The Glory, Tragedy, Adventure, and Redemption of A Cat’s Tale: An Interview with Baba the Cat (and Paul Koudounaris) | Haute Macabre

The Glory, Tragedy, Adventure, and Redemption of A Cat’s Tale: An Interview with Baba the Cat (and Paul Koudounaris)

They say history is written by the victors, but they also completely fail to take into account those with paws instead of hands. Enter Baba — a beautiful and charismatic Domestic short-haired tabby cat with bright, pale emerald eyes, a passion for feline history, and an uncommon knack for posing in period costumes — and her new book, A Cat’s Tale: A Journey Through Feline History.

Have you ever looked at a cat and thought to yourself, ‘This cat knows things…’? Anyone who’s spent time among cats will likely agree that all cats know things, secret things. However most cats keep those things to themselves. For good reason too. Then there’s Baba. This cat knows many many things as well, but one of the things that differentiates her from her peers is a willingness to educate us humans. And we have so much to gain by listening to her wisdom.

When I first met Baba she was perched on the back of a taxidermy Jacob ram. Truth be told, Baba didn’t have much time for me that day. She made a French exit a short while later. But anyone who knows cats knows not to take that personally. I was delighted to make her acquaintance and bask in her presence for a few moments.

I first met Baba’s human and co-author, Dr. Paul Koudounaris, a few years earlier at Death Salon Seattle, where he gave an unforgettable talk about pet cemeteries. Paul has other fascinating and moving animal-related talks in his repertoire. In fact, he was scheduled to come up here to Portland and give one just as the nationwide lockdown began. It occurs to me now that the cancellation of that talk was the first in a list of disappointments that has yet to stop growing. Some day attending lectures will be possible again and I wholeheartedly encourage you attend one of Paul’s talks should the opportunity arise.

Baba and Paul both know a great deal about cats, but Baba has the advantage of actually being feline, so it makes perfect sense that, of the two historians, she would write A Cat’s Tale. And she did so with a distinctly feline dramatic flair.

Baba and Paul didn’t stop at penning a chronicle of feline history. They also collaborated on a brilliant series of portraits of Baba in elaborate period costumes to accompany her epic story. With equal aplomb Baba brings to life distinguished cats, channels historic humans, and captures the spirit of entire eras.

Human bias fundamentally colors how we understand history, and in the process, it cuts out the achievements and accomplishments of all other species—because, let’s be honest, humans have not created history alone. We simply give ourselves credit for it in the pages of lengthy and, often times, dryly written books! But no more. A CAT’S TALE sheds this fallacy, profiling cats who have not only shaped the arc of feline history, but also our own as well. 

Poignant and, occasionally, tragic, the stories Baba unearths (with the help of her scribe Paul Koudounaris) highlight the numerous cats that have risen above human expectations to do extraordinary and heroic things, giving love unconditionally, and sacrificing themselves to a species that hardly seems worthy of their affections. The felines in these pages have saved lives and inspired generations; they have brought comfort to ill children and smiles to the faces of all those around them.

A CAT’S TALE also includes rare archival material and photos of some of the world’s most sacrosanct feline monuments, photographed across four continents and compiled for the first time.

A Cat’s Tale answers questions I’ve always wondered about, but didn’t know where to look for answers. How did cats get their famed nine lives? Why isn’t there a cat in the Chinese Zodiac? Which country once deemed cats too classy for rodent hunting? Why are so many nautical terms cat-themed? How did the alleged feud between dogs and cats begin and why? Foolish human, I should’ve asked a cat! Now I know better.

It’s no secret that I already loved cats before I read this book. But after reading it, with the various cats curled on my lap most of the time, my love and appreciation for them has expanded in ways I did not anticipate. A Cat’s Tale demonstrates how the relationship between cats and humans has been a singular thing from its earliest moments and we do our furry companions a great injustice by not knowing their history. There’s so much we can learn from cats — about them, their egalitarian nature, their admirable work ethic, their selfless yet independent devotion — and about ourselves, and why we should strive to be better — better to cats and better to our fellow humans.

