The cat comes back: Historical Museum hosts celebration welcoming back Key Marco Cat
Many Marco residents return when the weather turns cold up north. But this snowbird, or “snow cat,” was gone longer than most.
The Key Marco Cat, Marco Island’s claim to archaeological fame, was officially welcomed back to the island, its first visit home since being excavated from the muck in Old Marco Village over a hundred years ago in 1896, apart from a brief visit in 2000 when it had to be housed in a bank vault. The cat, and several other artifacts from the same dig that accompanied it, are housed in climate-controlled, vibration-dampened quarters behind bulletproof glass, to protect the fragile antiquities.
While the pieces actually arrived back in early February, Saturday marked their official coming out party, with dignitaries speaking, proclamations read, and a ribbon cutting to mark the event. Activities and presentations made it a daylong party at the Marco Island Historical Museum, where the cat is quartered, with Marco Island Historical Society executive director Pat Rutledge reporting that by day’s end, over 1,000 visitors had stopped by the museum.
In the adjacent Rose Hall, the appropriately named Kat Epple played Calusa-inspired music on her wooden flute, accompanied by Nathan Dykes on a variety of traditional drums and percussion instruments. Epple also composed the soundtrack that plays in the Calusa exhibit inside the museum. Native American carver and historian Pedro Zepeda – a Seminole, not a Calusa or Muspa, as those people vanished centuries ago – explained the culture of Southwest Florida’s indigenous peoples.
The county’s Domestic Animal Services brought live cats, and at least one feline-friendly dog, to promote animal adoptions. Face paining artist Marja Michaelson painted – what else – cat faces on the faces of kids and fun-loving adults, including museum manager Jennifer Perry, although she only got one side of her face done. Representatives of the Florida Public Archaeology Network promoted the work of their organization.
“It’s a day we’ve all been waiting for, and here it is,” said Rutledge when the presentations began. “Welcome to the return of these special treasures to their home on Marco Island. It’s a day of celebration for the community, and for all of us.”
Collier County tourism czar Jack Wert proclaimed 2019 “the year of the Cat,” saying, “this lets people know what the history of Marco Island really was.” He noted the Historical Society had raised $4.5 million to build a museum and collection that, though small, aspires to world-class standards in its research and exhibits.
Attendees heard from Collier County director of public services Steve Parnell and Marco Island City Council chairman Erik Brechnitz, who read proclamations from the county and city, respectively, welcoming back the cat. MIHS president Michael O’Rourke noted this year marks the 25th anniversary of the society, and thanked all those who worked to make the day possible, and those who came before – and could now be said to be part of Marco Island history.
Also part of Marco Island history, perhaps more than he would ever have imagined, archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing was on display, with a period desk covered by his writings and his own artifacts on display next to the pieces he dug from the muck, and had pictured and preserved.
Exhibits at the museum go into great detail about early Native American cultures on Marco Island, with dioramas, artifacts and interactive activities, along with separate exhibits tracing the pioneer period and modern Marco Island.
But Saturday, the star of the show was the cat. Due to the relatively primitive techniques used when it was found, scientists are unable to date it closer than 1,000 years, estimating it to have been carved between 500 and 1500 A.D. Whether it was a ceremonial worship object, an artist’s masterpiece, or a child’s toy is lost in time. Even whether the artifacts are Calusa or Muspa is unknown.
Attendees queued up to gaze at it, with the enigma it poses perhaps adding to its allure.
“It’s amazing – it’s so much like ancient Egyptian carvings,” said Patricia Barber, unintentionally echoing a theory that has been floated for a century.
Created by the early Native American inhabitants of Marco – just which group, whether the Calusa, Muspa, or even the Glades people is not likely ever to be known – the cat was probably carved somewhere between 50 and 1500 AD, and then spent something like 1,000 years encased in mud and peat at the northern tip of Marco Island.
Given the punishing climate of Southwest Florida, at a location just steps from the Gulf of Mexico, it is amazing to have any wooden artifacts survive at all, said MIHS curator of collections Austin Bell. “This site is so rare, to have preserved wood and plant fibers. We don’t know much about the site,” he said, and archeological techniques of the 19th century didn’t lend themselves to gleaning the amount of information expected from modern digs. Workers in the 1890s didn’t meticulously record the “stratigraphy,” noting which layer artifacts came from, thereby helping date and relate them to each other and surrounding events. “Archeology was in its infancy.”
Archeologist Cushing described the cat as “a man-like being in the guise of a panther. Although it is barely six inches in height, its dignity of pose may fairly be termed ‘heroic,’ and its conventional lines are to the last degree masterly.”
The cat is scheduled to remain on Marco Island through April of 2021, and has drawn a heavy schedule of groups as well as individuals to experience the area’s history.
If you go
Marco Island Historical Museum
- 180 S. Heathwood Drive
- Marco Island, FL 34145
- 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday