Back in the days of “iron men and wooden ships,” Yankee sea captains often sailed with bob-tailed Manx cats onboard – not as stowaways, but as full-fledged members of the crew who earned their passage by keeping the ship’s ever-threatening rat population under control.
Knowing this and being both a cat-lover and a sailor, I always wanted a Manx of my own. About six months ago, I became the proud owner of Phoebe, a Manx kitten.
I named her “Phoebe” because it means “bright,” and she looked smart; and because the British Navy had a cool-looking Leander-class frigate in the Mediterranean of that name when I was a kid.
Manx (sometimes called “Manks”) cats have a naturally occurring mutation that eliminates or shortens the tail.
They originated on the Isle of Man, a remote island, part of the United Kingdom, located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland.
All Manx cats are direct descendants of the original tailless Isle of Man cats, and the breed was enabled by the limited genetic diversity on the island.
Think Australia, Madagascar, and Tasmania.
Other than the cats, the Isle of Man is most famous for the annual Isle of Man “TT” or Tourist Trophy motorcycle race. First held in 1907, it is known as the most dangerous motorcycle race in the world (“38 miles of terror”) with over 250 riders killed since its inception.
In addition to their abnormal “extremite arriere,” Manx cats have other distinguishing features: a rounded head; strong, elongated hind legs which give them a rabbit-like gait, almost appearing to hop; a dog-like personality, being loyal to one person that they constantly follow around; can be taught to fetch; make a unique “keening” noise; and they are stone-cold rat killers.
There are also many interesting myths about the origins of the Manx cat. Regarding their physical attributes: they lost their tail on the ark when Noah inadvertently slammed a door on one of the two Manx’s tail; they are the unfortunate cross between a cat and a rabbit (cabbit), which, like the legendary jackalope of Southwestern United States fame, is genetically impossible.
Likewise, one hears fascinating tales about how they ended up on the island in the first place: they were left there by Phoenician traders (the Philistines in the Bible); they escaped from their Viking owners during the raids of the 9th century; or they were survivors of shipwrecked ships of the ill-fated Spanish Armada in 1588 when Spain tried to invade England.
In fact, a prominent point on the island is called “Spanish Head,” and tradition says a ship floundered there.
In any event, they are a unique breed of cat, and although the modern American Navy does not permit pets onboard as mascots, there has always been a symbiotic relationship between cats and sailors.
In foul weather, we used to say “It’s a great day for women and cats, but it’s bad for sailors and dogs.”
While that analogy would not hold water today, with around 20 percent of the Navy being female, this relationship often took on a “yin and yang” flavor.
For example, cats were once believed to have miraculous powers that could protect ships in storms; if a cat sneezed it meant rain, and if it was frisky a favorable wind was at hand.
On the other hand, some sailors believed that cats could start storms through magic stored in their tails; if a cat licked its fur against the grain, it meant a hailstorm was coming; and if a cat fell or was thrown overboard, the ship would either sink or encounter nine years bad luck.
Cats, like sailors, are also solitary creatures: alone in the crowd, displaced by nature, lonely by choice, and natural-born wanderers.
While this is not a history of cats, they have fascinated mankind since recorded history began.
The early Egyptians actually worshipped cats at one point, and would shave their eye brows in mourning when one of their house cats died. Cats were also popular in ancient Greece.
The word for fear of cats, ailurophobia, comes from the Greek name for an Egyptian cat god.
The comedy playwright, Aristophanes, often included cats in his productions and coined the comic phrase “The cat did it.”
As I think I’ve written before, the author Ernest Hemingway was a cat lover - a six-toed cat (polydactyl) named “Snowball” lived onboard his yacht, “Pilar,” named after a religious shrine in Spain. Some said that Hemingway loved cats more than people.
He once said this about putting down one of his seriously injured cats: “Have had to shoot people but never anyone I knew and loved for eleven years. Nor anyone that purred with two broken legs.”
Purebred Manx kittens start around $600 from reputable breeders.
I got Phoebe from a nice lady in Ocean Springs for $200, so I’m guessing her provenance is a little suspect, but then, so is mine.
I don’t have any papers, either. I’d guess that she’s about 75 percent Manx, but the only trait she’s missing is the rounded head.
Everything else checks out: no tail; lopes when she walks; dog-like devotion to my wife, even though I feed her and take care of her toilette; carries a stick around in her mouth; makes the right sounds and loves people.
In his famous poem, The Naming of Cats (1939), T.S. Lewis said that a cat had to have three names: a sensible, family name, like “George” or Bill Baily;” a particular name that’s both peculiar and dignified, like “”Munkustrap” or “Quaxo;” and finally, but most importantly:
“The name that no human researcher can discover – BUT THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never Confess.”
Phoebe has such a name, part of the cat mystique. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always heard “Beware the quiet man.” And so it is with cats.
You wonder what they are thinking. Is Phoebe thinking about some name that I don’t know?
I wonder, also, if she thinks I’m a cat, or if she thinks she’s a human. Sometimes, too, when I’m watching her behavior, I get the feeling that she’s watching mine.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at bennyhornsby.com.