Jem Vanston

Jem and BumbleAuthor of the wonderful book, A Cat Called Dog, Jem Vanston has joined the team of writers at The Daily Mews office.  Currently living in Wales with Honey and Bumble, two rescue cats, he will write for us on an ad hoc basis as he has his own editing business which keeps him very busy.  If you haven't already found the delightful A Cat Called Dog, then I do urge you to, because you won't be disappointed.

A Cat Called Dog 

I base the character of Bumble – who narrates FIGHTING THE FLAB – on the character Eric in my book A Cat Called Dog (Austin Macauley 2015). That’s only right and proper really, as I based the character of the one-eyed cockney stray cat Eric – at least in part – on Bumble!

A Cat Called Dog by Jem VanstonI had actually written the original A Cat Called Dog in 28 days during the London Olympics in July 2012, and in early 2012 we still had our previous cats Fifi and Frodo. Fifi died in June; Frodo in early August 2012. Soon after, we visited Cats Protection Swansea, and got the cats who became Honey and Bumble. At the time, Honey was called ‘Sindy’ I think, and the shelter had named Bumble ‘Sadie’.

We soon renamed them: Honey, because her fur is Honey-coloured and she’s very sweet too – she was utterly traumatised when we got her (after the previous owner was raided by police and she hid under the floorboards for five days). Once with us, Honey hid under the stairs in a pile of cardboard for three days, but she gradually recovered and is now a thriving little Tabby-Tortie-cross diva! She’s very pretty – and knows it too!

Bumble was so-called because he’s rather clumsy, knocking things off shelves with his tail, in complete contrast to Honey, who is delicate and careful. Bumble was always bold – he came up to us in the Cats Protection shelter with his huge flue brush of a tail up in the air and miaowing constantly right at us! Well, he did get our attention with that display, so we took the two cats (who may be sisters) home.

As I was editing the original A Cat Called Dog I exaggerated the bushiness of Eric’s tail after witnessing Bumble’s wonderful bushy tail – which, by the way, he wags constantly, just like a dog! Like Eric, Bumble is a semi-longhaired black cat, and rather scruffy. Though I am pleased to say that Bumble still has both eyes and is such a home boy I don’t think he’d ever survive as a stray (unlike Honey who’d be a wonderful mouser!)

Bumble is a she-cat by the way, but we call her a he because she behaves so like the tom-cats we have had in the past (and it also helps us to differentiate between the two cats as well). I am sure Bumble isn’t offended!

Eric is a great fun character in A Cat Called Dog – a cockney stray with one eye missing who is perhaps not the sharpest claw in the paw, but who is ever-cheerful and loyal to the respectable George and other cats. Like Bumble, he is good-natured but loves putting on a display too as a bit of a show-off!

The illustrated sequel to A Cat Called Dog which is called A Cat Called Dog – The One with the Kittens will be out in April or May 2017. It’s full of fun, as always, with funny characters, scenes and jokes – as well as some sad and scary moments. Like a Disney film, it is suitable for both children and adults.

My author website: www.vanston.co.uk– all news of the release of the book will be put on here as it happens.

Jem Vanston

“It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice.” (Deng Xiaoping)

“All cats are grey in the dark.” (German proverb)

Black catAs Halloween approaches, so does National Black Cat Day (October 27th).

The timing is not coincidental, unfortunately. We all know that black cats are associated in many people’s mind with being bad luck or evil. Well, hard as it may be to believe, some cat shelters refuse to allow black cats to be adopted in the run-up to Halloween for fear that they’ll be used as ‘living ornaments’ for the festival or even become the victim of torture and sacrifice.

That black cats are now so synonymous with misfortune is a genuine surprise to me, because when I was growing up in Kent, England in the 1970s, both myself and other children at my school associated a black cat walking in your path to mean good luck. Now, it seems most people, even in the UK, associate black cats with bad luck.

