Chapter 2

Chapter II


A short time ago I had two kittens which were born in the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, and bred between the domestic tortoiseshell and the British wild cat, that have for several years occupied together a cage in the winter aviary. This crescent-shaped row of cages, although originally an aviary, has for some years been occupied by animals of a decidedly bird-fancying character. There the animals in question may have been seen, and in an adjoining cage a specimen of the Viverrine cat—so named from the somewhat civet-like form of the muzzle. But it is a true cat, every inch, and bears every cat in countenance by its love of fish. Being most unusually adroit at capturing fish from shallow water, it is commonly named the Fishing Cat. The specimen I allude to was brought from India by the Prince of Wales, and graciously presented to the Zoological Society. These cages contain also other animals of interest, such as the Civet, Poradoxure, etc.[1] But to return to the kittens. When only able to crawl, as I examined the litter, the little things spat most vigorously, for probably they had not before seen anybody in the cage except their keeper. The two I selected were a red tabby and a tortoiseshell. The red tabby was a male, as red tabby cats generally are, and he decidedly resembled his father, if not in colour, in disposition and temperament. I took them from the litter at the early age of nearly seven weeks. The contrast between their behaviour and that of tame kittens was most remarkable. At the slightest surprise or displeasure they would spit with wide-open mouth and a display of ivory fangs in a most threatening manner. When I gave them milk, they would in a very unpolite fashion growl together. They never ate near each other, but pouncing upon their meat and carrying it to a far corner apart, would growl in a most warning tone, and answer back again and again till the last morsel should be consumed. On one occasion they had quite a desperate tug of war over the same piece of meat, and it was with some difficulty that I could part them, for fear of using too much force and hurting their young teeth. But when not feeding, the tortoiseshell became not only docile, but most affectionate and pleasing, in her little ways. She would fondle and purr in a manner that won the affection of my heart. On the other hand, the tabby was, at the best, passively composed, but always watchful, and never certain in mood. I can hardly say which of the two I prized most. In the one I admired the manifestations of its inborn nature, and would on no account check or discourage such signs of high blood. Towards the other I felt there was a mutual and spiritual bond of affection, which I can better conceive than describe. Dryden’s lines upon a tame leopard express very nearly my feelings respecting these two little beasts. Unfortunately, the kittens died very suddenly, and at the same hour, after a short career of three months. There is reason to suspect that poison was the cause of their untimely end. Nothing now remains but the stuffed skins, mounted in admirable style, under a glass case.

Probably the veneration with which the Egyptians regarded the cat was in no way diminished by the probable utility of their revered favourites in keeping under the increase of such remarkably prolific and fast-growing rodents as are mice and rats; and it is reasonable to suppose these little animals must have been harmful in the vast stores of grain which are recorded in ancient history. Pussy’s valuable qualities as a mouser are to the present day too well known to need much comment. A friend of mine told me the other day that once, when he removed to another house, and had also deposited his favourite cat, with the usual precaution of buttering paws, and consolation of a more solid nature in addition, the servant, on entering the kitchen in the morning, found fourteen mice lying dead on the hearth-rug, most of them decapitated. The usual preference which cats have for the heads of their prey is remarkable, and has been noticed in both tame and wild animals. One of the most noticeable characteristics of the cat kind is the silent tread. Even the footfall of the huge tigers, as they pace to and fro in their roomy cages or in their open-air enclosures at the Zoological Gardens is hardly to be heard. For not only is the cat a digitigrade animal, walking absolutely “tiptoe” in the most perfect manner, but the toes are furnished with a most elastic membrane, constituting what are commonly called pussy’s “pads.” She is thus enabled to skulk stealthily in search of her desired prey, and can on all occasions move with that unobtrusive grace and silent ease peculiarly characteristic of her race. The retractile construction of the peculiarity sharp claws is also a beautiful adaptation to the requirements of these Nimrods of creation. Generally these useful weapons are held back, nicely sheathed and safe from harm. They are readily, however, protruded at will when required for offensive or defensive service, in holding secure an unfortunate victim, or as hooks to assist in climbing trees, etc. The senses of the cat are all highly developed. That of hearing is most acute. The sense of smell is not so acute as in the dog and some other animals—at least, it is assumed so; but it is quite evident that the ear and the eye are put to the best service by the cat. But dirt and bad smells are much disliked, while, on the other hand, there is a remarkable partiality for some smells. Cats appear to enjoy the perfume of many flowers, and their fondness for the odour of cat-mint or valerian is remarkable. As may be noticed by the prompt, unerring manner in which a cat will dart at a mouse or any small moving object in almost total darkness, she has the power to see near objects without the light required by ourselves and most animals. Absolutely total darkness is evidently not advantageous to pussy’s vision, and the assertion that the cat can see better in the dark must not be regarded in an abstract, but in a comparative, sense. The pupil of the eye has the round shape, as in ourselves, only during darkness, when it is dilated so as to receive every ray of light available. By day, on the other hand, when there is more light than the eye requires, the pupil contracts to an ellipse, or, in the strongest light, to a mere line. This peculiarity is absent in the lion and tiger and a few others. A peculiarity in the cat and some other animals may be noticed in the highly-developed bristles, commonly called “whiskers,” but more appropriately termed “feelers.” These are not, as some may suppose, only common hairs of larger growth, but are deeply implanted, having large swollen roots, somewhat in the form of young onions, and are connected with highly sensitive nerves which communicate with the brain. By means of these bristles the cat is enabled to feel its way the more stealthily, avoiding the clumsy disturbance of surrounding objects that might impede its progress.

