Who is this Cat of Mine?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The story goes like this: 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, along the Fertile Crescent, people broke away from their nomadic ways, settled down and grew wheat and barley, nuts and fruits. Soon mice came to raid their stores, and wild cats followed to feast on the mice. The farmers and the cats recognized a mutually advantageous situation. Food for the cats and rodent-free homes for the farmers.

And so began the tacit relationship between humans and cats, what scientists call the cats’ self-domestication. They showed up, wild, and made the farm their home, living side by side with the farmers, but independently, probably wandering back and forth between the wild and their adopted homes.

Fast forward 4,000 years on the island of Cyprus. A cat is buried alongside a man. The archaeologists cannot say definitively that this was a domesticated cat. The skeletons of wild cats and tame cats are too similar to be able to make that distinction. But they presume that it was domesticated because wild cats are not part of the ecology of Cyprus, and being an island, the first cats had to have been brought there by boat. The scientists reject the possibility that wild cats made the journeys to the island.

Another 4,000 years later, in Egypt, cats became an object of worship.

Only much later did the cat establish itself as a pet, a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility, as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

And here we are. It’s 2018. And cats have become one of the most popular domestic pets in the world. Still independent. Still living side by side with us. Our pet cats are aloof, solitary beings. Unlike our pet dogs, we cannot train them to do our bidding. They do not want to be our companions, nor do they care about pleasing us. And, given the chance, they wander, only to return to their home base and grateful human house mates at day’s end.

When you think about it, these traits are probably not unlike those of their ancient ancestors of 12,000 years ago. Recent studies have shown that our house cats share 96% of their DNA with wild cats such as tigers, which began its evolutionary journey over three million years ago.

Smithsonian Institute archaeologist Melinda Zeder’s comment in a New Yorker magazine article really pinpoints our odd relationship we have with our pet cats:

I think what confuses people about cats is that they still carry some of the more aloof behaviors of their solitary wild progenitors. Sometimes they don’t give a damn about you, but they are very much part of your niche. Cats have us do everything for them. We clean their litter, stroke them, admire them, but unlike dogs they do not have to constantly please and satisfy our needs. They are probably the ultimate domesticate.

As David Zax remarked, “Makes you wonder – who’s domesticating whom?”









3 thoughts on “Who is this Cat of Mine?”

  1. First of all, the “uncontested” statistics about the number of birds killed by cats are simply ridiculous. We have numerous feral cats around here, and plenty of birds. I very rarely see one catch a bird, or evidence that they have. And these are ferals — domestic cats who have other sources of food catch even fewer birds. They do catch more rodents, lizards, and insects, but I haven’t heard of any shortage of those.

    Second, it is untrue that cats “do not want to be our companions, nor do they care about pleasing us.” My cats very definitely do want to be my companions, following me around the house, sitting on me, sleeping in our bed, etc. and while they are not as obsequious as dogs, I see evidence that to some extent they care what I think.

    A cat’s behavior depends on how one relates to it. If you go out of your way to establish a relationship with a cat, he/she will reciprocate. But if you ignore it and let it go about its way, then it will happily accept that too.

    1. I have three cats, Vic. And we spend our time talking to each other, spending time together. We sleep together, They climb on me, crawl under the covers, and I do think we communicate. They are a joy. But I don’t feel it’s personal towards me, necessarily. I believe they are capable of all you mention, but I don’t think it’s about me. Not like a dog, who becomes attached to a person. I think cats get attached to place. To safety and the comfort of knowing they are not in danger – a kind of respite from the vigilance they live with all the time. I feel my role is to provide that for them.


  2. I am allergic to cats so don’t have much of a relationship with them. Because of this they seem be drawn to me and whenever I meet a cat they want to come up and rub themselves all over me. Cats like to tease it seems. I do appreciate their independent nature and enjoy them from afar. If you get a chance google the cats that are on America’s Got Talent. It is amazing the tricks they are doing and how clever and trained they are. Cats really are amazing animals and I can see how people love them so.

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