I have no idea why precisely the change has come about. It may be through the influence of the USA, especially via horror films and the introduction of a very American and commercial Halloween here since the 1980s. Or, it may be an influence from mainland Europe – where, in many countries, black cats have traditionally been considered unlucky. However, this has happened, it’s a shame – especially for black cats!

So why are black cats thought to be unlucky? Well, it seems the root cause can be found in history and religion.

Everyone knows how cats were revered in Ancient Egypt – partly, it seems, because of their shining eyes, and partly because as chief mouse-catchers they were essential to that civilisation’s survival by keeping grain stores vermin-free. Cats were worshipped and the goddess of war was a woman with the head of a cat called Bastet. If you accidently killed a cat in ancient Egypt, you could be put to death! However, it seems the Egyptians believed the cat was inhabited with the spirit of their goddess, rather than being a god in itself, so they would often kill cats by breaking their necks before mummifying them. Clear evidence of this can be seen in the British Museum in London, where the Egyptian Gallery on the third floor shows X-rays of cat mummies with cleanly broken necks!

So many cats were mummified in Ancient Egypt – many millions – that shiploads of them were dug up and shipped back to Britain in the 19th century to be ground down and used as bone fertiliser on farmers’ fields.

Celtic, Pagan and pre-Christian cultures in Britain and Europe also revered cats – again, probably because of their bright shining eyes at night, but also because of their aura of mystery. Human beings have always naturally associated the colour black with bad, evil, negative and scary things (as it is representative of night) and white with good, godly, positive things (as white represents daylight). No amount of political correctness can undo this instinct which fed human culture – though white can also be associated with death (from white bones). Therefore, the black cat was victim of a bad luck double whammy – first as a cat, and second as black.

Early Christians were fearful and suspicious of anything worshipped by the Pagans who preceded them (though they were not averse to appropriating festivals which later became known as Christmas, Easter and Halloween), so automatically considered the cats connected to these Pagans as being suspect. Black cats were seen as nocturnal creatures of the occult, by both Pagans and Christians, and were often seen as the shape-shifting ‘familiars’ of witches – perhaps because back then, as now, very many more mature ladies lived alone with cats! Historical research has now shown the persecution of witches in The Middle Ages to be far more prevalent in mainland Europe than Britain, and so perhaps that is why black cats were until very recently considered good luck here. In mainland Europe, there are historical records of large-scale massacres of black cats on midsummer bonfires.

In the 20th century, the celebration of Halloween (originally the Ancient British festival called Samhain – which means “summer’s end”) has become a large and increasingly commercialised and Americanised festival in the UK and worldwide.

Interestingly, it was the Universal horror movies of the 1920s and 1930s, themselves very influenced by the dreadful deformities and injuries caused to men who had fought in the First World War, which led to so much of the dressing up in fancy dress as monsters, ghouls and witches. Films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Old Dark House - and, the biggest horror film of 1934, The Black Cat, starring the Hungarian Bela Lugosi (watch the movie “Ed Wood” to see what became of him) and the British actor Boris Karloff (born William Pratt) – helped create modern Halloween, complete with evil black cats. Many were directed by the British James Whale (the film “Gods and Monsters” outlines his life).

Fifi and FrodoSo, is there any truth to the perception of black cats being more aloof and less friendly than other cats? Well, not in my experience – 4 of the 10 cats we have had since I was 7 years old have been black (Nana, Fifi, Frodo, and now Bumble) and they have all been delightful moggies! Four more have been black and white (Tippy, Podge, Hobbes and Max). According to Cats Protection, it takes 13% longer to home a black or a black-and-white cat, and more black cats are taken in by shelters too. Reasons given include the old myth of black cats bringing bad luck and being evil, but more recently people have come to believe black cats do not photograph as well or look good in selfies – such is the vanity of humans! There are even online forums which show how to take good photos of black cats – by using cross-lighting, for example. Some people also claim black cats are harder to tell apart, and research tends to show people see black cats as ‘aloof’ and other cats such as ginger or tabby cats being seen as ‘warm and friendly’. I have to say that I have noticed no specific personality trait specifically amongst the black cats we have known – all those ten cats have had their own personalities and the fur colour has had no relevance.

