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Why Cats?

May 31, 2009 1 comment

emmagold

The June issue of Scientific American has an article about the evolution of house cats. The scientific issue at the heart of it is the determination of which of several populations of wildcats around the world the domestic cat descended evolved from. Could domestication have occurred in parallel from wildcat populations in different regions, or did the domestic cat come from a single population and then spread around the world?

The answer was found through DNA analysis and published two years ago. Domestic cats come from a single population in the Middle East. When domestication began and why are also discussed in the article, though with less certain results. The passage below highlights the mystery of why cats would be candidates for domestication.

Cats in general are unlikely candidates for domestication. The ancestors of most domesticated animals lived in herds or packs with clear dominance hierarchies. (Humans unwittingly took advantage of this structure by supplanting the alpha individual, thus facilitating control of entire cohesive groups.) These herd animals were already accustomed to living cheek by jowl, so provided that food and shelter were plentiful, they adapted easily to confinement.

Cats, in contrast, are solitary hunters that defend their home ranges fiercely from other cats of the same sex (the pride-living lions are the exception to this rule). Moreover, whereas most domesticates feed on widely available plant foods, cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they have a limited ability to digest anything but meat—a far rarer menu item. In fact, they have lost the ability to taste sweet carbohydrates altogether. And as to utility to humans, let us just say cats do not take instruction well.

The article also notes that there’s not a lot of variation in cats, in contrast to that other common human companion.

Unlike dogs, which exhibit a huge range of sizes, shapes and temperaments, house cats are relatively homogeneous, differing mostly in the characteristics of their coats. The reason for the relative lack of variability in cats is simple: humans have long bred dogs to assist with particular tasks, such as hunting or sled pulling, but cats, which lack any inclination for performing most tasks that would be useful to humans, experienced no such selective breeding pressures.

So why do cats live with us? What’s in it for them? What’s in it for us? The article touches on this briefly, but the answer remains a puzzle.

Categories: Animals, Culture

Baby Farasi

March 29, 2009 Leave a comment

hippo

Before tossing two weeks of Wall Street Journals yesterday, I made sure to take a look at each one’s daily front page feature article, thereby stumbling on the March 13 feature story about the Basel Zoo’s baby hippo Farasi, pictured above with his mother. It’s a troubling story, the main problem being that when Farasi matures, he will not be able to stay in Basel, since there’s no room for more than one male hippo and he will become a competitor to his dad. For the same reason, other zoos will not be keen to adopt him. As the article explains, surplus mammals, especially meaty ones such as hippos, generally are killed and then fed to the lions.

I should add that this is a European zoo issue, not an American one. Here in the US, the animals are generally on the pill, to avoid this problem. In Europe, reproduction is considered part of a normal life:

European zoos say sex, pregnancy and parenting are fundamental needs. “A chimpanzee spends 24 hours a day with its young for four years,” says Robert Zingg, chief curator of Zurich Zoo, which works closely with Basel Zoo. “How do you replace that?”

So why am I posting this depressing story, beyond just taking the opportunity to post a cute baby picture? Well, for one, I used to spend a lot of time at the Basel Zoo, during a brief period of my life in which I found myself in Basel regularly. It’s one of Europe’s great zoos. And for another, I liked the metaphor at the end of the passage below.

It’s extremely difficult to find a hippo a home. Farasi’s bigger sister Heidi found a home in 2002 only after a hippo at the Dublin zoo choked to death on a tennis ball lobbed into its pen by a visitor. “It’s especially difficult to find a home for a male hippo because you can only have one per zoo,” says Christian Wenker, Basel’s chief vet. Hippos also live to be in their 50s, so the lucky male in any zoo is like an old man in a rent-controlled apartment.

Plus, there’s this drawing:

farasi

Categories: Animals

Melancholy

March 29, 2009 Leave a comment

melancholy

I can’t resist posting today’s Get Fuzzy comic strip. I don’t generally read Get Fuzzy, or any other comic strip, but thanks to Mark Liberman at Language Log , I’m alerted to the strips that deal with language. As Liberman notes, “In today’s Get Fuzzy, Bucky’s exploration of English compound-noun semantics continues.” Bucky is Bucky Katt. See here for more background on Bucky and on his housemate, the melancholy Satchel Pooch.

Categories: Animals, Language

Cats and Dogs

March 2, 2009 Leave a comment

catcafe

Joel brought to my attention this afternoon a wonderful post by a blogger named Sarah Marchildon, a Canadian woman now studying at Kyoto University. In the post, Sarah describes a visit to a cat cafe in Osaka. She notes at the beginning that it’s “more of a cat brothel than a cat cafe,” and her description brings out the aptness of this. Here’s part of her description:

The cafe is called Neko no Jikan 猫の時間 (or “Cat Time” in English). The 20 cats that work here have free range of the place, sitting and sleeping wherever they like.

