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2017-11-15 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

“The smallest feline is a masterpiece.” – Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 1519)

If anyone could recognize a masterpiece in motion, that person would be Leonardo da Vinci. There is a recent, renaissance of interest in the ultimate Renaissance man. A lost, privately owned da Vinci painting “Salvator Mundi” has re-surfaced and will be auctioned off at Sotheby’s this week, most likely for more than $200 million.

A new da Vinci biography by Walter Isaacson was published last month. The movie rights to this book were sold to Paramount, and Leonardo DiCaprio is slated to play his namesake in the new biopic. The actor’s first name is not a coincidence. His mother claims to have chosen the artist as her son’s namesake when she felt an in utero DiCaprio kick for the first time while examining a da Vinci piece at a Florence gallery, back in 1974.

Let’s get back to da Vinci’s praise for each cat as a masterpiece. What is it about the feline species that dazzled da Vinci so? Remember he was much more than a painter. The grand master was also a sculptor, inventor, flight designer, architect, engineer, student of anatomy, history, music, math and the list goes on. Most likely his admiration for the feline form was due to a composite of factors including:

*Cats’ eyes and coat- People have long been mesmerized by the exotic shape and variable color of cats’ eye. Feline eye color is like the sea. The hue of the iris changes in different light.

When I was in college, I waitressed in the now-gone Boardwalk Restaurant at Jones Beach Central Mall. The restaurant was all glass. We were captives inside a giant fish tank, while the sea was free. The ocean changed continuously. The shades of blue of the sea, wave foam and sky were ever-changing. Cats’ eye color varies like the sea, as if felines were conscious chameleons.

A cat’s mood is reflected in his eyes too. Pupil size changes. An angry cat will have narrowed pupils, while an excited or frightened cat will have eyes wide open, with large pupils. In addition, cats have an inner, third eyelid, called a nictating membrane, which protects the eyeball from dryness and injury. When a cat is sick, the third eyelid will closes partially- a sign to get the cat to the vet if other symptoms appear. Sometimes, a happy cat will also show that nictating membrane which we may misinterpret.

Outlines of feline eyes are accented by markings and color splotches. Many tabbies look as if they are wearing permanent Egyptian-style eyeliner. No wonder the Pharaohs worshipped and mummified cats for the afterlife.

Certain feline visual features developed for nocturnal hunting and survival. Cats’ night vision is superior to ours. However, cats can’t see in total darkness. They can see clearly with only one-sixth of the illumination we need. In the feline, the muscles of the iris surrounding the pupils are constructed in a way that allows the eye to narrow to a vertical slit in bright light and to open fully in very dim light to allow maximum illumination.

And then there is the tapetum lucidum, a layer behind the cat’s retina. It reflects incoming light and bounces it back off the cones, making better use of the existing light. The tapetum is probably responsible for the shiny green orbs you see when a small amount of light hits a cat’s eyes at night. It’s also the cause of cat “red eye” in photographs.

Cat coat color includes the partial spectrum and unique paint brush patterns. Some cats appear as if da Vinci cleaned his brushes on their coat canvas, while others look like he sketched in fine detail.

*Cats’ mystique: People are intrigued by cats and what is going on in their mind. We become students of feline body language. A Cheshire grin can be as enigmatic as Mona Lisa’s smile. Learning to decipher feline body language takes careful observation.

For example, a cat showing you her belly is not as easy to read as a dog asking for a belly rub. The cat may get defensive and bite you if you touch her stomach or she may run away from you.

Some say when cats give us fluttering blinks they are “kissing” us with their eyes. You should reciprocate by blinking at your cat. In the wild, slow blinks between cats is a sign of mutual trust. No harm is intended.

A cat’s tail is an accurate mood barometer. Held high, it communicates confidence. Curled around another cat’s tail or human legs, it signals friendliness. And tucked below or between the legs, it means insecurity or anxiousness. As for the Halloween cat pose, a bottle-brush tail is a sign a cat feels threatened. Add the arched back and hair standing on end, means it’s time you step away.

*Feline grace: To be successful predators, cats must be flexible, powerful and fast. Cornell Feline Health Center explains how this happens:

“From a sitting start, they can spring up to nine times their height, and can narrow their shoulders and chest to squeeze through tight spaces. In an eye’s blink they can right themselves in midair and land on their feet, and make sudden changes in direction while pursuing and capturing prey.”

Cats can rotate their spines more than many animals and twist their bodies to a much greater extent. Cats’ vertebrae are flexibly connected and have special elastic cushioning disks between them. This limber spine allows cats to perform their elegant and graceful acrobatic feats, but also contributes to their speed as runners. Top speed is about 30 miles an hour.

Dancers strive to capture the fluid, effortless movements of felines. In ballet there is a dance step called pas de chat which means “step of the cat”. A dancer for the New York City Ballet once said: ““Cats are elegant, slinky and slithery – like they have no bones.” Bet da Vinci noticed that too.

For Adoption at Last Hope, Beltagh Ave., Wantagh: “Sushi” is a discarded, pet tabby with exotic green eyes. She was found with a severe tail injury and needed to have most of her tail amputated. “Rye” now three months old was rescued as a tiny kitten when he was eating garbage in a grocery store parking lot. Look at his milk moustache.

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