- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

The inside of syndicated columnist Georgie Ann Geyer’s Washington apartment is an exhibit of ailurophilia: the love of cats.Catportraits, paintings, statues, pillows, plates, carvings, paperweights and even a cat bench from Egypt are scattered about.

“I have a couple of drinks, and it seems like they’re all talking to each other,” Miss Geyer jokes.

The writer, whose columns are carried in 120 papers and whose travels have taken her to most of the world’s countries except for Afghanistan and a few central African republics, has interviewed world leaders, kings, queens and other royalty.

Her latest book concerns an altogether different royal line. “When Cats Reigned Like Kings” surveys how felines have ruled peoples’ hearts through the ages.

Their high point was in ancient Egypt, where the furry creature was worshipped as a god. Their low point was during the Middle Ages, when an estimated 90 percent of Europe’s cats were killed en masses because of a perceived connection to witches.

Today, there are 500 million domestic cats worldwide, in 33 breeds and every manner of mix. Although the feline naps about 20 hours each day, the creature can be affectionate during the remaining four. Its calling cards, the famous “meow” as well as its deep purr, are both reserved for humans and hardly ever used toward other cats.

Americans are especially attracted to this versatile pet, whose spine, with five more vertebrae than a human spine, allows it to curl itself into the most compact spaces.

“It’s the sleekness, the warmth, their firmness and delicacy,” Miss Geyer says. “Dogs are wonderful, but you can’t say all dogs are beautiful. But all cats are: how they cuddle up in your arms at night, the way their form fits you.”

Her 13-year-old black-and-white Japanese bobtail, Nikko, sits curled up next to his owner, keeping one eye half-raised. He has been with the columnist since 1991.

Miss Geyer’s penchant for cats began in 1975 when she adopted a stray kitten who was lost on the Chicago streets. After giving him an Egyptian name, Pasha, she jetted off to Cairo to do some research on the history of the feline.

She traced domesticated cats back to Egypt in 2000 B.C. when Egypt boasted 8 million inhabitants in 20 cities along the Nile. The Egyptians first were attracted to cats when they discovered how effective the animals were in protecting grain silos from rats.

Subsequent trips to Burma, Japan and Thailand revealed that cats were sacred there as well, although the cat, already having a mind of its own, was the only animal to fall asleep at the Buddha’s funeral.

“All that I thought and dreamed about the cat’s history was true,” she says. “I knew that different cultures had sacred and royal cats, but I never put it together. About the same time [2000-1000 B.C.], they all looked at their cats and came to the same conclusion.”

In Burma, for example, cats in one Buddhist monastery were believed to have custody over the souls of its priests.

“They all believed cats were involved in the transmigration of souls,” she says. “Cats represent the spiritual side of man; dogs represent the physical. That’s why you find cats guarding a temple, not dogs.”

The Romans discovered cats in about 390 B.C. and took them along on their worldwide journeys. Taken aboard commercial ships — often for mouse control — they tended to jump ship once they hit a strange port, adapting to whatever climate they found there.

Although Egyptian cats were thought to be short-haired black felines, their descendants in northern climes developed dense, insulating undercoats and a layer of weatherproof fur that, together with a stocky body, helped them weather the cold.

Cats in hotter countries, like the famous Siamese breed, kept their sleek coats and smaller bodies to help them shed excess heat.

Some of those that traveled to the Far East lost their tails through a mutant gene, as did cats isolated on the island of Man, off England’s west coast.

After the slaughters of the Middle Ages, the tide began turning by the 16th century. In the 17th century, inventor Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat door for the growing numbers of cats used as pets, allowing the felines to travel in and out of a house at will.

England’s first national cat show was in 1871 at London’s Crystal Palace, drawing 19,000 onlookers and featuring the exotic Siamese and Persian breeds. England’s and America’s first cat clubs were both formed in 1887, and the first American cat show with 176 cats was in 1895 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Americans took to the furry creature, who came to these shores by traveling on ships, including the Mayflower. Felix the Cat became the first animated cat film star in 1919 in a three-minute short named “Feline Follies.” The first commercial cat litter was invented by Edward Lowe in 1947, leading to a huge increase in cat ownership.

By 1985, cats overtook dogs as Americans’ most numerous animal companions, according to the Pet Food Institute, which counted 56 million house cats across America. The number is now about 71 million, with another 25 million to 40 million homeless cats, according to the National Pet Alliance.

Cats say something about the owner. Miss Geyer discovered the world’s dictators: Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Napoleon Bonaparte and Josef Stalin hated cats.

“Of course, it’s clear why dictators hate cats and also why free people adore them,” she says. “Dictators can’t rule cats, and such noxious men always abhor free and indomitable spirits of any kind.

“But free and creative people find exactly in the cats’ deliciously independent nature a reciprocal and indeed loving spirit. That’s why, so long ago, so many of mankind made them into gods and why so many of us today still think they are.”

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