10 of History's Most Power-Hungry Cats
Alamy and Istockphoto/MentalFloss
By Caitlin Kelly
1. The Cat in the British Cabinet
Cats have stalked the corridors of British government since the reign of Henry VIII, but few have gotten as much publicity as Humphrey, the first feline to be named chief government mouser. The black-and-white cat wandered into No. 10 Downing Street in 1989 and was quickly employed by the cabinet office. His winning personality and track record ensured his position under three successive prime ministers.
But like most political animals his appointment was not scandal-free; in 1994, Humphrey was blamed for the death of several baby robins. The cabinet office leaped to his defense, maintaining that Humphrey had been ill and “could not have caught anything even if it had been roast duck with orange sauce presented to him on a plate.” It took an official inquiry to clear his name. After eight years of service, Humphrey officially retired on November 13, 1997, but even this was not without intrigue. Despite his strong support within the Labour Party, the press speculated that he had been forced from his position by none other than Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie.
2. The Cat That Started an International Incident
While serving as U.S. ambassador to India in 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith brought his family along on an official visit to Gujarat, where the governor of the Indian state presented Galbraith’s two sons with a pair of Siamese kittens. The boys named one Ahmedabad, after the city where the cats were born. Later that year, Galbraith’s wife, Catherine, told a story about the cat, using the kitten’s nickname, “Ahmed.”
What the family didn’t realize is that Ahmed is one of the many names of the prophet Muhammad. When the story appeared in the international edition of Time, it sparked outrage in Pakistan, where extremists were already fuming over American aid to Indian armed forces. The consulate was attacked, a jeep carrying Americans overturned, and mullahs decried U.S. insensitivity. Galbraith moved to avert the diplomatic crisis, starting with changing the cat’s name to Gujarat, but as he later wrote, “Amateurs will never understand how much can turn on the name of a kitten.”
3. The Cat That Committed Wrenocide
You’ll never earn the nickname “Tibbles the Merciless” by wasting your days batting away at scratching posts and pieces of string. A highly efficient hunter, Tibbles is remembered as the most likely cause of extinction for an entire species, the Stephens Island wren—a small, flightless bird that thrived on New Zealand’s Stephens Island until humans and cats moved there in 1892. By 1894, 17 people and Tibbles were making their presence felt on the tiny, brush-covered rock, and before long, Tibbles was leaving her bird catches on doorsteps. Her victims found an eager admirer in David Lyall, an assistant lighthouse keeper with an interest in natural history. Lyall sent a specimen to New Zealand’s leading ornithologists, where the scientists were delighted to discover a new species so close to home.
The joy was short-lived, however. By the end of 1895, naturalists declared the Stephens Island wren extinct, thanks to Tibbles and a few of her furry brethren. The cleanup crew was not rewarded for its thoroughness. At the turn of the century, a bounty was offered for any cat on the island, and by 1925, the Stephens Island cat had gone the way of its flightless bird.
4. The Cat That Can See Russia From Its House
For more than 15 years, the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, a tiny village at the base of Mt. McKinley, has spent his days lounging in the town’s general store, often enjoying an afternoon wineglass of catnip. Although Stubbs the cat never formally ran for office, he was elected after townspeople, unimpressed by the selection of mayoral candidates, began a write-in campaign in 1997.
At least, that’s the story they like to tell. In reality, it was a publicity stunt by the town—and it worked. A career politician, Stubbs has served as honorary mayor of Talkeetna since he was a kitten, checking in on local businesses, taking frequent catnaps, and, most importantly, helping to lure tourists into town.
5. The Cat That Put France in Space
The French have been turning animals into aeronauts since the 18th century, when the Montgolfier brothers launched a sheep, a duck, and a rooster toward space in a hot-air balloon. After successfully sending up rats in 1961 and 1962, France decided that cats were the natural chaser. CERMA (France’s Center for the Study and Research of Aerospace Medicine) collected 14 alley cats and subjected them to compression chambers, centrifuges, and noise boxes simulating a rocket launch. Two of the cats excelled: a tabby named Félix and a black-and-white cat named Félicette.
Félix was chosen for the first mission, but the crafty cat went AWOL just before the scheduled launch on October 18, 1963. So instead it was Félicette who took a 97-mile-high, 13-minute ride aboard the Veronique AGI-V47 rocket, earning the title of first cat in space. Hailed by newspapers, and dubbed “Astrocat” by the press, Félicette cruised her way into the public’s heart. And while Félix shirked his national duty to tomcat about, he did reemerge to steal his pal’s thunder. When Niger, Chad, and Comoros issued commemorative stamps in honor of Félicette’s flight, the achievement was wrongly credited to Félix.
