Purring Predators


As agriculture took hold in Middle Eastern societies about 10,000 years ago, archeological evidence of cat domestication appears. When humans began storing grain, any rodent-killing animal was a benefit. But the presence of cats didn’t spread along with agriculture. Egyptians may have revered cats, but other civilizations used weasels or snakes to limit mice. In the painting “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, the weasel may symbolize purity or the young woman’s last name (similar to the Greek word for ermine). With all due respect, however, I think the animal may have just been the lady’s pet; weasels were more common pets than cats at that time.


Cats may have been popular in Egypt during the heyday of the Roman Empire, but Greeks and Romans kept weasels as their rodent-killing pets. Cats joined European families around the fourth century but were relatively uncommon until the 1600s (1).

Nowadays, of course, cats are popular pets and internet memes. Their omnipresence is also a major cause of concern to ecologists and bird lovers. In a 2013 research article, Loss et al. estimated our purring pets (and their feral cousins) kill about 2.5 billion birds and 12 billion rodents each year in the U.S. alone (2).

P.s. The adorable cat who posed for this painting is our own 18-year old feline princess, Flea. She’s killed exactly one bird in her life, a fledgling finch who accidentally flew into her mouth. Flea didn’t even bite down; the little bird panicked to death.

  1. The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life. G.L. Campbell. 2014. Oxford University Press.
  2. Loss, S.R. et al. 2013. The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications 4:1396.

14 thoughts on “Purring Predators

  1. Our cat Claudio (only 8 years old to your Flea’s amazing 18!) might as well be a weasel, I often think, as much trouble as he gets into… But fortunately he too has only killed one bird — a baby cardinal that had already fallen from a nest. We let him out, but not unsupervised… (Fortunately he’s a bit too slow for birds; voles are more his speed, and I’m totally fine with that.) Does Flea happen to be a Ragdoll, by any chance? She reminds me of Ragdolls I’ve known, especially in that pose! They’re beautiful but their chief trait is their cuddlesomeness.

    • The trouble-makers are the best. Flea seems to be a “mutt” of the cat world. I was told she had a fluffy white cat mom and a black feral cat dad. I think she’s got a bit of Siamese because she’s so chatty. Who knows!

  2. I do believe human development kills many more birds (and other species) than cats. That said, I’m glad for the feral cats that help keep the rodent population under some kind of control around here.
    Great cat expression and pose. (K)

  3. Such an interesting post and such a lovely painting of cat! 🙂 And I love your cat’s name. 😀 I know one guy whose cat’s name is Rentsel, which is Estonian word for “runnel” or “street gutter”. 😀 Unusual pet’s names are the best! 🙂

  4. Love and Loss: when a beloved pet dies – RedNewtGallery

  5. Happy 5th Birthday, RedNewt! – RedNewtGallery

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