Real Cats, Real Stories is back with a blast from the past. Did you know that a cat went to space? Félicette, a beautiful black and white stray, underwent training along with 13 other cats in France.
In the late 50s and early 60s, the space race was starting to heat up. And although we often think of this as a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, there were other players in the race.
After the Soviets sent Laika, a dog, into space on November 3, 1957 aboard Sputnik 2 (poor Laika did not survive), NASA sent Enos, a chimpanzee, into space on November 29, 1961. Enos landed safely after orbiting the Earth for one hour and 28 minutes. Many other animals were sent to space during this time, but showing that you could send an animal to space and safely retrieve it was the first big step toward human spaceflight.
They finally narrowed down the pool to one cat, Félicette, to be the first cat in space. On the 18th of October, 1963, the cat, safely secured inside a special capsule on top of a French Véronique AG1 rocket, and launched from the Colomb Bacar rocket base at Hammaguir in the Algerian Sahara desert.
She didn’t go into orbit, but in a flight lasting altogether less than 15 minutes travelled some 100 miles (160 km) into space, where the capsule separated from the rocket and descended by parachute.
Throughout the flight the electrodes implanted in her brain transmitted neurological impulses back to Earth, and the French CERMA, which directed these flights, stated afterwards that the cat had made a valuable contribution to research. The capsule and cat were safely recovered and she was photographed with the team afterwards.
The British press of the time called her the ‘Astrocat’; but at some point and from an unknown source — possibly journalists — she gained the name Félicette.
Continuing from Part 1, where I explained how we came to keep Stiles, and his relationships with our other cats…
Kiki loves elephants and whales, and especially loves watching them if David Attenborough is narrating. She taught Stiles this love of whales, elephants, and David Attenborough from an early age.
He’s particularly fond of baby elephants. He hops up on my desk to watch the You Tube videos (I made a playlist for him), and he has one favorite that is a minute long, and he makes this urgent fussy noise when it ends, and makes me start it over, and over, and over…
He plays fetch and catch, and has since he was big enough to fit a toy in his mouth. And he’s also learning to fly.
He loves all sorts of games, and his intelligence never fails to impress. But even more astounding is his capacity for empathy. Just like his mother seemed to know how to get along with each one of our cats, as well as how to win over humans, Stiles has shown those abilities and more.
If anyone in the house is upset, Stiles must investigate. Whether it’s a human-cat interaction, a cat-cat interaction, or someone is just upset, he wants to make it better.
Kagetora is terrified of men. If my brother is coming over, I try to remember to put Kagetora in my room so that he doesn’t get upset. It doesn’t matter that my brother is a cat lover, and wouldn’t even raise his voice to a cat. Kagetora’s fear was learned during those years he spent as a stray.
Once, I didn’t put Kagetora in my room before my bro stopped by. I went into the kitchen to get something and heard a hiss. I looked over, and Stiles was already there. Stiles saw that Kagetora was upset, but also understands that my brother is a good human, so he simply put himself between Kagetora and my brother so that Kagetora wouldn’t feel so threatened. It worked.
But he doesn’t just understand cat behavior and emotions, he has shown an amazing understanding of human emotion as well.
If I cry, he comes running, jumps in my lap, licks my face, and then, depending on if they are happy tears, sad tears, in pain tears, angry tears, frustrated tears, or fake tears, he will respond in different ways.
He’s the most amazing cat I’ve ever known. Here’s how he reacts depending on my mood:
Pain: He’ll start purring really loudly and lay on my abdomen (I have chronic pain due to abdominal adhesions, and the warmth and vibration of his purring is better at relieving my pain than any drug).
Sad: He’ll make these little consoling noises, and then he’ll cuddle up on my chest, purring. He’ll watch me very closely. As soon as I calm down, he’ll tuck his head under my chin and stay there for as long as I need him.
Frustrated: After licking my face, he’ll lean back and look at me, then he’ll hop down and go get one of his toys, then drag it into the room and place it at my feet so I will play with him. It really does make me forget about my frustrations.
Angry: He does the lean back, then he starts chattering at me, hops down, and starts acting like a total goofball, doing flips, jumping, and just being hilarious. It always works.
Fake: I have tried doing fake crying to see what he’ll do. Once he licks my face, he sighs, hops down, and goes back to whatever he was doing before.
