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The disturbing history of cat abuse: Public hangings, pipe beatings and ‘The Great Cat Massacre’

Cats in a private shelter. (Mariana Bazo/Reuters)
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The recent DNA study making headlines about the “worldwide conquest” of cats — a migration that included cruising on Viking ships, probably without an all-inclusive drinks package — was exhaustive and fascinating, but ultimately insulting to cats.

They were not given props for conquering the world despite enduring some of the most brutal cruelty ever directed at any animal, like the time in 1730s Paris when apprentice printers revolted against their bosses by holding a mock trial for dozens of neighborhood cats. The felines were quickly declared guilty and hung, beaten and tortured.

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The apprentices started with the great love of their master’s wife, smashing her gray cat with an iron bar, a disturbing story told in the “The Great Cat Massacre” by historian Robert Darnton:

Then they stashed it in a gutter while the journeymen drove the other cats across the rooftops, bludgeoning every one within reach and trapping those who tried to escape in strategically placed sacks. They dumped sackloads of half-dead cats in the courtyard. Then the entire workshop gathered round and staged a mock trial, complete with guards, a confessor, and a public executioner. After pronouncing the animals guilty and administering last rites, they strung them up on an improvised gallows. Roused by gales of laughter, the mistress arrived. She let out a shriek as soon as she saw a bloody cat dangling from a noose.

Darnton’s account is based on a remembrance written by one of the executioners two decades after the killings, which rightfully gives the historian some pause about the accuracy of the story. But to Darnton, little details here and there don’t exactly matter. It’s the context that is revealing — for understanding class divisions of the day and why killing cats seemed so easy, even funny.

Cats were just becoming a prized household member of the elite, but they had been bullied for centuries.

They were seen as non-Christian — tools of witches and the devil. Their incredible ability and interest in procreating made them a promiscuous symbol in a time of prudeness. Popes issued orders to kill any cat in sight. The highlight of Mardi Gras was the execution of a cat. Cats were even used for music, their hair ripped out so their howls could be added to songs. Darnton sets a scene of cats as party favors and decorations:

Cats also figured in the cycle of Saint John the Baptist, which took place on June 24, at the time of the summer solstice. Crowds made bonfires, jumped over them, danced around them, and threw into them objects with magical power, hoping to avoid disaster and obtain good fortune during the rest of the year. A favorite object was cats — cats tied up in bags, cats suspended from ropes, or cats burned at the stake. Parisians liked to incinerate cats by the sackful, while the Courimauds (cour a miaud or cat chasers) of Saint Chamond preferred to chase a flaming cat through the streets.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this history is how the continuing abuse of cats today can be traced back to that moment. Studies show cats are abused at higher rates than dogs or other domestic animals in almost every category of abuse — beating, throwing, mutilation, drowning.

[Imagine if this cat-hating banker from the 1920s had lived to see the Internet]

“The historical ambivalence of many cultures toward cats continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” according to a paper published by the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, which looked at, among other things, “a continuing stream of material promoting, or at least making light of, cat abuse.”

Published in 1963: “The Cat Hater’s Handbook.” Published in 1980: “The Official I Hate Cats Book.” Published in 1988: “How to Kill Your Girlfriend’s Cat.”

It goes on.

Dogs are so lucky.

“This has no parallel in the canine world,” the Humane Society Institute paper said.

The history of cats accounts a good deal for the continued abuse, researchers say. It’s in the culture, passed down through generations.

But in a sad twist of irony, the historical resilience of cats to survive ritual killings, long journeys on Viking ships and other forms of abuse — they are thrown from windows at double the rate of dogs — has been a detriment to their protection. They are seen as almost disposable.

“Despite their relatively small size and fragility, cats have a reputation as survivors, perhaps due in part to the speed, agility, quick reflexes, and other adaptations that allow them to survive situations that would be likely to kill a human or dog,” the Humane Society paper said.

As fast as cats are, as high as they can jump, they can’t out-dart history.

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