The islands of Rhodes and Malta have two things in common—their history with the medieval Knights Hospitallers and their huge feral and domestic cat populations. You’ll find hundreds of cats wandering all over the towns, religious monuments, and ancient fortresses of both communities.
Naturally, we wondered if there might be a connection. Animals like mice, rats, and the cats needed to catch them have been hitching rides on ships since ancient times (the British Royal Navy only ended the official position of Ship’s Cat in 1975). Meanwhile, the Knights sent their ships all over the Mediterranean to fight Turks and pirates. But no amount of research has turned up any real evidence that one migration had anything to do with the other.
The cats themselves are different—the Tabbies of Rhodes tend to run away from humans, while the chummier Blues of Malta could double as tour guides if they spoke better English. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Greeks have a terrible reputation for handling strays. Even with their Greek Cat Welfare Society and their Cat Sanctuary at Kalithea Springs, Rhodes and Greece were referred in 2007 to the European Court of Justice for substandard animal welfare. Meanwhile, no one seems to have filed any complaints against the Maltese.
Felids have been around much longer than humans—up to 6 million years—with far less evolution in their physical and mental characteristics. Their domesticated and feral versions, Felis catus and Felis silvestris catus, have been cuddling up to us, crossing our paths, and chasing our mice and rats for somewhere around 90 centuries. They’ve been revered in Egypt, feared in Massachusetts, admired in Mecca, poisoned in Greece, and defenestrated in Belgium. Today, in America, they even beat out dogs as the second-most popular pet (behind freshwater fish!).
Garrison Keillor once wrote the fascinating contradiction that “Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose.” Yet it’s hard sometimes to stare into the eyes of a cat and not wonder exactly which of us is in charge. The cat in the photo was racing down a ruin in Rhodes when I took out my camera to photograph a nearby mosque. It immediately stopped and launched into human-friendly cat-posing mode. So whose idea was this shot? It’s an interesting question.