The cafe consists of two large rooms. There is the cafe area, which is exactly what it sounds like. There are couches and small tables where you can sip a cup of coffee while a cat sleeps on your lap or at your feet. It is a cozy space with soft lighting and classical music playing quietly in the background.

The other room, attached to the cafe, is best described as a cat playroom. No drinks are allowed in this room. You can play with the cats or just sit on one of the many couches and watch all of the four-legged loving go down.

Be sure to go to the post to see the photos.

To ensure fair and balanced pet coverage, I’m throwing in a video featuring Bizkit the sleep-walking dog.

Categories: Animals, Culture, Travel

Introducing Henry Sofie

March 1, 2009 Leave a comment

henry

Last month I wrote about the loss of Jessica’s cat Peter Sofie. Since then, she has been spending some time looking at shelter cats as candidates for adoption. This culminated in her decision to adopt Henry, and two days ago Gail went with her to bring Henry home. Following my birthday dinner last night, Jessica drove Joel back to her condo and Gail and I drove up there so we could all see him.

Following the shelter’s instructions, Jessica is keeping Henry confined to the bathroom for a few days so he can become accustomed to the surroundings without having too much new space within which to roam. But with all of us there, she brought him out so he could see us. He’s very comfortable with strangers. Gail and Joel each took turns holding him, we all petted him, and he purred continuously. At one point, he got down and explored the living room a bit, heading for the door to the balcony, running behind the couch, getting into some bags, lying under the dining table. Ultimately he came to rest in the entry space between the living room, bedroom, and bathroom, where he flopped on his side and his back, seeming quite relaxed. I took the photo above at this point. He then went back into the bathroom on his own and we left.

Welcome, Henry.

Categories: Animals, Family

Stump

February 10, 2009 1 comment

stump2

Stump, the 10-year-old Sussex Spaniel, was judged best of the Sporting Group earlier this evening at the Westminster Kennel Club 133rd Annual Dog Show, then judged Best in Show. A worthy champion. A wildly popular choice. A great back story. (Best in group also in 2004, fell mysteriously ill early in 2005, near death, saved by staff at Texas A&M, returned to health, back in competition, oldest best-in-show winner in history.) What more is there to say?

Categories: Animals, Sports

Weekend Sports Roundup

February 1, 2009 Leave a comment
Bella

Bella

It’s been hard to keep up with everything this weekend, especially because the men’s and women’s finals at the Australian Open were evening events in Melbourne. That meant they started around 12:30 AM here. I recorded the women’s final between Serena Williams and Darina Safina and watched it when I woke up yesterday morning. Not a bad way to watch a short match, zipping through the breaks and even some of the points. I recorded the Nadal-Federer men’s final early this morning, but still haven’t watched it. I couldn’t resist looking up the score right away, when I got up this morning, but once I saw that it had been a five-set match, I knew I didn’t have time to do it justice. Instead, I read the AP account of it, and tonight I’ve read a lot more about it. I’ll watch it eventually. But five-set men’s finals are always so painful, between the huge competitive and emotional swings that take place and the tedium of watching so many hours of tennis.

That pretty well describes today’s Super Bowl — the mix of competitive and emotional swings and the tedium. But I did watch it, unlike the tennis, and I’ve been reading some of the accounts of it tonight. Accounts of the TV ads also.

What I completely forgot to watch was the end of the men’s golf tournament from Phoenix, thereby missing the dramatic ending, as Kenny Perry bogeyed the final hole to fall into a playoff with Charley Hoffman, then won on the third playoff hole. I watched a little bit of yesterday’s coverage. It’s always fun to see the wild crowds and the scene at the famous 16th hole of the TPC Scottsdale course. (The hole is a very short par 3, completely enclosed by grandstands that seat about 15,000 fans, many of them drunk by the time the final groups come through.)

Fortunately, even though I also forgot to watch Animal Planet’s fifth annual Puppy Bowl, we stumbled on a re-broadcast of it a short time ago and watched some of it. One has to watch in limited doses. The screaming-fan soundtrack becomes grating after a while. But the puppies (including Bella above) are great competitors, tireless as they bounce around on the field, tackle each other, and carry toys toward the endzones. Plus, there are always great shots from the waterbowl cam. Joel got us to watch it three years ago and we’ve been fans ever since. If you missed it, be sure to tune in next year.

Categories: Animals, Sports