african wildcat, near eastern wildcat african wildcat, near eastern wildcat Before there were domestic cats, there were these guys. (Photo: John Queenan / Shutterstock)

This is the ancient animal your cat evolved from

It's still around, by the way.

Every time I look at a poodle, part of me thinks "You should be a wolf." Humans have bred wolves and other wild canines for thousands of years, and they've come out looking like stuffed animals.

But what about cats? I had no idea what animal domestic cats came from. Lions? Jaguars? I did a little research, and I learned about the African wildcat, an animal that was likely domesticated by the ancient Natufians in Israel about 10,000 years ago. All modern cats came from this wildcat.

Oh, and guess what? African wild cats still live today in Israel, the Mediterranean and Africa. And people have taken photos of them. So without further ado ...

Drum roll ...

african wildcat, near eastern wildcat Believe it or not, this isn't a housecat. It's an African wildcat. (Photo: Maggy Meyer / Shutterstock)

Oh snap! It looks like a regular cat. I cracked up when I saw that photo; I'd been expecting something way more Mufasa than Puss in Boots. If I saw that thing rooting around in garbage cans near my house, I'd just think it was a stray.

That's one of the big differences between domestic cats and domestic dogs. Humans have artificially bred dogs for thousands of years. But we've never really bred cats. We've come up with a few breeds, sure — Siamese cats and such — but these differences are usually only fur deep. And the vast majority of cats choose their own partners. That means they haven't come all that far from their wild ancestors. In fact, African wildcats breed with domestic cats all the time.

Granted, they're not exactly the same. Housecats have bushier tails than African wildcats, and they come in many more colors and patterns. African wildcats have longer legs than domestic cats, which help them trot across terrain and pounce on their prey.

Still, domestic cats are pretty darn close to being wild. They're built for living in the wilderness, not winning prizes at shows or traveling in people's purses. Housecats are really good at hunting, for instance, while a lot of dogs have pretty much lost their ability to survive without people.

So unlike dogs, cats are basically just wild animals that happen to get along well with humans. Calling them "domestic" is kind of wishful thinking. Some scientists even say that they domesticated themselves. Having dealt with some pretty manipulative stray cats, I'll take it a step further: I think cats domesticated us.


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