A note about The Cuddlywumps Chronicles

This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. She receives creative input from the Real Cats and clerical assistance from She of Little Talent (old SoLT, a.k.a. Roby Sweet). Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to old SoLt (Ms. Sweet). Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: Crime and Poetry

Sometimes I get all tingly inside when we get to review a new book in a brand-new series, and this is one of those times. Amanda Flower, whom you might know as Isabella Alan, author of the Amish Quilt Shop Mysteries, is introducing a new series that includes a little bookshop, a little magic, a little mystery, and most importantly for our purposes, a little cat. It’s called the Magical Bookshop Mystery series, and it is a joy to read.

Deception and death

Crime and Poetry begins with a lie, basically, but this lie has a benevolent purpose behind it. Violet Waverly has returned home to Cascade Springs, New York, because she thinks her grandmother is gravely ill. She thinks this because that’s what Grandma Daisy told her, but when she arrives, there’s Grandma Daisy, just as healthy as could be.

This is upsetting, naturally, because Violet has a lot of stuff going on back in Chicago, where she is trying to finish her dissertation in American literature. She’s really busy with the Transcendentalists and doesn’t have time to hang out in her grandmother’s shop, Charming Books—where there’s a resident crow named Faulkner and a live birch tree growing through the building, and “where the perfect book picks you.” She has other reasons for not wanting to stay, and they’re the really unpleasant kind involving the death of her best friend years ago.

So that’s one death Violet has to deal with, but there’s another one coming soon, and it all starts when the perfect book picks someone (just as the store promises). Unfortunately, the book is a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that stubbornly draws its recipient’s attention to the lines “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” Also unfortunately, the person the book chooses happens to be Grandma Daisy’s gentleman friend, Benedict. It chooses him by flying off the shelf and banging into his knee, which is not very polite, but it sure gets your attention.

The next morning Benedict is found dead in Grandma Daisy’s driveway, with Grandma Daisy’s scarf wrapped around his neck. If you think this sounds rather ominous for Grandma Daisy, you are correct. Now, with her grandmother a suspect in a murder investigation, Violet decides she will stay in Cascade Springs just long enough to clear her name. There really is no other choice.

The cat and the Caretaker

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the cat yet, and that is because he does not appear until Violet and Grandma Daisy go to Benedict’s house after Benedict’s unfortunate demise. It turns out that Benedict had a black-and-white tuxedo cat named Emerson. Violet and Emerson quickly become friends.

I have also not mentioned the real reason Grandma Daisy lured Violet home in the first place. As you will have guessed by now, Charming Books is not your ordinary bookshop. It is a magical shop, and every such shop needs a caretaker. In this case. Grandma Daisy has been the Caretaker for years, and she is ready to pass on those duties to Violet—who wants nothing to do with it, and who seriously doubts that the shop is somehow giving her messages through the Emily Dickinson books it keeps throwing in her path.

She had us at “Magical Bookshop”

As I wrote in the very first paragraph, Crime and Poetry  is a joy to read. The book is nicely plotted, with just enough complexity to keep things interesting without becoming confusing. Violet’s story has a rich texture that makes her seem very real—and very likeable. It’s easy to sympathize with her as she faces the ghosts of her past and struggles with what will certainly be the most important decision of her life: Chicago or Cascade Springs? All this while she takes in the poor cat of a dead man, inserts herself into a mystery that will surely turn out to be more than she bargained for, and tangles with the police chief (who happens to be handsome and smart, and writes children’s books—can you say “dishy”?).

We are already hooked on the Magical Bookshop Mystery series. As the heading above says, she had us at “Magical Bookshop.” Come on, who wouldn’t want to run—even vicariously—a magical bookshop with an awesome tree and a spiral staircase in it, plus a resident crow and a pretty terrific cat? Where do we sign up?


Highly recommended!


Crime and Poetry is set for release on April 5, 2016.

A note on the "Paws Up" system: Miss C gives either one or two paws up. One paw is for a good read; two paws is for a great read. She never gives three or four paws because that would require her to lie on her back...and Miss C does not do that!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Blaming Cats for Human Aggression

Is a cat to blame for this man's rage?
We doubt it.
Photo by dundanim via Adobe Stock.

