CAIRO, Egypt — In the times of the ancient pharoahs, the cat was almost an equal of the gods.
Pilgrims would place mummified cats around statues of cat-headed goddess Bastet, along with written prayers. The temple would periodically be cleared of these mummies, which would then be buried in a special necropolis designated for cat burial.
And in 5 BC, a Greek historian observed that the members of an Egyptian household had shaved off their eyebrows to mourn the family cat's demise.
The cat even had a place in hieroglyphics, where it was written as "miu,” not unlike the noise it made as it hunted birds in the marshes, gnawed on a fish under its mistress' chair or slayed serpents — all scenes recorded for eternity on tomb walls more than 3,000 years ago.
But take a short walk in Cairo today, it is clear to see that the former demi-gods have indisputably fallen from grace. Feral cats are everywhere — prey for cars, abuse, disease and starvation.
One woman, though, is fighting a largely lone battle to take Egyptian cats off the streets and put them into homes with people who appreciate their legendary heritage. Her greater dream is to see theses native animals revered for what many believe them to be: modern descendants of cats domesticated in Pharaonic times.
Cat shelter to the rescue
Gloria Lauris' journey in founding the Egyptian Mau Rescue Organization (EMRO) began in December 2003, when Lauris was visiting in-laws in Egypt and hoped to bring back an Egyptian Mau cat to her native Canada. She had bought her first pure-bred Mau from a Canadian breeder but wanted to get another from the land of its ancestors.
The Egyptian Mau resembles a tabby but is distinguished by black spots on its body instead of stripes. It is believed to have descended from the African wildcat, a close relative of ancient Egyptian domesticated cats, and also bears a characteristic 'M' marking on the forehead, black ringed tails and legs and a black stripe down the back. Their large gooseberry-colored eyes have a perennially worried look. Intelligent and somewhat mischievous, they are also the fastest domestic cat, clocking 36 mph.
Breeders in North America and Europe sell pedigree Maus for $850 to $1,500, a price that has risen after the previously little known breed was popularized by the movie "Catwoman," in which Egyptian Maus brought Hallie Berrie back to life as the title character.
But much to Lauris' surprise, she found no Mau breeders in Egypt and very few people who had ever heard of them. But she did find feral Egyptian Maus in abundance, wandering the streets and rummaging in garbage heaps.
"They were roaming free in the streets," said Lauris.
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"I tried to pick them up but couldn't because they were wild. The cats were in a deplorable condition and I vowed to do what I could to help them."
Finding new homes
Lauris was helped in her mission by family circumstances. Soon after her first visit, her husband got a job in nearby Saudi Arabia and they relocated from Canada to Egypt, buying a building in Cairo with enough room downstairs for a cat shelter.
"Things just miraculously fell into place,” she said in what is now the lobby of the Egyptian Mau Rescue Organization. "This is just one year after I saw the cats on the street." Now three rooms house about 25 cats, grouped by age.
In the first room are restless adolescents playing with makeshift toys; in the second, adult cats fuss and purr; and in the last room, single kittens roam freely or nursing kittens are kept in cages with their mothers.
Although the cats are not pedigreed, Lauris already has helped place 16 in Canada, Germany, the U.S. and Cairo. Seven more are awaiting trips to new homes abroad. Lauris is also helping other Cairo cat shelters find homes for their Maus by listing their cats or referring potential clients to their Internet sites.
Prospective owners have to pay the cost of preparing cats for shipping (required vaccinations, blood-tests, paperwork, etc.) and shipping charges, but EMRO is not hearing complaints about the fees. For instance, Ann Van Den Bossche, a market researcher who has adopted a handsome pair of Maus and is trying to get a third for her mother, says that pedigreed Maus cost up to $6,000 in her native Belgium.
"They are extremely intelligent and they know what they want and are extremely affectionate toward the person they have a relationship with," explained Van Den Bossche.
Another client, Carol Ann Green, toured Cairo with pocketfuls of pet food, hoping to lure a Mau off the streets to bring back to her home in Texas. After several failed attempts and dubious looks from passersby, Green found EMRO on the Internet, called Lauris and was directed to a nearby animal shelter.
"I called ahead of time and they came out with little Moza," said Green, who believes that Maus are more active and intelligent than other cats. "They always have the look like "Oh-oh, I'm in trouble!" she added.
Green is looking forward to another adoption. "I'm not interested in high fancy bloodlines." she said. "It's nicer to have a cat closer to its roots, even if it's not registered."
Professional breeding in the works
Native Egyptian Maus, though, may soon enter the ranks of the elite breeding world. Audrey Law, a Canadian breeder who has purchased two Maus from EMRO, has succeeded in getting them registered officially.
It will take at least four years (or five generations of cats) before the kittens can make their debut as pedigreed Maus. Law is happy to wait — she believes the introduction of a new gene pool will make for healthier cats, because inbreeding has led to an increase in defects such as cataracts, heart problems and lower immunity. Most pedigreed Maus, in fact, can trace their origins back to three cats brought to the U.S. in 1956 by an exiled Russian princess.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of California, using DNA from an ancient cat mummy, will soon definitively determine the lineage between pharoah-era Egyptian domestic cats and today's Maus, both native and pedigreed.
“If we can prove that these are the cats and [they are] truly related to the ones in Egypt [it] will be amazing," said Law.
An indisputable genetic link between Pharaonic house cats and today's Egyptian street cats would be welcome news for Lauris. She has already purchased land in Saqara, near the Pyramids, for a larger facility where she would like to provide a home for wild Egyptian Maus that aren't candidates for adoption.
She also hopes it could be a draw for tourists seeking a living link to Egypt's storied history.
Charlene Gubash is an NBC News producer based in Cairo.