All that had been going on since he was about 6 months old. When he was about 15 months old, I was binge watching one of my shows, and I got all emotional during a particularly poignant scene. Next thing I know, Stiles had jumped in my lap, did the tear sniff, the face lick, but then he did something new.
Sitting in my lap, he tilted his head, raised a paw, pressed it against me just above my clavicle (collar bone) and slowly let it rub against me as it lowered about 3 inches, then he lifted his paw and pressed it against me just above the clavicle again, let it slide down, then he did it again. And again. He watched me very carefully as he did this. At first, I just smiled.
It took me a minute to figure out that he was petting me.
It was so amazing! I started laughing and telling him what a good boy he is. He has since worked the petting into his routine for when I’m sad or in pain. Every time he does it, I feel like I’ve just seen a dancing unicorn or had a conversation with a dragon.
He is so insanely smart and empathetic. He isn’t just highly empathetic with me. He’s like this with my daughter and our other cats as well. We’ll get into more specifics about feline empathy later. For now, just enjoy the AWW!
Today is Stiles’s 2nd birthday. I’ve tried so many different times to figure out how to tell Stiles’s story, and how much he has come to mean to me. I touched on his story a bit when I wrote about his mother, Freya, and also when I wrote about Kagetora. But those mentions barely scratch the surface. I’m going to break this up into several parts since it would make a blog post that is way too long, and there is so much that I think is important to tell you about Stiles because he has taught me more in the 2 years he’s been alive than I learned in the decade before he came along.
I suppose I should begin at the beginning.
On January 27th, 2015, Bunny (AKA Freya, Bun Bun, Baby Bunny) kindly waited for me to wake up until she let me know that it was BABY TIME! Only she didn’t want to have her babies in the box in my closet, nor did she want them in the backup den I’d created. She insisted on having them under the vanity sink in my bedroom. I quickly grabbed a box, swept all the junk under there into it, grabbed a clean blanket (which was my daughter’s Elmo baby blanket), put it down, and Bun Bun got in there without a moment to spare. The babies were coming. I had hoped that, since she had only been 6 months old when she got preggers, that it would be a small litter. 3 or fewer would be ideal, but I thought I could handle 4.
I snapped this picture after kitten number 5 was born (and I was sure, as I had been after number 4, that it was over):
But, of course, it wasn’t over. Stiles was kitten #6. Such a huge litter for such a young mama. She handled it like a champ. Although I wanted to name him Spock (since he did a great little Spock impression), my daughter named him. Stiles was the only kitten that I didn’t have a say in the name. I didn’t plan on keeping any of them, so I didn’t think it really mattered.
When the kittens were 3-4 weeks old, Stiles got sick. My daughter and I had to feed him, and Kikiyo (our 11-year-old, who had been a young mother once herself) was happy to help cuddle and bathe him, as was Kagetora. My daughter and I slept opposite each other so that someone was always awake with him to keep him warm, fed, and to keep an eye out for any worsening symptoms. He pulled through, but we had all bonded with him so strongly, especially Kiki and Kagetora, and I couldn’t take him away from them. And, truth be told, I was very attached to him as well.
A side note on his name: Although he didn’t get the name I wanted for him, I began calling him Mister on those long nights we spent cuddled up together when he was sick, watching Doctor Who. It’s a nod to Mister Spock, and I still call him Mister to this day (so does my daughter most of the time). All our cats have nicknames, so it’s normal for each cat to have several names in our house. Kagetora thinks his name is Baby. Kikiyo (whom we’ve had the longest) responds to Kiki, Kiku, and Baby Squeadle, as well as Squeable and Screeble (these things morph over time, and they tend to be situational as well). Kagome knows her name and she also knows Squeaker (and, of course, Baby Squeaker, even though she was an adult with very firm opinions when we adopted her).
Back to Baby Stiles. We knew early on (before he was 4 weeks old) that he had insomnia. That may sound ridiculous to you, but it isn’t. In fact, that wasn’t even the first time I’d seen a kitten with insomnia. Kiki had it pretty bad when she was young. She grew out of it around 3 years of age, and I hope that happens with Stiles. He gets enough REM sleep, but the light doze NREM sleep is what he misses out on. It’s linked with a fear of missing out (FOMO), and since he is hyper-social like his mama, it’s worse for him than it was for Kiki. He’ll sleep on me while I watch TV, so I now watch TV for a few hours every day just so he gets an extra nap.
