A couple of months ago, my wife Margit’s friend Bailey asked us to look after her cat (really just a kitten) while she was going to be out of town for about ten days. It was decided that the cat would just stay with us during that time. Bailey had only recently found the cat cowering in her basement, half-starved and probably living on the occasional mouse or whatever insects or other small creatures she could find. Bailey hadn’t got around to naming the cat yet, and not wishing to prematurely thrust a real name upon her, we just called her Catty while she stayed with us. We thought she must be about six months old at that time, but she was quite tiny. Catty, to put it kindly, turned out to be a more ferociously mischievous cat than I had ever seen before. She did not like to be petted, and shunned all forms of affection. This, however, should by no means lead you to infer that our interactions with Catty were limited or sparse. Not at all: we were continuously stalked and hunted by her. I may not know what it is like to be a bat, but thanks to Catty, I have a pretty good idea what it is like to be an antelope in the Serengeti! [Photo shows Catty when she first came to stay with us.]
Catty wanted to do nothing but eat and hunt. Any movement or sound would send her into a crouching tiger position, ears pinned back, tail twitching. Though she is very fast, her real weapon is stealth. (Yes, she is quite the hidden dragon, as well.) I’ll be watching TV or reading, and incredibly suddenly I am barely aware of a grayish blur flying through the air toward me from the most unexpected place, and have just enough time to instintively close my eyes protectively before she swats me with a claw. After various attacks on Margit and me which we were completely helpless to prevent, and which left us mauled with scratches everywhere (and I had been worried about cat hair on my clothes making me look bad!), Margit took her to a vet to have her very sharp nails trimmed (we did not have her declawed, which seemed too cruel and irreversible). The vet asked Margit for a name to register her under, and Catty immediately tried to kill him for his impertinence. While he bandaged his injuries, Margit decided to officially name the little slasher Frederica Krueger, thereby openly acknowledging and perhaps even honoring her ineluctably murderous nature. We started calling her Freddy.
Here’s the funny thing: despite her fiercely feral, violent tendencies, Freddy was just so beautiful that I fell in love with her. To echo Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert speaking about another famous pubescent nymphet: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, it was she who seduced me! As Freddy got more used to us, it was as if she could not decide whether to try and eat us, or be nice. She started oscillating between the two modes, attacking and then affectionately licking my hand, then attacking again… But it was precisely the graceful, lean, single-minded perfection of her design as a killing machine that I could not resist. Like a Ferrari (only much more impressive), she was clearly built for one thing only, and therein lay her seductive power. (Okay, I admit it, I’ve always liked cats. The photo here shows me sitting on a chimney on the roof of our house in Islamabad in the late 60s with my cat Lord Jim.)
We mostly read whatever psychological intentions we want (and can) into our pets, imputing all sorts of beliefs and desires from our own psychological economies to them, and this works particularly well to the advantage of cats. They are just intelligent enough to get our attention as intentional agents (unlike say, a goldfish, or even a hamster, which seem barely more than the automatons Descartes imagined all animals except humans to be), but the fact that they are very mentally rigid and cannot learn too much makes them seem imperious, haughty, independent, and noble to us, unlike dogs, who are much more flexible in intelligence and can learn to obey commands and do many tricks to please us. Let’s be blunt: cats are quite stupid. But to be fair, maybe much of the nobility we read into some humans is also the result of their rigidity. Who knows. In any case, cats are such monomaniacally hardwired hunters that it is impossible not to admire their relentless pursuit of prey, even if (in my case!) that prey is us. Since like many gods of the ancients, cats are mostly oblivious to human wishes and impossible to control, it is no surprise that some ancient peoples held them to be gods.
In ancient Egypt cats were considered deities as early as 3000 BCE and later there existed the cult of the goddess Bast, who was originally depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness, but soon changed to an unmistakeably domestic cat. Since cats were considered sacred, they were also mummified. Herodotus reports that when Egyptian cats died, the members of the household that owned it would shave their eyebrows in mourning. Killing a cat, even accidentally was a capital crime. The cult of Bast was officially banned in 390 BCE, but reverence for cats continued. Another greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, relates an incident from about 60 BCE where the wheels of a Roman chariot accidentally crushed an Egyptian cat. An outraged mob immediately killed the soldier driving the chariot.
The domestic cat was named Felis catus by Linnaeus, and like dogs, belong to the order Carnivora. Not all carnivores are in this order (even some spiders are carnivores, after all) and not all members of the Carnivora are carnivores, such as the panda. Other members of this order are bears, weasels, hyenas, seals, walruses, etc. Like our own, the ancestors of the modern domestic cat came from East Africa. Cats were probably initially allowed or encouraged to live near human settlements because they are great for pest control, especially in agricultural settings with grain storage, etc. This arrangement also afforded cats protection from larger predators who stayed away from humans for the most part. Even now, cats will hunt more than a thousand species of small animals. Domestic cats, if left in the wild, will form colonies, and by the way, a group of cats is known as a clowder. (Be sure to throw that into your next cocktail party conversation.)