If you have been tuned in closely to the news this week, you may have come across a headline like one of these:

  • Blame Your Road Rage on That Cat Parasite, Says New Study (Newsweek)
  • Explosive Road Rage Like–Anger Linked to Parasite Spread by Cats (Biospace)
  • Common Cat Parasite Linked to Angry Outbursts in Humans (CBS News)
  • Road Rage Could Be Linked to Cat Parasite (Irish Examiner)

Those were the reasonable—and reasonably accurate—ones. But then came these:

  • Cats may be responsible for sudden outbursts of anger in humans (Fox 26)
  • Cats Might Be the Reason Some People Are So Terrible (New York Magazine)

If we simply believe the headlines above, we can conclude that cats are making humans angry and “terrible,” right? The latest study says so, right?

Um, no.

Reality check: What the study actually said

There are many things I cannot abide, and one of them is an inaccurate, deceptive headline written specifically to draw attention to what may or may not be an accurate article. That’s why we tracked down the actual study and read it for ourselves. It’s titled "Toxoplasma gondii Infection: Relationship with Aggression in PsychiatricSubjects.”

The research included 358 participants. They were all physically healthy and were all evaluated for aggression, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and something called intermittent explosive disorder (IED). Of the participants, 110 were healthy “controls” (had no psychiatric or personality disorder), 138 were diagnosed with some sort of disorder other than IED, and 110 were diagnosed with IED (characterized by “recurrent, problematic, impulsive, aggressive behavior,” [p. 337]).

The study next tested to see which subjects were infected with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Those who tested positive for the parasite were more likely to have high aggression and impulsivity scores and were more likely to have IED. Presence of T. gondii was also associated with depression, anxiety, and borderline and/or antisocial personality disorder, though not with self-aggression or self-harming.

What does this have to do with cats?

This photomicrograph shows
brain tissue infected with
spherical Toxoplasma gondii cysts.
CDC/Carey Callaway, 1966.
 Public domain via
CDC Public Health Image Library.
This is relevant to cats because, as some of the headlines helpfully pointed out, T. gondii is a “cat parasite.” Cats, wild and domestic, are the only known “definitive” or “ultimate” host for the parasite, which means that T. gondii reproduces only in cats. The parasite can infect many other animals though, including humans. In those intermediate hosts, the parasite forms cysts in different parts of the body, including muscles and the brain. Infected rodents can lose their fear of cats, making them more likely to be caught and eaten by a cat (and getting the parasite exactly where it wants to be: in its ultimate host, a cat).

According to the CDC, humans can get infected by
  • eating undercooked meat
  • consuming contaminated food or water or through contaminated soil (or a contaminated litter box)
  • blood transfusion or organ transplantation
  • from mother to fetus through the placenta

 Most healthy people who become infected do not show any symptoms, or they may have flu-like symptoms.  People whose immune systems are compromised  can have severe symptoms such as fever, nausea, headache, and seizures.
To reduce risk of infection, the CDC recommends
  • cooking meats to safe temperatures
  • thoroughly washing cutting boards, utensils, etc., that have come into contact with raw meats
  • washing or peeling fruits and vegetables before eating
  • wearing gloves when gardening, and washing hands when you’re done
  • keeping outdoor sandboxes covered
  • cleaning your cat’s litterbox daily (the parasite only becomes infectious 1–5 days after it is shed), and washing hands when you’re done

 By the way, if your cats are indoors-only and aren’t eating potentially infected rodents, their most likely source of infection is raw or undercooked meats (according to the American Veterinary Medical Association), so don’t feed them those things, and you’ll be further reducing your chance of infection.

What now?

First rule: Don’t panic.

Yes, a relatively small study linked T. gondii parasitic infection to increased aggression in humans, and yes, cats are the ultimate host for that parasite. That could sound scary for cat owners.

Use common sense to prevent
infection. If you're pregnant
or immunosuppressed, let
someone else change the litter box.
CDC/James Gethany, 2005.
Public domain via
  CDC Public Health Image Library.
 
But think for a minute: How many cat owners do you know who are prone to exploding in rage at the least little thing? In our experience, “cat people” are some of the kindest humans you can possibly find. And by the way, She of Little Talent is living with a suppressed immune system following a lung transplant, and she lives happily and healthily with two indoor-only cats and without any overwhelming fear of contracting toxoplasmosis from them (though she doesn’t change the litter box, and she is a total freak about washing her hands). 
The study’s authors also write that “it is also possible that impulsively aggressive individuals engage in behaviors that increase their own risk of infection with T. gondii” (p. 339). So the parasite-aggression connection could be a chicken-and-egg situation. Which comes first?