It will be seen by the foregoing brief description of its leading physical characteristics that the cat is, of all animals, the most perfectly and beautifully formed for the fulfilments of the instincts and requirements of its nature. The silent, soft tread of the velvet paw, with the finely pointed and carefully preserved claws, the terrible fangs, the keen eye, and the light, easy, soft, yet powerful and unerring, action of the whole body—all these render the cats, from the great Bengal tiger downwards, the most charming and graceful creatures in animated nature.

The panther, sure the noblest next the hind,
And fairest creature of the spotted kind;
Oh, could her inborn stains be washed away,
She were too good to be a beast of prey!
How can I praise or blame, and not offend,
Or how divide the frailty from the friend?
Her faults and virtues lie so mixed that she
Nor wholly stands condemned, nor wholly free.

But there is yet another physical peculiarity worthy of passing notice; viz., the remarkably loose skin. This is connected with the flesh by a layer of very loose fibres. The cat’s loose skin serves her well on many occasions as a shield of protection, especially when scuffling with her neighbours—an occurrence which will sometimes take place. This peculiarity may be occasionally seen well exhibited in the jaguars and other great cats at the Zoological Gardens, more especially when they are young and sportive. To see the powerful manner in which these animals embrace each other with their great hooked claws may cause some apprehension that serious consequences are about to result. If the skin were tightly fitted to the body, as with the horse, hog, ox, and other herbivorous animals, the result of such violent scufflings would be very serious. But, as may be seen, the animals do not get good hold of each other, as the skin is dragged round with the claws, and the hold is lost.

The following account of the sagacity of a young black-and-white tom-cat, which occurred about twenty years ago, is, I think, worth relating as illustrative of the retentive memory and the remarkable prescience which many cats appear to possess as a peculiar mental endowment.

The house being covered with corrugated iron, and the spaces formed by the corrugations where the roof met the walls not being stopped, but left open to admit air into the roof, the whole space of the unused interior of the roof was a favourite breeding-place for countless broods of sparrows and starlings. The roof was accessible to human and other intruders by a small trap-door above the lobby at the top of the staircase. It was a square house, of good dimensions, but of only two stories. I have described these particulars in order to be better understood in narrating the circumstances.

It so happened that we wanted some small boards which had been stored away in the roof, and we entered by the aid of a light ladder; and it also happened that puss, unobserved, followed the example of the man-servant and myself, but from quite another motive, prompted, doubtless, by the chirping of the birds, it being early summer. As soon, however, as we could get Tom down, we closed the trap, and returned the ladder to its proper place. About a month afterwards, I had to resort to the roof again, and accordingly went for the ladder, which was kept against a fence at another part of the premises. As soon as I brought the ladder into the back yard, and laid it on the ground, in order to unfasten a door leading straight into the hall, Tom became suddenly most excited with delight. He must have seen the ladder often since he entered the roof by it, as it was used for various purposes, such as lighting the outdoor lamps, window-cleaning, etc. But now he at once conceived, by a most sagacious inference, my intention. He paced about the yard, close to the ladder, tail erect, and talking as only an earnest and happy cat can talk. Immediately I took the ladder in and hoisted it through the well of the staircase, he scaled it like a squirrel, and was waiting for me to follow upstairs. As soon then as I drew the ladder up, and raised the trap with the end of it, and while it was in my hands, he clambered up and out of sight. Before going up myself I thought it best to await Tom’s return, and there was but little time lost before he came down, stile by stile, with a sparrow in his mouth. Then I at once brought down what I wanted, closed the trap, returned the ladder to its place, and the birds afterwards enjoyed undisturbed safety and peace.

There was, about the same time, a tortoiseshell cat at the house of a relative which became much attached to me. Her affection was so strong that she even knew my knock at the front door from that of anybody else. On hearing my knock, she would speak in her loving and expressive tone, and meet me in the hall. She was an adult cat, the mother of many kittens, and yet, notwithstanding the cares of life, she delighted in a most remarkable little eccentricity of her own. It was the peculiar habit of taking the pendent lobe of my ear into her mouth and sucking it with charming avidity. The peculiar sensation felt under the operation, though not unpleasant to me, was not enjoyed or tolerated by other persons, and she was sometimes rather rudely repulsed when trying to practise upon strangers.

Those who admire and observe the habits of cats may have noticed that when two are snugly engaged together in dressing their fur, they are often mutually pleased in paying particular attention to the face and ears of each other. A short time ago I was pleased and amused with two charming kittens upon my knee. They were each equally resolved to lick the face and ears of the other, and tried hard to prevail. Eventually, one became resolute, and placing her left arm round her brother’s shoulder and her right paw upon his cheek, she licked and nibbled into his short, round velvet ear (for they were little over two months old at the time), to her utmost satisfaction and his evident enjoyment.

As is well known, the cat often evinces to a remarkable degree an instinctive power, if such it may be called, of finding its way back to a home from which it has been removed. Some years ago, an officer of the Royal Marines, upon promotion, removed from his private quarters at Stonehouse, Plymouth, to Portsmouth. Having a favourite cat,—a black male of about twelve months old,—he resolved to send it to Portsmouth by rail in a hamper. It arrived at its destination safely enough, but on the afternoon of the day following, which was Sunday, it was missing, but was actually found in the garden of its beloved home at Stonehouse on the evening of Wednesday in the ensuing week. It was[Pg 30] at once recognised and taken charge of by a kind neighbour, who knew the cat well. Considering it went by train, secured in a hamper, it is difficult even to conjecture by what means it was guided homewards, a distance of about a hundred and thirty miles as the crow flies, and within ten or eleven days. I was living at Stonehouse at the time this strange occurrence took place,—about nineteen years ago,—and narrate the particulars from memory.