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Learning about the

historical laws

governing Cats


Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964). The Tiger in the House. 1922.

Chapter Six
The Cat and the Law


From the epoch of the cat’s godhood down to the modern moment
laws have been passed to protect the cat, laws which have demanded
that man treat the cat in such and such a fashion. Egyptians cat-killers
were punished by death. Diodorus writes of a brave Roman soldier
who was the victim of this law.

It is interesting to compare this extreme measure with the old English
common law which held both cats and dogs as “no property, being
base by nature,” but it is also well to remember that at one time in
England larceny was punished by the death penalty. If a cat had
been considered property the theft of a puss would have led the
thief to the block or the scaffold.

The English “Rule of Nuns” issued in the early thirteenth century,
forbade the holy women to keep any beast but a cat. A canon of a
date nearly a hundred years earlier forbade nuns, even abbesses,
from wearing costlier skins than those of lambs and cats. The Welsh laws
concerning domestic lions were formulated in the tenth century.

In 1818 a decree was issued at Ypres in Flanders forbidding the
throwing of pussies from high towers in commemoration of a
Christmas Spectacle. And today the Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals endeavours to make the punishment fit the
crime for anyone who maliciously mistreats a cat.

But through the ages law-makers have wisely, it would seem, allowed
puss to go more or less her own way, while restricting her master’s
actions in regard to her. I say wisely, for it cannot be considered the
part of wisdom to create laws which will not be obeyed, and I think
I have made it fairly clear that the cat will not obey laws.

A cat makes no attempt to govern other cats and he will not tolerate
such an attempt on the part of man.

While other animals are leashed and muzzled, barned and fenced in,
puss wanders free.

The unclean dog is expelled from the mosque but grimalkin is welcomed
there. She rubs her legs against the sultan’s guests at dinner and attends
state banquets at the White House. So she sits at the prelate’s table
or by the humble farmer’s hearth, but by night she wanders the heath
or the rooftop, to view, as one poet has ingeniously explained, the
surrounding country!

Even in the middle ages when it was quaintly held that animals were
responsible for crimes (I say quaintly because it is perfectly obvious
that both the word and the idea are human inventions) and they were
tried and condemned to death and to other punishments, including
torture, the cat escaped.

In the list of these trials given by E. P. Evans there is not one single
case in which a cat was the defendant. The cat appears, indeed,
only in the testimony of these trials.

Once, for instance, a sixteenth century French jurist, Bartholomew
Chassenée, complained that his clients, some rats, were prevented
from appearing in court at Autun, because of a stretch of cat country
that they would be forced to cross on their journey.

Modern lawyers will be glad to know that Chassenée successfully
defended his rats. By virtue of the old Germanic law cats often
appeared as witnesses at the trials of thieves and murderers.

In passing it is interesting to observe that St. Ives, the
patron saint of lawyers is represented as accompanied by a cat.

And here again, if it were necessary, we might invoke symbolism to
explain the simple truth that holy men as well as devils found the cat
the most attractive of animals. The profound wisdom, the concealed
claws, the stealthy approach, and the final spring, all seem to typify
the superior attorney. We should not be astonished, therefore, that
Cardinal Wolsey placed his cat by his side while acting in his judicial
capacity as Lord Chancellor.

The most interesting laws concerning cats were formulated during the
tenth century by Howel Dda, a King of South Wales, who, perceiving
that the customs of his country were being violated, called the
archbishops, the bishops, the nobles, and other chosen men to meet
at Y ty Gwyn ar Dav with him. The whole of Lent was spent by this
body in the presence of the King in fasting and prayer; then Howel
selected from the assembly twelve of the wisest men and adding to their
number a doctor of laws, Blegywryd by name, committed them to the
task of examining, retaining, expounding, and abrogating the laws.

When the work was completed Howel sanctioned it. Wales, however,
was of considerable size and it was not long before local distinctions
arose which resulted in the eventual formulation of three separate Codes,
Venedotian, Dimetian, and Gwentian. It is from these Codes that the
following curious passages relating to cats have been extracted.

