Where'd that cat come from?

Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A ll the domestic cats in the world, from purebred champion to the one snoozing on your lap, have a common ancestor. It is the African wildcat that showed up on the scene as humans were settling down from nomadic life. When people started planting and harvesting crops, they encountered a new enemy. It was the rodent that raided and spoiled the food cache.

Enter the cat - literally. Following the rodents that were their natural prey, African wildcats moved from the Libyan desert onto the fringes of human settlement. The job they did in the storehouses made them welcome. Before long, children were pleading with their mothers to keep cute kittens and the Egyptians had gone so far as to declare the cat a deity.

From ancient Egypt, traders carried cats both east and west. Cats introduced to Europeans interbred with the European wildcat and became the domestic cats of today. Cats taken to Asia evolved into the so-called "exotic breeds," such as the Siamese.

Cats reached the Americas aboard sailing ships, all of which carried cats as valued members of the crew. Their job was to keep vermin out of the ship's provisions and trade goods. By the time of the American Revolution, cats had made themselves at home in the New World.

Unlike the dog, which was first domesticated and then trained to work, the cat essentially volunteered for the job. Wild cats and humans developed a mutually beneficial relationship. Introduced to all parts of the world by humans who valued them, cats everywhere settled into their natural niche. Rodent control is their place in the ecosystem.

(For a while, cats were blamed for the decline in songbird populations. Scientific studies exonerated them. Cats' bird-hunting turned out to be a statistically insignificant factor. Far and away, the big causes are pesticides and habitat destruction.)

Domestic and untamed (feral) cats are genetically the same. People-loving pussycats are either ferals tamed as kittens or descendants of those tamed 'way back when.

We haven't bred cats to herd, guard or track. We've just plopped them down to do what nature designed cats to do. They're rodent hunters who don't mind a second helping of Fancy Feast.

Juneau's first cats arrived aboard ships bringing passengers and supplies to this Far North gold-rush town. Some were pets carried ashore in passengers' arms; others were working cats who jumped ship from below decks.

The story is told of a big, yellow tomcat from a steamship that made scheduled stops in Douglas on its way to and from Skagway. The cat routinely took shore leave in Douglas on the northbound voyage, did a little hunting and called on local lady cats, then met his ship at the dock for the southbound trip.

Rodents thrive in our mild maritime climate and temperate rainforest. Voles, shrews, and mice - the cats' prey of choice - plagued downtown business owners from the start. Most kept cats to keep the varmints at bay.

Remember Mouser, the Dockside Jewelers' cat that used to sleep in the display window at night? There was a huge, black cat at Rainy Day Books while, across the street, aptly named Pussy Willow tiptoes through the tulips at Miss Scarlett's flower shop. The auto salvage business on Crazy Horse Drive had no junkyard dog, but a tough-looking tomcat who slept in a totaled car and ate from a matched set of hubcaps.

My next-door neighbor's chicken house has an extra nesting box for Dusty, an amiable cat who seems to enjoy the hens' company. Rodents steer clear of any place where a cat has been recently, so Dusty's social calls keeps rodents out of the chicken feed.

Be they pets, working cats or undomesticated ferals, cats are part of our community. They're here because people welcomed them. And, collectively, they are still doing the job that Nature designed them to do.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She volunteers at the Gastineau Humane Society.

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