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( Originally Published 1936 )
"He is only an alley cat, but we love him." One often hears people say this, or something like it, but it is a mistaken sense of values that leads anyone to speak apologetically of the household pet because it has short hair and no pedigree. For the domestic short-haired cat is a member of as good a breed and is as capable of development as is the Persian, the Manx, or the Siamese. But the Persians, the Manx, and the Siamese have the glamour of imported stock, whereas domestic short-haired cats have always been with us.
It is a proof of the amazing strength of the strain that among its strays and hoboes, cats without benefit of breeding, living as they can in holes and corners, one finds kittens that are really beautiful in color and in build. One does not see many domestic short-hairs in shows, but ask any of the few exhibitors of such animals where their stock came from, and the answer usually is, "Oh, just a couple of cats that I picked up." A short-haired silver tabby that began life as a stray was secondbest cat in the largest show in New York City in 1934- It is interesting, too, to note the pure whites and blacks and Maltese among these so-called alley cats. Breeders take great pains to preserve purity of color in Persians, yet nature does it for the shorthairs without any fuss at all.
What was the origin of the cat? Darwin declared that he had never been able to determine with certainty whether these animals were descended from several distinct species or had only been modified by occasional crosses. As far back as we know there were many varieties; chief among them the Asiatic cats, including the Persians, the Angoras, and the Siamese, and the European cat, now known as the domestic short-haired cat.
As to the beginnings of the latter there is one theory that I like to believe, and it is as reasonable as the next one. When I see a neglected alley cat I like to think, "Long before the Christian era your forefathers were worshiped as gods." Not that this is any comfort to a hungry cat, but it seems to invest the poor thing with a sort of dignity to reflect that it derives from the sacred cats of Egypt. Richard Lydekker is one authority who holds this view. In the Library of Natural History which he edited and part of which he wrote he says, after mentioning that the ancient Egyptians tamed and trained the wild caffre cat, "We are inclined to follow those who consider the caffre cat the original parent stock of the domesticated cats of Europe."
These cats are supposed to have entered Europe by way of Gibraltar. Probably most of them were undomesticated wanderers, but it is a fair guess that some of the sacred cats, bored perhaps by attending goddesses, joined the emigrants. Many reached England and settled there, and, cats being great sailors, their invasion of America was only a question of time. It is thought they may have been modified by mating with native wild cats in the north of England, but not much, for the caffre cat in Asia and Africa is about the size of one of our domestic cats and looks not unlike them.
At any rate there is the theory, and here are our cats. Despite the indifference of breeders, the standard for domestic short-haired cats is pretty well fixed in England and the United States, and the show rules of cat fanciers' associations include classifications for them. I do not know that shows are good things for our house pets. If you love your cat you don't need a judge to tell you its qualities, and a cat who has always been a homebody is likely to find the crowds and excitement and strain of an exhibition rather terrifying. However, blue ribbons do lend prestige, and a wider participation in shows would at least give our humble alley cats a better social position.
Domestic short-hairs must conform in color of coat and eye color to the standards laid down for long-hairs. These you will find in the chapter on Shows, and Long-hair Standards. One must not expect to see in domestic cats the delicate shades that breeding has produced in the Persians, but there are handsome silver tabbies, brown tabbies, orange tabbies, and tortoise-shells, as well as blacks, whites, and blues. I have heard tortoiseshell cats, with their Joseph's coats of black, orange, and cream, called calico cats in American rural districts. Our short-haired blues are generally known as Maltese.
Eye color is largely a result of selection, and shorthairs are seldom perfect in this respect, but I once picked up a stray Maltese kitten who had the brilliant copper eyes of a Persian blue. Attached to the Washington Square Book Shop in New York City is a beautiful yellow short-hair with eyes of a warm yellow, matching his coat. I don't know how he would be listed in a show, but if good looks and good manners merit a prize he could compete with any thoroughbred, unpedigreed though he is.
In their build the short-haired cats differ signally from the Persians. They are more slender, more lithe, and more vigorous-more like the feline creatures of the wild. Their noses are longer, their heads less round, their ears more upstanding. The standard requires a well-knit and powerful body, a deep chest, and a tail rather thick at the base, tapering toward the tip, and carried level with the body. The coat must be heavy but not cottony, and any sign of a long-hair bar sinister is fatal to success in the short-haired classes. Cats with lockets of a contrasting color under the chin are denied winners' ribbons.
Our domestic cats are the Cinderellas of their race, sitting in chimney corners and doing the mouse-catching of the house while the Persians go about getting themselves in the cats' social register. But they are also adventurous. It is mostly the common cats who go down to the sea in ships and who patrol the farms and stores of the world for rats. They are very practical pets. You may not be able to purchase a pedigreed cat, but you can always find a short-haired kitten that needs a home. They have an intelligence which has been sharpened through many generations by the necessity of scrambling for a living, but hardships have not marred their native courtesy. Meet a cat on the street and it hardly ever fails to rise, to bow, and to utter a polite "P-r-r-t!" of greeting-except, of course, the poor strays whose experiences have made them distrust humanity.
The life that has stimulated their wits has also given them a heritage of terror and uncertainty. It is rather pathetic to see how this uncertainty will show in adopted strays in an abnormal anxiety about dinner. Whereas the Persians whose lives have always been safe are like Hafiz, the cat in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, who sat calmly watching the family at the tea table, "regarding the whole scene as an apparatus for supplying his allowance of milk."