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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 11:01 GMT
In defence of cats
They're sadistic murderers and multiply like rabbits - but Britons still prefer cats to any other pet. Why?

The UK's 10 million cats have had it rough of late, drawing harsh criticism because of their bloodlust and bloodlines.

According to the RSPCA, a single female moggy, left unchecked, could spawn a bloodline of 50 million cats during her 10-year lifespan.

Cherie Blair and Downing Street cat Humphrey
"I'm not from Cheshire ... oh, you were talking about her"
But cats' hunger for flesh has seen them branded "serial killers".

They cut a swathe through the nation's wildlife, said the Mammal Society - which reckons some 275 million animals meet their maker under a cat's paw every year.

Out on the prowl, the feline taste for blood appears insatiable, with few British animals off the menu, as cat owner John Etherington testifies.

"Our cuddly, domesticated Siamese tom used to bring home wood pigeons, small birds, adult squirrels, rats, mice, voles, shrews, slow-worms and young rabbits. We watched him chase off foxes. He demolished birds' nests, killed butterflies and many other invertebrates. All these creatures were tortured to death."

Former Really Wild Show host, Chris Packham, reacted to the Mammal Society's verdict by suggesting cat curfews, if necessary. Not surprisingly, this raised the hackles of the pro-cat lobby.

Cat and a mouse
Cats: Taking over the world?
Cats are often the victims of human malice, they argue.

People are prone to judging the hunting habits of cats by our own moral standards, says animal behaviourist Sarah Heath - author of Why Does My Cat?

"Cats are solitary predatory hunters. People ask why they kill when they are clearly well-fed - but a cat's motivation to hunt is quite separate from its desire to satisfy hunger."

Even with a full stomach, a cat cannot resist the stimuli of prey passing nearby, says Ms Heath.

Saved by the bell?

"It doesn't make sense for a cat to wait until it's hungry to catch food - there may be none around then. Better to hunt when there's the opportunity and hide the food away."

Anne Widdecombe MP and some stuffed cats
Cats are solitary hunters and seldom attack humans
Owners who have resorted to collar bells to warn prey may have underestimated feline guile.

"Some cats have learned to hold their heads to minimise noise coming from the bells around their necks. Perhaps we need to admire this skill, rather than get paranoid about it."

We haven't always been so upset by such killing instincts. Simon, ship's cat of HMS Amethyst, became the only moggy to win the Dickin Medal - the animal Victoria Cross - for his war on rats.

When the destroyer was pinned down by enemy fire during the Chinese civil war in 1949, Simon's rising tally helped safeguard the ship's dwindling food supplies and boost crew morale.

Cat Deeley
"Wrong sort of cat, mate"
Today, our cities have their own rat problem, with an estimated 70 million of the vermin roaming the sewers and streets.

Even Buckingham Palace is suffering a rodent invasion, and there's not much a corgi can do about that.

Cats have often suffered in comparison to man's best friend, the dog. Labour grandee Roy Hattersley denounced cats as "evil" when the Mammal Society report came out.

Mr Hattersley's own dog, Buster - who himself famously killed a goose in a royal park - is "an avenging angel" for attacking these "sleek assassins".

Dog's day

Dogs value the company of humans, cats merely take advantage of our good nature, goes the argument.

Lord Hattersley and Buster
Dogs: Friendly
The cat's solitary nature is at the root of this, says Ms Heath. "Cats can enjoy social interaction, but don't have a need for it, as dogs do. This makes them look selfish."

Dogs' desire to be close to us comes at a price. In America alone, they attack 4.5 million people a year - killing at least 20. Young children are often the target.

"Dogs learn to attack rather than retreat. Because flight is their first defence strategy, cats tend to run away rather than attack humans," says Ms Heath.

Familiar problem

Though the ancient Egyptians revered the cat, it has suffered at the hands of humans ever since.

The animal's supposed links to witchcraft and the occult led several medieval popes to order bloody retribution against the "familiars".

Socks the White House cat
"The sparrow? Bill pardoned me for that"
Even today, some view the black cat as an omen of misfortune. They have suffered accordingly - animal rescue charities report owners are wary of adopting the "spooky" creatures.

Even the English language is stacked against the moggy. The spiteful are dubbed "catty". A raucous cry is a "caterwaul". At work, a greedy, lazy boss is a "fat cat".

But, to be fair, we can't hate cats that much. A recent report found our generosity has caused one in four of the creatures to become clinically obese.

See also:

19 Feb 01 | UK
Palace on mouse alert
10 Jan 01 | Americas
Socks to get the boot
25 Nov 97 | Politics
Purr-fect ending fur Humphrey!
02 Oct 99 | Wales
Woman dies from cat bite
02 Dec 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Life as a feline foster parent
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