I found the privilege of interviewing Baba as enjoyable and informative as reading her engrossing book. If you aren’t already reaching for the pre-order button, I hope her wonderful responses to my questions serve as enticement and prelude, both:

M: One of the things that I learned from your book is that feline history is very much the story of human history as well, and not just because our lives are so intertwined. We can learn much about ourselves – for better and worse – in the process of learning about you. What made you decide that now is the time to teach humanity about the history of cats?

B: That is a good way of putting things, that humanity can learn much about itself from learning about us, because truly in our story we see the full range of what you as a species are capable of. From the most tender love to the most virulent hatred, and the wildest excesses that can accompany both. In fact, I have no doubt that many people will come away from the book more surprised in what they learn about human history than feline. I think this is a good time for this learning as well, since your species due to dramatic events of the past year is in the process of questioning and reassessing much of what it knows about itself. But in terms of why I would choose to do so now, I fear the answer may not be so profound: simply put, a cat has a very short life span compared to a human, and consider that half mine has been spent working on this book. I don’t really have a choice but to do it now, it’s the only time I have!

M: You clearly did a lot of research for your book. How is cat knowledge recorded or passed between generations? Is there an oral tradition among cats? Have cats always relied upon helpful humans to transcribe for them?

B: Feline knowledge is neither oral nor written. Rather it is intuitive and innate. We are born knowing things, and I doubt you will find a human who has raised a cat from a kitten who will not agree that we know quite a lot from the start. Of course, not all cats are born with the same level of expertise in feline history, I am unique in this way, but I think you would be hard pressed to find any cat who does not know about, for instance, Simon the Able Sea Cat or any of these other fabled feline heroes.

M: I understand that you dictated this book to your human. Did you dictate in English or does Paul speak cat?

B: Eh well, in this case you are dealing with a bit of slick marketing I must confess, because “dictate” conjures an image of us sitting across from each other at a mahogany table, each wearing vests of Scottish plaid, and me giving a recitation which he enters word by word into some archaic machine. This is not at all the way it was, and I don’t even like plaid, the patterns are just too busy. Feline communication is not a language per se, it’s a form of empathy, which some humans naturally have and others will always lack. I don’t want to call it telepathy or channeling because that conjures a different and even sadder vision, of us in a trance and each perhaps wearing tinfoil hats. But maybe you get the idea of how it works?

M: I suspect I know the answer to this question, but cats are full of surprises – Do you have a favorite period of history?

B: I am in fact pleased you asked that question rather than just assumed! Everyone seems to think that all cats favor Ancient Egypt because we wish to be held in the laps of the gods. That’s narcissistic human logic, however. Cats each have different interests and–ugh I hate this word–“person”-alities, so each might favor a different era. For me, being of a romantic bent, as I think my telling of the stories in the book reveals, my greatest interest is in the Age of Exploration, and those daring cats who left the torment of Europe behind and sought their salvation in adventure. Stirring tales of swarthy tails! That is my favorite period.

M: If you could travel through time, are there any places or cats you’d like to visit in the fur/flesh?

B: Well I guess it shall come as no surprise that I would be delighted to have met Trim and other such seabound cats. After all, who doesn’t wilt at the sight of a dashing sailor?

M: Your modeling skills are most impressive. Do you have a favorite or least favorite ensemble that you wore for this book?

B: I like the Devil suit and I have certainly taken a lot of photos in it. In fact, thanks to that uniquely human propensity for total overkill, I now have three of them, all the same. Paul searched online until he found a spare and bought it in case anything happened to the original, and then when another came up he bought that too, apparently in case anything happened to the original that nothing ever happened to and the spare as well. In any event, it’s comfortable and he placed a little foam wedge in the top center so it rests just above my head and does not compress the ears. Meanwhile, I have four that vie for least favorite, being the ones with large metal helmets–the Viking, the Samurai, the deep sea diver, and the Roman centurion. I don’t actually wear these helmets. He works it out so they are suspended. And I have to give him credit, it’s very clever. With some he attaches a thin metal rod in the back of the helmet that screws into the wall, or they hang from above on an invisible thread. But the problem then is that I have to stand with my head in an exact place to make it look like they are naturally being worn, at the same time keeping my pose. It’s not easy, and the weird flapping gestures he makes with his hand, like a bird with a single, injured wing, do not at all provide clear direction.

