Saturday, June 30, 2007

Cats: Just Giving Us The Benefit Of Themselves

This is a post that is not focused on politics. It does focus on another of my favorite subjects however... cats.

The journal Science has published a study tracing the "domestication" of the common house cat to about 10,000 years ago. Every type of house cat known is descended from one of four females in a species of wild cat still present in the Middle East. The authors of the study believe that rather than mankind domesticating the cat, that the cat domesticated itself.

Around 10,000 years ago humans stopped subsisting entirely by hunting and foraging and started farming. Along with the granaries built to hold the fruit of the land came rodents feeding on our hard earned food. At some point several wildcats found the easy pickings in the rodent infested granaries and set up shop in the area. The humans found the new arrival to be very beneficial in controlling the rodents so they decided to not drive off the cat. At some point the mama cats had kittens who were so cute and fun to play with that enlightened humans have been HUGE cat fans from that day til now! Unenlightened humans on the other hand like dogs and think cats are good for only causing allergies.

Dr Stephen O'Brien, one of the authors of the study puts it this way:
"The felidae family is well known as a successful predator: very deadly, very ferocious, very threatening to all species including humankind," says O'Brien.

"But this little guy actually chose not to be that. He actually chose to be a little bit friendly and also was a very good mouser."

The wildcat brought "two very valuable commodities" to these early farmers, O'Brien says.

"One is, he helped dispatch the thousand or so rodents that were living on the grain stores and second he probably provided some amusement to the early families and their children by being friendly," he says.

"So that was the beginning of one of the most successful biological experiments ever undertaken, where a nasty, ferocious, deadly predator changed its attitude and became friendly with humans."
These findings go a long way in explaining the mysterious and aloof nature of your every day house cat. They were not "domesticated" by humans. They domesticated themselves. Long ago they chose to cohabitate with us and that distinction between cats and other domesticated animals serves to explain much that we find so curious about our feline companions. Domesticated dogs were trained and given rewards for behaving as we liked them to. They were fed depending solely upon when the people they were around decided to feed them, or they were able to make off with a stolen meal. Domesticated cats fended for themselves in the early days of the feline/human relationship and the differences are striking. Cats have an ingrained sense of individuality and self awareness. They are massively egocentric. The universe of the typical dog revolves around it's owner. My wife and I know that the universe revolves around our cats, from their perspective, and we play along with their game because we want them to think we are good sorts!

Note that it was not any other species of rodent predator that filled this niche. We don't have half a billion Boa Snake ancestors roaming the world after having domesticated themselves 10k years ago. Why not the Mongoose? For some reason it was this species of wild cat in the Middle East... and I for one am very happy that is the case.

Now I've read some reaction to this study on the intertubes which draws the conclusion that your cat chooses to live with you, just because you're good at opening cans. I'm not certain that the study results pertain to individual cats in individual circumstances in today's world. In fact when I was a kid in Montana I knew ranchers who had cats subsisting entirely on the pickings around the ranch who could have chosen at any point to move along. But they stayed put and I'd like to think that the relationship between the people on the ranch and the cats was some small part of the equation from the cats perspective. Cats are well known to go feral if they do not socialize with humans, but I think this is caused by the humans, not the cats. Cats don't have a drive to escape domestication, but there are unfortunate times when a cat isn't accepted, or given the opportunity to be taken into a home, and then nature takes over.

That said let me just admit that this is all gut feeling from my years of cat ownership and fandom. Maybe it is the case that if my cats Rustee, or Xiahou Meow were to leave the house and find an alternate food source, I would just be a distant memory of days gone by. Somehow though I know they would miss the rituals that have bonded us together. Rustee loves being petted while he eats... we have named this ritual "purr eat". Who's going to do that if he turns into some little wild critter making his living as best he can from the landscape? Xiahou Meow loves being rolled up in a blanket and roughed around. Am I to believe that if she were to find herself with a choice of living in our home or living in the wild, if the food situation were equal in both cases that it would be a coin flip from her perspective? Somehow I don't buy that. Just listening to Xiahou get up in the window and meowing piteously whenever my wife or I leave is proof enough for me.

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