Caturday felid trifecta: Odd-eyed Oklahoma boy with a cleft lip finds perfectly matching cat, more unrealistic early cat art, and the burning question: why are kittens so cute?

April 28, 2018 • 10:15 am

The Claremore [Oklahoma] Daily Progress has a nice story about a boy born with a cleft lip, a green right eye and a blue left eye adopting a cat with a cleft lip and exactly the same odd eyes (on the same side). An excerpt:

Mending Spirits Animal Rescue took in a stray feline with a cleft lip, a blue left eye and a green right eye [JAC: “heterochromia iridium”]. The cat’s new family includes a 7-year-old boy named Madden Humphreys who also happens to have a cleft lip, a blue left eye and a green right eye.

“Fate willed these two together,” the boy’s mom, Christina Humphreys, wrote in a blog post that has been shared more than 45,000 times on Facebook in less than a week.

After no owner claimed the unique feline, Mending Spirits volunteers named him Valentine and got him neutered and vaccinated. Foster caregiver Angie Kimes gave Valentine a home until he was ready to find a forever home. The all-volunteer Mankato-based rescue group posted about Valentine on multiple websites. Christina discovered Valentine after a post was shared on a social media group of moms of children with cleft lips.

Days later, the Humphreys were making the over 600-mile trip to Mankato to claim Valentine.

“We’re usually not spontaneous people, but we knew that we were meant to love this kitty,” wrote Christina, who did not respond to interview requests from The Free Press.

A family friend started a GoFundMe page that raised money to help the Humphreys pay for their trip to Mankato to meet Valentine. A Mankato area man paid their adoption fee.

“Madden and Valentine connected instantly,” Kimes said.

Madden renamed his new friend Moon and they are home in Owasso, Oklahoma getting to know each other better.

“I’m so thankful Madden has Moon,” Christina wrote. “Not only so that both he and the kitty have a relatable and sweet companion, but also, I hope Moon helps Madden realize that being born unique in an incredible thing.”

Humans can be wonderful, paying for this boy’s trip to meet his soul cat (surgery has largely fixed both). Here’s another photo:


It’s long been my theory (which is mine) that medieval artists were simply unable to paint cats, either putting human faces on felid bodies or botching the job completely. I’m not quite sure why this was the case, but BuzzFeed proves my point with its piece “23 Ugly medieval cat paintings that will speak to your soul“. Here are a few (sources at the BuzzFeed post):

Typical human face on cat body:

This cat has its tongue coming out of its nose:

Human mouth with lips:

Another human face. Why couldn’t these artists get the cats right? Hadn’t they seen one?

For even more grotesque and distorted cats, like the one below, see the paintings at Honest to Paws:


Finally, the Guardian crowdsources the answer to a burning question (click on screenshot to go to article):

There are several answers, and I’ll let you read them yourself, but this is the one we all think of:

So what else is it about kittens that trigger this cute reflex? Much of the earliest work into cuteness as a scientific phenomenon began with Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz who coined the term “Kindchenschema”. As the name suggests, it basically proposes that the more qualities and features something has in common with human babies, the cuter it’s perceived as being. For instance, babies have disproportionately large heads and eyes compared to their eventual adult form, thanks to the uneven ways the brain and body develop. Kittens (and puppies) also have large heads and huge eyes, so are considered cuter than the more evenly-proportioned beady-eyed rodents nature provides us with.

Of course this just raises another question: why do we find big heads and eyes so attractive? My response would be this: babies are born that way for developmental reasons, and natural selection has altered our perceptions so that we find this appearance adorable enough to tend the bearer. After all, any parents who found human babies horribly ugly would be less likely to pass on their genes. But who knows?

But at least the mechanism can be tested, and one famous test was Steve Gould’s well known Natural History essay, “A biological homage to Mickey Mouse.” Who but Gould, who specialized in allometry—the differential relative growth of body parts—would think to apply that biological idea to a cartoon character?

But sure enough, as Mickey’s phenotype evolved over the years, his snout got relatively smaller and his head and eyes relatively bigger. Do read the essay; here’s a Disney drawing of Mickey’s evolution used in Gould’s essay:

h/t: Jon, Grania, Michael

34 thoughts on “Caturday felid trifecta: Odd-eyed Oklahoma boy with a cleft lip finds perfectly matching cat, more unrealistic early cat art, and the burning question: why are kittens so cute?

  1. There are four possibilities I can think of:
    1 – Cats were considered so human-like that these painters gave them human-like faces, more important than life-like cat-faces.
    2 – The Medieval cats actually had human-like faces (The Egyptian mummies and images -as well as some good medieval cat portraits (eg Dürer)-, as well as genetics appear to make that highly unlikely).
    3 – Several of these Medieval painters were broddlers/daubers (a few undoubtedly were), but then why could so many of them paint other things so life-like?
    4 – Cats were associated with sorcery, it would be dangerous to paint them life-like.
    I tend to go with the first, life-like portraits being not that important.