Here he is, wide awake while his siblings sleep:
Stiles has always been a special little guy. I knew he was smart early on (Bunny and all of her babies were smart, but Stiles was particularly intelligent, as was Cleo).
After he started recovering from being sick, he had gone from second largest kitten (Bucky was always the biggest) to the smallest kitten. Even smaller than the 3 of his siblings (Steve, Cleo, and Kiri) that were estimated to be 2 full weeks younger than the other 3 (Stiles, Bucky, Juno). When he started feeling good enough to play again, he would hide in my daughter’s lap as she sat cross-legged on the floor, and pop up to ambush his siblings during play time. And if things got too rough, he’d pop back down to safety.
We moved to Michigan when he was just old enough to be away from his mother, but with a strong enough bond with Kiki and Kagetora that I felt that he would be okay learning his manners with them. He was also used to formula by then, and was eating mostly solid food, so it all worked out well.
He did better than expected during the journey from Oklahoma to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In fact, he did much better than the adult cats. He was curious about everything. But he also got a lot of sleep during those 2 traveling days. He curled up mostly with Kiki, but cuddled with Kagetora as well.
Next time, I’ll fill you in on the games he has made up, how he shows incredible empathy and intelligence, and how we bonded with him so strongly.
Of all the myths spread about cats, one of the most tragic is that most people believe that all male cats will kill kittens if given an opportunity. This is absolutely untrue.
Cats are very social, empathetic creatures. Males often help with the kittens in feral populations, as well as when the male lives in the same house with the female and kittens. The reason we don’t see it a lot when our own cats have kittens is because the male isn’t able to get near them if he is a feral, stray, or lives in another home.
In fact, the male doesn’t even need to be related to the kitten(s) in order to want to protect and nurture it.
This isn’t conjecture or wishful thinking or anthropomorphism. The literature is full of studies and observational data that back this up. I have seen it many times.
In fact, I have seen many males, both feral and house cats, help to take care of kittens. I’m not saying all male cats are completely safe, and that there’s no need to worry. What I’m saying is that it’s not set in stone, and you also need to be aware that mother cats sometimes kill their own kittens, and at a higher rate than males. This remains true even when you factor in access.
Several years ago, there was a cat I saw quite a bit while I was in a rural town in Oklahoma. He was very friendly, so we were able to get him neutered, and then released him. We called him Kagetora (shadow tiger; because he followed my daughter around all the time).
He was about 7 months old when he first started following my daughter around. Back then, in 2008, we had a Samoyed-Chow Chow mix named Alaska, and Kagetora loved her. When my daughter took her outside, Kagetora would rub against her, trotting between her legs as she walked, and he would cuddle up close to her when she would nap on the lawn.
When he wasn’t following my daughter and Alaska around, his favorite napping spot was the place where the feral females would have their litters, and he loved helping with the kittens. He’d protect them while mom was away, groom them, play with them, and even share his food.
This is altruism in action. For a very long time, we didn’t believe that animals could behave altruistically. But anyone who studies animals will see it. The smarter the species, the more often we see altruism. I’ll discuss the topic of altruism—both within a species and interspecies altruism—more in the future.
Kagetora got attacked by a coyote one night while protecting the kittens. He managed to scare off the coyote, but he was in bad shape. We nursed him back to health, got the kittens to the Humane Society, and trapped the females and got them spayed. I decided it was time for him to retire, and we adopted him.
Fast-forward to November of 2014. We were fostering a young cat, Freya (AKA Bunny), who was pregnant. (See her story here.) She was only 6 months old when she got pregnant (before we took her in), and she had 6 kittens, so it was a bit much. Kagetora and our then 10-year-old female cat, Kiki (who had kittens before), loved taking care of the kittens. Our older female, who was 17, had never had kittens, and wanted nothing to do with them.
The wonderful thing about Bunny was that she established close and trusting relationships with our 3 cats while she was pregnant, so she not only had help with the kittens, but she had a lot of moral support for herself as well.
