Cat ladders, shelves and other feline-oriented designs are commonplace features inside domestic spaces, but in places like Bern, Switzerland, they reach out into the public sphere as as well, merging with architecture to create community-driven cat infrastructure.
In her book Swiss Cat Ladders, German author, graphic designer and self-publisher Brigitte Schuster ambitiously examines cat ladders as a sociological, architectural and urban phenomenon.
Naturally, the prevalence of these complex creations reflects a reverence of cats but it also requires a level of community participation and acceptance. To build a bridge up to a fourth-story window, one has to have at least three neighbors on board with the plan.
Strictly speaking, the term “ladders” is in fact an oversimplification for what Schuster has found — there are ramps, steps, even spiral staircase variants. Some stand alone and others are interconnected. Some are attached, suspended or bolstered by buildings around them.
In narrowing in on this very specific typology, Schuster is able to show a range of material and design choices. Some of these structures are purpose-built while others are completely made re-purposed odds and ends. Many incorporate extant features like windowsills, mailboxes and tree stumps, building off site-specific elements.
Generally, notes Atlas Obscura author Kieran Dahl, “there aren’t cat ladders in the United States, where many states have so-called leash laws that forbid the animals from being off-leash outdoors.” Some homeowners create “catios” (cat-oriented patios) as a compromise while others simply let their cats roam free, which is largely tolerated. In other places, like Australia, millions of feral cats are designated invasive species, introduced by colonists, preying on other endangered creatures and disrupting attempts to rebuild animal populations.
Aesthetics, creativity and controversy aside, cat behaviorist Dennis C. Turner and author of the preface for Schuster’s book argues that cat ladders are useful if not essential for some feline companions. Cats, he notes, do not “always land on their feet” as the expression leads many to believe; in fact, tall jumps can result in serious injuries.
Turner often tells people: “once an outdoor cat, always an outdoor cat.” Kittens raised with experience of the outdoors are more likely to become irritable and develop behavioral issues if they are denied the freedom to explore outside later in life. Those who have lived a fully sheltered existence may be fine without this freedom to roam, but those who know there is a world beyond can benefit from ladders, ramps and other means of reliable access. Click here for more about the book, with versions available in both German and English.
Building codes in hurricane zones rely on studies of how easily flying debris can break residential windows. If you're looking for a science fair project idea and you hate your neighbors, I'm sure they could always use more data!
A tradition as American as apple pie, and older than the Constitution.
In November of 1926, a woman from Mississippi sent President Calvin Coolidge a raccoon for Thanksgiving. An accompanying note promised that it had, in her words, a “toothsome flavor.” The story of the day, however, was not that the Coolidge received a raccoon for dinner, but rather that he declined to eat it. “Coolidge Has Raccoon; Probably Won’t Eat It,” read The Boston Herald.
Indeed, countless other raccoons throughout American history did not share such a lucky fate as Coolidge’s pardoned critter. Raccoon meat is a longstanding American culinary staple that went from slave food to New York City markets to cookbooks across the country. The critters that once sustained entire regions have disappeared from most modern dinner tables, but not all of them.
Written documents outlining Native American diets are scant, but it’s more than apparent that the practice of eating raccoon originated with them and was later handed down to enslaved Africans across the American South. Michael Twitty, James Beard Award-winning author of The Cooking Gene, points out that the word itself comes from the term aroughcun, Powhatan for “hand-scratcher,” which in the mouths of many West Africans, who have no “r” sound in their language, became the antiquated but colloquially known “coon.”
Enslaved Africans throughout the American South incorporated raccoon into their daily diets to supplement the meager provisions offered on plantations. They were no strangers to small-game hunting: The raccoons of North America behave much like the grasscutters of West Africa, a similarly nocturnal bush rodent that Africans had trapped and eaten for centuries. “They were master trappers,” says Twitty. “In fact, some of the traps enslaved people used are mirror images of traps from West Africa, if not similar to traps that Native Americans used.”