Even if toxoplasmosis is definitively shown to contribute to human aggression, you can protect yourself by using common sense and doing things you should be doing anyway: cook your meat, wash your fruits and vegetables, wash your hands.



One thing we can say definitively right now: No, cats are not the reason some people are so terrible.

Sources

American Veterinary Medical Association. Toxoplasmosis. https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Toxoplasmosis.aspx

Berdoy, Webster, & Macdonald. (2000). Fatal Attraction in Rats Infected with Toxoplasma gondii. Proc Biol Sci, 267(1452), 1591–1594. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1690701/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Toxoplasmosis Frequently Asked Questions. http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/toxoplasmosis/gen_info/faqs.html

Coccaro et al. (2016). Toxoplasma gondii Infection: Relationship with Aggression in Psychiatric Subjects. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 77(3), 334–341. http://www.psychiatrist.com/jcp/article/Pages/2016/v77n03/v77n0313.aspx

Mayo Clinic. (2014). Diseases and Conditions: Toxoplasmosis. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/toxoplasmosis/basics/causes/CON-20025859

Friday, March 25, 2016

Tigers and Mirrors

Miniature of a knight on horseback and a tiger with a mirror,
illustrating a supposed trick for stealing tiger cubs.
 Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds,
2nd quarter of 13th century, England.
Public domain, via
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
It seems that humans have always been fond of sharing “tips and tricks” for getting things done. Unfortunately, some human tips and tricks are just weird. Consider the following ancient and medieval human tricks for stealing tiger cubs from their mother:

The ancient trick: Grab more than you need

Portion of the Worcester Hunt mosaic showing the hunter throwing
a tiger cub back to its mother.
Antioch, Turkey, early sixth century.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) wrote of one method in his Natural History (25.18):

Hyrcania and India produce the tiger, an animal of tremendous swiftness, a quality which is more especially tested when we deprive it of all its whelps, which are always very numerous. They are seized by the hunter, who lies in wait for them, being provided with the fleetest horse he can possibly obtain, and which he frequently changes for a fresh one. As soon as the female finds her lair empty—for the male takes no care whatever of his offspring—headlong she darts forth, and traces them by the smell. Her approach is made known by her cries, upon which the hunter throws down one of the whelps; this she snatches up with her teeth, and more swift, even, under the weight, returns to her lair, and then again sets out in pursuit; and this she continues to do, until the hunter has reached his vessel, while the animal vainly vents her fury upon the shore.

In short, when the mother tiger gets too close, throw one of the cubs down and continue your getaway while she is distracted by caring for it. Obviously, this method only works if you have several cubs to throw back before you either reach your ship or are attacked by the mother tiger.

The medieval trick: They do it with mirrors


Miniature of a tiger, distracted from the capture
of its cub by its own reflection in a mirror.
From Bestiary and various theological texts,
1st quarter of 13th century.  England.
Public domain, via
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 

 

The method recorded by medieval authors was similar, but with a twist. According to a 13th–century Franciscan monk called Bartholomeus Anglicus, it went something like this:

He that will bear away the whelps, leaveth in the way great mirrors, and the mother followeth and findeth the mirrors in the way, and looketh on them and seeth her own shadow and image therein, and weeneth that she seeth her children therein, and is long occupied therefore to deliver her children out of the glass, and so the hunter hath time and space for to scape, and so she is beguiled with her own shadow, and she followeth no farther after the hunter to deliver her children. (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18)

So, you toss a mirror to the mother, and she mistakes her image in the glass for one of her cubs. Really?

Here we see what the tiger supposedly saw when she
looked in the mirror: her cub.
Mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale,
Piazza Armerina, Sicily.
Photo by psub
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons

Did anyone ever actually use these tricks?

Well, the texts we have were written by men who recorded what they’d heard or read from other sources. They weren’t based on firsthand knowledge. And you know how stories tend to change—and grow—with each retelling. Also, we called the methods “tips and tricks,” but the authors quoted were not writing how-to manuals; they were relating current knowledge about tigers.

