World Cat Day: When, how and why cats enslaved humanity

The cousin of the fearsome lion, the ferocious tiger, the lithe panther and the speedy cheetah. ( pic)

On May 27, 1941, a fierce naval battle in the Atlantic Ocean saw the British Royal Navy successfully sink the German battleship Bismarck, with some 2,200 souls going down with the ship.

When the HMS Cossack sailed over to the scene to pick up the few survivors, sailors spotted a black and white cat floating on a piece of driftwood, which they promptly rescued.

For the next few months, the cat served as a mouser aboard the Cossack, which would in turn be torpedoed in October of the same year. The cat survived that incident as well and was then named Unsinkable Sam.

Following the surviving crew to Gibraltar, Sam continued his career as a mouse-hunter on three more ships, one of which would also be torpedoed. Sam eventually ended up in the Belfast Retirement Home for Sailors.

It is a little strange to imagine a cat, a creature stereotypically averse to getting wet, serving on board a warship, but in reality, the mutual relationship between man and cat has existed for millennia.

How did these cute, cuddly balls of alternating aloofness and affability come from the loins of wild predators?

The first domestic cats appeared 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent during the debut of the Neolithic Era. As agricultural societies flourished, so did the rodents that feasted in grain stores.

Where prey gather, predators will flock. And in the case of the rodents, the African wildcat came to terrorise them. The wildcats were fast and fierce, devouring the rats with ease.

Yet, they looked interestingly similar in size and looks to the cats hanging out in modern households right now.

The only difference being they were more muscular, wore stripes and were less sociable with other cats and humans.

Long-term exposure meant that the wildcats grew to tolerate humans and other cats, and the Neolithic farmers were happy that they had free pest control.

As the early humans began to migrate to Europe and the Mediterranean, the cats hitched rides on their carts and caravans. Cats became vital sailing aides, massacring the rats that ruined supplies and rope.

While this was going on, the cat was also making its way up the Egyptian religious pantheon with its ability in killing vermin.

The cat goddess Bast, the multiple frescoes, hieroglyphs, statues and mummies of the felines are testament of just how revered the cat was.

As the Roman Empire grew, the Asiatic wildcat found passage on-board trade ships travelling between India and Egypt.

Centuries later after the fall of Rome, the Vikings found companionship in the form of the Egyptian cats.

These cats grew increasingly domesticated with every generation, spreading across Europe; and following ships of European settlers heading for Australia and the Americas.

Today, most pet cats claim descent from the Egyptian or the Near Eastern lineage of the African wildcat.

However, scientific analysis shows that the cats of modern society are genetically similar to the cats of ancient society. This is unlike dogs which have been put through centuries of selective breeding.

Other than being more sociable and passive, cats still retain the same natural behaviour of their ancestors.

Ultimately at heart, they are still the same wild animals that roamed the grain silos of early humans and hunted rodents mercilessly. They remain fiercely independent and perhaps they do not see you as their keepers.

Given the long relationship that has existed between humans and cats, they will not be wrong in thinking so.

So, this World Cat Day, remember the late Terry Pratchett once said, “In ancient times, cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.”