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The Soul of the Cat

[On Grooming a Cat]  [Things an Indoor Cat Needs]  [Colds and What They Lead To]  [More about Respiratory Diseases]  [Distemper, Tuberculosis, and Infectious Enteritis]  [Troubles of the Digestive Tract]  [Worms and Hair Balls]  [Diseases of the Nerves and Brain]  [The Soul of the Cat]  [More Cat Articles] 

( Originally Published 1936 )



Though science has established that cats have brains to be diseased, and we are learning that the word "fits" does not cover the range of their brain and nerve disorders, the fact that cats have brains to think with and do think with them is not very widely recognized. It is so easy to disparage the "harmless necessary cat." It was once said by Dr. William B. Scott, professor emeritus of Princeton University, in a speech before the American Society of Mammalogists, that the first cats in what is now America, some 35,000,000 years ago, were stupid, dull, and chuckle-headed. And you meet people who say the same of our cats today.

But there is plenty of proof that cats have brains, and souls too, or whatever the vital sparks are that enable us to think, to reason, to love, and to pity. I suppose that pity is the highest of all attributes. Few believe that the cat is capable of it. Yet I knew a cat who not only pitied misfortune but did something about it, who could give some of our modern relief workers a lesson in quick action.

He belonged to the editor of the Brodhead Independent, in the Wisconsin town where I lived as a child. Mr. and Mrs. Editor adored cats and always had anywhere from five to ten. They were well fed, and this old fellow, Arthur, was particularly honest, so there was much astonishment when he was seen stealing a chop from the kitchen table. He got away with it before they could follow him, but the next day he took a piece of steak, and that time they were able to trail him.

He carried the steak down the path to the barn and around to the back, where there was a hole in the foundations, laid it down, and gave a little call. Then out from under the barn crept a cat that Mr. and Mrs. Editor had never seen before, a forlorn, emaciated creature, and it devoured the food with timorous glances about, while Arthur sat by and smiled. Yes, smiled. He did not have to steal again, for Mrs. Editor placed a heaped saucer behind the barn regularly until the stray decided to come out and join the family.

In that town we knew nothing of Persians, or Siamese, or any of the newfangled breeds, but we had some fine cats that I suppose were alley cats, though we had no alleys, only lanes. The dean of the Brodhead cats lived with the minister of the Union Free Church, a society of liberal men and women. This cat was nineteen years old, and he always had his chair and plate at the minister's table. The Presbyterian deacon who lived next door thought that was terrible, but he could not deny that the cat's manners were better than those of his own children.

When it comes to the deeds of daring that dogs are always being lauded for, such as pulling drowning people out of the surf, or rescuing travelers from the Alpine snow, cats naturally cannot perform these; but I know a cat who saved a kitten from death by exposure, and another who called help for his sick mistress.

Peter is a handsome tiger cat who has spent the four years of his life with Mr. and Mrs. Newton L. Otis, of New York City. They have always treated him like a dog, talking to him, playing ball with him, taking him in the car on their week-end trips to the Catskills. And he is as responsive and as devoted to them as any dog could be.

A charming white Persian kitten who lives in the same apartment house often calls on Peter, coming': along a cornice to his favorite window. There is a screen, but they converse in their own way through its meshes. One cold stormy night Mr. and Mrs. Otis returned late from the theater, and Peter, who sleeps on their bed, would not settle down. He kept going to the window and crying, until they got up to investigate. And there in the beating rain was the Persian kitten. They had not heard a sound from it, and the curtains were closely drawn, but Peter knew. He was extremely pleased with himself, and attended with the greatest complacency while they took the baby in and dried it.

It was a Philadelphia cat who fetched aid for his mistress, Miss Mary H. Leopold, when she was taken suddenly ill. The only people in the house were two stories above, where the cat had never been, but when Miss Leopold said to him, "Oh, Maltie, can't you get someone to help me?" he went up there, miewed till he caught the attention of the people, and led them to his mistress.

Both cats and dogs have been known to show concern and grief over the death of an animal friend, as well as at the loss of a loved human being. Once a Brooklyn cat, just a homeless old tom, stood guard for many hours over the body of a younger cat that had been killed by an automobile and thrown to the curb. Neither coaxing, nor threats, nor the offer of food could break his vigil, and when at last a street cleaner removed the body with a long-handled shovel he pursued the man's cart down the block until a blundering dog chased him away. I wonder what alley idyl of companionship was broken up by this tragedy.

It is motherhood that has inspired the greatest acts of devotion and courage in cats, as in other creatures, though female cats are said not to be so intelligent as the males. At a gathering of scientists at the American Museum of Natural History, May 23, 1930, Miss A. S. Firkins of Columbia University was compelled reluctantly to confess to the men who made up her audience that in a series of intelligence tests she had made with seventy-eight cats the Toms proved brighter than the Marias. Perhaps that was because the tests involved getting something to eat.

When a female cat has kittens to feed and protect she can be very brave, very cunning. There was a New York cat who when her kittens were threatened by a river-front fire carried them one by one past the flames, through the confusion of engines and hose and trampling firemen, under the spouting water, to safety. And there was a ranch cat in a far Western state who swam a river six times, six burdened journeys across wide rushing water, to carry her babies back to the home from which, for some reason mysterious to her, they had been removed. She deserved to be allowed to keep them, and she was.

There was planning required in the process by which a Long Island cat procured milk for her kittens. A farmer was puzzled to find a cat and four kittens in his barnyard every morning when he went to milk. They belonged a mile up the road, and how had the mother got them past his dog, who had a complex against cats? But the dog was not permitted in the barnyard. Once there the kittens were safe while they lapped up the warm milk the farmer gave them.

The farmer's wife, being curious, stationed herself very early with a spyglass at a window commanding the house up the road. And presently she saw the regiment coming with the mother in advance like a scouting colonel; she seemed almost to hear the kittens being warned, "Take care now, wait till I see where the dog is; so, we'll skirt this field, the corn hides us; careful, I hear him barking; creep along this hedge, jump this fence and here we are."

There was a Chicago mother cat who took her blind kitten to the Association for the Blind, but I suppose we must not credit that to reason. But the Lighthouse attendants thought it very cute. They said that being a young cat she probably had not heard that kittens are born blind, and felt that she needed their help. Anyhow, she came one morning with the kitten dangling from her mouth, deposited it on the steps, watched while they picked it up, and then departed on business of her ownprobably to forage for food. In a few hours she called for the kitten and bore it away. This went on for some days, but there came a morning when she did not appear, and the Lighthouse never saw the two again.

Cats often open doors, even manage difficult latches, but I think the process by which a Connecticut cat gains entrance to the house at night is more subtle. This cat, called Fuzzy Dear, generally sleeps in, but she cannot resist a brilliant moonlight night. About four in the morning, however, she tires of prowling and wants to come in. But she does not cry at the door. She would not be heard there.

Instead, she climbs a tree outside the bedroom of her master and mistress, and jumps down on a porch roof below the window. It is a tin roof that rattles even under her light weight and wakes her mistress, who goes to the window. The instant the head appears at the window Fuzzy Dear leaps down and runs to the door, where she is admitted. This surely is clear evidence that cats can not only reason from cause to effect, but they can deliberately go about producing the effect they desire.