"Are you sure he’s alive?" I asked as our cat slumped over his food bowl. We leaned closer. We were relieved to see his sizeable frame heave a bit as he breathed and let out an audible sigh.
Tazo, our silver Egyptian Mau, had been lording over the food again. We needed to keep reducing the amount and be creative to ensure the other cats got to eat too. He had fallen asleep in his chow, protecting it from the others.
Despite living in Canada, Tazo was destined to indirectly become an Egyptian cat hero. Who could have known?
It all started when our small son decided he wanted a pet. I would normally adopt a cat from the local shelter, but I researched specific breeds this time. To my surprise, there was one called an Egyptian Mau. It looked elegant! Given that my husband was Egyptian-Canadian, we felt it would be suitable to try to get one as a family pet.
Finding such a cat proved to be no easy task. Most Egyptian Mau breeders in Canada in the early 2000's charged an extravagant sum for a kitten. After a year of research, perseverance, and a good measure of patience, we found a Canadian breeder who had silver Egyptian Mau looking for a home at a good price.
Tazo Chai (not very Egyptian, I thought, given his Asian tea name) was a two-year-old neutered, ex-breeder with a notably nurturing nature. Tazo had been kept in the breeder’s kitten room. Later, we learned that this meant Tazo was an overly affectionate cat; kittens were the only ones who would allow him to lick them! He would try to wrestle adult cats to clean their ears and whiskers, and they did not appreciate this. Poor Tazo was often rejected and misunderstood by his cat companions.
Tazo had a quizzical look about him. He would approach items, like rocks and even a defrosting turkey, and give them a tap to see if they lived. He inadvertently coined our family's term for a hesitant yet brave motion: the Tazo Tap.
I figured we would get an Egyptian Mau friend for Tazo when we visited my husband's family in Egypt later that year. We thought a cat from there would understand him better than the local ones.
While in Egypt, we went to a few pet stores, but no one seemed to understand what we wanted: "Egyptian Mau? What is that? You must mean a Siamese or Shirazi (Persian)?" We found no ads in the Arabic or English newspapers advertising the breed, and there were few veterinarian clinics there at that time.
Then, we saw a movement under a car in Cairo and a flash of brown; it was a stray Egyptian Mau! Later, across the street from a relative's house, a group of Maus hunted by the trash cans around dinner time. They were pretty cats, spotted and tabby-like; some with green eyes, others amber. Their fur was brown, sometimes reddish-orange. We began to see them all over the city. We even tried to catch a feral kitten near Alexandria, but it hissed and clawed its way out of my hands and ran off, giving me a glare over its shoulder. I was left with only a sore hand to remember it by.
We returned to Canada crestfallen and empty-handed, but I remained determined. I felt sorry for these stray cats that went unappreciated in their home country. They were a remnant of living, ancient history. These cats were the ancestors of the noble, regal, revered felines featured inside pyramid walls. Today, the Egyptian government was shooting stray dogs and poisoning street cats for population control. It was a cruel and unfair end to a magnificent and historic breed. Local animal lovers protested but the government, which could barely provide for its burgeoning human population, was not interested in the welfare of stray animals. How I wished I could somehow help these forgotten, neglected, and hunted creatures.
Not long after our trip to Egypt, my husband’s work re-assigned us to the Middle East. We were able to spend more time in Egypt, as it was not too far away. Our son was only ten and we had to leave everything behind, including our pets. My elderly father took in Tazo and our other cats. Eventually, our cats became too much for him and needed to be rehomed. Tazo moved to Vancouver BC, Canada with one of our other cats, a female black Manx rescue named Spunky, where he could have more constant attention. When we visited family in Canada, we confirmed Tazo was in a good home. We stayed in touch with his new owners, and Tazo seemed to be happy and adapting well. We were comforted in knowing we had made the right decision.
My determination to understand Tazo's lineage grew when we returned to Egypt. I learned that the stray cats I saw were Native Egyptian Maus. Some of them had provided breeding stock to create the modern Egyptian Maus around 1950. The new breed became popular in North America and Europe, but was unknown in their homeland!
