When one thinks of service animals, dogs and their inherent affinity for work come to mind. Cats in this capacity? Not so much. Cats may be hell-bent on languidly lounging in the sun, but seldom seem eager to lend a paw.
The long history of cats serving on ships counters the stereotype. Ship cats have been employed on trading, exploration, and naval ships going back to ancient times when Egyptians took cats on Nile boats to catch birds in riverbank thickets. When cats were brought aboard trading ships, the species began to spread worldwide. Phoenician cargo ships are thought to have brought the first domesticated cats to Europe around 900 BC.
Eventually, their main job at sea was in the position of pest control; rats and mice onboard are a serious threat to ropes, woodwork, food, and grain cargo — not to mention the critters’ roles as carriers of disease. Cats also offered companionship to sailors. There’s a reason animals are used for therapy, a role cats filled well during lengthy stints away.
Here are seven of the more-celebrated cats who served at sea.
1. Blackie (AKA Churchill)
Pictured above, the (mostly) black Blackie was the ship cat for HMS Prince of Wales, a King George V-class battleship of the Royal Navy. The ship was involved in several important actions during World War II, including the battle of Denmark Strait against the Bismarck, escorting convoys in the Mediterranean, and her final action and sinking in the Pacific in 1941.
Blackie achieved celebrity status after Prince of Wales brought Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to Newfoundland for a clandestine meeting for several days with Franklin D. Roosevelt. The result of their secret summit on the ship resulted in the signing of the Atlantic Charter. As Churchill prepared to disembark the Prince of Wales, Blackie swooped in for a cuddle, Churchill stooped down for a good-bye rub, cameras clicked, and the perfect politician-feline photo opportunity was captured … and gobbled up by the world media. In honor of the success of the visit, Blackie was renamed Churchill.
Hello, sailor! Convoy, above, was the beloved cat aboard HMS Hermione — and was named for the multiple times he accompanied the ship on convoy escort duties. Convoy was registered in the ship’s book and was given a full kit, including a wee hammock to sleep in. He stayed on the ship to the end and was lost along with 87 of his crewmates when the Hermione was torpedoed and sunk in 1942.
3. Unsinkable Sam
The most famous mascot of the British Royal Navy, Unsinkable Sam, previously known as Oscar, was the ship’s cat aboard the German battleship Bismarck. When the ship was sunk in 1941, only 116 out of a crew of more than 2,200 survived — 117 if you include Sam. Sam was picked up by the destroyer HMS Cossack, which was in turn torpedoed and sunk a few months later, killing 159 of her crew. Again, Sam survived. Sam then became the ship’s cat of HMS Ark Royal … which was torpedoed and sunk in November of that year. Sam was rescued once again, but after that incident, it was decided that it was time for Sam’s sailorship to come to an end.
Unsinkable Sam was given a new job as mouser-in-residence at the governor general of Gibraltar’s office. He eventually returned to the U.K. and lived out his years at the Home for Sailors.
Another WWII cat who became the darling of the ship’s crew, Peebles was the master cat aboard HMS Western Isles. Peebles was said to be an extraordinarily kitty and had a number of tricks he enjoyed performing, such as shaking hands and jumping through hoops. Pictured above, Peebles leaps through the arms of Lt. Commander R H Palmer OBE, RNVR on board HMS Western Isles.
Brave, brave Simon. The celebrated ship’s cat of HMS Amethyst, Simon was aboard the ship during the Yangtze Incident in 1949 and was wounded in the bombardment that killed 25 crewmembers, including the commanding officer.
Simon recovered and resumed his rat-hunting duties, as well as keeping up the crew’s morale. He was appointed to the rank of able seacat. “Simon’s company and expertise as a rat-catcher were invaluable during the months we were held captive,» said Commander Stuart Hett. “During a terrifying time, he helped boost the morale of many young sailors, some of whom had seen their friends killed. Simon is still remembered with great affection.”
When Simon later died of an infection, tributes poured in and his obituary appeared in The Times. He was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal for bravery and was buried with full naval honors.
Tiddles, above, was the beloved mouser on a number of Royal Navy aircraft carriers. He was born on HMS Argus, and later joined HMS Victorious. He favored the after capstan, where he would play with the bell-rope. He eventually traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time in service!
7. Mrs. Chippy
Mrs. Chippy, what a dame. Or a tom, actually. The tiger-striped tabby was taken on board the ill-fated Endurance by Harry McNish, the carpenter nicknamed «Chippy,” where she would explore the Arctic expanse with McNish, Sir Ernest Shackleton and the rest of the crew.
Originally thought to be a female, a month after the ship set sail for Antarctica it was discovered that Mrs. Chippy was actually a male, but the name had stuck. Apparently, Mrs Chippy followed McNeish around like a jealous wife, and was thus named accordingly.
Mrs. Chippy was a handsome, intelligent, affectionate cat, and a rodent-catcher of the first order, garnering the cat a loyal following of admirers among the crew. Sadly, after the ice finally consumed the ship, Shackleton decided that Mrs. Chippy and a number of the more than 70 sled dogs had to be put down. Conditions were extreme and supplies were dangerously limited. The crew took the news very badly.
In 2004, a life-size bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy was placed on the grave of McNish by the New Zealand Antarctic Society in recognition of his efforts on the expedition.
Why Pets Matter to Treehugger
At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.
All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.