Cats in Madagascar (Credit: Hery Zo Rakotondramanana / flickr)
You take a fat cat, and cut its throat, and after it is dead, behead it and throw the head away, because it is not something to be eaten because it is said that those who eat the brains will lose their minds and lack judgment.
So begins a recipe in Llibre de Coch, a 15th-century Spanish cookbook and one of the oldest in Europe. Today, most people in the western world would turn away in disgust if they saw cat on the menu, regardless of whether or not they were a fan of the world’s most popular pet. But people do eat cats—millions of felines a year, in fact, and four million in Asia alone, according to a study published this month in Anthrozoös.
Why do they do it? Cats (and dogs) have long been on the menu in China—it’s considered a delicacy by some—though the government has begun to crack down on the practice as both animals have become more popular pets there. But it many places it’s not clear why people eat cats, or even how they obtain them.
To get some answers, the authors of the Anthrozoös study turned to the island nation of Madagascar, home to a rapidly growing—and impoverished—human population. The researchers speculated that given the high rates of malnutrition and the large number of pet and feral cats found across the country, that the Malagasy would turn to felines for food.
Hurricane Katrina was a transformative moment in our relationship with cats and dogs. Here’s me on PBS NewsHour discussing how the storm and its aftermath forever changed how we treat pets during natural disasters.
Nearly half the people who stayed behind during Hurricane Katrina stayed because of their pets. Helicopters and boats would come, but the rescuers largely refused to take cats and dogs. So many owners, unwilling to abandon a family member, refused to go — and many of them died. Others did leave their pets, convinced they would be able to retrieve them in a few days. But officials kept them out for weeks, leaving the animals to fend for themselves. Dogs waited on rooftops, cats clung to debris in toxic waters, and pets starved to death in barricaded homes.
Even for a nation grappling with the human tragedy of Katrina, the plight of dogs and cats struck a nerve. The public flooded Congress with letters, and in 2006 the legislature — despite being bitterly divided over war, immigration, and seemingly every other issue — passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act with near unanimous support. That law, which impels rescue agencies to save pets as well as people during natural disasters, and the public outcry that inspired it, marked a turning point in our relationship with cats and dogs. No longer would we see them as pets or even companion animals. They had become members of society.
For the full story of the largest animal rescue in U.S. history, and how the storm forever changed our relationship with cats and dogs–both in our homes and in the eyes of the law–check out my new article in BuzzFeed: How Hurricane Katrina Turned Pets into People
If you’re a cat lover, you probably see your feline friend as a love sponge with a wild streak. If you’re a cat hater, you probably see cats as feral and strange. It turns out that this debate has played out in scientific circles as well. Researchers, it seems, can’t agree on whether cats are a domesticated species or if they are instead only “semi-domesticated.” In my new article for Slate, I delve into the legal and scientific history of the world’s most popular pet. So are cats wild or domestic? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
In the meantime, here’s an excerpt to ponder:
Cats are descended from some of the world’s most fearsome predators. They can be aloof and mysterious, and when they go outside they blend into the savage world around them, stalking, growling, and leaping—their eyes wide, their ears back, their teeth bared. They are the kings of their backyard jungles. Yet they give it all up to be with us—a loud, erratic, and sometimes incomprehensible species. When they cross our thresholds, the beast fades away. They tame us, and they are tamed by us. Cats may have retained a bit of their wild ancestry, but they always come home.
Finally, a note about the paperback. Although I have updated the book since it was first published, the first edition of the paperback contains the original hardcover text. The updates should appear in the next version of the paperback. Here are a couple of updates and corrections worth noting:
Page 73: Marc Bekoff got his MD and PhD at Cornell University Medical College in New York City, not in Ithica.
Page 100: The Animal Legal Defense fund did not create an animal law committee in the American Bar Association. This was instead done by animal lawyer Barbara Gislason.
Page 122: After the book went to press, South Dakota became the 50th state to make animal cruelty a felony.
Page 293: Two updates to the timeline
2006: The U.S. federal government passes the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which impels rescue agencies to save pets as well as people during natural disasters.
