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Galley cats! Talk dives into feline seafaring history

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Able-bodied: Simon the ship cat achieved the British Naval rank of “Able Seaman” and was awarded one of Britain’s highest military honors. Historian Paul Koudounaris will discuss the kitty’s heroic actions at Catland on Oct. 7.
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Nein lives: Oscar served on the Nazi ship the Bismarck. After British troops sunk the boat, they rescued Oscar. The British boat also sank, and a second Royal Navy vessel rescued the cat, but fearing it was bad luck, they tried to return Oscar to the Germans.
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On ex-paw-dition: Poplar served with British sailor Robert Falcon Scott and was the first feline to go to Antarctica.
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Paw prints: Sailors on the HMS Neptune made postcards of their mouser, Side Boy.
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Cat nap: Sarah snoozes aboard the HMS Shropshire.
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G-yarr-field: Cartoondom’s most famous cat pays homage to his plundering ancestors.

Don’t call them sea dogs!

An art historian will explain the little-known hiss-story of cats as masters of the high seas during a talk called “Ship Cats: Adventure! Courage! Betrayal!” at Bushwick occult store Catland on Oct. 7.

Felines — who reportedly account fur 15 percent of all Internet traffic, were not always the cultural darlings they are today. The domestic animals were once considered bad luck, but like so many meowtcasts, they found their niche at sea, the lecturer said.

“They were considered servants of the devil,” said Paul Koudounaris, an art historian and author. “The one place where they were wanted — truly liked — was on ships. Ship cat was an official position, and a decent ship would not go out to sea without a ship cat.”

Sailors prized the pusses because they killed rodents and protected food stores — so effectively that their prowling prowess earned several mousers fame, military rank, and medals, he said.

The most famous nautical feline might be Simon the Able Shipcat — a military moggie who lived aboard British sloop the HMS Amethyst, Koudounaris said. The boat sustained catastrophic damage on the Yangtze River during a Chinese civil war in 1949, keeping it immobile for a month, he said. Simon took shrapnel in the attack, but once surgery had him back on all four sea legs, Simon methodically slaughtered the rat population that had exploded aboard since the ship anchored.

Besides saving sailors’ food — and thus their lives — the kitty’s kills were a morale booster. After the ship was freed, the British Crown awarded Simon one of its highest military decorations, the Victoria Cross, winning the cat world-renown, Koudounaris said.

“By the time they got free, he was an international sensation,” he said. “The Royal Navy hired a press agent to handle his correspondences. When he died, they pulled away planks from the ship to build a cross for his grave.”

Photos and commissioned paintings of Simon and a litter of other nine-lived nautical types will illustrate the Catland talk, he said.

Koudounaris said that feline freebooters also aided sailors on the underside of the law, but their stories are stowed in Davy Jones’s locker.

“Pirates definitely had cats, but none of them are famous,” he said. “The issue there is — kind of like with the Vikings — pirates didn’t keep written logs the way navy vessels did, so you can’t really go back and research them and put the stories together.”

“Ship Cats: Adventure! Courage! Betrayal!” at Catland Books (987 Flushing Ave. between Evergreen Avenue and Bogart Street in Bushwick, www.catlandbooks.com). Oct. 7 at 7 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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