M: Any tips for aspiring feline models?

B: Yes. Do not ever wear those cheap Halloween costumes from Petco. Not even to please your humans, no matter how much you love them. As long as your humans think you are willing to wear cheap, off the rack costumes they will continue to buy them for you and never move you up to custom couture.

M: Speaking of modeling, in his Afterward, Paul cautions us to “never photograph a cat in a victorian dress in a room where there is a live mouse.” I recognize that I’m taking a liberty by even bringing this up, but would you care to share the story that no doubt lies behind this warning from your human?

B: Ah yeah that was a bad incident. Well it is a bit of a story but I will tell you. I was dressed up in a very formal way, and looking quite elegant. There was a scratching sound in the room which Paul was paying scant attention to, but I knew something was not right. And then I saw it! There was a mouse! I don’t want to seem indecorous, but my instincts took over and I jumped from my pedestal and lunged after it. The mouse, now aware that I was a cat and not a proper Victorian lady, took off running in fear, and I ran after it. I remember the words, “Noooo!!!! The wig, you’ll ruin the wig!,” as I ran in pursuit from the room, but I couldn’t be bothered by such a concern at such a time.

M: Throughout history cats have been closely associated with women – both mortal and divine. It goes so far back that it now feels like an inherent quality, but everything comes from somewhere. Do you know how the association of cats with femininity came about? Did early humans intuit this connection? 

B: I sure do know about this! I discuss it a bit in the book, but there’s no way to overemphasize it because in truth you can’t consider the topic of our history among humans disassociated from the feminine sphere. Humans didn’t intuit it, they saw a connection. We became considered a totem female animal because many of our attributes overlapped with what was considered typically feminine: we were domestic animals, we had strong maternal instincts and so on, and it goes all the way back to prehistoric times. In various Neolithic cities for example there are statues of goddesses surrounded by felines or on feline thrones, so it’s very old, and a system emerged by which we and dogs, who evolved into a masculine totem, became tied to human roles of gender. It’s all poppycock to project human social codes onto the animal world! It’s reductive nonsense, but because of it, when women were divine, we were divine, and when women were vilified, such as during the great witch hunts, it coincided with our greatest persecution at the hands of humanity.

M: I love the ancient Greek and Roman notion that cats’ pupils dilate and contract with the waxing and waning of the moon – Do you know how they came to this conclusion?

B: I really don’t know. Ergot poisoning in their bread maybe made them a bit kooky? I love these ancient cultures but they had some very odd ideas. I’ll grant humanity this, your imagination is certainly unbounded.

M: How do you feel about the ancient Egyptian saying, “Do not laugh at a cat.” relative to the present day? Do we no longer hear about the Kitty Billies and Clementines of the world because we’re so focused on cats as silly entertainment? In the age of LOLcats, endless TikTok and YouTube videos, and feline internet celebrities, I get the feeling you wouldn’t mind somehow reinstating the edict that using cats as comedic material is a punishable offense. 

B: Oh gosh yes, I despise all the memes and so forth, I can’t imagine any cat doesn’t. It’s not that it’s insulting, it’s that it’s demeaning. It denies our essential character and reduces us instead into objects styled for humor. We’re not here just for your entertainment, and anyone who thinks we are knows nothing about cats and lacks true respect for us.

M: After finally moving away from centuries of associating cats with evil, certain superstitions stubbornly remain – so much so that a black cat was employed as a stealth weapon in WWII. Are cats at all superstitious or is that a uniquely human quality?

B: Superstition is entirely human. Cats are typical of other animals in that we fear things for a reason–superstition comes from fearing things without a reason. To anyone but humans, that’s a waste of time.

M: I found myself tearing up at numerous parts of your book for different reasons. The story of Room 8 and the impact he had on all who knew him – or even just heard about him – makes me weepy even thinking about it now. I have read accounts of other cats who made themselves regular visitors or residents of schools or libraries, but none of them resonate quite like that story of Room 8. This might be an ineffable question, but what is it about Room 8 that makes him so extra special?

