10 Cats Who Live at the Library

I Can Has Cheezburger
I Can Has Cheezburger

A library can operate without a cat, but a library with a cat is special. They draw new patrons to the library, they make people smile, calm the staff, and they keep mice away. Some also work to promote literacy, library use, and pet adoption. And curling up with a cat and a good book is a pleasant way to spend time at the local library.

1. Ernie

Ernie lives at the Bealton Library in Bealton, Virginia. He was found at the nearby depot and adopted by the library staff. Since Ernie is a polydactyl cat, the literary name he earned is Ernest P. Hemingway, after the author who was fond of polydactyl cats. Ernie sleeps in the manager's chair, keeps an eye on the parking lot, and greets patrons. Ernie also supervises the library’s “Flat Ernie” program, in which patrons can take a picture of Ernie with them on their travels.

2. Stacks

The Litchfield Public Library in Litchfield, Illinois, adopted Stacks from Benld's Adopt-a-Pet shelter in 2009 to rid the library of mice. There are no longer any mice at the library, and Stacks spends her time near the computers, waiting for a lap to sit on. See more pictures of Stacks on her library page. Sales of t-shirts and coffee mugs with Stacks' picture on them benefit both the library and Benld's Adopt-a-Pet shelter.

3. Elsie

Elsie is the reigning cat at St. Helena Public Library in Saint Helena, California. She describes her duties on her Facebook page.

My job: greet staff in the morning and give night report, investigate file drawers, help unpack boxes, management by walking around, direct staff in maintaining my celebrity lifestyle

In the spring of 2012, Elsie was surrendered to a shelter when her family lost their home. That’s right around the time the library found they had a mouse problem. It was a match made in heaven! Elsie is an inside cat, a good mouser,  and is used to children and dogs (the library is open to all pets as long as they behave). Her name has two explanations: she was named after library benefactor Elsie Wood, but the pronunciation, “L.C.” can mean Library Cat. Watch Elsie debunk superstitions in this video

4. Whispurr Nap

The Bradford Public Library in Bradford, Pennsylvania, has a cat named Miss Whispurr, or, as she calls herself Whispurr Nap. On her Facebook page, she posts library news as seen from a cat’s point of view. And plenty of pictures! She also graces the top of the library’s Facebook page.

5. Trixie

Trixie came to be the resident cat at the Independence Public Library in Independence, Kansas, five years ago today! She was just a kitten when she was dropped off in front of the library, and she’s been there ever since. The library even has a cat image in their logo now. Trixie takes full advantage of the library’s facilities, especially the giant chess set that makes for a good photo opportunity. You can follow Trixie’s adventures at her Facebook page.

6. Pages

Pages works at the Valley Center Public Library in Valley Center, Kansas. Pages has her own blog called Posts from the Paw, which is updated infrequently but enthusiastically. There, she tells the story of how she was a tired young stray taken in by the library in 2010. Other posts tell of library happenings, but there is an occasional personal post, like the time her tail was stepped on

7. Miko

Miko is the unofficial mascot at the Texas A&M University Libraries. She lives at the Medical Sciences Library, where she holds the title of Pest Control Specialist. She also models for library literacy campaigns like the poster you see here. There are also postcards of Miko available at the library.  

8. Library Cat

A black and white cat began hanging out at The University of Edinburgh Central Library in Scotland, and the staff have make him welcome. Although he isn’t friendly enough to be exactly domesticated by the library staff, he is willing to be petted and catered to by its patrons. Known only as Library Cat, he has taken to Facebook to post his thoughts on life in general and grace us all with his opinions and day-to-day activities. Although he relates his tales in the third person, we can tell who is telling the story by his inner thoughts.

When Library Cat dreamt, he often found himself sifting between a multitude of multicoloured thoughts, relating to the reader-response theory, the Large Hadron Collider and George Orwell.

But this afternoon was different. In his dream, he was in a strange blue room filled with many many turgid mice, each staring at him with such devotion that Library Cat got the feeling that their consumption by himself might even be taken as some sort of high honour. They reminded him slightly off the hideous Camus-esque robotic mice he had spied on that ill-fated pilgrimage to the Hugh Robson Essay Bunker.

9. Rosie

Here’s a story about a cat who was only a temporary library employee. Stephanie Villani told how her cat Rosie stowed away on her husband’s fish truck one day as it left Long Island. When he opened the doors at the Farmer’s Market in Brooklyn, Rosie bolted and made off for Prospect Park. Eight months later, Villani got a call from an animal hospital saying they had Rosie! Where had she been all that time? Well, she’d been at the Brooklyn Public Library, where the staff had taken her in and make her a library cat. The staff eventually took her in for medical care, and the vet scanned her for a microchip, revealing Villani’s contact information. Rosie was reunited with her family, and it appears that she has adjusted well to moving back to the fish business after her stint as a librarian.

10. Kuzya the Russian Library Cat

A cat walked into the library in Novorossiysk, Russia, and found a home, a job, and stardom. A library or bookstore with a cat is practically an institution in the U.S., but the cat that came to be named Kuzya has captured the Russian imagination.

Kuzya showed up at the library’s door one day and impressed staff with his uncanny ability to look cute and fluffy. After arching his back and running his face along people’s legs he was able to procure food and (secretly) a warm place to spend cold winter days.

Unfortunately, Kuzya lacked the proper documents to be kept in a public space such as a library, so the staff, seeing the cat’s potential, worked to acquire it. Kuzya would need a cat passport, which apparently does exist. To get it he had an ID chip embedded along with a rabies vaccination.

With the paperwork in order, Kuzya could now openly roam the aisles of the library. Under his new title of “pet” he worked hard licking himself, looking cute, and taking naps so much that the library saw a significant increase in patronage. It turned out that people would come for the cat but stay for the book lending service.

It wasn't long before Kuzya was promoted to assistant librarian, which meant issuing a certificate. It also means Kuzya has to dress up for work -in a fetching bow tie. You can see Kuzya at work on video.

See also: 8 Library Cats and 9 Delightful Library Cats. And you might want to check out the series on Bookstore Cats.

The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

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