Purrlitzer Prize 

In Purrlitzer, Able Sea-cat Bart shares Alan Villiers’ story of the Joseph Conrad crew rowing to rescue the ship’s kitten that fell overboard. It’s a classic tale of the head-above-water courage of seafaring felines, the sailors’ pest controllers, shipmates, mascots and pets.  

Ship’s cat rescued!

COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, May/June 1984 — [Ralph Pulitzer established] a Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play at his New York World in 1913. According to a 1916 issue of American Magazine, Pulitzer had become concerned about the increasing blurriness between “that which is true and that which is false” in the paper.  

the Pulitzer Prize golden medalHe had reason for concern. One of the questionable practices uncovered by the bureau’s first director, Isaac D. White, was the routine embellishment of stories about shipwrecks with fictional reports about the rescue of a ship’s cat. After asking the maritime reporter why a cat had been rescued in each of a half dozen accounts of shipwrecks, White was told:

“One of those wrecked ships carried a cat, and the crew went back to save it. I made the cat the feature of my story, while the other reporters failed to mention the cat, and were called down by their city editors for being beaten. The next time there was a shipwreck there was no cat; but the other ship news reporters did not wish to take chances, and put the cat in. I wrote a true report, leaving out the cat, and then I was severely chided for being beaten. Now when there is a shipwreck all of us always put in a cat.” 

Ships cats and seafaring felines deplore fake news. A cat shouting: I never fell overboard!Falling is for losers!Fake news.

CREDIT Cassandra Tate, “What Do Ombudsmen Do?”

Breaking news

My take on this“Sailors save ship’s cat” stories go way back. John Lok’s (Locke’s) in 1553 was the first I found, and it appears shortly after the printing press gave us a publishing industry and broadsheets to spread the news. Over the years, real life rescue stories keep coming because storms, winds, waves, rocks, reefs and more keep coming – there’s no stopping natural forces (and occasional human error). With action, nail-biting drama and (mostly) a happy ending, it’s no wonder these stories hit the headlines. But it’s not just ships’ cats breaking news any more. It’s cats. I tend to agree with Prof Ehrlich when he reckons it’s more than clickbait. He reckons it points “to intensely political debates over how animals should be treated and what journalism should be”. That’s getting a bit deep and philosophical for me. But he’s got a point. And point taken.

I’m thinking big now. Really big. I’m thinking Purrlitzer Prize for excellence in animal rescue and welfare journalism (all platforms). What a way for the Pulitzer people to go global heading into their second century. A bit late for Alan Villiers who penned his classic “crew rescues ship’s cat” story back in 1937 in The Cruise of the Conrad


Cat overboard

“On the second Friday the twenty-second of May, Joseph, the ginger tomcat, fell in the sea from the mizzen channels, and we hove to and went back for him… On this morning, which was cold with squalls – for we were two degrees south of forty then, in the west winds zone – he took a leap from the dinghy cover on to the top of the hammock netting, but the ship rolled heavily and though one small paw found its objective, the others did not and he slipped into the sea. Here he at once began, very strongly, to swim, looking up only to give a surprised meow. But he had been seen.

mizzen channel
A broad plank that projects horizontally from a sailing ship’s sides near its mizzen, or third, mast.

a cranky looking albatrossIt was a fresh wind with quite a sloppy sea. I ordered the helm down at once and backed the main yard. The dinghy was put out in a few seconds, being always ready for just such a service, and two of the best seamen took their places at the oars. These were the sailmaker, Karl Sperling, and the able seaman, Hilgard Pannes, Both veterans from the Parma. The last glimpse I had of poor Joseph was when an inquiring albatross, which had been gliding around, came down near him to examine this strange object, but the cat lifted a ginger paw and smote his visitor heartily over the nose, whereupon the startled albatross at once took off again and left him alone. The beak of an albatross would have made short work of poor Joseph! He knew that; but he was not one to be afraid. I could not leave a cat like that to drown.

a bedraggled looking cat in the sea hoping the 2 blokes in the rowboat arrive soon

It seemed utterly impossible to find a tiny cat in all that waste of water, for a ship, even hove to, was still drifting, and the cat was so small. Still, Hilgard and Karl pulled back toward the place where they thought he might be, while many eyes in the rigging kept look-out on the sea for the tiny form. We did not see him again. But I had a rough bearing of where he was and in this direction the dinghy pulled. They were about to give up, after pulling for twenty minutes and searching all the area within two cables of the ship, when, to the astonishment of all hands, there was Joseph, wet and bedraggled, weakly swimming towards the dinghy.

The boys hauled him aboard and hurried back to the ship, taking off their jerseys in the cold to wrap round the cat. We hurried him along to the galley, took the dinghy aboard again, squared away and proceeded. That was a fortunate little kitten. He soon recovered from his cold immersion and within two days was happily playing in the rigging again, though he kept away from the channels.” 

CREDIT Cruise of the Conrad – the journal of Villiers’ voyage round the world in 1934, 1935 and 1936 in the fully-rigged ship Joseph Conrad. (© Nancie Villiers. Used by arrangement with the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)