2014: South Dakota becomes the 50th U.S. state to adopt a felony animal anti-cruelty law. The same year, the FBI announces it will begin tracking animal cruelty cases.
The origin of dogs is shrouded in mystery: How were they domesticated? What part of the world did they come from? How long have they been with us? Scientists are now closer to answering that last question, thanks to the discovery of a small wolf bone on a remote Siberian peninsula. Radiocarbon dating reveals that the bone is 35,000 years old, and genetic analysis suggests that this animal may have lived during a critical time in canine history: when the ancestors of today’s dogs split off from the ancestors of modern wolves. Though the find doesn’t tell us where dogs came from or even how they came to be, it does suggest that our canine pals have been around for a long time—possibly as long as 40,000 years. Scientists have long known that dogs are oldest friends; now we’re coming to appreciate just how ancient this friendship really is.
For the full story, check out my article in Science.
Dogs are one of the great unsolved mysteries of domestication. They were the first thing we ever tamed–before any plant, before any other animal. Yet, despite decades of research, scientists still can’t agree on where or even when dogs arose. Various teams have battled each other in scientific papers and in the press. Now an unprecedented collaboration of archaeologists and geneticists has brought the warring camps together for the first time. The group is analyzing thousands of bones from around the world, employing new techniques, and trying to put aside years of bad blood and bruised egos. If it succeeds, it may finally uncover the history of man’s oldest friend.
For more on this story, including everything we currently know about where dogs came from, check out my latest feature for Science, “Dawn of the Dog“. [pdf]
Is your pet a family member or a commodity? That’s the issue lurking beneath the surface of a trio of new laws proposed in Maryland and Virginia. Two of the bills aim to ban or severely limit the sale of cats and dogs from pet stores, while the third seeks to redefine the nature of animal shelters. Yet all speak to the rapidly evolving relationship between us and our companion animals.
The pet store bills target shops that sell dogs and cats from breeders. Both were inspired by growing public concern about animals that come from so-called puppy and kitten mills—commercial breeding operations that put profit above animal welfare. Pets from such places are often unsocialized and tend to harbor genetic and infectious diseases. The Maryland bill, which was passed in Montgomery County last week, prohibits pet stores from selling cats and dogs obtained from such mills. Stores can only sell pets procured from shelters or rescue organizations, as large chains like PetSmart and PetCo do. The Virginia bill, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, covers the entire state. It is similar to the Maryland bill, though it still allows pet stores to sell from breeders that meet certain qualifications. It also largely prohibits the sale of pets at flea markets and similar venues.
The Maryland and Virginia bills match legislation passed in more than 70 localities across the country in the past few years. Though the ostensible purpose of these laws is to improve animal welfare, they speak to the growing bond between us and our pets. In the past 20 years, dogs and cats have morphed from companion animals to full-fledged family members. We take them on vacation, we spend billions on their food and care, and we even risk our lives for them. As a result, we now view our pets less like property and more like people. A few decades ago, we didn’t think twice about buying a cat or dog from a neighborhood pet shop or seeking the latest and greatest breed, like we might a fancy new TV. Today, many of these pet shops have disappeared, and owners are more likely to boast that their pet is a rescue than a purebred. We don’t buy anymore. We adopt.
One of the most fascinating tidbits I came across while researching my new book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, concerns the 10,000-year-old village of Shillourokambos. Located on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, the site was once home to an early farming community whose inhabitants stored grain in stone silos and corralled livestock behind wood fences. In 2001, archaeologists digging beneath the foundation of what was once a small, circular house made a surprising discovery: a shallow grave containing the skeleton of a human, and next to it, surrounded by carved seashells, the remains of a cat.
That wasn’t the fascinating part. Archaeologists had long suspected that cats first entered human society to hunt the rodents that early farming villages attracted. What surprised me was learning that the Shillourokambians had shipped in foxes for the same purpose. And yet only cats became pets. Dogs, likewise, became treasured companions when plenty of other animals could have theoretically fit the bill. Of all the species on earth, only two have morphed from wild animal to family member. It’s a process that took thousands of years.
And yet, as we were transforming these animals, they were also transforming us.