Slave owners approved of the practice. “The slaves weren’t allowed to hunt during the daytime,” says Hank Shaw, author of Hunt, Gather, Cook. “So after they’d finish their workday, they were permitted to hunt in the middle of the night to get some extra protein in their diet.” By granting enslaved Africans raccoon meat trapped with techniques that fused African and Native American methods, slave owners could keep their slaves well-fed without the risk of arming them. Archaeological evidence pulled from slave plantations between Florida and Virginia indicates that whole raccoons were often cooked in stews—an echo of West African culinary memory reverberating across the Eastern seaboard.
“It’s not a big leap to think about my ancestors—coming from a place of utilizing everything that’s edible—making contact with another group of people with a similar way of life,” says Twitty of the Native to African raccoon transmission, “and then transferring these traditions onto white Americans.”
Throughout the late 1800s, the tradition of eating raccoon saturated the national food-scape, as westward settlement across the Appalachians met the northward march of newly freed African Americans. “If you were a poor white person, you were cohabitating with an African or a native person,” says Twitty. “And if they were making raccoon for dinner, that’s what everybody was eating.”
Dr. Megan Elias, a historian and gastronomist from Boston University, writes that small game such as raccoons and squirrels simultaneously fed frontier families and supplied added income in the burgeoning fur trade. Culinary historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson writes that eating raccoons—nuisance animals apt to ravage vegetable fields—also kept crop yields robust. “With every bit of food raised needed to get through the winter, pest animals became not only fair game, but good eating, too.”
After emerging as a food of necessity, raccoon enjoyed its day in the middle-class American sun. It was sold in game markets all the way up to New York City, both alive and dead. It made its way onto restaurant menus from Maine to Louisville and into cookbooks from Colorado to Vermont. Johnson writes that hunting even became a popular nighttime social event among men who bred “coonhounds” that chased the animals into treetops to be easily shot. And by 1926, of course, raccoon was food fit for a president.
With the proliferation of factory farming through the 1900s, however, Americans reconsidered their meat preferences. Urbanites abandoned small game like raccoon, which was laced with unfavorable racial and class stigmas, in favor of cheap pork, chicken, and beef. “It belies the fact that without those measures, a lot of poor whites wouldn’t have survived,” says Twitty of the raccoon stigma. African Americans largely deserted the critters as well. “When black folks in America moved from the country to the city, the raccoon went the way of the banjo,” says Twitty. “It’s a relic of a time we didn’t really want to associate ourselves with.”
Nonetheless, having supported entire regions of underprivileged Americans for centuries, raccoon indelibly worked its way into the American culinary psyche. Preparation instructions for raccoon carcasses appeared in multiple editions of The Joy of Cooking throughout the 1900s. Raccoon hunting itself became an icon of rural American life, if Dolly Parton lyrics mean nothing else. Shaw says the propagation of coonhounds kept the tradition of nighttime raccoon hunts alive in the Appalachian South. He adds that word-of-mouth raccoon meat markets stretched throughout the Midwest as a byproduct of trapping, where colder weather meant lusher fur. “Best kept secret around,” an 86-year-old Missourian told the Kansas City Star in 2009 over a trunk full of frozen raccoon carcasses in a thrift store parking lot.
The tradition today survives in rural, economically distressed communities, often as fund-raising events. The 93rd annual “Coon Feed” in Delafield, Wisconsin, last year served more than 300 plates of raccoon to raise money for area veterans. The 76th annual “Coon Supper” in Gillett, Arkansas this past January raised money to send a small-town student to college; the event has also become something of a bureaucratic initiation where aspiring local politicians ingratiate themselves to rural voters by eating varmint on camera. “They literally serve raccoon. And you’re supposed to eat some,” GOP Rep. Rick Crawford told Roll Call in 2014. “That’s the tradition.”
As for Coolidge, his refusal to eat raccoon earned him a family pet. For Christmas of 1926, he gave the “toothsome,” hand-scratching, would-be entree a steel-plated collar with her name engraved: Rebecca. She lived with the Coolidges for the remainder of Silent Cal’s term, taking a liking to corn muffins and, as First Lady Grace Coolidge wrote, “playing in a partly filled bathtub with a cake of soap.”
Rebecca was donated to the Rock Creek Park Zoo in 1928 to live out her days among other raccoons, though her days of presidential extravagance cursed her with a refined palette and an intolerance to wild animals. She quickly grew ill and died, though, of course, it could have been worse. She could have been a turkey.