One of the kittens, Stiles, got really sick, and we had to bottle feed him and carry him around with us to keep him warm. My daughter and I slept opposite each other so someone was always awake with him. During this time, Kagetora and Kiki bonded with Stiles very strongly. By the time he was old enough to be adopted, they were convinced he was theirs, and I couldn’t take him away from them.
Here’s Kagetora with his baby (he was SO happy to have his own kitten):
And here are Kagetora and Kiki with their baby, Stiles:
Real Cats, Real Stories is a little segment we like to do to highlight the felines who have overcome the odds, who have touched our hearts, and who have shown us that they are so much more than internet memes make them out to be. If you have a story about a cat that you’d like to share, send it to us! (stories at littlecatdiaries.com)
Back in November of 2015, a little kitty followed my daughter home (cats love her, always have, and that’s how we got 3 of our 4 cats). This kitty was about 6 months old, and just so pretty. I thought we’d take her in, try to find her owners or a new home after we got her spayed. By the time we had the money to get her spayed and her shots, and all that good stuff, it was obvious she was already pregnant. We hadn’t let her out, so she was pregnant when she followed my daughter home. I had never seen such a young cat get pregnant.
We named her Freya, but soon just called her Bunny, which devolved into Bun-Bun because she was an impressive jumper.
The day we took her in, she made instant friends with our then 6-year-old male. Our two female cats (then 17 and 10) had a truce going, but they weren’t buds. Bunny knew exactly how to act to make friends with them. She would go up to them (not too close), and flop down on her side, purring and friendly, and she soon became better friends with all our cats than they were with each other. It was amazing.
As her due date got closer, she slept with me, so I would be there when she went into labor. On the morning of January 27, 2015, she thoughtfully waited until I woke up to inform me that the babies were on their way. She wanted to have them under my vanity sink instead of the box or the closet where I had set up places, so I grabbed a box, took all the stuff out of the cabinet, and put down a clean towel just in time for her to have kitten #1.
She had 6 kittens in all, which is a HUGE litter, especially for a very young, first time momma. I took this picture after kitten #5, thinking that was the end of it. Nope! Stiles came into the world about 5 minutes later.
There were a lot of amazing things about Bunny and her kittens. The first was how young she was, then there’s the large litter she had, but one of the most stunning things was that 3 of the kittens appeared to be younger than their siblings by about 2 weeks.
I had heard of kittens in a single litter being younger than their littermates, but I had never seen it before Bunny had her babies. Since she had gone into heat at a very early age, and littermates can have different fathers, it sometimes happens that very young cats can go into heat even in the first weeks of pregnancy. It’s not common for the difference in age to be more than a few days, but Bunny was special in a lot of ways.
Each kitten looked different: Bucky (the biggest) is an orange tabby, Stiles is a grey tabby with white splotches, Juno (Bunny Junior) looks a lot like her mother, Steve was an albino, Cleo is a stunning calico, and Kiri has beautiful seal point coloring (like a Siamese). Stiles, Cleo, and Kiri also have the beautiful medium-length fur that Bunny has. Stiles’s fur lays flat, but his little sisters are very fluffy. Like Bunny, they are also amazingly soft.
Bunny was a great mother, especially considering her age. She was attentive, but since she was extremely social, she was fine with us helping out, and she was also happy to have Kiki and Kagetora help her bathe the kittens. It was very much a group effort. I’ll add more details about this in my post about Stiles.
We found homes for all the kittens except Juno, so when she was old enough, she went to the Tulsa SPCA with Freya. For reasons I’m not clear on, the SPCA renamed Freya to Deliah. I know Juno was adopted quickly because she never appeared on their website, but Freya was there for several weeks. We had moved to a different state, so I felt helpless every time I checked and saw that she was still there, but she did eventually find a home.
I miss her like crazy, but I know she’s out there somewhere, being loved and pampered, just as she deserves. I see her in Stiles’s face and eyes all the time. My sister and niece adopted Cleo and Kiri, and I see Freya in them (especially Cleo) when my sister sends pictures.
She changed my life, and many of the ways I think about cats. Her empathy and intelligence, passed on to her babies as well, continues to change and shape not only my life, but the lives of the people and cats that I strive to help. If I believed in fate, I would surely believe that some special magic brought her into our lives to teach us things that I’m still learning.
Wherever you are, my sweet Bun Bun, I love you, and I think of you often. Thank you.