The Cats Are Alright: Historic Tails From Russia To Florida

Whenever a disaster affects a country, city, or even a single building, we naturally – and correctly – think first about the effect on human lives. But almost inevitably, we come across terrible stories about how people deliberately abandon their pets in cruel circumstances, such as leaving them chained up outside as a gigantic storm rolls in. So I wanted to share with you some good news for a change, involving two sets of my favorite species of domesticated animal, the felis catus, who live at two very important historic sites that recently came under threat.

On Friday, a small fire in the basement of the Winter Palace, one of the buildings that make up the legendary Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, got very little press in this country. This was partly because no works of art were damaged, and also because coverage of the impending strike of Hurricane Irma dominated American media. For art, history, and cat lovers however, the news was of immediate concern because, famously, the basement of the Hermitage is where the museum’s resident cats hole up, when they are not patrolling the vast corridors of the former Imperial palace looking for rodents.

Fortunately, despite reports that four of the Hermitage’s resident cats had been killed in the fire, it appears that all of the museum’s feline guardians are doing fine. First responders initially believed that four of the cats were dead, but it quickly turned out that they suffered severe smoke inhalation and needed medical care. They were taken to a veterinary hospital, and all are expected to recover. Here you can see one of the museum’s curators and a fireman taking one of the cats away for treatment.


The cats themselves are not a new phenomenon at the Hermitage, although they are not the descendants of the original fluffy residents. In 1745, the Empress Elizabeth specially commissioned that cats with good mousing skills be imported from the city of Kazan in Tatarstan, which was famous for the breeding of such felines. These cats throve in the cellars of the palace for the next 300 years, outlasting even the Romanov Dynasty itself, until they were lost or killed during Hitler’s siege of the city during World War II.

After the war, a new feline family was brought in to the Hermitage, and the offspring of these cats continue to live in the museum today. Like their cousins, the palace’s previous residents, they too have seen dramatic historic changes taking place in the world around them, such as the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Unimpressed by human overexertion, as cats usually are, they simply continue go about their business of napping in sunbeams, looking for people to pet them, and keeping one of the world’s greatest collections of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts free from pests.

Closer to home, authorities in charge of Hemingway House, the beautiful tropical villa of writer Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida, have announced that not only did the historic home withstand the impact of Hurricane Irma, but the property’s cats are all safe and accounted for. Although I don’t care for much of his work, I appreciate the fact that Papa H was a fellow cat fancier, as you can see below. The cats who presently live at the house are the descendants of the original felines which sauntered about the property during the author’s lifetime.


Famously, Hemingway’s furry friends are not just ordinary balls of floof, but genetic curiosities known as polydactyl cats. Polydactyls, as the name implies, suffer from an unusual abnormality known as polydactylism – from the Greek “poly” meaning “many, and “daktylos” meaning “finger”. Many of the cats on the property have six or even seven toes on each paw, instead of the usual five on each of the front paws and four on each of the hind paws.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this story is the fact that, before Irma hit, the museum’s authorities called in reinforcements – in the form of the local Catholic priest:

On Thursday, after mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic church in Key West, the Rev. John Baker blessed the house, the Hemingway Home staff and the cats. Gonzales told our correspondent, Francisco Alvarado, that he felt sure no cat would lose any of its nine lives.

Who knows: perhaps St. Gertrude of Nivelles – patroness of cat owners and their purring charges – was looking out for these historic and unusual animals.

Night Nurse: The Care of Humans, By Cats

Lately I’ve been suffering from a particularly virulent – ahem – strain of viral bronchitis. I’ll be fine, but anyone who has had a bad bout of bronchitis knows it can take quite a long time to clear. Fortunately, I have plenty of chicken soup, herbal tea, and a devoted night nurse, i.e., The Cat.

Cats often get short shrift from non – cat owners. They’re viewed as largely selfish, detached, and less intelligent than dogs. In my experience however, a good cat is a good furry friend indeed, particularly when you are under the weather.

The other day, I was having a painful time trying to breathe. I had overextended myself in trying to return to my normal level of activity too quickly, and returned home short of breath, frustrated, and a bit frightened. I lay on the couch, worried that my bronchitis was turning into pneumonia.