The mirror trick sounds pretty farfetched to us, though we can’t rule out someone actually trying it. The trick recorded by Pliny seems more plausible, but without firm evidence, we still have to consider it a legend. It’s possible that this ancient legend was passed down to later writers, who updated it with the addition of mirrors. This is just our guess though.



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cat Armor: Now Available at a 3-D Printer Near You

Armor: It's what all the cool cats like Bobo
are wearing.
Photo by JWall of PrintThatThing.
A cat never knows when they might encounter a dragon or some other dangerous creature in the course of daily life. That’s why we’re so excited about the latest ingenious item we’ve stumbled across: 3-D printed cat armor.

Yes, you read that correctly. If you have access to a 3-D printer, you now have access to cat armor. This is thanks to JWall of PrintThatThing, who says his cat, Bobo, specifically asked for the armor as a Halloween costume (kudos to JWall for actually complying with Bobo’s wishes instead of putting the poor cat in a pumpkin costume like most people do). After a lengthy process of design and 3-D modeling (all approved by Bobo, of course), the armor was printed and Bobo could finally wear it. We think he looks quite handsome. And fierce.

Take a look at this video about the design process:



Of course any good set of armor needs a helmet. You can’t leave your head unprotected when you’re going up against a dragon. JWall tells us that the helmet design is finished; he’s just waiting until his printer is fixed before he reveals it to the world. We can’t wait to see what it looks like!

We must mention that not all cats will thank you for putting armor on them. Some cats will just curl up into a sad little ball, which is not very fierce, or cool. So, listen to your cat (which you should be doing anyway), and use your best judgment (see previous parenthetical comment) on whether armor is a good fit for your feline. Even if your cat won’t tolerate it, the armor still looks cool for display purposes.


The files you’ll need to print this project are available at Thingiverse.

Monday, March 21, 2016

App Review: Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar Collector’s Edition

We have spent the past two weeks or so completely obsessed with this app, Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar. If you enjoy puzzles and hidden-object games, if you like a game that also gives you a story, and if you don’t mind spending some money (about seven dollars to play on iPad), this one is worth looking at.


The story

At the start of the game, you find yourself in a strange town (Ulthar) where a boy is about to be executed for murder. Your mission: prove the boy’s innocence before he’s burned at the stake. No pressure though.

The boy, Menes, stands accused of murdering an old couple. In this town where cats are revered, Menes supposedly set a bunch of cats on the couple to rip them (the couple, not the cats) to pieces. Sounds grisly, but the game itself is not scary or gory.

The game

You then proceed to solve the mystery by exploring the town and solving a series of puzzles and hidden-object scenarios to “find” useful objects that will help you open the next puzzle or find the next object. The puzzles are located in several locations throughout the town, and at first it’s fun to just look around, solve a puzzle or two, get a couple of objects that you don’t know what to do with…

I say “at first it’s fun” because pretty soon you’ll be trying to keep track of half a dozen objects that may or may not be useful in this or that lock or drawer located in this or that room in this or that building on this or that end of town. In other words, there is a lot to keep track of, and unless you’re smarter than She of Little Talent (which is entirely possible), it may take you a little while to get the hang of it, and it may be frustrating at times.

I think they call this “brain training.”

The paywall, and the verdict

At least for us, we hit the paywall (Get the full app for $6.99!) at the exact moment we were starting to get the hang of things and really have fun again. So naturally we paid up to keep playing because, you know, Menes was counting on us. We did not regret that decision, as we enjoyed getting engrossed in the game for a short while every evening.

We played in “casual” mode so we could get lots of hints along the way, but you can play in a harder mode if you need more of a challenge. (She of Little Talent found casual mode plenty challenging though.)  There is also a guide if you want step-by-step instructions, though old SoLT preferred to randomly peck at the screen hoping to stumble across a new clue (just like real life!).

The graphics are really nicely done—very detailed and hauntingly atmospheric.  There is also a bonus game at the end, which we haven’t started playing yet, but we are looking forward to it. That sudden paywall thing was kind of annoying, but we are glad we hit “purchase” instead of “delete.”

Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar Collector’s Edition is from Big Fish Games and is available for iOS, PC, and Mac.


Recommended!


A note on the "Paws Up" system: Miss C gives either one or two paws up. One paw is for a good app; two paws is for a great app. She never gives three or four paws because that would require her to lie on her back...and Miss C does not do that!