According to the Venedotian Code: The worth of a kitten from the
night it is kittened until it shall open its eyes is a legal penny; and from
that time until it shall kill mice, two legal pence; and after it shall kill
mice, four legal pence; and so it shall always remain. The penny, at
this period, was equal to the value of a lamb, a kid, a goose, or a hen;
or a gander was worth twopence, a sheep or a goat fourpence.

The qualities of a cat, continues the Code, are to see, to hear, to kill mice,
to have her claws entire, to rear and not to devour her kittens, and if
she be bought and be deficient in any of these qualities, let one third
of her worth be returned.

In the Dimetian and Gwentian Codes distinctions are drawn between
cats and cats. The Dimetian Code says: The worth of a cat that is
killed or stolen: its head is to be put downwards upon a clean, even
floor, with its tail lifted upwards, and thus suspended, whilst wheat is
poured about it, until the tip of its tail be covered and that is to be its
worth; if the corn cannot be had, a milch sheep with her lamb and
its wool is its value, if it be a cat which guards the King’s barn. The
worth of a common cat is four legal pence.

The Gwentian Code says: Whoever shall kill a cat that guards a house
or a barn of the King or shall take it stealthily; it is to be held with its head
to the ground and its tail up, the ground being swept and then clean
wheat is to be poured about it until the tip of its tail be hidden: and that
is its worth. Another cat is four legal pence in value.

There seem to be obvious difficulties involved in the carrying out of
this law. In the first place it would appear to be necessary to capture
both the thief and the stolen cat. In the second place no self-respecting
cat would permit herself to be suspended by the tail. She would scratch
and bite and turn and twist and curl until it would be impossible to go
through with the experiment unless she were dead and certainly the
Welsh judges would not kill the King’s cat merely in order to punish
her thief. Thirdly it would seem to be manifestly impossible to
enforce this law if the King’s cat happened to be a tailless Manx cat.

There are further laws: The Dimetian Code says: Whoever shall sell a
cat is to answer for her not going a caterwauling every moon; and that
she devour not her kittens; and that she have ears, eyes, teeth, and
nails, and is a good mouser.

The Gwentian Code provides that there shall be no Manx cats: The
qualities of a cat are that it be perfect of ear, perfect of eye, perfect of
teeth, perfect of tail, perfect of claw, and without marks of fire; and that
it kill mice well and that it shall not devour its kittens and that it be not
caterwauling on every new moon.

The importance of the cat to the community was recognized by these
Welsh laws which provided that one cat was necessary to make a
lawful hamlet together with nine buildings, one plough, one kiln, one
churn, one bull, one chicken, and one herdsman. The dog and the horse
are not mentioned.

Another interesting detail of the Dimetian Code relates to the separation
of man and wife: the goods and chattels were to be divided but the
husband took the cat if there was but one; if there were others they
went to the wife. The stress laid on puss at this period, her
comparatively high value, leads Pennant to the very credible conclusion
that her importation must have been recent, as the animal breeds so
rapidly that in a few years a dozen felines could populate a country.

Notwithstanding the laws of Howel the question as to whether or not
the cat is a property continues to be discussed in its legal aspects
down to the present day. There seems to be difference of opinion in
the matter and the judgments in law suits of this character seem to
depend on whether or no the judge is a cat-lover. Fortunately most
judges are catlovers.

In 1865, Monsieur Richard, the juge de paix of Fontainebleau rendered
a memorable decision. An inhabitant of the town, annoyed by cats who
molested his garden, set traps and caught fifteen.

