As a boy in Bowling Green in the early 1970s, we had an orange tiger cat named Fido. Unlike the stereotype of the uncooperative, persnickety feline, Fido was happy inside or outside, good with children, and had quite a repertoire of tricks. He was fascinated by water, and carefully watched my dad shave in the morning, darting a paw out when the tap was running. Fido also enjoyed our toy race cars, and would occasionally chase them. He was an amazing jumper, and could jump six feet into the air from a standstill. He did this to reach one of his favorite sleeping spots, the curtain rods above the kitchen window. We laughed when people said, “But Fido is a dog’s name.” His warm fur, purring, and quirky ways still bring a smile to me after forty years.
The cat in the second picture is anonymous, but I can tell you a few things about it. The picture was taken before 1918 on an unnamed street in Bowling Green. The cat was probably black and white. The feline seems to be in a good mood. When cats have their tails sticking straight up vertically, they are usually happy. But be careful when a cat’s ears are cocked slightly, as this one’s are. It may be afraid of that hand behind it, which may be friendly or may be ready to swat. The Charlie Chaplin-moustache on the cat looks humorous, but the cat looks wary. Should I purr or run?
Cats have an unusual pedigree. Archaeological evidence suggests that cat were domesticated as far back as 8000 years ago, although there is some evidence that cats were hanging around humans as far back as 12000 years ago. Cats were originally domesticated for their rodent control skills. They were worshiped as gods in Egypt, yet reviled in medieval Europe as creatures of the night. Even now, cats are something we either love of hate.
Cats slip easily from domestication to a feral state. Feral however, does not mean “wild.” Barn cats, for example, are feral, but still depend on the world that humans built. Barn or farm cats are rarely given names, as they come and go at will. They have some wild characteristics, like established territories, an understood hierarchy. But the mice and rats they eat, and the barns in which they shelter, are there because of the presence of humans. At the other extreme, house cats are named, pampered with canned food and litter boxes, and allowed to enjoy indoor heat. Keep in mind, however, that canned cat food only appeared in the 1930s and kitty litter after World War 2. “Garfield,” “Morris,” and any number of pet cats are a product of the modern world. My pre-1918 cat, even if a pet, was likely kept outside, found part of his own food, and like most feral animals, might or might not come when you called..
One might think that feral cats are a cute, natural touch to the landscape. My two Bowling Green cats might have understood the pull of the wild. In 2011, the AP wire service ran a story headed, “Feral cats overrun I-75 rest area near Bowling Green.” Twenty to thirty cats had colonized the rest stop, left there by travelers and encouraged to stay by others who fed them. The Wood County Humane Society was called in, which live-trapped as many cats as they could. They were then spayed/neutered and offered for adoption.
So cats have as many roles as colors. Whether house cat, barn cat, stray, or feral, companion, worker, or pest, people must take responsibility for the cats they encounter. Cats were domesticated to control rats and mice. Left unrestricted cats will over-breed and become a nuisance. Unfortunately, domestication is a one-way street. Once we domesticated them, they became our responsibility, whether we want them or not.
[Other pictures of "Fido" are below. The third picture is my little sister Lisa holding the Fido in 1973. Not real clear, but how many cats would let a four-year-old hold him long enough for a picture like that?]