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The Truth About Cats' Nine Lives

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My grandmother used to always insist that cat’s had nine lives. I was not a gullible child and so, although I didn’t say it to her, privately I thought this was a lot of nonsense, nothing more than the ramblings of an old woman, as she seemed to me then. However as I have grown older, I have grown wiser. I realize now two things. One she was not actually old, she was about fifty at the time. And two, that there is actually a lot more to this saying than at first meets the eye.

So, where did this particular myth come from and how true is it? Well you may be surprised to find out that it does have a very strong basis of truth albeit, not set in magic as we sometimes fondly like to imagine, but in the laws of physics….

Cats have always been revered animals and partly this is due to their seeming remarkable resistance to harm, their ability to escape death by a whisker as it were imbuing the cats with a special significance. In ancient times they were often worshipped and became the cosseted centre pieces of some religions.

However, times were not always this good to the cat and in Medieval Europe the strange ritual of throwing cats from high towers became, if it can be at all described so, a popular event….

There is a particularly terrible legend that Baldwin III, Count of Ypres on one occasion threw a considerable number of cats from a tower in the town. It is not known how many survived this particular occasion but it has been noted that more often than not they did. Indeed the keeper of the castle at this time recorded the following words in his diary: in spite of the height of the fall, the animal ran off quickly so that it might never be caught again in a similar ceremony.’

This event is remembered to this day and is now celebrated with an annual cat festival. But there is no need to panic – the festival no longer uses live cats – this cruel practice ended in 1817 thank goodness. Today, it is more a matter of fun as the procession winds through the town towards the 70 meter high Cloth Hall where they then ascend the tower and throw the toy cats from the top and the children along with their families try to catch them.

But, these so called miracles of survival were the basis of today’s adage that a cat has nine-lives. And it is easy, in the absence of the relevant knowledge to see why it was thought to be magical. How else would one survive such a fall??

But science, perhaps sadly, has since stepped in. For in the 19th century a French physiologist by the name of Etienne-Jules Marey conducted a remarkable experiment. With the use of a camera he took a series of photographs (60 per second) that captured the process of a cat falling. What these photographs showed was the cat twisting; maneuvering its’ head, back, legs and tail to lessen the impact.

So cats it would seem have an inbuilt instinct for physics and not magic. Do they?  It’s a matter of perspective. Because I don’t know about you, but in my view, the laws of physics are quite magic enough in their own right….
 
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