So why do black cats exist at all? After all, cats evolved in the sandy landscapes of Asia, so surely tabby colouring would be most effective for all of them? Well, one theory is that a black coat would have promoted survival, and through natural selection, it seems eleven of the seventeen species of cat that exist have evolved black coats via a mutated gene. This recessive gene suppresses the tabby pattern.

Apparently, this gene also means black cats are also more resistant to disease than other cats, and some people even suggest black cats cannot get FIV (and AIDS-like syndrome for cats). The higher melatonin pigment content causes most black cats to have yellow eyes (all our black cats have had these).

Any cat whose fur is of a single colour is known as “solid” or “self”. A “solid black” cat can come in various shades: brownish-black, coal-black or grey-black, and a cat with black fur with white roots is known as “black smoke”.

Of course, there is no such thing as true black, so all black cats are, in reality, very dark brown – something that can be seen when a cat is lying in direct sunlight. This is known as “rusting” – but it is simply the sun showing the true fur colour really.

It’s such a shame that, these days, black cats seem to be doomed to remain unloved in cat shelters merely because of silly superstitions and unjustified prejudice – but the evidence suggests this is the case. That is why we need Black Cat Day on 27th October – an opportunity for all black cat lovers, including me, to post photos of our cats online. There is also a black cat appreciation day on 17th August.

BumbleMy own Twitter account has a picture of me with our semi-longhaired black rescue cat Bumble (who’s just been put on a diet so who is wailing plaintively a great deal lately!)

I sincerely hope black cats can regain their previous status as bringers of good luck, at least in the UK, where that was the traditional belief – but the sheer commercial weight of the Hollywood horror movie machine would suggest this is unlikely.

Maybe we should all become more like sailors of old, who believed a black cat on board ship would bring good luck, or their wives who kept black cats at home, too, in order to protect their husbands at sea.

And who knows, maybe black cats do bring good luck. It’s said that when British monarch King Charles I’s treasured black cat died he lamented that his luck was gone. Sure enough, the very next day he was arrested for High Treason. He was beheaded in Whitehall, London in 1649.

So, as Halloween approaches – and Bonfire Night (November 5th) in Britain – it’s worth shouting the benefits of black cats, and how they can be as loving, amusing, funny and loyal as any other colour of cat. And if you know anyone considering adopting a cat, try encouraging them to be colour-blind – I bet most have no idea that a black cat is less likely to catch certain diseases.

I continually wince at how human beings are still in thrall to silly superstitions – (which also lead to the poaching and near-extinction of certain species) – so every Halloween I smile wryly at the following joke:

What did one ghost say to the other ghost?

Do you believe in people?

I think that, for me at least, the jury’s still out on that one!

You can catch up with Jem on his Twitter account: @ACatCalledDog   

 

 

 

On a recent trip to Italy, Jem Vanston stumbled across a cat sanctuary steeped in history.

 

Jem with volunteer Laura and SkyWhen in Rome you can do many interesting things – visit the Colosseum, throw coins in the Trevi Fountain or just eat Italian ice cream all day long.  But animal lovers can also pay a visit to the wonderful Torre Argentina (TA) Cat Sanctuary.

Located in the heart of Rome next to the ruins of four ancient temples, the sanctuary was started in 1993 to care for a cat colony living in the excavations.  The site was earmarked for an apartment block development in the late 80s, but as is common in lasagne-style history-layered Rome, when they started digging, they uncovered ruins dating from 300 – 400 BC, so work was halted.