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App Review: Neko Atsume



Friday, March 18, 2016

Five-Year Study to Decipher What Cats Are Saying and How They Are Saying It

Susanne Schötz of Sweden's Lund University interacts with a cat.
 Do she and the cat really  understand one another?  
The Melody in Human-Cat Communication project aims to find out.
Photo: Jonas Andersson Published: 10/03/2016.
Have you ever gotten deep into a conversation with your cat only to realize you have no idea what she is saying to you? This happens all the time between She of Little Talent and Real Cat Paisley. For example:

Paisley: Meow.
Old SoLT: Uh-huh.
Paisley: Me-ow.
Old SoLT: Uh-huh.
Paisley: Me-OW.
Old SoLT: Uh-huh.

It’s not exactly sparkling conversation, at least not on old SoLT’s end. But what if she could actually understand cat talk?

Science to the rescue

Well, researchers at Sweden’s Lund University are currently working to understand what cats are trying to tell humans. More specifically, they plan to analyze variations in the melodies of sounds cats make in different situations: content, hungry, annoyed, etc. They will record between thirty and fifty cats making various sounds and look for patterns in the vocalizations. From this, they will develop a “prosodic typology” to classify the sounds.

The five-year project, titled “Melody in Human-Cat Communication,” will look at both sides of the conversation between humans and felines. “We want to find out to what extent domestic cats are influenced by the language and dialect that humans use to speak to them, because it seems that cats use slightly different dialects in the sounds they produce,” says project head Susanne Schötz.

Schötz and two other researchers will listen in on human-cat conversations in areas of Sweden in which the humans speak with two distinct dialects. One question is, do the cats indeed have discernable dialects that they somehow pick up from their humans?

Another question focuses on how humans talk to cats. You know that baby-talk voice you use when you tell your cat she’s “a pwetty, wubby widdle girrol”? Well, maybe cats don’t like that. Maybe your cat would rather be addressed as a human adult and told, “You look lovely today. Have you done something different with your fur?”

Beyond the meow

In case you start to think this project is just for fun, consider how useful it would be to be able to distinguish clearly between a meow for simple attention and one from pain or some other distress. With cats acting as pets, companions, and therapy animals, human-feline communication happens all the time. This study could help humans clarify the way they communicate with their cats, which promises stronger relationships and benefits for cats (and other pets) and their people.

[An aside: The top three things old SoLT thinks her cats are trying to tell her: (1) Feed me. (2) Pet me. (3) Get out of my way.]


Learn more


To learn more about Melody in Human-Cat Communication, watch the video below, and visit the project website at http://vr.humlab.lu.se/projects/meowsic/index.html.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Happy Saint Patrick's Day


Paisley the Real Cat--and everyone at The Cuddlywumps Cat Chronicles--wishes you a very happy Saint Patrick's Day!


Monday, March 14, 2016

Book Review: A Whisker of Trouble

Our reading and reviewing adventures return us this week to North Harbor, Maine, and the engaging characters of Sofie Ryan’s Second Chance Cat mystery series. Those characters include one Elvis the black cat, who enjoys watching Jeopardy!, is a backseat driver no matter which seat he is in, and might—might, mind you—be able to tell when someone is lying. Naturally, Elvis is also adept at pointing out clues to the mysteries his witless humans get involved in.

The humans

Okay, “witless” is an unfair term. Elvis’s humans are actually pretty sharp—for humans. There’s his main person, Sarah Grayson, owner of a “part antique store and part thrift shop” called Second Chance. Sarah makes a fine amateur sleuth, not that she has any desire to get all mixed up in mysteries (at least that’s what she says). You’d think she’d want to get mixed up in something though, considering the surprisingly slow state of her love life (surprising because she has two eligible men right in front of her; surely she should be kissing one of them).

But Sarah has the great good fortune to be associated with a group of private investigators who call themselves Charlotte’s Angels. The Angels comprise three friends of Sarah’s grandmother, along with one bona fide PI who also happens to be the “gentleman friend” of one of the Angels.

The plot

In A Whisker of Trouble, Sarah and her Second Chance employees are preparing to clean out the home of the recently deceased Edison Hall. And when I say “clean,” I mean “sort through and dispose of the contents of the many, many boxes piled all about the house.” Unfortunately, when Sarah arrives at the house to begin work, she discovers the body of a murdered man in the kitchen.

