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The Mystery of the Manx Cat

[The Mystery of the Manx Cat]  [How the Manx Came to America]  [The Myth of the Rabbit-cat]  [The Japanese Kimono Cat]  [Employed Cats and Their Pay]  [More Cat Articles] 

( Originally Published 1936 )

The "Mystery of the ships and the magic of the sea" envelop the beginning of Manx cats, or rather the beginning of our knowl edge of them. This does not extend very far into the past. By shipwreck they came to the Isle of Man, leaving their tails behind them, if they ever had any. The cats will not tell, but I do not think they mind their taillessness. The Manx cats I have known appeared well satisfied with themselves, and I could almost imagine them saying to tailed cats, "Why have a tail? You cannot catch mice with it, or fight with it, or wash your face with it. Its only function is to serve as a handle for naughty children to pull, or, if you are a mother, something for your kittens to play with just when you want to take a nap."

As to the value of a tail as an ornament, that of course rests in the eye of the beholder. It is a matter of taste. People who own and admire Manx cats think that a tail makes a cat look awkward, and that the animals of their chosen breed are much trimmer and more graceful than your finest tailwavers, as Manx owners call cats with tails. But in a world where conformity is the thing, deviation from type requires explanation, and there have been many attempts to explain why the Manx has no caudal appendage.

Most of them are just legends. There is an old rhyme which says that the cat was the last of all the animals to board the Ark, and so Noah, impatient to be off, slammed the door on its tail.

Said the cat, and he was Manx,

"Oh, Captain Noah, wait!

I'll catch the mice to give you thanks,

And pay for being late."

So the cat got in, but oh,

His tail was a bit too slow.

Another version holds Noah's dog responsible.

Noah, sailing o'er the seas,

Ran fast aground on Ararat.

His dog then made a spring and took The tail from off a pretty cat.

Puss through the window quick did fly,

And bravely through the waters swam,

Nor ever stopp'd till high and dry

She landed on the Calf of Man.

Thus tailless Puss earn'd Mona's thanks,

And ever after was call'd Manx.

There are, however;' more factual accounts connecting Manx cats with shipwreck and the sea. An old Manx newspaper states that early in the nineteenth century an East County ship was wrecked on Jurby Point, and "a rumpy cat swam ashore." There is a tradition that there were tailless cats aboard the Spanish Armada, and that two of them, escaping to land from one of the vessels which was wrecked on Spanish Head, near Port Erin, began the propagation of the breed in the Isle of Man. Another story has it that the Adam and Eve of Manx cats were the survivors of a Baltic ship that went down off the coast of the Calf of Man.

But whether they came from the north or the south, the east or the west, they became identified with the quaint little island in the Irish Sea, a feature in its trade with tourists, and a part of its folklore. At the Jubilee Congress of the Folk Lore Society in London, in I928, Miss Mona Douglas, in an address on animals in Manx lore, said that the Manx peasantry believed that the cats had a king of their own, a wily beast that pretended to be a demure house cat in the daytime, but at night traveled the lanes in awful state, wreaking vengeance on persons who were cruel to cats. They believed, too, that the fairies were friendly to cats, and that it was of no use to shut Puss in, or out of, the house at night, for the wee people would hasten to her assistance, and work their magic on doors and windows to gratify her will.

Naturally, with ships plying between the Isle of Man and England, tailless cats soon became common in Liverpool and other coast towns. They have never been taken up by fanciers as the Persians have, or the Siamese, and people who breed them seem to do it not so much for commercial reasons as for the love of them. There is a British Manx Cat Club, of which Miss Helen Hill Shaw is the secretary. Miss Shaw has bred tailless cats for forty years at her home in Surrey, and she has done more than almost anybody else to keep the strain pure.

It has not been easy. "I never know what to expect in a litter," she wrote me. "Even when two pure Manx cats are mated, there will almost always be one or two kittens with stumps or even tails." This suggests a theory. May it not be that long ago some experimenter tried selective breeding with cats whose tails happened to be short, producing shorter and shorter tails until they were eliminated, and may not the tailed offspring of tailless cats be throwbacks to that time?

The absence of a tail is not the only distinguishing mark of a Manx. The standard of points set up by the British Manx Cat Club says that a very short back and very high hindquarters are essential, since "only with them do we get the true rabbity or hopping gait." The flanks must be deep, and the rump round, "as round as an orange." The coat is what is termed double, very soft and open like a rabbit's, with a soft thick undercoat of fur.

The head should be large and round but not snubby like the Persian's, and the nose longer than a Persian's but not so long as that of the domestic short-haired cat. The cheeks are prominent, the ears broad at the base and tapering. As to color, Manx cats are found in all colors known in the longhaired or the domestic short-haired breeds, but the color is not so important as the formation.

The taillessness must be absolute. Not even the merest bud of a tail is permitted, and many cats cherished by their owners as Manx would be disqualified in any show where the judges knew their business. In the pure Manx there is a slight hollow where the tail starts in other cats. A tuft of hair is not a bar sinister, but the hair must not conceal a stump, for a tail is no less a tail for being hidden.

Manx cats are very individual, very brave and active, and loyal and affectionate. Miss Shaw says that she once witnessed the reunion of a Manx cat and his mistress, from whom he had been parted for four years. "He recognized her at once, jumping on her knee and then on her shoulder and kissing her, and he made it very clear that if he could help it he would not be parted from her again."

The cats in the Shaw home in Surrey live together in the greatest amity. They sleep cuddled up together, any number of them, of different generations, and never quarrel. "Home would not be home to us," their mistress says, "without the warm welcome of our little Manx family, headed by Champion Josephus, the latest of a long line of champions descended from the kittens I brought to England, forty years ago, from a girlhood visit to the Isle of Man."