    1. My answer is that accurate drawing was not these artist’s first interest. I suspect they started out as scribes of texts with little artistic talent. There powers of observation and interpretation was not cultivated as their main purpose was to illuminate narratives, much as it was for the pharaonic Egyptians. Thus, rather than observe what they were trying to depict, they simply borrowed ready made schemas for representing faces first learned for human faces. It’s my theory, and it’s mine.

      1. I suspect they started out as scribes of texts with little artistic talent.

        Given the length of time that it takes to illuminate a manuscript, I very much doubt that they’d have “stuck with” a shoddy illustrator. Some people are better at free-form drawing, some are better at calligraphy, some at the sort of tracery that is frequently used to line borders, separate text columns and sections, surround dropcaps etc. I’d expect each sheet of manuscript to be moved to the appropriate monk (generally) for each phase of filling.
        Which reminds me – how is the “Illuminated Origin” project coming along? Quietly, it seems 2015: Finish and deliver remaining beetle paintings; Write out Frontmatter through Ch 3 and finalize all illuminations
        February, 2019: Event to celebrate progress of The Illuminated Origin for Darwin’s 210th birthday and the 160th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species

        I do remember various discussions on art history programmes (for some reason, the magnificently insanely enthusiastic Waldemar Januszczak sticks in my head, but that may just be Waldemar) which used different specialists – illustrators, tracery-ers, calligraphers – to show their different techniques, and I very much got the impression that this division of labour is not novel.

        1. Ah, like a hurricane of fresh air in a house-of-cards construction contest, Waldemar has already commented on the kid trying to prove the existence of Sithrak through astrophysics :

          Waldemar attended the Divine Mercy College, a school for the children of Polish refugees which the Congregation of Marian Fathers had set up at Fawley Court, Henley-on-Thames. It was there that he became an atheist and began worshipping art instead.

    2. Your explanation #3 is closest to the partial truth:

      “Several of these Medieval painters were broddlers/daubers (a few undoubtedly were), but then why could so many of them paint other things so life-like?”

      But, I would unkindly shorten it to:

      “…Medieval painters were broddlers/daubers…”

      And I think you are wrong in the 2nd part of your claim:

      “…why could so many of them paint other things so life-like?”

      Well they didn’t or couldn’t do what we consider “life-like”, perhaps because it didn’t matter or perhaps it was a gap in skills, a poor understanding of anatomy & a different perception of what mattered in representation.

      Look at ancient Egyptian representation & they get the proportions right & the placement of features, but there’s no attempt to represent the physics of bones clad in flesh, in motion under the influence of inertia & gravity. I suppose [I don’t know] that the important thing to the patrons of the time was to exhibit what they owned, commanded or worshipped. How a human person or cat person actually transfers weight to the ground was of no consequence & probably difficult to portray under their system of perspective.

      When do we first see a person standing with one slightly bent knee & a cocked hip – all in balance? It’s very late in the history of art. Nearly all the art from the pre-Renaissance looks like the artist worked from dead, taxidermied, propped up subjects. Zombie stiffs.

      Compare with the genius of GHIBERTI

      As to medieval cat faces being human… the faces of animals generally [lions, dogs, cats, birds, fish, hares etc. etc.] seem to start from the human face as the archetype. I have a theory that this is an artist misperception driven by an attitude that humans [men] were the centre of all things & nature’s other works were mere mechanisms for our service. Animals were not persons worthy of being individualised – so artists ‘learned’ a level of human representation & left it at that. I’m not that satisfied with my explanation, but it’s my provisional idea.

      1. I just looked at medieval dog drawings & they’re mostly adapted human faces in the sense that the ‘smiles’ & other facial expressions are as if the dogs had human facial muscle groups. Not always, but more often than not.

      2. I’d agree with that. Much medieval art was, to say the least, crude.

        Also, I think, we (as viewers of pictures) are genetically programmed to recognise faces (hence pareidolia) and therefore our attention is concentrated on the face and any bad proportions there stand out. Contemplating en masse all the human faces in classical paintings, very few of them actually look ‘alive’.

        I think it’s also quite hard to draw a face realistically – not many artists have the knack. I have a friend who can do beautiful landscapes and – freehand – perfect perspective drawings of cars (another thing that’s very hard to get right) – but he can’t get faces quite right.


      3. Well, I find quite a bit of the pre-Christian, classical art very realistic, not zombie-like at all (Take eg. Praxiteles) and the equally pre-Christian Hellenistic Art even ‘baroque’ (eg. The Laocoön group).
        For realistic pre-Christian cats we should look at the Egyptians.