Temple ruins next to cat sanctuaryDespite opposition from some, the cat sanctuary was then set up in a basement to one side of these ruins and has been there ever since.  It is entirely reliant on donations and is run by an international group of volunteers.

Sadly, the sanctuary has a constant battle with various municipal authorities who would dearly like to shut it down – and they nearly succeeded in 2012 until there was a change in the political situation.  The sanctuary’s position is still precarious, however, as it only has ‘squatter status’ on the site.

Three-legged GolumWhen I paid a visit on a sunny day in May 2015, I was shown around by Italian volunteer, Laura, who introduced me to many of the cats in residence – Asmin, Sky, Lady Macbeth, three-legged Golum (so-called because of his wonky walk!), Raptus (also three-legged), as well as blind cats named Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.  They are all very well looked after and much-loved by the volunteers 365 days a year.

Cats relaxingThere are 160 cats in residence at the moment, though no kittens.  Due to the risk of infection, these are fostered and socialised so they get a healthy start in life and have a better chance of adoption.  In 2014 there were 158 adoptions from the centre, but some – often blind, deaf or older cats with FIV and other conditions – are permanent residents.  The cat sanctuary runs a neutering programme too, which is much needed in Italy where some refuse to neuter pets for religious reasons.

As well as taking care of homeless cats, the TA Cat Sanctuary promotes TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return) to stabilise the number of strays in cat colonies in Rome, reduce the spread of FIV, FeLV, blindness due to the herpes virus, and other threats.  

boy and his dad meet the catsMany cats in the centre are blind, and there are a few without tails or missing a limb, usually as a result of road traffic accidents.

The president and co-founder of the sanctuary, Silvia Viviani, told me that all abandoned felines brought in are neutered and vaccinated initially.  Those with illnesses receive treatment and are kept isolated in pens until better.

Italy does not really seem to have a national organised system similar to those in the UK, so the existence of such independent sanctuaries is vital.  Having said this, the cat colonies in Rome – at the Colosseum and elsewhere – are actually officially protected by the state.

On the day I visited the sanctuary there were people of all ages and from several different countries petting the cats.  Many had obviously just stumbled across the sanctuary when on holiday in Rome, but many Italians who live outside of Rome also call by when in the capital.

Cat sanctuary entrance signThe centre raises funds via its shop – a handy place to buy souvenirs or presents such as cat sanctuary calendars, T-shirts, fridge magnets, etc.  Needless to say, donations are always welcome – and the centre runs an ‘adopt a cat from a distance’ scheme for supporters all over the world.

One thing is certain – anyone who visits the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary is sure of a warm Roman welcome from the amazing group of women volunteers, not to mention all the lucky cats they care for.

Jem Vanston

(Author of ‘A Cat Called Dog’)

 

Visit www.romancats.com for more information on how you can sponsor a cat or donate for the care of the permanent boarders and its ever-expanding neutering scheme.

Open 365 days a year noon till 6pm.

Email: info@gattidiroma.com

 

With around half a billion domesticated cats in the world today, it is no surprise that so many cat-loving owners (AKA slaves and worshippers) like to collect ornaments or pictures which represent their furry darlings.

Alabaster jar with lionBut this is nothing new. The first feline antiques were made in Ancient Egypt over 3000 years ago. An alabaster jar with lion decoration from the tomb of Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in the 1920s, has been dated to 1323 BC.

BastetA great many Egyptian figures of Bastet, the cat goddess (of war), have been discovered. They are often made of bronze and date from the first millennia BC. These are so common they are often not as pricey as their age would suggest (£2000 will get you a nice bronze Bastet 3000 years old). Many museums have nice collections to go and see (the third floor of the British Museum is the place to go when you’re in London!)

Mummified cats were also found in Egypt in their hundreds of thousands. So many were discovered that whole shiploads were transported to Britain to be ground up and used as fertiliser to spread on fields in the 19th century when Egypt was a British protectorate. Even though Egyptians are famous for worshipping cats, what they were really worshipping was the goddess who possessed their soul, so many mummified cats show broken necks when X-rayed – meaning they were killed and sacrificed to Bastet.

