August 08, 2019
(++++) CAT AS CAT CAN
Fearless Felines: 30 True Tales of Courageous Cats. By Kimberlie Hamilton. Scholastic. $9.99.
Think of an animal that helps humans in many ways, in times of war as well as peace, that assists and inspires and is beloved far and wide, and you probably won’t think of a cat. As delightful as they are in many ways and for many people, cats have a well-earned reputation for being self-willed, standoffish and often downright indifferent to the humans among whom they live.
Like other generalizations, this one contains enough truth so that the book Fearless Felines will likely come as something of a surprise – even to cat lovers. Kimberlie Hamilton actually offers far more than 30 stories about helpful and, yes, courageous cats, because in addition to the 30 full-page profiles of specific felines, she includes page after page listing other cats that also did remarkable things of one sort or another. And some really are remarkable. For example, a cat named Oscar, who lives in a New England nursing home, has an uncanny but apparently not uncatty ability to know when someone there is about to pass on. Far from frightening people, Oscar appears to soothe their last hours – although, as Hamilton points out, no one knows quite how Oscar knows what he knows. Hamilton follows the story of Oscar with a couple of pages on genuinely spooky cats, such as one that used to haunt the basement of the United States Capitol and another that is still seen from time to time at a hotel in Arkansas.
The stories here – illustrated in multiple styles by 16 different artists – take place in many times and many countries. There is the “theater cat” named Beerbohm, who once lived behind the scenes on London’s West End and famously appeared in the limelight at least once during every show’s run – always at a completely unpredictable time. There is a cat named Sam who, during World War II, survived the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck, was adopted by the crew of a British ship, survived the sinking of that ship, was taken aboard an aircraft carrier, lived through the torpedoing of that ship as well, and finally – after three shipwrecks in a single year – was moved to land and became the governor of Gibraltar’s chief mouser. Nor was Sam the only politically connected cat: one named Humphrey actually bore the official designation of “Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” and ended up serving three British prime ministers.
There are also cultural cats profiled in Fearless Felines, and while “fearless” may be an overstatement for them, their stories are certainly interesting. A Philadelphia cat named Nora spontaneously started playing the piano at her home one day and was soon the subject of some of those notorious online cat videos that seem to have sprung up everywhere, but – this is what makes her special – actually inspired a human composer to write a piece called CATcerto that is acknowledged as the first piano concerto ever composed for a cat. And then there is Polar Bear, the stray cat adopted by writer Cleveland Amory that inspired him to write the well-known book, The Cat Who Came for Christmas. And for a story of a different type, Hamilton tells about a Canadian cat named Snowball, whose hair was found at a murder scene and used, through genetic testing, to catch the killer – the first time animal DNA was ever used in a criminal-court trial.
Hamilton mixes these stories with snippets of information on all sorts of feline accomplishments: the largest known litter of cats was 19, born to a cat in Britain; two cats in Thailand had a 500-guest wedding that cost $24,000; the loudest cat purr ever recorded came in at 86.3 decibels; the oldest known cat was a Texas feline named Creme Puff, who lived to be 38 years and three days old; and so on. There are also a few cat questions here, asking why cats hate getting wet (not all cats do, but many find wet, heavy fur uncomfortable) and why cats love catnip (no one knows, and not all cats find it enticing). And there are fascinating facts in Fearless Felines: Napoleon and Julius Caesar were afraid of cats; cats face more danger when falling from a low place than from a high one; adult cats meow only to communicate with humans; some cat hairballs are the size of baseballs; cats have just 473 taste buds, while humans have 9,000. But the point here is not so much to collect tidbits of factual information on cats in general as it is to learn a bit about 30-plus specific cats and the sometimes surprising and unexpected ways in which they have helped (or at least interacted intriguingly with) humans. And “fur” readers who want to find out even more about these and other fearless (or feckless) felines, Hamilton helpfully provides, at the back of the book, some suggestions for “Furr-ther Reading.”