The owners of the cats brought the man to trial.
“Considering,” said the learned judge in his opinion, “that the law does
not permit the individual to do justice to himself in his own person;
“That article 479 of the Penal Code, and Article 1385 of the Code
Napoleon, recognize several kinds of cats, notably the wild
cat, as a noxious animal for the destruction of which a reward is
granted, but that the domestic cat is not affected by these articles
in the eyes of the legislator;
“That the domestic cat, not being a thing of nought (res
nullius), but the property of a master, ought to be protected by the law;
“That the utility of the cat as a destroyer of mischievous animals of
the rodent kind being indisputable, equity demands the extension of
indulgence to an animal which is tolerated by the law; “That even
the domestic cat is in some degree of a mixed nature, that is to say,
an animal always partly wild, and which must remain so by reason
of its destiny and purpose, if it is to render those services which are
expected from it; “That although the law of 1790, art. in fine, permits
the killing of poultry, the assimilation of cats with these birds is by no
means correct, since the fowl species are destined to be killed sooner
or later, and that they can be kept in a manner under the hand of their
owners, sub custodia, in a completely enclosed and secure place,
while this cannot be said of the cat, for it is impossible to put that
animal under lock and key, if it is to obey the law of its nature;
“That the asserted right in certain cases of killing the dog, which is a
dangerous animal and prompt to attack without being
rabid, cannot be held to imply as a consequence the right to kill a cat,
which is an animal not calculated to inspire fear, and always
ready to run away;
“That nothing in the law authorizes citizens to set traps, in order, by
an appetizing bait, to entice the innocent cats of an entire quarter
as well as the guilty ones;
“That no one ought to do to the property (chose) of another that
which he would not wish to have done to his own property; “That all
goods being either movables (meubles) or immovables (immeubles)
according to article 516 of the Code Napoleon, it results therefrom
that the cat, contrary to article 128 of the same Code, is incontestably
a movable (meuble) protected by the law, and therefore that the
owners of animals which are destroyed are entitled to claim the
application of article 479, clause 1, of the Penal Code, which punishes
those who have voluntarily caused damage to the movable property of others.”

A similar decision was rendered in the sheriff’s court at
Perth, Scotland, in the late seventies. The cat had killed the plaintiff’s pigeon on a neighbour’s
premises. The learned sheriff in his decision said:

“It was quite legitimate for the plaintiff to keep a pigeon,
but just as much so for the defendant to keep a cat. The latter is more
a domestic animal than a pigeon. But there are no obligations on
the owner of a cat to restrain it to the house.

The plaintiff’s plea is that the natural instinct of the feline
race is to prey on birds as well as mice. So it was argued that the
owner of the cat should prevent the possibility of its coming into
contact with its favourite sport. But it is equally true that the owner
of a bird should exercise similar precaution to prevent its coming
within the range of a hostile race. If the defendant’s cat had trespassed
into the plaintiff’s house or aviary where the bird was secured,
there might be ground for finding the owner of the cat liable for the
consequences of its being at large. With parity of reason had the bird
intruded itself upon the territory of the cat and there had been slain,
there could have been no recourse because the owner of the bird
should have prevented its escape. In the present case it appears that
both the quadruped and the winged animal were in trespass on
neutral territory. It was the duty of the plaintiff to take the
guardianship of the bird said to be so valuable and therefore both
owners are equally to blame and the case must be viewed as arising
from natural law, for which neither owner without culpa can be answerable.

The defendant being at first not sympathetic with the loss of the plaintiff,
but rather put him at defiance, and forced him to prove it was the
defendant’s cat who slew his bird, the defendant will be acquitted
but without costs.”

In Maine it has been decided that the cat is a domestic animal within
the jurisdiction of the statute which provides that “any person may
lawfully kill a dog which … is found worrying, wounding, or killing
any domestic animal, when said dog is outside of the inclosure or
immediate care of its owner and keeper.” The plaintiff sued the
defendant, alleging that he had killed a valuable foxhound belonging
to him, and the defendant replied that he had killed it because the dog
was chasing and worrying his cat. The court held that this was sufficient
justification and gave an exhaustive view of the law as to felines.

Ingham cites a Canadian case in which the judge decided: “A person
may have property in a cat and therefore an action will lie to recover
damages for killing it. There may be circumstances under which it
would be justifiable to kill a cat; but it is not justifiable to do so
merely because it is a trespasser, even though after game.”

In another case the owner of a cat was not held liable to the owner
of a canary bird killed by it, the court considering that cats to some
extent “may be regarded as still undomesticated and their predatory
habits are but a remnant of their wild nature.”

But an Attorney-General of the State of Maryland, evidently no
felinophile, handed down a decision which was a cruel blow to the
owners of cats. A certain citizen of Baltimore (I hope this was not
Mencken) stole a fine maltese cat from a neighbour, who had him
arrested for theft. When the case came up for trial the
prisoner’s counsel entered the plea that it was impossible for any
one to steal a cat, as that animal is not property, and that to take
forcible possession of a feline, even though it be a pet and wear a
ribbon and answer to its name, is not a legal offense.

