Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Black Cats

I have been thinking about black cats lately--probably because I have four of them. There seems to be a large number of black cats among the stray cat population. Maybe that is because there just are more black cats to begin with--second only to tabbies in number. Maybe black cats are better suited to survive the perils of homelessness, for they have come through the hard centuries as survivors.

Those who study such things believe that the earliest domesticated cats were the ubiquitous tabbies. Indeed, tabbiness is ingrained so deeply into a cat's genes that breeders of designer varieties of cats despair at breeding out striped-ness. Mother Nature loves her tabbies.

Evidence suggests that the very first variation on the stripey-cat theme was the mutation that left the coat solid black. Just as some leopards are born black, there must have been the occasional all-black kitten in the ancient litters of proto-cats. As cats became domesticated, these kittens were no doubt viewed as special and treasured for their rarity.

Well, we all know that eventually the human race went through a period of superstition and madness and black cats came to be viewed as demonic or ill-favored. As far as I can tell from my own experience, black cats are only unlucky if you happen to be one--finding yourself the target of every manner of indignity from neglect to barbarous cruelty.

The black cats of today, descendants of the revered and maligned, are friendly, practical companions. Judging from my own small sample, Houdini, Skinny, Bart and Lola each came in from the cold world of the stray or feral and are wary of people they don't know, though affectionate enough with us. Only Little Miss Newt knew love all her life. She was less shy--I couldn't say she was out-going but she accepted visitors.

And then there is Raider.

Raider is what Barbara Holland described as "one of those black cats." You know what she means--those cats who--without having a single trace of "oriental" blood in their lineage, still exude a sense of being Siamese. The first time I read her description, I knew exactly what she meant. I had run across "those black cats" from time to time and, more recently, I have known Raider. Raider is a huge, chunky cat, but there is something about his piercing eyes and his out-going, vocal personality that puts one in mind of the round-headed Siamese cats of the mid-20th century.

Only in the past few month have I puzzled out a possible explanation for these seeming enigmas. I discovered that what we call the "Siamese" or "colorpoint" gene is a mutation that limits the expression of color in a cat's coat to the cooler portions of its body. And that a--say--seal-point Siamese is actually a genetically black cat with the Siamese gene. Since seal-point is probably the original expression of the Siamese/color-point gene, I suspect the original Siamese mutation arose in a population of black cats. So what we think of as the "Siamese" personality may well have been present in a population of all-black cats that were the source of a collection of traits we have come to associate with the colorpoint cats of southwestern Asia. And if the occasional solid black cat reveals something in his personality that whispers of the exotic Siamese, it may just be a sign that the source of "Siamese-ness" is still buried in the core of the black cat.

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