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Saint Gertrude of Nivelles: The Patron Saint of Cats (More or Less)

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Kattenkruid via Wikimedia // CC BY 3.0

You might think of March 17 as St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s also the feast day of a lesser-known saint: Gertrude of Nivelles, patron saint of cats. At least that's what the internet says, even if the Roman Catholic Church has never made it official.

Gertrude of Nivelles was born around 626 in present-day Belgium into a well-connected noble family. But she didn’t stick to the script that most noble women were made to follow in her era: When she was 10, Gertrude reportedly refused—loudly and angrily—to be married to the son of a duke. In fact, she insisted that she would never marry at all.

When her father died, Gertrude and her mother, Itta, moved to Nivelles (south of present-day Brussels) to set up a monastery, where she became an abbess. She became known for her devotion to scholarly and charitable works, and for taking care of orphans, widows, and pilgrims. She was also visited by spiritual visions and said to know most of the Bible by heart. But her ascetic lifestyle, which included long periods without food or sleep, took a toll on her health, and she resigned as abbess in 656 at the age of 30. She died three years later, and St. Patrick himself is said to have watched over her on her deathbed.

Because of her reputation for hospitality, Gertrude was originally the patron saint of travelers and the recently dead (who were seen as making their own form of journey) as well as gardeners and the mentally ill. But as the centuries wore on, she also became associated with rodents. The link may have involved early Christian beliefs: Gertrude was known to pray for the souls of those in purgatory, and medieval artists often portrayed those souls as mice. Gertrude’s iconography—the items in a painting or statue that told illiterate people who the saint was—always included mice or rats at her feet, climbing up her robes, or climbing the crozier that symbolized her role as an abbess.

The connection between Gertrude and rodents became solidified as veneration of her spread throughout northern Europe, and little silver or gold statues of mice were left at a shrine to her in Cologne as late as 1822. By then, she had become the saint one asked to intercede in the case of a rodent infestation; it was said that the water from her abbey’s well would chase away rats and mice.

In the past few decades, faithful Catholics (and cat lovers) have made the leap from associating Gertrude with warding off mice to associating her with cats. The idea seems to have started in the 1980s, more than 1300 years after she lived. Some sources say the first publication to link Gertrude and cats was a 1981 catalog, Metropolitan Cats, put out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Since then, the idea that Gertrude is the patron of cats—and cat owners—has spread. As saint expert Thomas J. Craughwell explains it, “St. Gertrude … is invoked against mice and rats, which has led cat lovers to assume that Gertrude was a cat person, and so the ideal patron of their favorite pet.” There are now many icons and paintings of her with a cat.

Although the Vatican can make a saint’s patronage official, it has never done so with Saint Gertrude and cats. But most patron saints have been assigned their duties by popular tradition rather than by official recognition. So, if you want to get a medal of St. Gertrude to hang around your cat’s neck, go right ahead.

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Animals
Plagued with Rodents, Members of the UK Parliament Demand a Cat
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Members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament want a cat, but not just for office cuddles: As The Telegraph reports, the Palace of Westminster—the meeting place of Parliament’s two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords—is overrun with vermin, and officials have had enough. They think an in-house feline would keep the rodents at bay and defray skyrocketing pest control costs.

Taxpayers in the UK recently had to bear the brunt of a $167,000 pest control bill after palace maintenance projects and office renovations disturbed mice and moths from their slumber. The bill—which was nearly one-third higher than the previous year’s—covered the cost of a full-time pest control technician and 1700 bait stations. That said, some Members of Parliament (MPs) think their problem could be solved the old-fashioned way: by deploying a talented mouser.

MP Penny Mordaunt tried taking matters into her own hands by bringing four cats—including her own pet kitty, Titania—to work. (“A great believer in credible deterrence, I’m applying the principle to the lower ministerial corridor mouse problem,” she tweeted.) This solution didn’t last long, however, as health and safety officials banned the cats from Parliament.

While cats aren’t allowed in Parliament, other government offices reportedly have in-house felines. And now, MPs—who are sick of mice getting into their food, running across desks, and scurrying around in the tearoom—are petitioning for the same luxury.

"This is so UNFAIR,” MP Stella Creasy said recently, according to The Telegraph. “When does Parliament get its own cats? We’ve got loads of mice (and some rats!) after all!" Plus, Creasy points out, a cat in Parliament is “YouTube gold in waiting!"

Animal charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home wants to help, and says it’s been trying to convince Parliament to adopt a cat since 2014. "Battersea has over 130 years [experience] in re-homing rescue cats, and was the first choice for Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Cabinet Office when they sought our mousers to help with their own rogue rodents,” charity head Lindsey Quinlan said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “We'd be more than happy to help the Houses of Parliament recruit their own chief mousers to eliminate their pest problem and restore order in the historic corridors of power."

As of now, only assistance and security dogs are allowed on palace premises—but considering that MPs spotted 217 mice alone in the first six months of 2017, top brass may have to reconsider their rules and give elected officials purr-mission to get their own feline office companions.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Big Questions
Why Do Male Lions Have Manes?
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Much like the defining features on many animals, a lion's mane is all about attracting the ladies.

A century or two ago, biologists like Charles Darwin postulated that lions grew a thick mane of hair around their necks to protect that vulnerable area from attacks by other lions. Over time, however, field biologists observed lion behavior (from a safe distance) and noted that when lions fought one another, they rarely went for the mane region. Instead they regularly attacked from the rear, targeting the back and the hindquarters.

So, if the mane isn’t designed for protection, what is its purpose? Why, propagation of the species, of course. In the sweltering heat of areas where lions gather, a huge ring of long hair around the face and neck does nothing to help cool the body. That bushy fringe is an inviting home to a variety of parasites, and it also makes the lion stand out against the scenery (a desirable trait for a fashion model but not so much for an ambush hunter). With all those negatives attached to sporting neck hair, the only positive is that it takes some sturdy genes and a very healthy constitution for a male to live long enough to grow a substantial mane. Over the centuries, lionesses have twigged onto the fact that a huge, lush, thick, impressive head of hair equals a virile baby daddy who has the stones to not only sire her cubs but also to aggressively protect them along with the rest of the pride. Even more attractive? A dark, flowing mane, according to studies.

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