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Old 02 September 2009, 06:46 AM
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llewtrah llewtrah is offline
Join Date: 13 December 2001
Location: Chelmsford, UK
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Default The Pittsburgh Refrigerator Cat

I picked up an old cat book at the weekend that discussed the "Refrigerator Cat" - suipposedly a breed developed in Pittsburgh in the 19th Century. Since it turns out to be a journalist's inventiveness that is still repeated in cat books today, I thought I'd share the myth and fact here (besides it is about kittehs ).

The tale given by many authors says these "Eskimo Cats" were developed in 19th Century Pittsburgh to control vermin in refrigeration plants and could survive and breed at very low temperatures. After several generations, they were more at home in the cold than in daylight or normal temperatures, having heavily furred coats, thick tails like Persians and tufted, lynx-like ears.

Authors ranging from Lydekker to Desmond Morris have recited the Refrigerator Cat as fact even though Ida M Mellen debunked the story in the late 1940s and Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald also carried the debunking in his book "Cats" (1958). The naturalist Lydekker (famed for his natural history encyclopedias) wrote the following in his Handbook to the Carnivora, Part I:

It appears that in the cold-storage warehouses of Pittsburg there were originally no Cats or Rats. The temperature in the cold room was too low. The keepers soon found, however, that the Rat is an animal of remarkable adaptability. After some of these houses had been in operation for a few months, the attendant found that Rats were at work in the rooms where the temperature was constantly kept below the freezing point. They were found to be clothed in wonderfully long and thick fur, even their tapering, snake-like tails being covered by a thick growth of hair. Rats whose coats have adapted themselves to the conditions under which they live have thus become domesticated in the storage warehouses in Pittsburg. The prevalence of Rats in these places led to the introduction of Cats. Now, it is well known that Pussy is a lover of warmth and comfort. Cats, too, have a great adaptability to conditions. When Cats were turned loose in the cold rooms they pined and died because of the excessive cold. One Cat was finally introduced into the rooms of the Pennsylvania Storage Company which was able to withstand the low temperature. She was a cat of unusually thick fur, and she thrived and grew fat in quarters where the temperature was below 30 degrees [Fahrenheit]. By careful nursing, a brood of seven kittens was developed in the warehouse into sturdy, thick-furred Cats that love an Icelandic climate. They have been distributed among the other cold-storage warehouses of Pittsburg, and have created a peculiar breed of Cats, adapted to the conditions under which they must exist to find their prey. These Cats are short-tailed, chubby pussies, with hair as thick and full of underfur as the Wild Cats of the Canadian woods. One of the remarkable things about them is the development of their ‘feelers’. Those long, stiff hairs that protrude from a Cat’s nose and eyebrows are, in the ordinary domestic feline, about three inches long. In the Cats cultivated in the cold warehouses the feelers grow to a length of five and six inches. This is probably because the light is dim in these places, and all movements must be the result of the feeling sense. The storage people say that if one of these furry Cats be taken into the open air, particularly during the hot season, it will die in a few hours. It cannot endure a high temperature, and an introduction to a stove would send it into fits.
Lydekker took the report at face value and used the account in deducing that longhaired breeds resulted from the cat’s adaptability and capacity for change to suit different climates. Ida M Mellen, investigated the Refrigerator Cat story very thoroughly, interviewing people who had known those cats. She showed clearly that Lydekker’s story was based on a highly inaccurate newspaper report (I don't have the newspaper report or Mellen's books).

There was no attempt to establish cats in the Pittsburgh cold-storage warehouse to combat rats as there had never been any rats in there. In reality, a cat belonging to one of the employees had given birth to a litter of kittens in one of the cold rooms, and had raised them. However those kittens were not distributed around the other cold-storage warehouses, because at that time there were no other cold-storage warehouses in the city. Far from founding a race of cats adapted to withstand great cold, the family eventually died out.

What Lydekker (who evidently failed to check the story himself) and the imaginative reporter (presumably a slow news day) had missed turns out to be even more interesting to cat geneticists. The female was a pink-eyed albino and the father was also white*, eye colour was unknown, but either an albino or a carrier of pink-eyed albino since the kittens were all pink-eyed albinos (IMO the parents were probably closely related). The cats had excellent hearing, but couldn't tolerate bright light due to their unpigmented eyes so they were probably more comfortable around the warehouse.

It seems the tale of the Refrigerator Cat breed is still doing the rounds, while Mellen and Vesey-Fitzgerald and their factual accounts seem to have been forgotten.

*normal white in cats is epistatic (dominant) white, not albino even though the eyes are often blue.
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