B: All of the cats you’re talking about are equally special to those who knew them. Dewey the library cat from Iowa for instance, various other school cats, and by the way there were a couple others even in Los Angeles. And not just school and library cats. Any cat at all is the most special cat in the world to the people it is bonded with. Room 8 is not any more special, the difference is simply that his story lays the connection between cat and human bare and visible for all to see. But Room 8’s story can only touch you if you already know the same story somewhere in your heart from experience with another cat. Room 8’s story is not one that teaches you, it is one that resonates with you.

M: I found it very interesting that you said that cats have reached the conclusion that spay and neuter efforts aren’t such a bad idea. I dare say humans could learn a lot from that attitude. Do you have any favorite TNR organizations or cat rescues that you’d like to give a shout-out to here?

B: Well of course as a product of the Los Angeles City Animal Shelter I will have to give a nod to them! In fact, on receiving the first part of the book advance, I sent Paul down to their office to make a donation. But we have many friends at many rescues, among them are Luxe Paws and Cat House on the Kings, but I hesitate even in mentioning them because I don’t want to imply that there are better or worse, because all need to be lauded for what they do, the small ones no less than the big. I would be remiss in the context of this conversation, however, if I did not mention the Room 8 Memorial Cat Foundation! It still exists, the cat rescue started in his honor in the 1960s exists to this day. It is no longer in Los Angeles, they couldn’t afford to stay (rent control, like spay and neuter, is a pretty good idea) but they are in Riverside, California, and house over 400 cats.

M: As a cat, I trust you included everything you intended to in your book, but surely even cats have editors to contend with. Is there a story or particular cat from history who didn’t make it into the book that you’d care to tell us about here? 

B: Much winds up on the cutting room floor, as they say in Hollywood. There were in particular several seafaring cats I couldn’t give ample due to. The most curious story involves a cat from the German battleship Bismarck. This cat was believed to be cursed. His story is actually pretty well known in naval history circles, although the idea of a cursed cat harkens back to the bad old days and I can’t give you any guarantee on how credible this all is. In any event, the story is that the Bismarck sank and this cat was picked up by the British. The ship that took him in sank, and he was picked up by another British ship. That one sank too. He was picked up by yet another, which deposited him on dry land, not wanting to risk also sinking. According to the story, the British attempted to return him to the German Navy, but they declined to receive him (statistically they were ahead, one lost ship to two) and he lived his life out in a home for retired sailors, with instructions that he not be allowed on anymore ships.

M: Lastly, now that you’re a published author what’s next for Baba? You’ve declared that writing is drudgery, so, if not a second book, what’s next for you? 

B: Here is a little bit of news, one might even call it gossip. Did you know I had a sister who died a few years back? Well, OK, not a birth sister, but you know how humans are, any cat in the same household becomes known as a brother or sister, a bit odd since among humans who live together a roommate remains simply a roommate, not a brother. Well, she was a very good cat and Paul always had the intention that another should be invited into our lives. Well! He has over the past several months visited various shelters, looking for the exact right cat! He has yet to find it–he is very deliberate in this kind of thing, as well he should be because it is an important decision. But the process seems in motion, and I expect that one of these days, maybe not too long in the future, he will find the one, a Baba Junior, an apprentice that I can train. Imagine the possibilities!

A CAT’S TALE: A Journey Through Feline History comes out November 10th. It’s currently available for pre-order via IndieBound, Amazon, and likely your favorite local bookseller too.

While the ongoing pandemic means book tours aren’t currently happening, Baba and Paul have two upcoming virtual events:

Tuesday November 10th at 6pm PST: Book Soup presents Dr. Paul Koudounaris, In Conversation With Caitlin Doughty, Discusses A Cat’s Tale: A Journey Through Feline History. Reserve your spot here!

Friday, November 13, 2020 at 7:00pm EST: Dr. Paul Koudounaris and Baba the Cat hosted by Brookline Booksmith. Register here!

To keep up with Baba and Paul’s ongoing adventures and photo shoots, be sure to follow them on Instagram @hexenkult.