Caturday felid trifecta: The mystery of “rocket cats,” Google’s nefarious cat policy, and a litter of mitten kittens

It’s a three-cat day, thanks to several readers who proffered links. The first item involves a mysterious 16th-century (c. 1530) German book by Franz Helm, an artillery expert (see articles in the Guardian and TDS).  The book contains drawings of cats and birds  with rocket-like jetpacks strapped to their back. The unsettling thing is that they’re not for transportation, but are apparently weapons!

Researcher Mitch Fraas gives his interpretation:

According to Fraas’s translation, Helm explained how animals could be used to deliver incendiary devices: “Create a small sack like a fire-arrow. If you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited.”

In other words, capture a cat from enemy territory, attach a bomb to its back, light the fuse, then hope it runs back home and starts a raging fire.

Rocket cats  2

The manual suggests capturing cats from enemy territory and strapping bombs to them. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

Somebody didn’t know how to draw cats. They were all around, for crying out loud!

Illustrations from Franz Helm's manual

Franz Helm’s document also advocates strapping bombs to cats and doves ‘to set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise’. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

Another poor moggie:


Apparently, though, this was an idea that was never implemented. It resembles the suggestion of U.S. Army experts during World War II, who had the idea of strapping incendiary devices to bats in Japan. Since bats roost in the eaves of highly flammable wooden Japanese homes, they could wreak havoc on a city.


Item 2: this nefarious corporate policy was called to my attention; here’s a screenshot:

Google policy

I am, of course, protesting by refusing to ever Google anything again.

I suppose a “dog company” means that all the employees slavishly worship their bosses (and sniff their crotches).


Finally, EDP24 reports about a whole brood of polydactylous kittens rescued in Suffolk:

The five-month-old kittens, known as polydactyl or “mitten” cats, were discovered abandoned in a back garden before being taken to Felixstowe Blue Cross rehoming centre.

Andy Gillon, manager of the centre in Walton High Street, which takes in around 250 cats and kittens a year, said staff soon noticed that these particular felines had something extra special about them when they were brought in.

He said: “We might get the odd cat with an extra toe, but to get an entire litter of polydactyl cats is really unusual.

“Cats normally have 18 toes but all the kittens in this litter have extra digits – one even has 26 toes!”

Cats normally have five toes on their front feet and four on their rear. I’ve always wanted one with extra toes, because they’re funny-looking but don’t seem to be impeded in their walking or climbing. Wikipedia reports the variety of names given to them:

Nicknames for polydactyl cats include “conch cats“, “boxing cats“, “mitten cats“, “mitten-foot cats“, “snowshoe cats“, “thumb cats“, “six-fingered cats“, “Cardi-cats“, and “Hemingway cats“.

The “Hemingway cat” monicker comes from the fact that Ernest Hemingway had a passel of cats at his Key West home, many of them with extra toes. Their polydactylous descendants still roam the property.

I’ve also heard these mutants called “Super Scratchers.”

And it’s not that unusual to get an entire litter of extra-toed kittens if the litter size is small. Polydactyly in cats (as in most species) is inherited as a single dominant gene, which means if you get one copy of the gene, you have extra toes. (I presume that two copies produces a dead animal, but I haven’t been able to find for sure.)

That means that if one of the parents is polydactylous and the other isn’t, the chance of each of its kittens being polydactylous is ½, so the chance of all five kittens being polydactylous is ½ multiplied by itself 5 times, or 1/32 (0.03). So it will occasionally happen. In the unlikely event that both parents were polydactylous, the chances are higher.

Can you calculate what the chances would be for two such cats to produce a litter of five polydactylous cats among the surviving offspring? (Assume that having two copies of the gene kills you before birth.)

The record number of feline toes, verified by the Guinness Book of World Records, is 27 on a Canadian cat named “Tiger.” Here’s the one image I could find of him, a video:

Kitty Bloger has some nice picture of Super Scratchers, including the following. When I see the last one, I’m thinking about a macromutational leap whereby cats learn to use can openers. When that happens, they take over the world.





h/t: Dom, Diane G, Mark


  1. Kevin Alexander
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I’m thinking about a macromutational leap whereby cats learn to use can openers. When that happens, they take over the world.

