A city with a medieval history of killing cats now celebrates them

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A city with a medieval history of killing cats now celebrates them
Cat enthusiasts pose for a photo at Kattenstoet, a cat-themed parade and festival in Iepers, Belgium, May 12, 2024. Cat lovers from around the world gathered for Kattenstoet. (Kevin Faingnaert/The New York Times)

by Jessica Roy

NEW YORK, NY.- A 7-year-old girl hawks cat-themed souvenirs in Flemish outside her parents’ shop. Two women in matching cat print dresses wander down a crowded street looking for a place to buy stuffed plush kitties. In every store and restaurant window, a cat figurine or statue signals allegiance to the feline persuasion.

This is Kattenstoet, Belgium’s cat-themed parade and festival.

Tucked among rolling farmland in the West Flanders region near the border with France, Iepers, Belgium, has not always had such an adoring relationship with cats. In the Middle Ages, when the city’s main industry was cloth making, they used cats to keep wool warehouses free of mice and other vermin. But when the felines began reproducing too quickly, town officials developed a ghastly solution: During the second week of Lent, on “Cat Wednesday,” cats were tossed to their deaths out of the belfry tower onto the town square below. At the time, the animals were seen as a symbol of witchcraft and evil, so their deaths were celebrated.

The last live cat was thrown in 1817, but Ieper (also called Ypres in French) developed Kattenstoet in 1937, a tradition to both acknowledge the city’s gruesome history and celebrate cats. The parade, which took place May 12, is filled with elaborate floats, costumes and performances. Afterward, a person dressed as a jester tosses stuffed animal cats from the belfry, down to the onlookers below.

This year’s event was a big deal because the festival, which takes place every three years, had a temporary halt due to COVID-19, so it was the first Kattenstoet since 2018. According to organizers, this year’s event was expected to attract more than 50,000 cat enthusiasts from all over the world.

One woman, wearing cat ears while sitting on the curb eating a Belgian waffle, said she had traveled from Tokyo to catch the parade. Another, who identified herself as Beth from Northamptonshire, England, said she’d grown up coming to Iepers with her family to visit the British war memorials, but this was her first time attending Kattenstoet. Though she only owns one cat, a Maine coon named Kimber, she has him and six of her former feline friends tattooed on her left arm.

Some Kattenstoet floats tell the story of the history of Iepers, while others depict cat worship in history or pop culture. (There is, of course, a giant Garfield float.) The costumes are a combination of homemade and professionally sewn, and the participants’ enthusiasm at this year’s parade was infectious: Everyone, from the elementary school children marching with their dance troupes to adults riding on floats, was committed to the bit. Marching bands, drum corps and other musical performances scored the show, which lasted for nearly three hours on an unseasonably warm day.

Dan Baxter, a police officer, and Sarah Carlson, a nurse, planned their vacation from Philadelphia to Iepers to see the parade. “I think we learned about it from a weird Instagram reel, and we’re like, ‘Is this real?’” Carlson said. “And then we researched it and were like, ‘Oh, we’re going.’”

The couple left their own four cats with an army of cat sitters, and made their way to Belgium. Baxter, who proudly sports two cat tattoos, wore an Eagles hat and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “MILF: Man I Love Felines.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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