It turns out that the dead man was a wine expert who’d recently declared Edison Hall’s wine collection to be worthless—cheap wine wearing fake labels. Had someone wanted the expert out of the way because he was about to shut down some scammers (the really creepy kind who prey on the elderly, swindling them out their savings)? Stella Hall, who’d hired Sarah to clean out her brother’s home, now hires the Angels to figure out who killed the wine expert, and the Angels swing into action, with Sarah as their reluctant chauffeur and Elvis as their furry clue-finder and lie detector.

A thoroughly enjoyable series!

We love the atmosphere of this book, and the series. Reading A Whisker of Trouble is not a roller-coaster experience (though there is a nice “don’t go in there!” moment toward the end). Instead, it’s like being welcomed into a gathering of extended family where you’ll be well fed and where you might get roped into joining some sort of (hopefully) harmless scheme. Whatever happens, you’ll know that the people around you have only your best interests at heart. And who wouldn’t want to meet Elvis, the Jeopardy!-watching cat?

We did wish that the fake-wine issue had been gone into in a little more detail; we sense an opportunity to add more depth to the story and add a creeping sense of evil intent on the part of the scammers. In the end, though, A Whisker of Trouble is not about anything dark; it’s about a big, somewhat crazy group who are a joy to read about.


An absolutely enjoyable reading experience. Recommended!


[A note on the "Paws Up" system: Miss C gives either one or two paws up. One paw is for a good read; two paws is for a great read. She never gives three or four paws because that would require her to lie on her back...and Miss C does not do that!]

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Pet Blogger Bloopers Round-up--March




Hi, friends. It's time again for the Pet Blogger Bloopers Round-Up, hosted by The Lazy Pit Bull. The round-up is a blog hop that happens the second Friday of each month, and it's a chance to see the results of some pet photo shoots gone wrong (which would be most photo shoots that She of Little Talent is involved in).

This month we once again have a photo of the lovely Real Cat Paisley. Old SoLT thought it would be cute to put Paisley's new Saint Patrick's Day flower on her collar and take a few pictures. Paisley clearly had other plans for that flower.

Legends of the Maine Coon


A Maine Coon cat. Note ear
tufts and bushy tail.
Photo by  uzhursky, via Adobe Stock.
No one knows for certain the origins of the large, thick-coated American cat called the Maine Coon. But an absence of certainty can always be filled in with a great story, however implausible, and the lore of the Maine Coon is crazy with stories. We’ll get to those, but first let’s meet the breed.

Think big, hardy, and friendly

The Maine Coon is a large, sturdy cat with a shaggy coat, tufted ears and paws, and a bushy tail. Males can weigh in at 13–18 pounds, and females are typically 9–12 pounds. A Maine Coon named Stewie, recognized as the world’s longest cat until his death in 2013, measured 48.5 inches from tip of nose to tip of tail. That’s a four-foot-long cat, folks.

Good thing Maine Coons are known for their gentle, playful personalities. They’re also adventurous and independent, though they’re known for forming loyal bonds with their people. The Maine Coon has been Maine’s state cat since 1985.

The legends

And now to the stories, starting with the two that seem the most crazy:

Maine Coon Cats are not
related to raccoons. No.
Photo by Ken Thomas, via
 Wikimedia Commons.
• A domestic cat bred with a raccoon, producing what came to be known as the Maine Coon.

 [Um, no. The Maine Coon is not part raccoon.]

• A domestic cat bred with a bobcat and voila! Maine Coon.

[Perhaps physically possible (at least they’re both cats), but highly improbable. Again, no.]

Now we move into the stories that include human intervention:

• They’re descended from Viking cats. You’ve heard of Norwegian Forest Cats? Big, thick-coated, built for hard northern winters? So let’s say that some of the Viking explorers who landed in North America in AD 1000 or thereabouts had cats on their ships, and some of those cats stuck around long after the explorers were gone. Over the generations, and possibly after breeding with other cats that arrived later, the Viking cats gave rise to today’s Maine Coons.

[This is more plausible than we might have thought (see “And now…reality” below).]

