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Sam Stall

100 CATS WHO CHANGED CIVILIZATION

History’s Most Influential Felines

To Ted.

He might not have been the greatest cat in the world, but he was the greatest in mine.

INTRODUCTION

“Cats are a mysterious kind of folk. There is more passing in their minds than we are aware of.”

—Sir Walter Scott

Cats have communed with mankind since before the dawn of civilization. Yet discovering the handful who helped shape our history was no easy task. The typical feline is blithely uninterested in the comings and goings of the human race. It’s part—perhaps the most important part—of their character. The people around them can do as they like, so long as there is food in the food dish, clean litter in the litter box, and a sunny window ledge from which to watch the world go by.

Nevertheless, over the centuries certain individuals of the feline persuasion have seen fit to exert themselves on humanity’s behalf. For the most part they do it in their own distinctive way, for their own inscrutable reasons. Blatant grandstanding, such as, say, rescuing a toddler from a burning tenement, just isn’t their style. Those escapades are best left to dogs.

Instead of showing off, many of the cats profiled in the following pages earned their laurels in more subtle ways. These luminaries could be divided into four broad groups: muses, pioneers, antiheroes, and heroes.

The muses made their marks by willingly giving companionship, inspiration, or even a simple morale boost to needy geniuses. Cattarina, the feline associate of Edgar Allan Poe, served as a template for one of the greatest horror stories ever written. And it was a tomcat named Macek who inspired scientist Nicola Tesla to begin his world-changing study of electricity.

Some of the “pioneers” earned spots in the history books without even knowing it. A Canadian cat named Snowball was quite unaware that a few strands of her hair not only caught a killer, but revolutionized criminal forensics as well. Likewise, one can rest assured that a feline named F. D. C. Willard never knew he coauthored a research paper on low-energy physics. Furthermore, a black cat called Colby hasn’t the slightest inkling that he was awarded an executive MBA.

Of course, not all cats who changed history did so for the better. Thankfully, this small rogue’s gallery of antiheroes is likewise ignorant of its misdeeds. A lighthouse keeper’s pet named Tibbles never knew that he was the only creature to single-handedly wipe out an entire species. And a kitten named Ahmedabad was spared all knowledge of the serious diplomatic row he triggered between Pakistan and the United States.

Finally, this book would be remiss were it not to enumerate the sagas of classic hero cats—felines who during a crisis displayed such human-centric characteristics as bravery, resourcefulness, and resolve. To this elite group belongs Mourka, who assisted Russian forces during the bloody battle for Stalingrad; Trixy, who stood by her human associate during his imprisonment in the infamous Tower of London; and Tommy, who used a phone to call the police when his wheelchair-bound owner was incapacitated.

All these felines, plus the dozens of others enshrined in these pages, changed history in small—and sometimes not-so-small—ways. Their indifference, indeed their obliviousness to their achievements, could serve as an example for vain humans, many of whom make a much bigger fuss over much more modest accomplishments.

Science and Nature

TIBBLES

THE CAT WHO WIPED OUT AN ENTIRE SPECIES

Felines are famous for their skill at eradicating mice, rats, and birds. But no cat in the history of civilization can match the unbridled bloodlust displayed by a humble lighthouse keeper’s pet named Tibbles. He’s become famous—or rather, infamous—in the annals of science as the only animal to have wiped out an entire species by itself.

The unlucky species in question was the Stephens Island wren. By all accounts, it was as unusual as it was harmless. Because there were originally no mice in the corner of the world where it evolved, the wren adapted to fill that ecological niche. It lost the ability to fly, shrank to roughly the size of a rodent, and spent its days running at top speed through the underbrush. But though it couldn’t fly, the wren retained the ability to sing.

At one time this fragile, musical, mouselike bird called all of New Zealand home. But when South Pacific islanders arrived, they brought stowaway rats on their ships—rats that quickly invaded the local ecosystem. The wrens, completely helpless against the sudden onslaught of such a powerful and ruthless predator, were quickly exterminated. Their last rat-free redoubt was Stephens Island, a roughly one-square-mile spit of rock off New Zealand’s northern coast.

That’s how matters stood until 1894, when a lighthouse was established there. Its keeper, David Lyall, brought along his cat, Tibbles, for company. One can only imagine the feline’s delight at finding the island overrun with bite-sized, flightless birds. Not surprisingly, Tibbles got straight to work, attacking the little creatures wherever he found them.

Tibbles alerted his owner to his new hobby by hauling more than a dozen of his victims back to the lighthouse, all of them dead or nearly so. Lyall kept several, which because of their strangeness found their way into the hands of ornithologists. In 1895 the little animal was unveiled to the scientific world and given the Latin name Xenicus lyalli. Then, almost in the same breath, it was declared extinct.

The ecological destruction inaugurated by a pack of rats was, ironically, completed by a lone cat. It never occurred to the lighthouse keeper, or anyone else, that given the unique (and uniquely fragile) nature of the Stephens Island fauna, it might have been a good idea to make Tibbles an indoor cat.

SNOWBALL

THE CAT WHO CAUGHT A KILLER

Douglas Beamish thought he got away with murder. And he might have, if it weren’t for the case-making evidence furnished by his cat.

It happened in 1994, when Canadian authorities on Prince Edward Island found Shirley Duguay buried in a shallow grave. Royal Canadian Mounted Police were called in to investigate. They paid particular attention to a blood-soaked leather jacket in a plastic bag that had been buried along with the body. Unfortunately, the blood was all Duguay’s, and therefore useless for DNA comparisons. But forensics experts discovered something else: twenty-seven strands of white hair that, upon closer examination, were determined to come from a cat. The Mounties recalled that Beamish, Duguay’s estranged common-law husband, lived not too far from the grave site with his parents—and that they owned a white feline named Snowball.

The Mounties obtained a blood sample from Snowball, hoping to compare it to the DNA in the hairs. The problem, they soon discovered, was that no one had ever done such a thing before. After a series of calls, the authorities located perhaps the only people on the planet who could help—a team of researchers at the National Cancer Institute’s Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Frederick, Maryland, which was developing a map of the feline genome.

The academics had never before participated in a CSI-style criminal investigation, and it took some convincing to get them on board. Once they signed on, however, they were able to quickly isolate the genetic code in the jacket hairs and match it to the blood sample from Snowball. Using this evidence, and the expert testimony of the scientists who developed the technology, Beamish was convicted of murder and sent to prison. The case set a precedent for the use of cat DNA to place criminals at the scenes of crimes. Afterward, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded a $265,000 grant to create a National Feline Genetic Database. It developed the technology necessary to help forensics labs around the world trace cat hairs found at crime scenes to specific pets. Thanks to Snowball, criminals (about a third of whom own felines) can now be busted by their own furry friends.

     

 

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