    There’s a video out there where cats get opposable thumbs and that’s pretty much what happens.

    • Posted March 8, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Do you mean this video?

      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted March 8, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        That’s the one!

  2. Hempenstein
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Can you calculate what the chances would be for two such cats to produce a litter of five polydactylous cats among the surviving offspring? (Assume that having two copies of the gene kills you before birth.)

    I get something like 0.13 (2/3 exp 5).

  3. Barney
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    The Soviets used anti-tank dogs in WW2, training them to look for food under tanks, and then strapping explosives to their backs. It had plenty of problems as a tactic:

    Another serious training mistake was revealed later; the Soviets used their own diesel-engine tanks to train the dogs rather than German tanks which had gasoline engines. As the dogs relied on their acute sense of smell, the dogs sought out familiar Soviet tanks instead of strange-smelling German tanks.

    But it did have some effect:

    The efficiency of using anti-tank dogs in World War II remains uncertain. There are claims by the Soviet sources that around 300 German tanks were damaged by Soviet anti-tank dogs. This claim was questioned by Russian historians as propaganda, trying to justify the dog training program. There are however documented claims of individual successes of the program, with the number of damaged tanks usually being within a dozen. For example, at the front of the 160th Infantry Division near Hlukhiv, six dogs had damaged five German tanks; near the airport of Stalingrad, anti-tank dogs destroyed 13 tanks. At the Battle of Kursk, 16 dogs disabled 12 German tanks which had broken through the Soviet lines of defense near Tamarovka, Bykovo.

  4. sfreiman
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Isn’t there a story somewhere in the Bible of setting fire to the tails of foxes and making them run through an enemy’s fields?

  5. Greg Peterson
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    When my partner and I visited Hemmingway’s Key West home last fall, I got her souvenir T- shirt with a cute kitty drawing, paw held aloft, and the line, “Give me six!”

    • Posted March 8, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      I visited Hemingway’s Key West home during the 1980s, and there were a lot of cats, of which some (or many?) had an extra digit on their paws. They were descendants of Hemingway’s cats, which seemed to have had this genetic abnormality.

  6. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    “I suppose a “dog company” means that all the employees slavishly worship their bosses (and sniff their crotches).”

    My son works at Google (Seattle) and many of his co-workers bring their dogs to work all day, every day. Some use baby gates to keep them in their office.

    They also do things like stand-up-only desks (my son does not use a chair).

    On the side of perquisites, they have free breakfast, lunch and dinner (Monday – Friday), free alcoholic bar on the floor, etc.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 8, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      I’ve never been able to accept that type of IT culture. Usually there are no offices or cubes and everyone works in one big area, which as an introvert, I can’t stand. What is funny is that IT tends to be made up predominantly of introverts who are highly analytical and need time alone to think things through; open concept does not help that.

      I like the adjustable desks. They are very expensive so not too many people have them, but if you put in a 12 hour day, the desk will allow you to stand up and sit down whenever you want. I wish I had one of those as I get so sore at work sometimes, especially after a long day.

      The documentary, Office Land, highlighted the good and bad about open concept offices.

      • Posted March 8, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        In front of the computer, I alternate between sitting, standing & kneeling. Guess attending mass all those years wasn’t a complete waste.

        Maybe one day I’ll follow through on my plan to convert my old jumping saddle into a computer chair.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted March 8, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

          In front of the computer, I alternate between sitting, standing & kneeling.

          Several of the nerds that we’ve had locked up in the cage have over the years acquired (I assume brought by the company), those sort-of-kneeling not-quite-chairs. And when they’ve left them behind (we get about 20% per year turnover in the cage, I guess – there’s normally a new face when I come back from a long job), often one of the other nerds takes to using it, at least intermittently. I’d guess that out of a dozen chairs in that room, there are 3 or 4 of the contraptions.
          I’ll have to give one a try, the next time that I’m chained to a desk in the orifice.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 8, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

            I think I’d just get all hooked up in a chair like that & fall, probably ripping my pants to add to the humiliation.

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Mediaeval drawings most likely follow a certain style so they tend to look odd to us. I’ve always liked the way they’ve drawn animals.

