For Sunny and Shadow’s latest outing, I decided to throw a little ailurophobia into the mix, with a billionaire, a really domineering alpha male, going to pieces whenever Shadow crosses his path. The dictionary definition of this psychological condition describes an irrational aversion to cats, a fear and even a loathing of them. And while I play the situation for laughs, it’s serious for the sufferers. They can suffer panic symptoms – trembling, nausea, shortness of breath, even heart palpitations.
What causes this phobia? It could be due to an unfortunate experience with a cat during the sufferer’s childhood, picking up anti-cat attitudes from parents, or an intense belief in cats’ bad rep in terms of evil magic. I like a semi-Buddhist friend’s theory – cat-haters must have spent several recent reincarnations as mice.
Let’s face it, though, loving cats is just about as irrational as hating them. The ancient Egyptians worshiped cats as gods and even mummified them. The darker side of that was the temple kitten mills where cats were raised to become mummies and sold to the devout. X-rays of some of those remains show the embalmed “gods” had broken necks. And they certainly didn’t get much love in later days. Some 38,000 pounds of mummified cats were exported to England for use as fertilizer in the late 1800s.
A lot of websites list historical figures like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Genghis Khan as ailurophobes. More recent members of the cat-haters club include Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, and Joe Stalin. A lot of this seems to be more myth than history, however. It’s an intriguing notion: Mighty despots who could order millions around couldn’t stand little furry creatures with a famous independent streak.
Of course, if you ever tried to order a cat around, a quick descent into irrationality is the least you could expect.
And it’s not just bad guys who suffer from ailurophobia. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general who won World War II and became 34th president, apparently ordered his staff to shoot any feline trespassers wandering near his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I have no reports regarding the situation around the White House during his presidency. Artists, too, have been afflicted with this cat hostility – Shakespeare, the dancer Isadora Duncan, even La Toya Jackson.
But creative folks have also been cat lovers. Hemingway, Mark Twain, and Stan Laurel all were friends of furballs. When it comes to the powerful, two figures from the American Civil War, Lincoln and Lee, were kitty-lovers. One of the greatest leaders of the Twentieth Century didn’t just love cats, he continued to do so from beyond the grave. During World War II, Winston Churchill not only attended dinners but Cabinet meetings with a cat named Nelson sitting beside him. During Churchill’s final years, he was given a marmalade cat whom he named Jock. When the former prime minister passed away, he arranged that a similar cat should continue to live at Chartwell, his stately family manor, which is now run as a national historic site. At present, Jock V is living there, although he’s not allowed in the historic rooms for fear he’ll destroy the antiques.
Perhaps the sorest point of the ambivalent relationship between humans and felines lies in the field of religion. St. Gregory the Great, an early pope, was apparently very fond of cats. Eight Gregories farther on, though, Pope Gregory IX denounced cats as limbs of Satan, issuing a papal bull against them in the 1230s that resulted in cats being burned. A few centuries later Pope Innocent VIII wasn’t so innocent when he issued a bull branding cats as co-conspirators with witches. Any woman burned at the stake would be accompanied by her supposed familiar. That was in 1484. Apparently the faithful did such a good job thinning the cat population that the bubonic plague, carried by flea-infested rats, repeatedly ravaged Europe. The city of London alone suffered outbreaks in 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665, killing off ten to thirty percent of the population during those years.
More recently, though, cats had a friend in the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI was a cat-lover from when he was young and had a feline companion while he was a cardinal. Vatican rules, unfortunately, do not allow a cat in the papal apartments. However, Benedict had many furred pals on the streets of Rome, a city with many strays. Onlookers report that the cats knew the Pope when he went out for strolls and would come running to him. On one occasion, a procession of about ten cats followed him back to the Vatican, forcing the Swiss Guards to warn the pontiff about a “cat invasion.”
We still don’t have a pill to cure cat-phobia (or cat-mania, for that matter). But science has come to the defense of cats and the way they behave around ailurophobes. The kitty that makes a beeline for the one person in the room who’s uncomfortable around cats isn’t using some feline sixth sense to make his victim miserable. It’s simply a cattish reaction to two-leggity behavior. Among cats, a prolonged stare is a challenge. So for somebody like Shadow, strangers making kissy noises, calling “puss-puss,” or trying to pick him up would be seen as threatening types. The person who’s sitting still and not looking his way comes across as pleasant and non-threatening, the perfect lap to hop onto. How’s a cat to know that will cause cold sweats and pounding hearts?
Maybe the ailurophobe should react like my character in Hiss and Tell, having a loud meltdown whenever he catches a glimpse of Shadow. At least then the cat has a little warning. . .
*Hiss And Tell By Claire Donally * A Sunny and Shadow Mystery * 296 pages * $7.99/US *