I grew up with the usual assortment of cats and dogs. There was even a pet skunk. Yet, I wasn’t enthused about acquiring pets once I moved out on my own. I didn’t want the responsibility, and, for a few years, I successfully avoided it. Cats, however, found me. More precisely, my first cats were a gift from my sister. She was an animal lover who took in a stray cat one month before it gave birth. I found myself with two of the kittens. One of them, a Sylvester look-alike named Succotash, was with me for the next 20 years.
This parallels the broader human experience. In a general way, cats found us. While there are specific breeds of domestic cats (Persians, Himalayans, Siamese, etc.) the common domestic cat is indistinguishable morphologically from the African wildcat pictured below. It is true that domestic cats come in a riot of colors whereas all African and European wildcats are tabbies, but tabby is the most common color pattern for domestic cats, too. While often (not universally) regarded as separate species, they really aren’t. Domestic cats and wildcats can and do interbreed, and (in the case of tabbies) there is no way to tell the difference between them. A wildcat raised from a kitten will be a domestic cat. This indicates that domestication was the cat’s idea. Whenever domestication is our idea, there are quick and dramatic morphological changes as we bend the animal to our purposes by selective breeding. It seems that sometime prior to 5000 years ago – possibly 10,000 years ago – when the grain stores of newly agricultural humans started to attract rodents, cats showed up at the door to exploit them (and us). They never left.
The two cats who presently tolerate me in their home are Maxi and Mini. They inherited me from my parents 11 years ago. The cats are 13 years old. Mini is the big one. She is a waddling 20-pounder who loves being a housecat; she sometimes goes outside onto the grass for short periods, but rarely travels more than 20 feet from the house and always keeps the back door in sight. She never spends the night outside. Maxi, her littermate, is a trim 9-pounder; he loves the outdoors and prefers to spend the night outside except in the coldest of weather. Sometimes he disappears for up to three days, but then comes home hungry and tired. When Maxi does come in for the night, he demands to go out at the crack of dawn, even in a blizzard. Ignoring him doesn’t work. He will fuss nonstop for hours, so I lose less sleep by stumbling out of bed and letting him out than by not doing so.
Maxi, as you might imagine, brings home a variety of presents ranging from birds to rabbits, often alive. More than once I have heard him at the door and opened it without looking, only to have him bring a gift inside. Once he deposited a chipmunk at my feet and went back out the door. The chipmunk scrambled off and was in my house for a week before I finally caught him and put him outside. Mini is not so ambitious. Yet, last week, when I left the slider door open for a few minutes, she came marching inside carrying a mole. It must have been a very slow mole. This is the reason I don’t install a cat door. I don’t intentionally share my home with just any critter, and I don’t doubt a cat door would invite visitors.
Some animals have gotten inside even without one. On one occasion, a pair of raccoons jimmied a screen off an open window, entered the house, went to the kitchen, opened the cabinets, found a bag of dry cat food, dumped it into a pot of water in the sink, and chowed down. That is where I found them when I came home. They weren’t neat about it either. Another time I came home at night and detected some movement out of the corner of my eye. For several minutes I couldn’t locate it. Then I spotted the source. An owl was perched atop a curtain rod. He must have come down the chimney. In a (possibly rare) moment of intelligence, I remembered that this was a nocturnal creature, so I turned on all the internal lights, opened the door, and jumped up and down in front of the owl. Eventually he became annoyed with my antics and flew out the open door into the darkness. I’ve had a bear get into my garbage and a deer go swimming in the pool, though (fortunately) neither came inside.
All of which reminds me that I need to stop at the supermarket and buy cat food, an act which demonstrates clearly who has domesticated whom.