Into this situation sauntered The Cat. At first she climbed up on the back of the sofa, settled herself on top, and stared at me for a long time. After awhile, she came down, snuggled into the space between my right side and my right arm, and put her paw on my right ribcage, where my pain was more acute.

If this sounds surprising to you, it wasn’t really to me. Some years ago, when I was suffering from runner’s knee, she came into bed one night, settled down next to my bad knee, and did the same thing. She just knew.

Now, how a creature with a brain the size of a walnut can be so perceptive about human illness, who knows. A friend reminded me of the story of Oscar, who used to visit patients in the nursing home a few hours before they died. I don’t think The Cat here at home is a harbinger of my impending demise, of course, and yet there is a similar, uncanny ability on her part to know not only when something is wrong, but occasionally, exactly what hurts.

At night then, when not feeling my best, I can be reasonably sure that my night nurse will turn up, meowing and head-butting me, just to make sure I’m alive, and to stay with me until I fall asleep. It’s not a job I expect her to perform, and I don’t quite understand how or why she does it. And yet a little, furry comfort like this is certainly a gift from above that I am not about to question.


The Joys of the Present

If you are a pet owner, then you know that the time you spend away from your pet can sometimes be a cause of concern.  This is particularly the case if the animal is going to be on its own for at least a couple of days.  You may have someone come by to check on your pet, change their water, give them food, and so on, but you still worry about whether they will be alright when you get back.

Such was the case this Labor Day weekend, as I headed home to visit my parents for a few days.  The Cat had plenty of food and water, toys, and so on, as well someone to check on her on the days I was away, but of course she did not understand what was happening.  All she knew was that the rather tall fellow who puts out her food, cleans her litter box, and whose fingers she likes to play-bite had gone away.  When I walked in the door last night the display of feline joy at my return was unbelievable,  and continued all evening as I was meowed and purred at, rubbed and nuzzled against, jumped on in surprise attacks, and presented with a belly or neck to scratch, much to the detriment of my attempt to get some sleep.

We are of course more than the animals, and yet the thought occurs that in some ways we face a similar limitation.  The Cat did not know why I had left, or where I was, and even if I had tried to explain it to her she would not have understood it.  All she knew was that something had gone wrong, and there was nothing she could do about it.  There was no way for her to comprehend my return after a few days’ absence.

Similarly, many of us spend a great deal of time living in the past, regretting what might have been, or looking forward to the future with uncertainty.  When we do this, we run the risk of not doing the living that we need to do, now.  If time is always both receding from us and arriving, regardless of our wishes to the contrary, then there does not appear to be much good in concentrating on those things which we cannot hope to control.

By no means am I suggesting that the past or the future are to be ignored.  The past must be studied and appreciated, so that we can learn from it.  Otherwise, you would burn yourself every time you touched a hot stove.  Similarly the future must be prepared for with prudence, so that we can try to do things like avoid reasonably foreseeable disasters and put things in place so that our plans have a chance of coming to fruition.  Yet no matter how much we may look at the past or the future with a mixture of emotions, to be captive to such reflections is to lose the opportunities that are presented before us right now.

One of the great spiritual gifts of the Church is the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office, which sadly the laity often knows nothing about.  It divides each day up into sections, devoted to prayer and contemplation, separated by periods of work, study, leisure, rest, and so on.  For those of us not living in religious communities, it may be difficult or impossible to completely adhere to these divisions, as they would be impracticable in many cases. (“Oh excuse me, John, I’m going to have to skip this meeting because it’s time for me to go off and pray Terce.”)

Yet the benefit of this practice is to constantly remind us, as we make our way through each day, of the passage of time without our being overwhelmed by it.  It calls us to do the things that we need to do, with respect to the past and the future, while at the same time stopping and focusing on the here and now by removing ourselves from this flow of time over which we have no control.  It reminds us that we are creatures existing along a timeline, and while we can try to understand the past and prepare for the future, we need to take care of the here and now.

We do not know whether today is our last, or whether we have 1,000 more to come.  I rather hope that I am a bit more prepared for the return of MY master at the end of MY life, whenever that day arrives, than was The Cat last evening.  And hopefully the sense of joy, if not the manifestations of it, will be similar.

Detail of a cat in a medieval Book of Hours
Austrian Institute for Culture, Krems, Austria