“A dog is a man’s best friend. A cat is a cat’s best friend.” – attributed to Robert J. Vogel
The professional portfolio of the domestic cat began to expand in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The aptly titled “business cats” continued to service their masters as mousers in granaries, produce markets, restaurants, antique shops, bookstores, and other commercial establishments. A long-haired tortoiseshell molly named “Towser,” who monitored the Glenturret Distillery near the market town of Crieff in Scotland from 1963 until her demise in 1987, is said to have been the most prolific mouser that ever lived. Towser, according to various reports, ensnared and disposed of approximately 28,889 mice over the course of her magnificent career. Outdoor cats were part of the feline workforce, too. An army of feral cats were routinely released every night in Disneyland following the theme park’s opening in Anaheim, California on July 17th, 1955. The only rodent spared was Mickey Mouse himself. 200 feral cats continue to have free rein over the Happiest Place on Earth to this day.
Cats were also recruited as federal employees. In September 1868, the British Secretary of the Royal Mail officially approved the enrollment of three cats at the Money Order Office in London, who were tasked with eliminating the furry vermin that constantly chewed on envelopes, packages, and mail sacks. The department’s postmaster initially appealed for an allowance of two shillings a week to pay for all the cat food, healthcare, and additional expenses, but the Secretary found the proposal much too rich for his taste, and apportioned only a single weekly shilling to all three cats.
Whatever the case, the feline threesome were officially salaried workers. Postal mousers were granted their first pay raise in 1918; each cat, from that point forward, would receive their own shilling each week. The post office cat trend caught on quite quickly. Dazzled by the proficiency of these mousers, a few flirted with the idea of employing these cats to deliver the mail. Some were more determined than others to push the envelope, so to speak.
In the 1870s, postmasters in the Belgian city of Liege made a concerted effort to transform 37 cats into four-legged couriers. The plan sounded straightforward enough on paper. Cats with waterproof sacks packed with letters, documents, and light packages fastened around their necks would deliver said sacks to their appropriate locations. As one may have predicted, operation cat messenger was a total bust. These intractable felines drifted off course almost immediately upon their release, and either had trouble grasping the concept of, or had no interest in delivering the consignments in a timely manner, much less to the right address.
Cats were also employed as mousers in the US Postal Service, as well as other federal buildings. In 1904, George W. Cook, the one and only “Superintendent of Federal Cats” in American history, hosted a party for 60 postal cats to commemorate both his 81st birthday and his 54th work anniversary. The grand affair, held at the Mullet Post Office in Manhattan, was sponsored by the federal government. The feline guests tucked into a scrumptious feast of lamb kidneys and calf livers laid out on sheets of white parchment.
American house cats were also sworn in as police staff, serving as both mousers and beat cops. Jerry Fox, a beefy tiger cat who patrolled the streets of Brooklyn between 1879 and 1905, was credited with aiding in the arrest of purse snatchers, trespassers, and other petty criminals, as well as sounding the alarm for gas leaks and fires. When Jerry’s increasingly deteriorating vision became irreparably compromised in 1903 at the age of 28, a local optometrist crafted for him a pair of custom-made spectacles. Still, the bespectacled cat managed to sniff out a lit cigar that had been left unattended in Bourough Hall, whereupon he led the authorities to the premises before it went up in flames.
Cats were enlisted in a number of modern wars. In 1854, a tan-and-brown tabby named Sevastopol Tom, also known as “Crimean Tom,” supposedly saved the lives of an entire regiment of British and French soldiers, who were on the verge of starvation, by guiding them to a hidden stash of food in the Russian port town of Sevastopol. A conservative estimate of 500,000 cats are believed to have served in World War I, and this was excluding the mousers that were put to work in warships. Feline veterans hunted disease-ridden rodents and pests, doubled as mascots and gas detectors, and led medics to wounded soldiers.
A lucky monochrome tomcat named Simon was another feline veteran whose heroic feats have been immortalized. In 1949, towards the end of the Chinese Civil War, the British liner Amethyst was torpedoed on the Yangtze River. 19 men, the captain included, were killed by the blast, and another 27 were gravely wounded. Simon himself was struck by four shards of shrapnel, but the brave cat powered through and soldiered on with his mousing and mascot duties, doing his utmost to raise the morale of what remained of the crew. Simon passed away shortly after the ship’s return to Britain, seemingly having held on for as long as he did for the sake of completing his mission. He was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal for his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty,” and remains the only cat in the world to hold such an honor.
Cats were also, on several occasions, recruited for espionage plots and intelligence missions. In the 1960s, the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology department rolled out the Acoustic Kitty Project, which sought to turn cats into listening devices. Robin Michelson, one of the bright minds behind the human cochlear implant, was commissioned by the agency to install a microphone in a lab cat’s ear canal and implant a miniature radio transmitter in its skull. The microphone was connected to a battery pack lodged in its rib cage via a thick wire that snaked down from its inner ear. The idea was for the cat to covertly transmit and record the sounds around it without being detected.
Had the cruel operation been a success, the acoustic kitty would have been used to spy on the military strategy meetings in the Soviet and Kremlin embassies. Fortunately for all cats across America, the project was a resounding failure. According to a former CIA agent named Victor Marchetti, the first field test alone, which aimed to listen in to the conversation of two shady characters chatting among themselves across the Soviet consulate in Washington, was clear foreshadowing of the project’s fate.
“They put the cat out of the van,” recounted Marchetti in a BBC documentary in 1995. “ – and a taxi comes and runs him over. There they were, sitting in the van with all those dials, and the cat was dead!” Marchetti’s story, however, was contradicted by the ex-director of the Office of Technical Service Robert Wallace in 2013. “The equipment,” Wallace asserted. “ – was taken out of the cat [in question]. It was then re-sewn for a second time, and lived a long and happy life afterwards.” Either way, the following field tests, which featured an undisclosed number of new test subjects, never did make the grade, and $20 million was flushed down the drain.
In more recent years, the capitalization on the diverse talents of domestic cats has taken a turn for the better, though some would argue that it remains exploitation all the same. Many cats today are cogs of the entertainment industry. Some are schooled in circus tricks, and others, the faces of local, national, and international brands. Some are seasoned stars of the silver screen, and others, the superstars of some of the most viral videos of the 21st century. The legendary Grumpy Cat, who first shot to stardom when her owner, Tabatha Bundesen, shared a snap of her on Reddit in 2012. The sourpuss has reportedly racked up an eye-widening total of $100 to 125 million in lifetime earnings through merchandise sales, book deals, modeling and cameo appearances, YouTube ad revenue, and likeness rights. Olivia Benson, a dashing chiffon-white Scottish fold belonging to pop star Taylor Swift, is said to have an estimated personal net worth of $97 million.
The world today contains anywhere between 300 and 600 million domestic cats altogether, a number that encompasses indoor cats, feral cats, and strays. 71 distinct cat breeds were recognized by the International Cat Association in 2019, but the actual number is believed to be in the hundreds and steadily climbing.