6. The Cat That Swayed the Courtroom
Shirley Duguay was a 32-year-old mother of five when she disappeared from Prince Edward Island in October 1994. When her body was found, police suspected her estranged boyfriend, Douglas Beamish, of the murder. But the evidence linking him to the case was thin—until police found a bloodstained jacket stashed in the woods. The blood matched Duguay’s. Twenty-seven white cat hairs in the coat’s lining provided a second clue—could they have come from Beamish’s cat, Snowball?
While DNA evidence had been used in trials for years, no one had ever used DNA from an animal in the courtroom. In fact, it wasn’t clear to scientists if an animal’s hair was distinctive enough or whether the fur from closely related cats might produce false positives. Investigator Roger Savoie needed to know, so he convinced an expert in cat genetics to take on the challenge.
The extra work paid off. The fuzz on the jacket proved a genetic match to Snowball, and Beamish was convicted of second-degree murder, setting a precedent for animal DNA in the courtroom. As for Roger Savoie? He was named 1997 Mountie of the Year thanks to his casework. Snowball, too, came out on top. He was placed in the feline equivalent of witness protection—given sanctuary at his loving grandparents’ place.
7. The Cat That Discovered a Continent
Born in 1799 aboard the HMS Reliance, Trim the cat was a natural sailor. Unafraid of choppy water, he swam with ease. When rope was thrown down for him, his owner, Capt. Matthew Flinders, claimed that he “took hold of it like a man and ran up it like a cat.” But Trim’s best trick was keeping his owner in good spirits. The two spent four memorable years sailing the South Pacific together, even completing the first-ever circumnavigation of Australia.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. The captain and his cat were separated in Mauritius, when Flinders was thrown into prison as a spy. Assuming his faithful cat had been eaten, Flinders vowed to create a memorial in Trim’s honor. And while he didn’t live long enough to see his promise through, his cat’s legacy endures. To this day, Flinders is remembered for proving through his journey that Australia was an island (rather than a group of islands). Statues of Flinders often include Trim, and if the captain had had his way, history would have given the cat equal billing.
8. The Cat That Saved the Prophet
There’s a saying in Turkey: “If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque for God’s forgiveness.” This all stems back to a cat named Muezza, the favorite pet of the prophet Muhammad. According to one folktale, Muezza saved Muhammad from a deadly snake. When the prophet stroked her back as thanks, cats gained their ability to always land on their feet.
Muhammad would go on to teach his followers, “Cats are not impure; they keep watch around us.” The prophet’s legendary appreciation for cats made the creatures far more welcome by Muslims than by their Christian counterparts, who for centuries reviled felines as agents of the devil and carriers of plague. To this day, cats are welcomed into mosques with open arms.
9. The Cat That Fetched a Fortune
Dick Whittington was a poor orphan in 14th-century England who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become lord mayor of London—all thanks to his cat. As the story goes, Whittington was working as a servant when his boss spied an opportunity—he asked each of his servants to send one of their most valued items with a trusted sea captain to see what the goods might fetch abroad. Owning nothing but a cat, Whittington was reluctant to part with his pet. But the trade worked in his favor. The King of Barbary, struggling with a significant mouse problem in his palace, bought the cat from the captain for an untold sum, which the captain returned to the rightful owner. The suddenly wealthy Whittington then went on to become the mayor! Or so the story goes. The real Richard Whittington was the four-time mayor of London, but he was neither poor nor orphaned, and there’s no evidence he even had a cat. Still, the story is so popular that the feline is immortalized in a statue on Highgate Hill.
10. The Cat That Lobbied Washington
Stubbs isn’t the only fat cat built for politics. In Virginia, a Maine Coon named Hank turned his early life challenges into a key part of his voter narrative. He grew up on the streets with a single mother and ended up in a shelter. But that’s where he turned his life around. Before long, he’d met his owner and future campaign manager, Anthony Roberts, who decided the 9-year-old cat should run for Virginia Senate. A moderate independent, Hank’s campaign posters promised “a better Virginia … a brighter future.” About 7,000 voters agreed, turning out for a write-in campaign across the state. Hank nabbed third in the race, and while it didn’t put him on the Hill, his campaign raised roughly $60,000 for animal rescue. Perhaps Hank’s true calling is to become Washington’s cuddliest lobbyist.
Caitlin Kelly is a senior web producer for The New Yorker. For more historical felines, check out Sam Stall's 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization. For 17 million modern cats, check out the Internet.