We are truly living in one of the great ages of the famous pet. I am speaking not just about myself (I am in possession of a profoundly stupid cat who has gained a small degree of social media fame for her tendency to sit happily in puddles/lick power sockets/get stuck in unlikely places), but about the world at large — from We Rate Dogs to Maru the infinitely video-friendly feline, the internet has brought us more adorable goofiness from more pets than ever before. But pets have played an important role in many cultures for a long, long time — and they've often done much more than just entertain us. And since June is Adopt-A-Shelter-Cat Month, there's never been a better time to celebrate cats and their tendency to show up at historically important moments in human civilization (usually to cause chaos and then sit quietly pretending they didn't do anything, of course.)
Cats have had an intriguing historical rap. As I've discussed before, their appearance as pets in Europe took centuries longer than it took dogs, because of their reputation as demonic familiars and general bringers of bad luck. Even those who did welcome them into their home were also, it appears from the historical record, opening themselves up for infamy. And yes, some of those people ended up with cats who caused trouble. But many of these historical cats were loyal, loving, and lucky — or, at the very least, contributed to major innovations in 20th century science.
The Cat Who Broke Into The Tower Of London
The cat of the Earl of Southampton, Trixie, is immortalized as one of the most loyal in human history — but it's actually unclear whether she was just in pursuit of some attention. Henry Wriothesley, the earl in question — who was also possibly the paramour of Shakespeare at some point (and certainly had some sonnets dedicated to him) — was thrown in the Tower of London in 1600 for a foiled plot involving the English court, the Globe Theatre and some bonkers attempt at treason against Elizabeth I (it would take a long time to fully explain). Wriothesley was imprisoned until 1603, and in that time, the legend of his loyal cat Trixie appeared.
Trixie apparently was not having this imprisoned-master nonsense, and kept turning up at the Tower in his cell, possibly through getting down the chimney or being smuggled in by Wriothesley's wife. Some people alleged that he was bringing Wriothesley morsels of food, but that's likely hogwash. How Trixie got in and out was unclear — but Wriothesley was so impressed that he commissioned the above portrait with her the background. It's all the more impressive because the Tower was also where the Queen kept her royal menagerie — including some very unfriendly lions.
King Charles' Lucky Black Cat (Who May Not Have Been All That Lucky)
During the reign of King Charles I from 1625 to 1649, black cats were still regarded as violently problematic animals, prone to demonic bad deeds, possession, and getting involved in witchcraft. In fact, Charles' father, King James, published an entire book on "Daemonologie," which included a section on a witch who'd allegedly sacrificed a cat to try and capsize his fleet as he traveled to Norway.
But Charles had his own views about the animals. He possessed a black cat of his own, named it Luck, and was apparently terrified of anything happening to it, convinced that its fortunes were the same as the kingdom of England. Luck led a deeply pampered life, and it does appear as if its death heralded the end of Charles's fortunes; the day after Luck's passing, he was arrested by the troops of Oliver Cromwell and taken off the throne.
Tesla's Electric Cat
The phenomenon of static electricity in the fur of cats isn't a new thing. An 18th century conjurer and trickster with the excellent name Gustavus Katterfelto traveled around Europe with a troupe of black cats that he called "Doctor's Devils" — he claimed to have enchanted them, but he was actually just using them to create static sparking electricity. However, it was the household pet of a child called Nikola Tesla that would inspire the ideas behind many of the greatest innovations of the 20th and 21st centuries.
According to Tesla's memoirs, when he was a child of three living in remote Croatia, he had a beautiful cat named Macak whose properties during one exceptionally cold winter interested him immensely. "In the dusk of the evening as I stroked Macak's back I saw a miracle that made me speechless with amazement. Macak's back was a sheet of light and my hand produced a shower of sparks loud enough to be heard all over the house." What the cat thought of this performance was not recorded, but Tesla was fascinated and driven to discover what on earth was happening. His resulting career marked him out as one of history's great geniuses. Thanks, Macak.
The Cat Actors Of Early Hollywood
Cats have had a strong history in moving pictures, and several famous cat characters were played by the same feline actors. Pepper the blue-grey cat, discovered as a stray on a Keystone Cops movie set by the director Max Sennet, would appear in dozens of films throughout the early stages of cinema. She had a CV any actor would envy, sharing the screen with Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin (whom she played at checkers), Teddy the Wonder Dog and Fatty Arbuckle.
Her main competition for the most famous early-film cat was a feline named Orangey, whose most famous role was Audrey Hepburn's "Cat" in Breakfast At Tiffany's. In contrast to Pepper, who famously got along with every human and animal she ever acted beside, Orangey was a diva and notoriously difficult to direct —but he won two PATSYs (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year, an award given by the American Humane Society) and is therefore one of the most highly-decorated cats to have ever lived.
The Cat Astronaut
Yes, you read that right. Félicette, who was recovered as a stray from the streets of Paris in the 1960s, would become the world's first "astrocat" on November 24, 1963, when she was sent 156km into the air and then safely returned to earth. In that sense she did better than Laika, the dog who made it into space but, due to overheating, would not survive to return to land. The French had previously put Félicette through intensive astronaut training, including centrifugal experiences and compression chambers, along with 13 other animals — but the black-and-white cat was the one selected to make the maiden flight.
The story doesn't necessarily end well for the astrocat. She was sent into space with various electrodes implanted in her brain to measure how she coped with the whole experience, but because of the lack of wireless technology in the 1960s, we don't know how the information from the electrodes was read — some believe that Félicette likely didn't survive the study. It's not clear if that side of things is true, though, so it's entirely possible that Félicette lived to a happy, Earth-bound old age.