Mixed Media, 2002
Speaking of possible hoaxes, I noticed thanks to Zooillogix that the Chinese winged cat story is making the rounds again. I blogged about this in May 2007 on bioephemera – apparently they haven’t even changed the photo accompanying the story!
Although the Tia Resleure sculpture above is a fake, and the Chinese story may be a recycled urban myth with suspiciously few specifics, reports of winged cats have been around a long time. Here’s what I had to say about it back in May 2007:
You’ve probably heard the recent reports of a winged cat. The cat’s Chinese owner
says the wings, which contain bones, make her pet look like a ‘cat angel’. Her explanation is that the cat sprouted the wings after being sexually harassed.
“A month ago, many female cats in heat came to harass him, and then the wings started to grow,” she said.
However, experts say the phenomenon is more likely down to a gene mutation, and say it shouldn’t prevent the cat living a normal life. (source)
Did the tomcat grow these wings just to fly away from his groupies? How Lamarckian of him!
In fact, winged cats do exist. But the usual explanation is matted hair, not mutation. Henry David Thoreau documented the first report of a winged cat in Walden:
she was of a dark brownish-grey colour, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick and flattened out along her sides, forming strips ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off. They gave me a pair of her ‘wings,’ which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about them. Some thought it was part flying squirrel or some other wild animal, which is not impossible, for, according to naturalists, prolific hybrids have been produced by the union of the marten and the domestic cat. This would have been the right kind of cat for me to keep, if I had kept any; for why should not a poet’s cat be winged as well as his horse?
Thoreau’s “poet’s cat” sounds much like my own cat in appearance and coloring. Her fur forms felt-like dreadlocks that I have to cut out with scissors. Unattended, they could easily become ten inches long and stiff, like wings, before being shed when the anchor hairs fall out. (I doubt Thoreau appreciated what a pain it would be grooming a “poet’s cat”.)
Many cases of winged cats made serious news during the last century. In 1926, Time Magazine reported a case near Wapato, WA (where I spent several childhood summers). Most of the “wings” were probably caused by matted fur, or a genetic collagen deficiency called feline cutaneous asthenia (the cat equivalent of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome). Creative taxidermy artists have also pieced together fake winged cats.
The Chinese winged cat supposedly had bones in its “wings;” neither matted fur nor FCA (nor taxidermy, since it’s alive) would explain that. I’ve found large sticks and burrs completely encased in my cat’s matted fur, and they feel like small bones, so I’m skeptical. But if the wings really have a bone structure, then the cat may have supernumerary (extra) limbs of some degree. The cause could be a genetic mutation – or a non-genetic birth defect.
In any case, since its owner describes it as an “angel cat,” I hope it won’t share the unfortunate fate of the Russian “Devil Cat,” a similarly “winged” cat which was drowned by superstitious locals in 2004.
More: the winged cat page.