The astonishing judge held the argument to be good and the more
astonishing Attorney-General, to whom the case was appealed,
agreed with him. The latter in his formal opinion, declared that the
cat is really nothing but a wild animal, that it is of no use to man,
and that the taking of a cat without the owner’s consent
is not an indictable offence.

Since this extraordinary decision was rendered cat-owners with
kitty-baskets have been seen leaving Baltimore on every train.
Cats themselves, however, have as yet entered no objection to the
decree, arguing doubtless that it stands to reason if a man steals you
he wants you pretty badly and is therefore likely to give you more
liver, fish, and other delectables than the man with whom you
were living before.

In Georgia it is held to be libellous to say that a young lady said that
her mama acted like a cat. Edgar Saltus has written variations on
a similar theme in his story, “The Top of the Heap.”

It is not an uncommon occurrence for cats to be left property by will.
I shall presently discuss the case of Mademoiselle Dupuy. Lord
Chesterfield left life pensions to his cats and their offspring. This
sounds eternal. Others have done this. In fact every few months you
may read of such a will in the public prints. It is the custom of relatives
in such cases to attempt to break the wills, and in most instances
they have been successful.

But there is at least one case in which a notable cat charity has been
preserved through several centuries. About 658 of the Hegira (A. D.
1280) the Sultan, El-Daher-Beybars, having a particular
affection for cats, at his death bequeathed a garden known as
Gheyt-el-Qouttah (the cat’s orchard), situated near his mosque
outside Cairo, for the support of needy cats. This garden has been
sold and resold, but until at least a comparatively recent date and
probably up to the present moment, the owner still continues to
carry out the terms of the will. At the hour of afternoon prayer a
daily distribution of refuse from the butchers’ stalls is made to the
cats of the neighbourhood. “At the usual hour, all the terraces in
the vicinity of the Mehkémeh (outer court) are crowded with cats;
they come jumping from house to house across the narrow streets
of Cairo, in haste to secure their share; they slide down the walls,
and glide into the court, where, with astonishing tenacity and much
growling, they dispute the scanty morsels of a meal sadly out of
proportion to the number of guests. The old hands clear the food
off in a moment; the youngsters and the new-comers, too timid to
fight for their chance, are reduced to the humble expedient
of licking the ground.”

There are other ways in which cats figure in the law. Marine
insurance does not cover damage done to cargo by the depredations
of rats, but if the owner of the damaged goods can prove that the
ship was sent to sea without a cat he can recover damages from
the shipmaster.

Again, according to English law, a ship found at sea with no living
creature on board is considered a derelict and is forfeited to the
Admiralty, the finders, or the King, but it has often happened that,
from its hatred of facing the waves, a cat remaining on board has
saved the vessel from being condemned.

Periodically letters and editorials appear in the American
newspapers concerning the advisability of licensing cats or in some
way depriving them of their power of increasing, or restraining their
actions. In the bird journals hysterical gentlemen moan loudly over
the destruction of feathered songsters and demand that strong
measures be taken as preventatives. I am not at all sure that laws
have not been passed in certain states limiting the freedom of puss.

Nevertheless the cat preserves his liberty. As the learned judge
of Fontainebleau remarked, you cannot restrain a cat without
changing his nature; he might have added that you cannot change
his nature. A cat will preserve his independence at any cost, even
that of his life. Recently an adventurous tom climbed
the switchboard of the lighting works of Cardiff, became
entangled in the wires, and plunged the city n darkness.

The effort cost him his life but he accomplished his purpose. Therefore
senators and representatives, who find no difficulty in fettering
human-kind in a hundred ways, go very slowly in formulating laws
regarding the cat. They know perfectly well that the cat will refuse
to obey these laws. It is amusing and delightful to observe this little
animal escaping the onerous obligations of these United States,
where a dog can only walk abroad on a chain with his jaw
bandaged and a man is not permitted to raise a cup to his lips unless
it contain lemonade or water, or to set pen to paper unless he
scratches hieroglyphics that can be read without a blush by
nasty-minded old gentlemen on the lookout for obscenity.

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