        1. I agree. That’s rather lovely, especially the reflection in the eyes & the stillness/peace. Thank you.

          Now link me to a pic from that era of what I mean by “lifelike” [breathing, moving & physics] – a cat pounce, a standing guy with tired knee shifts his weight to the other foot. The nearest I can get is the Palace of Minos bull-jumping fresco ‘cartoons’. Almost abstract. Almost Marvel Comics. Great.

      4. I’ve been looking at quite a bit of medieval bestiaries, and I retract the second part. (I was thinking of Dürer and a depiction of a cat (by Van Maerlant?) that Jerry posted recently. But then Dürer is kinda late in the Middle Ages.

        Most of it is absolutely lousy, especially the crocodile. They clearly never had seen one.

  2. In the Middle Ages, few folks owned cats, and most cats were wandering homeless. The stereotype of the day was that Christians were dog owners and Muslims were cat owners, although a lot of nuns in convents also owned cats.
    Not sure if this entirely accounts for the artistic incompetence.

  3. As far as the Kindchenschema goes, I think you are obviously spot on. Babies are like that, and parents/mothers who would not love that would have less surviving offspring.
    What I find weird is that this “Kindchenschema” transcends species boundaries.
    This raises the question, do other species feel the same?
    The fact that predators like to catch juveniles appears to say:’no’. But maybe they do, and it is just that hunger and an easy prey (juveniles are easier and safer to catch and kill, and possibly taste better, than adults) trump the endearment.

    1. Predators go after juvenile prey because they are an easy meal with few risks. But there are many cases of a lionesses adapting a fawn impala. Likely induced by their cuteness and perhaps on the occassion where the lioness had lost her cubs.

      1. Yes, I’ve seen those nature films, maybe not ‘adopted’, but still not killing. However, it is moot to ascribe that to the ‘Kindchenschema”, although it is a serious possibility. The loss of own children may indeed be a significant factor.
        Maybe also an ‘extended’ “Kindchenschema” not limited to Lorenz’s visual clues, but also other senses, such as smell.

  4. I wonder if the cats with human faces had some symbolic significance that has been lost over time? Just tossing this idea out there.

    1. Yes, I thought I covered that with point 1 (post 2), but rereading it, it was not really covered. It is kinda inbetween 1 and 4.

  5. So why is it that plenty of people, including me, find kittens significantly cuter than actual babies?
    That’s not to say babies aren’t cute, but compare a little Winston Churchill/Ian Hislop faced ball of wriggling pink dough with a tiny, fluffy little kitten and there’s no contest.
    This is a genuine question: surely if the cuteness of kittens is dependent on their resemblance to babies it should be proportionate, and therefore we should find them less cute than babies? But I know plenty of people who find all kinds of baby animals just as cute as, and often cuter than, human babies. Eg. baby pandas, baby puppies, baby bears, etc.. I’ve wondered about this for a while.

    1. All that natural selection really requires is that we think babies are cute. (Otherwise they’d never survive their first few weeks.) If the “cuteness — aw, cuddle, feed” program runs on other stimuli besides humans, even if it runs BETTER on other stimuli (e.g. kittens), that’s no problem. The human babies are still surviving.

      1. That’s a good point.

        But I think people are also genetically programmed to find their own baby extra cute.

        (Personally I find almost anything furry cuter than a baby, and have done ever since I hatched).


  6. Kindchenschema hin oder her, I do like my kittens furry. Madden and Moon are so beautiful together it makes me cry.

  7. I loved that essay on neoteny by Stephen Jay Gould. He had so many good essays back in the day, when he was at his peak. Before his writing got inflated and overblown. On of my favorite essays of his was about the African-American biologist Ernest Everett Just called, ‘Just in The Middle’.

    ..”Human equality is a contingent fact of history.”..

  8. I must apologise for my lazy commentary Nicky! When I wrote “pre-Renaissance” I meant immediately before the flourishing rather than all that wonderful first century [& earlier] stuffs.

    That said I don’t agree that the cats of ancient Egypt are represented in a life-like manner. They are nearly always presented in a very formal, symmetrical pose & even a mum cat with nursing or playful kittens looks like she has rheumatism of the spine & hips – a Vorlon alien [my favourite alien] viewing those images would not know that cats are floppy, springy contraptions covered in fur. There’s NO MOTION in those cats: HERE’S MY EVIDENCE

    1. We agree on the pre-Christiam art of Greeks, ‘Hellenists’ and Romans it appears. The Renaissance was indeed for a great part the rediscovery of classical art.
      As far as Egyptian cats go, they are static indeed, but then they were god-like. Cats can have that traditional Egyptian pose.
      I find they look like Abyssinian cats, slender and big ears, but apparently the genetics show they were tabbies! (I’m still awe struck by that discovery!)
      One question comes up, is it due to Christianity or to ‘Barbarian Invasions’ that European art became so much more ‘awkward’?
      Note, Heather Hastie shows a video of a cat with an empty bowl that nearly has a ‘Medieval’ type face. Maybe we should not discount point 2 out of hand? 🙂

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