” and it was believed (wrongly) that they were hybrids of lions and leopards.
striped, and though we assume they are all orangey in color, their color varies widely depending on location. Tigers in Russia and northern China are very light in color, and some are almost white. A male tiger may weigh up to ﬁve hundred pounds and stand ﬁve feet tall at the shoulders. Tigers do not have the beautiful manes that male lions possess, but older male tigers do have long spreading hairs on their cheeks. Tigers are good swimmers, but unlike most cats, they seldom climb trees.
Florida is the very rare Florida panther. Scientists debate whether the panther is a subspecies of the cougar (see 437) or a separate species. The Florida panther certainly has a distinctive look, for although it generally looks like a cougar, it has a kinked tail, white spots and a distinctive swirl of fur in the middle of its back.
Egyptians believed that the afterlife was essentially like earthly life, they mummiﬁed mice to place in the tombs as food for the cat mummies. In 1890, over 300,000 cat mummies were found at one site in Egypt. Most were in cases of engraved wood, with the bodies wrapped in colored bandages. The world’s museums display cat mummies along with the human mummies.
Tomb paintings of wealthy Egyptians have often shown the happy family at home, with a cat sitting under the wife’s chair, a dog under her husband’s chair. We can safely assume that husband and wife played with each other’s pets, of course, but the stereotype is still there: cats for the women, dogs for the men.
goddess. Bast was sometimes called the Lady of the East (meaning the east side of the Nile River), while Sekhmet was the Lady of the West. Over time the two similar goddesses were thought to be one and the same, both regarded as symbols of fertility, motherhood, hearth and home.
sacred or as beloved pets of the household—but not always. Humans have always had a sense of humor, even in ancient times. There survives from ancient Egypt, land of the sacred cat, a drawing on papyrus dating from about 1150 B.C., showing a large lady mouse and her brood, being waited on by a bevy of cat servants.
rodent killers. Various types of poisonous snakes live in Egypt, notably the infamous asp (the species Cleopatra used to kill herself). True, a venomous snake can kill a cat as well as a human, but it appears that the ancient Egyptians learned quickly that cats’ claws, teeth and swift reﬂexes made them competent snake killers. And, obviously, the cat’s sensitive hearing and sight made them watchful for snakes entering human habitations.
sound made by cats, but also meant “to see.”
ancient Egypt. If you dreamed about a cat, it was a good omen but not related to sex. It was a sign of prosperity to come—speciﬁcally, a good harvest. This makes perfect sense: cats were the exterminators of rodents, which were always a threat to human food supplies, especially grains. If you dreamed of a cat, it meant your harvest—and thus your fortune—was in good hands (or good paws).
mythology was hopelessly confused.) In a myth dating around 1500 B.C., Ra journeyed to the underworld at night in the form of a cat. There he battled the serpent Apophis, whom he slayed with a large knife, ensuring that Ra could return as the sun the following morning. Numerous paintings have been found showing Ra, the “Great Tomcat,” using a knife to slay Apophis.
country from the city of Per-Bastet, or Bubastis, a city especially sacred to the goddess Bast. In fact, the city’s name means “house of the goddess Bast.” Not surprisingly, one of the pharaohs of Shishak’s dynasty actually ruled under the name Pamiu—meaning “Tomcat,” a highly appropriate name for a ruler who expects to be protected by a cat-headed goddess.
goddess Bast found in Egypt, she is often depicted holding a sistrum, a musical instrument (or, more appropriately, noisemaker) similar to a maraca. Worship in ancient times often involved a lot of ritual dancing and music, and in the worship of Bast, large groups of women would have been dancing and rattling their sistrums. The sistrums themselves were often carved with cat images.
The Greek historian Herodotus visited Greece in the ﬁfth century B.C. and, happily for posterity, wrote about what he saw there. He described the worship of the cat-headed goddess Bast, whom he (and other Greeks) identiﬁed with the Greek goddess Artemis. Herodotus witnessed a Bast festival at the city of Per-Bastet, attended by some 700,000 men and women. As Herodotus describes it, the “worship” turned into a veritable orgy, with lots of wine being consumed, frequent “lifting of the skirts” and a general “girls gone wild” atmosphere—which makes sense, since cats were associated with fertility and reproduction. According to Herodotus, the Bast festival drew more people together than any other festival in Egypt.
cheetahs? In some cases, you can’t tell, because of the poor condition of the object—pieces broken off, weathered by time or otherwise damaged. But one general rule helps: domestic cats did (and do) have triangular-shaped ears, while leopards, cheetahs, lions, and most other big cats have rounded ears. This is reflected in ancient art—usually. Ancient craftsmen had talent, but they weren’t always sticklers for details.
The Christian writer Clement, writing about the year A.D. 200 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, mocked the old religion and its worship of animals and animal-headed gods. He wrote of the huge temples, each with an inner sanctum, and in that inner sanctum, curled on a purple cushion was . . . an animal, often a cat. Clement, like many Christian writers, claimed that Christians were wiser in worshipping their invisible God than pagans, who were fools to build a temple to honor a cat or crocodile.
goddess of lust. At any rate, paintings and statues of Venus sometimes depict her with a cat, and perhaps the Romans fancied that Venus was herself somewhat like a cat—cuddly and adorable at times, but aloof at others, and even occasionally ﬁerce and vicious. In short, predictably unpredictable, as love is, and as cats are.