Category Archives: Cat

“Let us now praise famous…” cats

Some feline stories caught my eye this week. They illustrate the important role that domesticated humans have played in the civilizations that cats have built over the past few thousand years.

The first tale (a tale not bottle-brushed) comes from Illinois, from the burial mounds north of St. Louis. The mounds date to about two thousand years ago, from a period and people now called the Hopewell tradition. Among many other artifacts, these peoples left many large mounds, some of them tombs, others of unclear significance.

A re-analysis of one of the funerary mounds has revealed that it contained a young bobcat. The cat was carefully lain in its grave, with its paws pressed together. It was wearing a necklace of marine shells and bear teeth. The cat’s bones bore no evidence of sacrifice or other damage. In a moment of feline ignominy, it was first incorrectly identified as a puppy and placed in a “puppy burial” box. But the bobkitten’s identity has now been corrected.

The mounds in which the cat was buried were otherwise reserved for humans. Dogs were buried back in the village, not at these mounds. So this cat was someone special. A photograph of the necklace and interviews with the scientists involved are on Science Magazine’s news pages.

The second feline story concerns Tama, the stationmistress cat of Kishi train station in western Japan. As business declined at the station, the human employees were dismissed, but Tama stayed on and was officially appointed to her duties at the station. She rose to vice-president of the rail company. She boosted rail traffic and her tenure resulted in an estimated 1.1 billion Yen boost to the local economy. Train carriages were painted in her honor.

She has now died, at age 16. The regional governor released a statement expressing his “deep sorrow and appreciation.” Her funeral rivaled that of bobkitten, with thousands in attendance. Now she is transformed to Shinto kami, a deified cat. Or, I should say, a cat recognized by humans as deified. Cats know themselves to be deified already, with or without human intervention. Nitama, a younger cat, is apprenticing to take her role.

Here in the Christianized West, no mention of cats in the Bible. The old Judeo-Christian prophets knew when they’d met their match, perhaps. But Mohammed understood the feline-divine order: he is said to have cut the sleeve of his prayer tunic rather than disturb the sleep of his favorite cat, Muezza. I can imagine a reincarnational thread from bobkitten to Muezza to Tama. Although, knowing cats and threads, it is likely to be tangled beyond hope of salvage or comprehension. Linearity is an abomination unto the cat.


Harold Goldberg sent me these great photos of coyotes taken from his house in Sewanee. You can also see the photos in this week’s Messenger (I’ve held off on posting until the latest edition of the Messenger went live — no natural history scoops from me! :) )

At this time of year, coyotes are pairing up and breeding. Unlike many mammals, the male sticks around to help raise the young, as do some non-breeding pups from previous years. These family groups get very vocal when they reunite after hunting forays. I’ve heard their crazy yips and howls near our house for the last several nights – an acoustic dose of the wild. The goats and Junebug the Hound are not amused.

Coyotes have invaded our region from the Western states, partly replacing the ecological role of the wolves that used to roam here. But wolves sat atop the food chain, specializing in group hunts of large animals. As deer and forests were decimated in the wake of European arrival, the wolves disappeared, helped along by vigorous persecution. Coyotes are more flexible, eating small mammals, berries, insects, and whatever else is available and nutritious. This flexibility allows them to thrive in the fragmented, unpredictable world that we have created.

For those concerned about the abundance of deer in Sewanee, the arrival of coyotes is good news. Although they seldom take adults, coyotes do prey on fawns. For cat-lovers with outdoor pets, coyotes are cause for concern. Cats are a delicacy for most canids, including coyotes. This has some interesting ecological consequences. In California, areas with coyotes have thriving native bird populations, the result of predation by coyotes on cats (and behavioral changes in pet-owners – people are more likely to keep kitty indoors if they know that coyotes are on the prowl). This is a classic example of a “trophic cascade” in ecology – the effects of a top predator “cascade” down through the “trophic” (feeding)  levels in the system. My enemy’s predator is my friend.

Coyotes and wolves occupy interestingly different places in our cultural imagination. The wolf lives in that tense place between fear and desire (the Big Bad Wolf…ends up in bed…then slain…). Coyotes are more ambiguous. Most tales of coyotes regard them as playful, devious tricksters. These imaginings are fair reflections of ecology: the focused predator versus the jack-of-all-trades opportunist.

Listen for the trickster’s yodel…