It took even physicists a while to figure out how a cat always lands on its feet, which is known as its “righting reflex.” The problem is that in mid-air, there is nothing to push off against to change your orientation (imagine being suspended in space outside a rocket, and trying to rotate). So how do they do it? The answer is actually quite technical and has to do with something called a phase shift. (Like a spinning figure skater being able to speed up or slow down her rate of rotation by drawing her arms in or holding them out.) What the cat does is first put its arms out and rotate the front half of its body in one direction and the back half in the opposite direction (a twisting motion), then it draws its arms in and twists in the opposite direction. But because angular momentum must be conserved, and angular momentum depends on the radial distance of mass from its axis of rotation, it will rotate back less this time, thereby achieving a net rotation in the direction of the first twist. If you don’t get it, don’t worry about it!
Cats appear frequently in fiction and writers seem to have a particular predilection for them. Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain were serial cat-owners. Hemingway at various times had cats named Alley Cat, Boise, Crazy Christian, Dillinger, Ecstasy, F. Puss, Fats, Friendless Brother, Furhouse, Pilar, Skunk, Thruster, Whitehead, and Willy. Twain’s cats were Appolinaris, Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Satan, Sin, Sour Mash, Tammany, and Zoroaster. Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt’s cat Tom Quartz was named for a cat in Mark Twain’s Roughing It. T.S. Eliot owned cats named Tantomile, Noilly Prat, Wiscus, Pettipaws, and George Pushdragon. William and Williamina both belonged to Charles Dickens.
Lord Byron and Jorge Luis Borges both had cats named Beppo. (Byron travelled accompanied by five cats.) Edgar Allen Poe had Catarina; Raymond Chandler, Taki. Kingsley Amis’s cat was Sara Snow. Some cats were, of course, named for famous people as well as owned by them, such as Gloria Steinem’s Magritte and Anatole France’s Pascal. John Lennon was the proud owner of Elvis. John Kenneth Galbraith was forced to change his cat’s name from Ahmedabad to Gujarat after he became the U.S. ambassador to India because Muslims were offended by “Ahmed” (one of Mohammad’s names) being associated with a cat. Mohammad himself, according to a report (hadith) attributed to Abu Huraira, owned a cat named Muezza, about whom it is said that one day while she was asleep on the sleeve of Mohammad’s robe, the call to prayer was sounded. Rather than awaken the cat, Mohammad quietly cut his sleeve off and left. When he returned, the cat bowed to him and thanked him, after which she was guaranteed a place in heaven.
Isaac Newton not only loved cats, but is also said (probably apochryphally) to be the inventor of the “cat flap,” allowing his cats to come and go as they pleased. (Wonder how long a break he had to take from inventing, say calculus, to do that.) And by the way, among famous cat haters can be counted such luminaries as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, and last but not least, Adolf Hitler. What is it about cat-hating that basically turns one into a Dr. Evil? But wait, Dr. Evil likes cats!
Okay, enough random blather. Back to Ms. Frederica Krueger’s story: as the moment of Bailey’s return from her trip and the time for Freddy to leave us approached, I grew more and more agitated, finally threatening Margit that I would kidnap the cat and run away with her unless she did something to stop Bailey from coming to pick up her cat. At first Margit tried to tell me that we could get another cat, which only made me regress further and throw a tantrum yelling, “I don’t want another cat! I only want this cat!” At this point, Margit told me I had finally cracked up completely and advised me to call a shrink. Bailey was coming to get the cat early next morning. I went to bed late, as I often do, and was still asleep when Margit awakened me to say that Bailey had agreed to let us have the cat as it seemed very happy here, and Bailey’s apartment was really too small anyway. Thus Frederica becames ours, and we remain her willing and ever-anxious prey.
Freddy’s Photo Gallery
Here are some glamour and action shots of Ms. Frederica Krueger, which you can click to enlarge. Captions are below the photos:
- I catch Freddy suddenly pouncing on an unsuspecting Margit’s hand from behind our living room sofa (a favorite place of hers from which to launch her demonic attacks). Her eyes reflect the light from the camera flash because of a mirror-like layer behind her retinas called the tapetum. Nocturnal animals have this reflective surface there to bounce photons back toward the photosensitive cells of the retina, thereby almost doubling the chance that they will be registered, and greatly improving the animal’s night vision. The daytime vision of cats is not as good as humans, however.
- She is striking a deceptively demure pose. Don’t let if fool you. I have paid dearly for that mistake. In blood.
- Freddy loves this incredibly silly toy, which is basically just a little felt mouse that goes around and around, driven by a battery-powered motor. She spends inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to slay this patently fake rodent.
- Freddy has a habit of sitting on various bookshelves in the apartment, usually at a greater height than in this picture, surveying the scene below, much like a vulture.
- Margit too-bravely holds Freddy in her lap, who is only milli-seconds away from trying to shred Margit’s hands with the claws of her powerful rear legs.
- If you didn’t believe me when I said that often all I see is a grayish blur flying at me, have a good look at this picture (enlarge it by clicking on it) taken at 1/8th of a second shutter speed. Freddy is jumping from a lower bookshelf to the shelp avove the stereo on the right, so she can climb to even higher shelves along that wall.
Have a good week! My other Monday Musing columns can be seen here.