    It also highlights the cruelty of that time. When people say “they were just like us” I remind them that they certainly were not. Aside from basic human traits, they did a lot of cruel things including burning cats in bags – and everyone thought this was great entertainment to watch! I can’t believe so many of our ancestors survived mediaeval Europe!

    • Posted March 8, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Catholic doctrine had it that humans, created in the image of God, are superior to animals. Anyone who knows cats or dogs knows that their morals are superior to ours. They don’t engage in running banks, for example. Possibly the ancient Egyptians had some understanding of this.

    • bric
      Posted March 8, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      On this subject (historical difference) I can recommend Robert Darnton’s book ‘The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History’; it’s social history of 18th Century France, and only one of the six chapters is about moggies, if that makes you nervous.

  8. John Dentinger
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Before I had to move from Key West, I was the bookstore manager at the Hemingway Home. I guarantee that the management and staff at the Home would love to have an eminent ailurophile such as Prof. Coyne visit the Museum and see the current resident cats. Heck, they’d even give a guided tour!

  9. Matt G
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    So which of the five toes is lost from the hind limbs of cats during development?

  10. Posted March 8, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    My grandmother on Cape Cod had one named “Wide Track.” They seemed fairly common in New England.

    The story I’d always heard was, polydactyl cats had originally been brought to Plimoth & Mass. Bay colonies from a spot in England where they were common (East Anglia??), then to the Maritime provinces of Canada by tories fleeing from the Revolution. Anyone know whether this is true? Make sense, even? Maybe a case for Bryan Sykes — The Seven Toes of Eve!

    • Hempenstein
      Posted March 8, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      Was just about to comment that it’s interesting, what the embedded W’pedia link above says sbout polydactyl cats being favored by sailors, either for good luck or superior rodent catching abilities.

      But while polydactyly may improve the odds of mastering a can opener, I doubt it will help in being able to type an intelligible sentence on a Royal typewriter.

  11. Nate
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    OT: Did you see the SNL skit called “The Bird Bible” where all the characters are birds? Funny:

  12. Posted March 8, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Polydactyly also exists in humans. Generally, they have six fingers on each hand and it tends to run in families.

    There is, however, a boy who was born with seven fingers on each hand and ten toes on each foot – the condition didn’t result in his death, though.

    • Matt G
      Posted March 8, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      There is also a condition called bradydactyly in which the fifth digit is shorter than usual. My girlfriend’s daughter’s ex-boyfriend has the condition and it also runs in families.

      • Matt G
        Posted March 8, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        My bad. It’s brachydactyly, not bradydactyly.

  13. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    The idea that pentadactyly is primitive across land tetrapods is widespread. But wrong. Acanthostega did it differently, for sure ; I think Tiktallik had a different idea to “us” about what constituted a “handful” too. And if I had a reference tome on early land vertebrates, I think I’d come up with several more cases.
    Since it’s nearly knocking-off time, I’ll just drop you the obvious Google and let you follow up for yourselves. That there’s a wikipedia about it doesn’t surprise me in the least.
    Whales sort-of go the other way – a single mutation helps webbing form between digits in mice and mysticetes. And probably me, having fewer than the normal number of inter-toe crevices to dig the sludge out of.
    There’s lots of recent fossil whale news – by coincidence I dropped Prof.CC a link to some older stuff which I’d stumbled across a week or two back. Regular (or irregular) shoals of whales hurling themselves onto Chilean and Peruvian sand banks, like they’d decided to come back onto the land. Despite having gone to the effort of learning to grow baleen. If I had my email open, Id dig out the link. But it is knocking off time and the top bunk is now occupied, so I’d better shut down and go too.

  14. Diane G.
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink


  15. Dominic
    Posted March 10, 2014 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    I twe#ted the author of the cat article to point out how the Norwegian viking king Harald ‘Harrada’ used birds to set fire to a castle in Sicily –

  16. Thomas
    Posted March 14, 2014 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    You write, “I’m thinking about a macromutational leap whereby cats learn to use can openers. When that happens, they take over the world.”

    What makes you think they haven’t already?

    “Man claims the ownership of earth
    Of every glebe and glen.
    What modest claim do kittens make?
    The ownership of men.”
    ~ David J. Levine

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