In 1981 the illustrator Simon Bond published “101 Uses for a Dead Cat,” a collection of cartoons showing dead cats being used for various purposes: door stops, boat anchors, wine bottle holders, and others. It was funny in a sort-of Far Side way, was on the best seller list for 27 weeks, and spawned at least four sequels.
People have had a love-hate relationship with cats since the beginning of time, but apparently at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that relationship has turned decidedly to the hate side. Cats have one character flaw that federal agents cannot abide – they kill mice. To the feds, cats are not cute, cuddly, furry, warm, friendly, or awesome. They don’t purr, snuggle, or play with yarn. If you “tawt you taw a puddy tat,” get rid of it.
David Rosenthal wrote an expose in the Daily Signal calling the latest episode a “war on cats,” waged by federal officials on Key Largo, where the effort to save woodrats has painted a target on the backs of all cats – not just the wild feral cats, but also people’s pets. The agency put traps all around its wildlife refuge on the island, but not just on federal land. Traps were also set on private land, in one case less than 50 feet away from a scuba diving business known to harbor a pet house cat named Rocky. Sure enough the spring-loaded trap lured Rocky, who was almost killed by it before being unceremoniously hauled to an animal shelter, while federal agents delivered a summons to Rocky’s owner threatening fines and possible jail time. Evidently the agents thought Rocky guilty of chasing rodents.
While I am more of a dog person, I confess that I’ve always liked cats. Even the wild ones serve an important purpose in keeping down the rodent population, and we have always had feral cats around the orchards around my home town of Palisade, Colorado. In fact, we feed them to make sure they will always be around, and they often become quite tame. One that we call George has hung around our family’s place for 17 years, well beyond the lifespan of the average house cat. And there is no mouse problem where George lives.
Ancient Egyptians so valued the cat’s prowess in keeping the rats under control that they made it a capital crime to kill a cat. Some cats were mummified and buried with their owners, a bond many people to this day can understand.
Cats were lauded by great writers like Twain, Eliot, and Hemingway, who was so fond of the wild cats on Key West that his home there became a sanctuary for dozens. Their descendants still roam the island today, still living at Hemingway’s place.
Despite centuries of such relationships between people and their cats, there have always been the cat-haters, too. They are said to suffer from Ailurophobia, an irrational fear of cats. One famous ailurophobe was Pope Gregory IX, who declared in 1232 that cats were diabolical creatures, the embodiment of the devil and a symbol of heresy. As a result, cats throughout Europe were burned, buried alive, walled up in brick buildings, thrown off towers, and tortured as part of religious rituals to drive out the devil. One result was a noted growth in the population of rats over the next 100 years, and the spread of the ravaging bubonic plague – which killed roughly a third of all the people in Europe.
Rosenthal pointed out that even 200 years later in Elizabethan England, people who kept cats were suspected of “wickedness” and were sometimes put to death along with their cats under the authority of the Witchcraft Act of 1563. Small wonder that many of the world’s largest cities continue to be plagued with rats, which are much less common in rural areas with lots of feral cats.
And therein lies the problem, since nowadays rats and mice themselves are valued, often listed as threatened or endangered. When the Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse was listed as threatened along Colorado’s Front Range, one of the first threats identified was the presence of “feral and domesticated cats.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pointed out that cats have a bad habit of chasing mice, even when they’re not hungry!
That is precisely why Columbus brought cats along, and why they were originally introduced to the Florida Keys. And it is precisely why the federal government is apparently determined now to eliminate them – not just the wild ones, but the pets, too.