We used our rustic two-story apartment in Cairo, Egypt to collect a few local native Maus. I found a vet who would neuter and spay the cats we brought in. Our new website educated the public and served as a platform to adopt out the cats who were tame and ready for new homes. The official shelter, Egyptian Mau Rescue Organization (EMRO), was born out of these efforts. Our apartment’s ground floor spilled out to the courtyard around the apartment block. It became the vet clinic and boarding facility for at least twenty cats, while the shelter held over 100 cats.
We had only planned to be overseas for three years, but it lasted eight. My husband kept renewing his contract in Saudi Arabia, so my son and I spent more time in Egypt. I found a few managers to look after the shelter and vet clinic when we were absent. My Arabic was quite rudimentary but with the help of relatives and paid help, we got by. Most of the vets spoke English, which helped us communicate more easily.
Highlights of this time included finding local silver Native Maus (who looked like Tazo) as well as the more common bronze, red and blue-coloured Maus, creating education efforts about Maus for the community, organizing animal welfare outreachs in nearby schools and at community bazaars, and coordinating with other animal-welfare groups in the area for trap-neuter-release (TNR) work. The clinic offered employment for new veterinarians, and we trained them in small-animal management, which wasn’t offered elsewhere at the time. Additionally, the clinic offered low-cost care to neighbours' cats and dogs and boarding and grooming, which paid staff’s salaries.
I was fortunate to work with local and international volunteers, cat breeders, and animal care professionals. National Geographic visited us twice, filming us and the felines, and they created a short feature on the plight of the cats. The Native Egyptian Mau became more popular after they released the film, especially after the American movie Catwoman came out. We also worked with researchers from the University of California who did a genetic study of cats. Some American cat breeders created a new breed, The Nile Valley Egyptian Cats, defined as any cat born in Egypt (Maus included) without human interaction; it remains in its infancy stage with international cat-fancy groups.
EMRO found homes for about 500 local cats over the 13 years it existed. We had a map on the shelter office wall depicting where each cat ended up, which included Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia. EMRO volunteers hailed from Egypt and Australia, America, and Europe with much work being done virtually for adoptions.
Tazo's picture hung, as a mascot of sorts, in the EMRO shelter office. Many people admired the photo and marveled at the cat who unwittingly started the systematic education and outreach for his Mau cousins in Egypt.
Regrettably, EMRO closed its doors after my husband passed away in 2013 and the building it was in was sold a few years afterward. Prices had increased significantly in Egypt which made feeding the cats in the shelter problematic. Additionally, staff changeover and the fact we needed to repatriate back to Canada all became issues leading to its closure. All shelter cats were rehomed. The few who were left when the doors closed were kept in offsite boarding until they ultimately found homes in Germany with the help of a German volunteer who worked tirelessly to ensure their adoption, safety, and travel.
We never did find our own Native Egyptian Mau as a pet, but we had the privilege and opportunity to help hundreds of Egyptian (Mau and otherwise) cats over the years EMRO existed. The Native Mau population fell over time, due to continued government poisoning and illness, but a few other local shelters and individuals still help the cats in an ongoing effort for Egyptian animal welfare. They should be applauded and supported, if possible.
Tazo developed pancreatitis and died peacefully four years after moving to his new home. He was well-loved and oblivious to the remarkable legacy he would inspire. He never did get a Native Mau friend as I originally hoped, but he had a good life with his affectionate buddy, Spunky, who outlived him by a year.
Little did I realize the important role one adopted silver-spotted, ex-breeding feline would play in our lives, and the impact he would have on hundreds of Egyptian cats and the people who adopted or learned about them.
Oh, the difference one (cat) life can make!
Well done, Tazo. R.I.P.
Gloria Lauris is an emerging Canadian writer of fiction and nonfiction who resides in Ottawa Ontario Canada. She has an MA in Sociology and BA in Art History, and is a retired government policy analyst and long-time animal welfare promoter.
Her most recent publications are an article on her father, a war veteran, in Reader Digest’s More of Our Canada magazine (November 2019), and a children’s fiction story with a fellow co-writer called “The Case of the Missing Nuts,” in Cloud Lake Literary (March 26, 2021). For more information on her writing, please see her Facebook page or website at glauris.wixsite.com/website.