By Gina Shahbander
Cats would have saved Europe from the Plague. Europe in the 13th century did not understand the concept of an allergy caused by cat’s dander. They accused the cats of stealing people’s breath, they also did not know about the cat’s eye anatomy, when the extra lid in the cat’s eye closes to protect its pupil from bright light the cat was accused of being inhabited by evil that looks at them through the cats eyes hence the term: Evil eye depicted as a cat eye with a narrow opening of the vertical lids.
All this led to the killing of cats, cats were burned alive and people who had cats were accused of witchcraft and were prosecuted with their cats and kittens. In the absence of cats, rodents found a safe heaven in Europe to populate and it wasn’t long before invasions by rodents into Europe took place. By the third invasion, at least half the population of Europe was claimed by the bubonic plague. Some historians say 2/3 of the population was gone in what they called the black death for its painful effects on human and animals.
After the third invasion Europe realized the connection between the rat’s appearance and the plague, and realized that it had killed its savior the cat, which is when the Pope issued a decree acquitting the cats of evil doing.
He ordered the nuns and priests to allow cats into church lands and in convents to encourage people to overcome the phobia they inherited of cats. Unfortunately, the only cat that did not escape the evil accusation is the black cat which kept the evil dogma. The black cat did not escape the evil doing!
All the literature and fairy tales from that medieval era depict cats as an evil holding a trident, or as a pet to a mean character. It was not until 1894, when a French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin isolated the bacillus virus responsible for the plague and it was named Yersinia pestis after him.
Another Frenchman, Paul-Louis Simond, 4 yrs later discovered the role of the flea carried by rodents in transmitting the disease. A vaccine was developed but it had limited success. The cat was re-introduced to Europe by stealing the cats off the Egyptians and Syrian alleys, the French soldiers would steal the Abyssinian Egyptian cats, the Tabby from Iraq (Toby), the Persian, Siamese, Turkish and Himalayan from Syria, and send them back on the ships to Europe.
Cats regained its respect in Europe and became Europe’s favorite pet. The pilgrims brought the cat with them to the new world “America” to protect them during their trip and on the new land.
Feral cats are domesticated cats who got lost or stayed behind as the new immigrants advanced in land, these cats revert to their domestic nature when fed and treated nicely by people. Here is an excerpt I found: Cats Took the Rap for the Black Death.
It may seem insane today, but at the height of the Black Plague, the common cat took the blame for the horrible occurrence and suffered for this erroneous belief. The Black Plague — also known as the Black Death — was the most deadly pandemic in human history. It reached its most virulent peak of lethality between in the mid 14th century (around 1350.) It was likely an outbreak of bubonic plague that began in Central Asia and was carried to Europe by rats on merchant ships.
As we know today, the rats carried tiny fleas, and these fleas were the true transmitters of the bubonic plague germ. Areas with more rats therefore had more fleas and thus a higher instance of plague outbreak. Cats were the first line of defense against the plague. Thus, the disease was able to rage unchecked once felines began to be persecuted and killed by superstitious people who assigned blame to cats.
Cats often got a bad rap in the Dark Ages. Christian religious leaders had often pointed to cats as a source of bad luck or evil. Pope Gregory the 4th said domestic cats were “diabolical”! Black cats in particular were seen as ‘familiars’ of Satan. Cat owners were often accused of being witches merely for owning a feline. Many cats were destroyed during the Inquisition.
And so when the deadly plague first arrived, cats became a scapegoat. People back then didn’t understand about germs and were looking for someone or something to blame for the plague. The feeling that God had abandon them was spreading and religious leaders needed to curb the loss of faith. They needed to blame Satan for the plague. As physical evidence of Satan’s presence, cats were singled out as agents of the devil, who were ‘vessels of evil’, carrying death and sickness with them wherever they went.
The desperate people of the day, frantically searching for a way to fight this invisible scourge, were glad to have a visible enemy they could lash out at. The persecution of cats began in earnest. Felines were hunted and eliminated. Some were sacrificed to God in pyres of fire.
As the feline population decreased, the rat population increased dramatically. They began carrying their flea passengers into new areas where cats had formerly driven them out of. Without cats, rats started to appear everywhere, and the fleas went with them. It seems shocking today that someone would ignore a growing army of rats and kill a cat to stop disease spreading, but that was the thought process at the time. Rats were seen as nuisances and pests. Cats were seen as demonic agents of death!
As a result of the mass cat killing, the plague spread rapidly, reaching across Europe as the rat population traveled freely, unopposed by felines. Worse still, people suffered food poisoning due to rodent droppings in food supplies. Cats got blamed for that, too.
Europeans continued to destroy cats for almost 300 years. After the plague finally faded and the Enlightenment approached, the killing of cats finally stopped. There were relatively few cats left in Europe at that point.
The Black Plague is estimated to have killed 35-50% of Europe’s population at the time. Approximately 40-50 million people died (reducing the population of the world at the time from almost a half a billion to somewhere around 450 million). It wouldn’t have been nearly as catastrophic if the cats had been allowed to do their job and stop the rat population explosion. It took almost 200 years for Europe’s population to recover from the plague. It took even longer for the feline population to rebound from the tragedy.
Each year the World Health Organization registers thousands of new cases and the number continues to rise. New strains of the disease have been discovered that are resistant to treatment. Unless we put cats back on the streets to control rodents before they over populate, the plague remains a threat to mankind. Read the book ” Pourquoi la peste? Le rat, la puce et le bubon (Why the Plague? The Rat, the Flea, and the Bubo), edited by Jacqueline Brossollet and Henri Mollaret. The writer concludes that the plague is a disease of the future. We can change that with education and with giving the cat the respect and love it deserves for protecting our streets and guarding our fields.