A History of Felines, as Narrated and Illustrated by a CatHistorians in the News
tags: pets, animals, cats
When Paul Koudounaris visited Los Angeles’ North Central Animal Shelter one sunny afternoon in 2011, he didn’t intend to adopt the feline who would go on to become the inspiration for what is almost certainly the most unique cat history book ever published. Instead, the writer and photographer had come to pick up another cat, only to dejectedly discover that his would-be pet had just been adopted by someone else. But as he headed for the door, a striped paw reached out from a wall of cages and caught his shirt. It belonged to a six-month-old brown tabby whose intent green eyes immediately communicated to Koudounaris that she was always meant to go home with him.
Baba, as Koudounaris called his new friend, became not only a beloved companion, but the narrator and model for his new book, A Cat’s Tale: A Journey Through Feline History. Spanning thousands of years, from prehistory and ancient Egypt to the Enlightenment and the New World, the tome features the heroic, tragic, heartwarming and incredible stories of dozens of cats. Many of these characters, including Muezza (“Cherished”), the prophet Muhammed’s companion, and Félicette, a Parisian alley cat sent into space in 1963, are among the most famous felines to ever exist. Others led notable lives but had been all but forgotten until Koudounaris rediscovered them. In addition to depicting specific cats in history, the book also tells the sweeping story of Felis catus’ overall journey throughout various historical eras.
A Cat’s Tale is one of dozens of books about the history of cats. But the richly illustrated volume stands out because it’s actually told through the voice of a cat. Baba acts not only as narrator but also Cindy Sherman-like impersonator, appearing throughout the book dressed as historic individuals and caricatures. Her voice and visage make Koudounaris’ take on the subject truly singular, mimicking oral storytelling more than an academic treatise. As Baba declares in the first chapter, “We cats have been allies to humankind for a very long time, and while you have reserved the sobriquet ‘man’s best friend’ for the dog, I may now provide you reasons to judge differently.” Letting Baba carry the book also allows Koudounaris to make a larger point about the subjectivity of history, including which stories get told and whose point of view and agenda they convey.
“Ostensibly, it’s a feline history book, but it’s also at its heart something more: a challenge to history as being a homo-centric monologue,” Koudounaris says. Underneath Baba’s narratorial sass and charm is “a plea to include other species that have been left out of history,” he adds. “We’re all in this together, and we’re all connected.”
As Koudounaris, an art historian and author who specializes in the visual culture of death, coordinated increasingly complex photoshoots, he began work on what he thought would be his next book: an exploration of pet cemeteries around the world. While researching the new project, however, he started accruing an unwieldy number of stories about amazing yet all-but-forgotten historic cats. Koudounaris learned of an army tomcat named the Colonel, for example, who was stationed at San Francisco’s Presidio in the 1890s and was said to be the best mouser the army ever had. He knew he’d never be able to fit all these gems into a book about pet cemeteries, and in pondering a solution, he came up with the idea for A Cat’s Tale—a book that would highlight the fascinating history of cats in general by putting Baba front and center.
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