• They are descended from the Persian and Angora cats who sailed as ship’s cats with a certain captain in the 1700s. The name of the captain? Coon. At some point (or perhaps many points) in his travels along North America’s east coast, Captain Coon stopped in Maine, and one or more of his cats went ashore and bred with a local female. The resulting long-haired kittens were called “Coon’s cats.”
Did they come from Marie Antoinette's
cats? Probably not.
Portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée
Le Brun, 1785.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

[This is plausible.]

• They have royal blood and are descended from Marie Antoinette’s Persians and Angoras. This romantic tale has its origins in the French Revolution. The ill-fated queen was supposedly going to be rescued by an American sea captain before she could be guillotined. The captain, named Clough, managed to get many of the queen’s things, including six cats, onto his ship, the Sally. He could not save the queen, though. He brought the royal cats with him back home to Wiscasset, Maine, where they “got involved” with the local cats and voila! Maine Coons.

[Plausible? We think the Marie Antoinette part is a bit of a stretch, but we can’t entirely rule out a French connection in the Maine Coon’s background.]

And now…reality

What’s the real story behind the Maine Coon? Well, it certainly has to do with humans bringing domestic cats from Europe to America. That much we know. The open questions are:

  1. Who brought the cats?
  2. When?
  3. What kind of cats were they?

 It seems likely that some seafaring longhaired cats came ashore in North America and, perhaps along with short-haired local cats, set up shop, so to speak. Over the generations, these cats developed into the breed now recognized as the Maine Coon. That’s the working theory.

Hello. Did someone say Handsome
and fascinating?
Photo by seregraff, via Adobe Stock.
It also seems like the issue could be at least partly settled with some genetic testing. Are Maine Coons closely related to Norwegian Forest Cats? To Angoras or Persians? To all three?

A phylogenetic tree in Lipinski et al.’s study (p. 16) shows the Maine Coon and Norwegian Forest cats on close branches on the Western European part of the tree, with the Angora much farther away on the Mediterranean portion. This suggests that the Viking story is more plausible than we thought at first. Though it also seems possible that some later ships’ captains got hold of some Norwegian Forest Cats and carried them on their vessels for rodent control. So those cats could have arrived in North America several centuries later than the Viking legend would suggest. This is just our guess though.

One thing is certain: The Maine Coon is a handsome breed with a rich, fascinating history. Even if they didn’t come from Vikings or Marie Antoinette’s cats.

Sources

Cat Fanciers’ Association. Maine Coon Cat. http://www.cfa.org/Breeds/BreedsKthruR/MaineCoon.aspx

Lipinski, M. J., et al. (2008). The ascent of cat breeds: Genetic evaluations of breeds and worldwide random-bred populations. Genomics 91, pp. 12–21.


Pickeral, T. (2013). The Elegance of the Cat: An Illustrated History. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

App Review: Weather Whiskers


I have said it before, and I’ll say it again (and again and again): Everything is better with cats. Even weather is better with cats, as the geniuses behind the Weather Whiskers app obviously know.

Need a happiness boost
during a snowstorm?
This cat could help you out.
Weather Whiskers, available for both iOS and Android devices, gives current weather conditions, a four-day forecast…and cats. And when I say “cats,” I do not mean some random picture of a cute cat. No, this app gives you cats dressed appropriately for whatever weather is happening at the moment. It also gives a succinct summation of current conditions, “translated into LOLspeak” (e.g., “Rainz! Oh nos!”), as the Weather Whiskers website phrases it.


The weather part comes from Weather Underground, and it is pretty accurate, though if it was sunny an hour ago and is now pouring with rain, the app could still tell you the weather is “purrfect,” so it’s not up-to-the-minute accurate. But then, what weather app is?

Conditions in Seoul, South
 Korea when we wrote
this post: cold and starry!
You can plug in several different cities if you like to keep track of conditions far and wide. We keep an eye on locations from Seattle to London to Seoul (conditions in Seoul as of this writing: 37 degrees [F] and clear), because when the weather at home is unpleasant, it’s nice to know that somewhere, thousands of miles away, conditions are purrfect.

The app is free to download, but the frequent pop-ups that ask you to pay 99 cents to go ad-free will probably annoy you into either deleting the app or paying the 99 cents. We check this app multiple times a day, just to see which cat appears, so we think it’s worth the price.

