Cats and Disasters: Myth v. Fact


While sharing their lives with us, domestic cats occasionally have been caught up in our great tragedies.

The sad facts sometimes are clearly documented, like the landslide on White Island that a cat named Peter the Great survived, though none of his human friends did. (A volcano was involved, but Peter showed no signs of supervillainry.)

In other disasters, we don’t know what happened to the cat afterwards–people understandably were focusing more on their own troubles. It’s a mystery, for example, whether the house cat that escaped London’s Great Fire in 1666 recovered after Samuel Pepys witnessed its rescue (33. Mercers’ Chapel).

And then there are the legends that people make as part of coping psychologically with an enormous calamity. These may or may not have a factual basis. Stories about cats associated with the destruction of Pompeii and the Titanic sinking are two good examples.

Pompeii

It’s very easy to imagine strays and panicked pet cats fleeing the city along with people when this happened.



The remains of dogs and horses have been found in the ruins. What about cats?

A writer/photographer named Carl Van Vechten wrote in 1922 that:

Among the objects unearthed at Pompeii was the skeleton of a woman bearing in her arms the skeleton of a cat, whom perhaps she gave her life to save.

Every cat lover in the world wants this to be true, but let’s face it. In the Internet age, we would have seen the images by now, if they were readily available.

Then again, how many of us knew that the bones of a hapless Herculaneum woman and the baby she tried to protect have been recovered, until the BBC included this fact in Pompeii: The Last Day?

That’s even more compelling, and yet most of us never knew about it until 2003 or whatever time we first watched that Emmy award-winning television special.

Unfortunately, Carl Van Wechten never indicated his source of information about the Pompeiian woman/cat skeletons. Did he make it up or is it neatly filed away, unnoticed, in some archive?

I’ve tried an online search for more details, and here’s what I found.

There is no more evidence to disprove Van Wechten’s oddly specific claim–which was just a footnote in a larger work, not something he was pushing–than there is to support it:

  • True, the most recent authoritative statement on cats in Pompeii comes from 1949, when Dr. Francis Lazenby, a classicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana, quoted a German philologist who said in 1909 (German language) that no cats had been found in Pompeii excavations. Neither man was an archaeologist.
  • Again, according to another writer in 1905, no cat skeletons were found in the buried city. However, an otherwise positive review at the time included this: “The archæologist would give about as much serious consideration [to this book] as an admiral or midshipman.”
  • Domestic and/or feral cats had to be present. They appear in Etruscan art at least 300 years before Pompeii disappeared. Romans knew of them, too. Pliny the Elder, who died near a pyroclastic flow in this disaster, also mentioned cats in his writings, though not in a way that we would understand (he thought cat ashes kept mice away).
  • Archaeologists say that Pompeii–a port city and located near important roads–was a busy “hinge” area in between competing cultures for many centuries, playing one power against another or taking sides, until the Romans became dominant. From the 1st century BC on to August 24-25, 79 AD, it was a good place to live. (Fulford and Wallace-Hadrill) While unstable much of the time, this steady human residence in the area would support at least feral cats–former pets, perhaps, of the Etruscans.
  • Those same archaeologists found remains of dogs, equids (horses and donkeys), pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle in southeast Pompeii, but not cats. However, not all of the urban area buried by Vesuvius has been excavated.

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t mention the cat mosaic from the House of the Faun–an elite home that got its name from a statue that survived the eruption.

Well, it’s not clear to me that the cat is domestic. It looks more like an Asian wildcat (Felis silvestris ornata), which might have been imported from the Near East and Southern Asia–this wildcat’s current home.

Ornata and Mosaic

“F. s. ornata,” left. (Raja Bandi, CC BY-SA 4.0) House of the Faun mosaic, right. (Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)

And a beautifully detailed mosaic of something connected to the Silk Road is exactly the sort of exotic status symbol a superwealthy Pompeiian would display.

There must have been a lot of bling in this house. which took up a whole city block:



The House of the Faun cat mosaic is art, not proof of pet ownership.

That said, it is true that some F. s. ornata DNA has been reported in a domestic cat lineage from the region of the old Red Sea Roman port of Berenice. (Ottoni and others)

Bottom line: While I found no evidence for Van Vechten’s claim that skeletons of a woman and a cat were discovered, it’s not impossible.

There had to have been cats in the area, and a few Pompeiians might have kept a pet or fed strays. Someone may have brought along their pet or picked up a frightened cat during an unsuccessful attempt to escape the pyroclastic surge.

Since then, so much has been excavated that these particular items may have gotten sidelined. Historians, archaeologists–please check your collections!

The Titanic

Now we transition from fire to ice–and lots of cold water.

This happened much more recently, and most details have been either recorded or figured out after the fact. However, there is still a mystery about the ship’s cat.

The most often told story is that the Titanic had a feline mascot named Jenny, who lived in the galley and was fed by staff. She had kittens shortly before the ship sailed on its one and only voyage. There are reportedly two versions of what happened to her and her family.

In one, when the Titanic stopped at Southampton, Jenny went ashore with her kittens.  A crew member took this for an omen and left, too, later claiming that the cat had saved his life. There are some discrepancies in the story, according to at least one online discussion, mainly that the stoker was going to leave the ship at that point anyway. Also, in some versions, the cat is called Mouser.

The other version has this little cat family going down with the ship, along with most of the other animals that were on board.

No one knows for sure which is correct, or even if there were other cats aboard that ill-fated liner.

Cats and Disasters Today

Cats and other animals still share our woes today, but more of them are making it through and either reuniting with their owners or finding new homes.

If you have been following the coverage of the ongoing Kilauea eruption, you will have heard announcements that pet-friendly shelters are available to evacuees.

That’s US law now, after thousands of people refused to abandon their cats and other pets when Hurricane Katrina blew through in 2005. Some of those people died. This, combined with the plight after the storm of many ownerless pets, brought about recognition of the close ties between people and their animal companions.

Caring and sharing are good ways to cope with calamities, along with legend making.

Thanks to the Internet, we can all be a part of this positive experience today.



Update: Just saw this, ten hours after the post went up. It seems appropriate!

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js


Featured image: Mark Chinnick, CC BY 2.0.



Sources:

Fulford, M., and Wallace-Hadrill, A. 1999. Towards a history of pre-Roman Pompeii: excavations beneath the House of Amarantus (I. 9.11–12), 1995–8. Papers of the British School at Rome, 67: 37-144.

Lazenby, F. D. 1949. Greek and Roman household pets. The Classical Journal, 44(5): 299-307.

Ottoni, C.; Van Neer, W.; De Cupere, B.; Daligault, J.; and others. 2017. The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 1:0139.

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