Extraordinary Cats
Astounding Acts of Cat Bravery

To most people, Bart the cat may look like just another tabby. But to high school student Jose Ybara and his mother, the mischievous Illinois feline is a hero.

One night a few years ago, just before the break of dawn, Jose lay in his bed suffering from a sudden, life-threatening seizure. Bart, apparently alarmed by Jose’s distress, leapt upon the mother’s bed in the next room. “She was licking my mom’s eyelids, scratching and meowing, doing anything she could to wake her up,” Jose later told reporters. The warning worked: Jose made it to a nearby hospital and his life was saved. And, in a historic first, the Illinois government honored Bart for her “ingenuity and persistence” in the rescue.

Amazing? Yes. But no more remarkable than the many exceptional cats profiled in the NATURE program EXTRAORDINARY CATS. From Sooty, the English cat who found his way over 100 miles back home, to Scarlett, who risked her own life to save her five kittens from a burning building, EXTRAORDINARY CATS profiles the incredible exploits that even the most complacent fat cat can perform. It also highlights the remarkable bonds that people have forged with these once wild creatures, from convicts who find a second chance by grooming their silky fur to psychologists who try to help cats from driving their owners crazy.

Cats and people have a relationship that goes back a long way. Scholars believe that people first welcomed cats into their homes in North Africa more than 2,500 years ago. The partnership was born out of mutual benefit: people welcomed the cats because they killed the mice and rats that threatened to eat their hoards of grain; the cats, in turn, got shelter and a stable food supply. The first house cat, in fact, may have been a small wild cat with a yellowish coat and pale stripes whose relatives can still be found in the wild today. Over time, however, many other wild species were added into the mix, producing the array of multicolored breeds that can be seen today at cat shows everywhere, from huge Maine coon cats and hairy Persians to spotted jungle lynxes and short-tailed pixiebobs.

There is little doubt that even the first cat owners revered their pets. Early Egyptians, for instance, elevated them to the status of deities, including in their pantheon a pointy-eared cat goddess. Cats were mummified and buried with their owners, and the Egyptians reportedly imposed the death penalty on anyone convicted of killing a cat. Felines appear in paintings and sculptures from ancient Greece, Rome, and India, and they even made it onto the money — with their whiskered faces peering out from coins.

But not all cultures encouraged cats. One 15th century pope, for example, decreed that cat-fanciers be burned as witches. And in England, a Witchcraft Act of the early 1700s identified black cats as dangerous animals to be shunned. Even so, many Europeans still consider black cats as symbols of luck — and they’ve become one of the most popular pets worldwide.

Even many of today’s lap cats aren’t completely domesticated, however. They still retain the ability and the instincts to hunt and live on their own. Indeed, these survival skills have led to a troubling cat population problem in the United States, where millions of feral, or wild, cats roam cities and fields, wreaking havoc on wild bird populations and other wild animals. The growth of feral cat populations is one reason veterinarians encourage cat owners to have their pets spayed or neutered, rendering them unable to produce kittens. Some simple math dramatizes just how important these inexpensive procedures can be. If a lone wild female cat produces just two litters per year, and each of her surviving daughters does the same, the total number of cats descended from just this one animal would be more than 30,000 in just six years. Such reproductive potential may explain why Boston’s National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy estimates that there are 100 million homeless cats in the United States. Other researchers put the number at about half that — still a number great enough to make up an army of wild cats.

Despite its independence, our fascination with the cat is sure to continue. There is just something about that purr and the way a kitten curls up in your lap that makes these animals irresistible to all but the most allergic. But as EXTRAORDINARY CATS shows, that kitty lazing on the couch may have a hidden side that comes out in crisis — whether it is saving a life or cheering up an owner’s gloomy day. Like Bart, Sooty, and Scarlett, even the most ordinary kitty may be capable of extraordinary things.

To order a copy of EXTRAORDINARY CATS, please visit the NATURE Shop.
Online content for EXTRAORDINARY CATS was originally posted February 1999.

  • vickie

    I have always loved cats and will help them untill I die…..Cats go under the radar when it comes to helping people….no-one knows unless you have witnessed it…..and I have.

  • Someone

    When the cats were killed in the Medieval times, that was one of the causes why the black death arose!!!

  • Karmen

    I knew that cats are great and brave, but misunderstood. There should be notices about kitty bravery.

  • tariq

    i didnt use to like cats but this story changed my mind

  • Ann

    I am disable because of a heart condition and have had as many as three in one 7 day period I would like to tell you about the day my cat. Chaton, and the day he saved my life. My roommate and i had just sat down at the table to enjoy our home cooked bar b que and fixing, when my cat jumped up in my lap. I put Chaton on the floor and my roommate and i proceeded to eat our meal. Sudenly chaton jumped up on my lap again. I Put him down again. At t,his point my roommate wanted to know why Chaton kept jumping into my lap when I had told him Chaton was well behaved and never disturb me when i was eating. I said i didn’t know andChaton’s behavior puzzeled me. My roommate ask if i could be haveing troible with my heart. I said no. But my roommate insisted on takeing me to the hospital;even though I told him I had no symptoms. I said alright but told him Chaton jumping in my lap was only alapse in manners. We arrive at the hospital thirty minutes late;still no symptoms. I told the Emergency staff what transpired wth my cat Chaton. Having treated me for my heart attacks numerous times over four years, and knowing I was frequently without symptom, performed the enzyme test. To my shock and that of my roommate it proved that i was having a “silent heart attack” which was known to the medical field, but unknown to me.. The cardiologist told me, if i had not left home when i did, i might not have survived th thirty minute drive to th hospital. The incedent happen in january 2007, and it is now May 2010. I still have Chaton with me today. so far he has never had to alert me again about my heart. Maybe just having him with me has made a difference. I have not had heart a attack since 2007. His name, Chaton (”shaton”) means kitten and he still plays like a kitten even today .

  • Danielle

    Cats are amazing and sensitive creatures, ppl that dislike them is because they haven`t had one or maybe they haven`t spend some time with them(to get to know the animal) the difference between cats and dogs(dogs are beautiful as well) is that cats are no so”emotional” like a dog not because it doesn`t love you is just because waits to know you first :)

  • Lossims

    I don’t like cats very much, but these stories have changed my mind a little bit. Now, i see them with better eyes.

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