The ‘Cat’ came back: Austin Bell’s new book details the lives of the Key Marco Cat

Lance Shearer

The title of Austin Bell’s book lays out his thesis. “The Nine Lives of Florida’s Famous Key Marco Cat” takes a historical deep dive into all that is known about the Key Marco Cat, and tracks it from its mist-shrouded origins to its current living quarters at the Marco Island Historical Museum.

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Bell is curator of collections for the Marco Island Historical Society, and his office is within steps of the temperature-, humidity- and vibration-controlled case where the cat sits in a specially prepared vault, attended by security guards and on display for thousands of visitors. The ongoing fascination of Marco Island residents and visitors, along with history buffs, museum-goers and cat lovers around the country have helped “put Marco Island on the map.”

Bell said his book is about “solving mysteries,” filling in gaps about what is known of the cat, its provenance or origin, and the various worlds it has inhabited since its creation, and even before. Each stage of the cat’s journey makes up one of the nine “lives” Bell details in the book.

You can’t buy Austin Bell’s new book. Well, you can buy it, preordering online from Amazon or publisher University Press of Florida, but you can’t read it, unless you are a peer reviewer – and those professional colleagues have said glowing things about it. The book is due for release on Aug. 24.

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The first of the cat’s lives, Bell wrote, was not as animal or objet d’art, but plant life. The cat grew as a tree, and not even the species of wood from which it was carved is known. Archaeologist Frank Cushing described the cat as being “carved from an exceedingly hard knot, or gnarled block of fine, dark-brown wood.” Just which pre-Colombian Native American cultural group carved, whether Muspa or Calusa, is another mystery, as the date is not known within 1,000 years.

Becoming that carving was the second life of the cat, and led to the third, its life as a ceremonial object, decoration or child’s toy. How this came to an end is not known – was it an attack? Intentional burial? A hurricane?

“The point of the book is not to pin it down, but to put the threads out and let people decide,” Bell said. After going through Hurricane Irma, he has his own belief.

While the cat lay undisturbed for centuries as the world developed around it, once it was dug up by the Cushing expedition in 1896, it has been far from sedentary. Marco Island Historical Society CEO Pat Rutledge said the new book will help dispel the misperception that the cat was just “an artifact put away in a drawer. It’s fantastic,” she said.

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Bell tracks the cat on its journeys since being excavated, which covered 12,000 miles and saw it on display in nine different cities, with Marco Island only the most recent. The cat is due to return to its northern home in 2026, making it something akin to Marco’s other resident “snowbirds.”

While “Nine Lives” is a serious scholarly work, it was written for general audiences, and is likely to have a broad appeal, certainly on Marco Island. The peer reviewers who perused it prior to publication make that point.

“Painstakingly researched and cleverly written, this comprehensive exploration will appeal to historians, researchers, and those who, like so many, have simply been captivated by the cat’s powerful mystique,” wrote Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums.

“Does any cat really give up its secrets? Austin lets us in on some of them, and the result is a delight,” wrote William Marquardt, curator emeritus of the Florida Museum of Natural History. 

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“The Nine Lives of Florida’s Famous Key Marco Cat” is Bell’s third book concerning the history of Marco Island. He previously wrote “Marco Island (Images of America)” and “Marco Island (Images of Modern America),” which are image-heavy companion pieces to the exhibits at the Marco Island Historical Museum.

“Nine Lives” is more narrative, although it does include about 50 images. Start to finish, said Bell, it took three years to write. “Mostly written during the pandemic, especially when I got close to my deadline.” That date had to be pushed back a couple of times, he said. “My editor was patient with me,” and said, “if writing a book was easy, everyone would do it.”

So now the cat will live on as literature. Does that count as a tenth life?