Categories: working cats

Should California learn the lesson of the London plague of 1665?

Dr Christina Lin, writes of a massive homeless crisis and infectious disease threat in California in The Times of Israel blog. She refers to that terrifying disease known as the bubonic plague which is also referred as the black death. It’s a disease which killed hundreds of thousands of Londoners between 1348 in 1665. Most of us know of the black death from the great London plague of 1665 and how it was spread by black rats. Fleas on the rats passed the disease from one rat to the other and thence to humans. The disease is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The disease’s symptoms are horrendous.

Homeless people encampement LA. Photo: LA Daily News

Dr Lin writes that the homelessness numbers are increasing in California. Sadly almost 11,000 of the estimated 151,000 homeless people in California are veterans. Homeless people form encampments and encampments are places where rats congregate and on the rats are fleas and she claims that California is experiencing a resurgence of infectious disease some of which have not been seen since mediaeval times including the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague is found in most parts of the state according to public health information provided by Los Angeles County.

She writes that last year, Los Angeles Police Department’s downtown station had an infestation of rats and other vermin. One employee contracted typhoid fever. Los Angeles has been labelled the City of Rats. There were apparently 167 reported case of typhus in 2018.

She refers to an explosion of the rat population which is out of control carrying this most terrifying of diseases: the Black Death. Of course, my mind immediately locks into the great scandal of the 1665 great plague in London when 100,000 Londoners or about 1/5 of the population at that time were killed by this disease.

It was a time when people were terrified of the disease and unsympathetic towards the stray cat. There had been mass persecution of domestic and feral cats for hundreds of years because of their association with the devil and witchcraft. During the plague in London people thought that animals might spread the disease so stray dogs and cats were killed. Around 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were slaughtered. This allowed the rats to proliferate worsening the crisis.

It was discovered that people who kept cats appeared to be more likely to avoid the disease and eventually people realised that it was the rats not the cats who were responsible for spreading the black plague. Cats gained in popularity. They were protected rather than slaughtered.

I wonder whether this ancient lesson might come in handy today in California. I know that TNR is practised quite widely in California because they have an enlightened view in general of how to deal with feral cats. Some people say that feral cats are not very good at keeping down the rat population. You’ll see videos of cats running away from aggressive and large rats in terror. That may apply to domestic cats but I think you will find that by and large feral cats are able keep down the rat population and therefore they could be employed to manage rat populations in the encampments of homeless people.

Perhaps the encampments could be sited where there are feral cat colonies. The two species would be in the same place supporting each other. The cats would be working cats. The situation would replicate almost precisely what happend at the begining of the domestication of the wildcat about 10,000 years ago.

P.S. Dr Lin says that cats contract the disease after killing rats. That may be so but as rats are the primary carrier reducing the rat population through cat predation would appear to be beneficial i.e. one cat kills ten rats. That would leave one carrier where there was once ten.


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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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