The verdict

Weather Whiskers is the best cat-related weather app we have found. The cats can make you smile even in bad weather, and the forecast is usually accurate. They say the app is free, but in reality it will cost you 99 cents if you use it frequently enough to have the pop-ups get on your nerves. We think that’s a fair price.

Highly recommended!




Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Book Review: A Deadly Tail

You’ve got to love a book that starts with this line: “Let’s get this out of the way right now: My life is weird.” Even more, you’ve got to love a book that delivers on the tantalizing promise contained in that line. Weirdness, of the sort that Dixie Lyle consistently gives us in the Whisky, Tango & Foxtrot series? Oh yes, please!

Just so you know what you’re getting into when you read A Deadly Tail, we assembled the following ingredient list:


  • 1  ectoplasmic ghost dog, Whiskey, who can change his form at will but generally goes about as a British-accented Australian shepherd
  • 1 reincarnated black-and-white tuxedo cat, Tango, currently on her seventh life and making a movie with an all-animal-spirit cast
  • 1 chef who is part Thunderbird (an ancient weather spirit) and also the main character’s boyfriend
  • 1 private zoo that contains (and I use the word loosely), an extra-aggressive honey badger
  • 1 animal graveyard where animal spirits come and go constantly on something called the Great Crossroads
  • 1 menagerie of animal ghosts (menagerie may include an octopus, a panther who says “Hey” a lot, a few former film stars, and assorted goats)
  • 1 semi-resident rock star who sometimes, in a chemically enhanced state, does strange things that he does not remember
  • 1 eccentric and very rich boss, ZZ, who has agreed to allow a zombie movie to be filmed on her property
  • 1 film crew shooting an independent “film” (film crew may contain the following: an unlucky director, a sleazeball producer, an abrasive, untalented “star,” a male lead who usually does Much Bigger Things, assorted zombies)
  • 1 dead body, head and hands removed
  • 1 superorganized assistant who is a wee bit controlling but seems to know how to handle anything, including all the above ingredients and probably a lot more. Her name is Foxtrot.


Mix all ingredients well, then add in a lot of laughter, some touching bits, and a terrific mystery that you will never figure out on your own.

The plot

We’ll bet you’ve never baked anything like that before. But interesting ingredients are nothing without a plot, and Lyle delivers on this point as well. What happens is, Foxtrot comes to work on a Tuesday and finds a bunch of zombies all over the front yard—but that’s normal. The strange thing is that there’s some sort of oddly constructed maze on the lawn. Wasn’t there yesterday. Not supposed to be there today. Hmm…

Then Foxtrot finds a bloodstain on the path, which leads inevitably to the dead body that is missing its head and hands (see ingredient list), which appear to have been chewed off, possibly be a honey badger (also on ingredient list). And all that comes before the explosion (not on the list, but we wanted to surprise you with something).

All of that leaves quite a mystery, what with one unidentified body, one person missing and presumed dead and another hospitalized, the victim of an attempted murder via bombing. And of course there’s no shortage of suspects. Plus there’s all that stuff going on with Tango’s movie (you try keeping hundreds of ghostly animal actors in check; it’s not as easy as it sounds).

The real point 

I am purposely not revealing a lot of the plot because, while Lyle’s plots are some of the best, for us the real point of this series is the hilarity. Need to relax after a rough day? Crack open A Deadly Tail and you’ll feel better. She of Little Talent guffawed (I am not making this up) so frequently I had to bury my head under a pillow.

The imagery is also outstanding…and “out there.” Lyle has re-envisioned the Rainbow Bridge as something more like a Rainbow Expressway, with colorful animal spirits on the move. And then there’s the visual of the zombie-covered lawn and that weird maze-like thingy. If ever there was a cozy mystery series we wanted to see as a movie series, this would be it.

I must also mention that She of Little Talent’s inner editor admires the way dialogue is formatted differently for the, um, more unusual characters so you can always tell who is speaking. Quotation marks, square brackets, angle brackets, italics. It’s like seeing each character’s voice on the page. Genius!

Yes, there’s a lot going on in this book, and a lot of it is a little weird. But by the time you’ve read a few pages and gotten hooked on the plot, Foxtrot’s world will start to seem almost normal—but never, ever boring.


Very highly recommended!



A note on the "Paws Up" system: Miss C gives either one or two paws up. One paw is for a good read; two paws is for a great read. She never gives three or four paws because that would require her to lie on her back...and Miss C does not do that!