Meisson Cat with mouseMore expensive for the serious collector are 18th century porcelain figures of cats by makers such as Meissen, Derby, Minton and others. These often sell at auction for well over £1500, and often for as much as £3-4000. It is the rarity and condition of a particular antique that sells at this level. Supply and demand sets the price, though it’s fair to say cats usually make less than dogs or horses at the high level of antiques.

Black cat match holderOther cat collectables that can cost a fortune are early 1920s advertising figures featuring characters such as Felix the Cat. I have a match holder featuring a cat which is probably for Black Cat cigarettes, a popular brand until the 1960s, but that cost me around £5. Collecting cat items does not have to break the bank!

I also own two black glass perfume bottles made in the 1920s in Czechoslovakia. These represent ‘Ooloo the cat’ who was a companion created for Bonzo the dog, a cartoon character of the 1920s. One is damaged so worth only £18, but that is fine as they make a nice pair. A good tip for anyone wanting items to display only, rather than to be a serious antique collector, is to buy damaged goods – often the chips are so small or at the back or side so cannot even be seen in a display. The good condition perfume bottle is worth around £60 or more.

Louis Wain' The Bachelor Party' Art is a huge field, and the most expensive cat painting can cost huge sums, but inexpensive prints and watercolours of cats are widely available too. Paintings and drawings by artists such as Louis Wain, never a favourite of mine, can make a fortune. He sadly went insane in his later years and thought he actually was a cat (and I think one can see that coming in some of his paintings!)

Of course, no-one has to spend so much money to own affordable cat collectables. I often pick up cat ornaments from cat boot fairs (yard sales in the USA) and flea markets for a pound or sometimes much less – 10 or 20 pence is not unusual for a small ornament. Charity shops (thrift stores in the USA) are often also good places in which to have a rummage.

I bought a pair of cat and dog brass bookends (which had come from a pub in the Welsh valleys that was closing down) for £5 and a brass paperweight featuring a cat above a pile of books which is hiding a mouse for the same amount. Brass is very unpopular these days, possibly because no-one can be bothered with polishing it anymore, so there are plenty of bargains to be had as often these mid-20th-century brass items are sold for scrap value.

cat broochesFans of jewellery can also grab a bargain at flea markets and antique fairs. I bought the three brooches in the photos (two marcasite and one pewter) for £2 each.

The most valuable ‘catique’ I own is a large Staffordshire pottery figure from around 1870. I bought this recently for £70, even though figurines are not usually ‘my thing’ at all, simply because I adored the aloof look on the cat’s face. If I can ever find a pair for this, the pair together would be worth around £300. I shall keep my eyes peeled…

I also collect bronzes, and cold-painted bronzes by Franz Bergman from early 20th century Austria are in great demand and can cost many hundreds of pounds, depending on condition (though there are also lots of reproductions from the early-mid 10th century about). Bergman produced a great many animal bronzes (I have several lions, lionesses, tigers and even an ibex). I bought my own cold-painted bronze cat for £50, though it has no stamp (which often says NAMGREB which is ‘Bergman’ backwards), though many Bergman pieces were never stamped with a maker’s name. One can always tell bronze (a mix of copper and tin) because it is much heavier than brass (copper and zinc) or spelter (lead-based alloy).

Ronner catI am unsure if my figure of a cat marked RONNER PARIS 1892 is genuine or a reproduction – but as I bought it for only £7, I’m happy either way! Henriette Ronner-Knip (1821-1909) was a Dutch-Belgian artist best known for her cat paintings. If it is genuine it’s worth £200 and more if I add a marble or alabaster base. I bought another hollow bronze cat figure, which is probably the modern equivalent of all those Ancient Egyptian Bastet figures for a mere £10. So collecting cat-themed items need not be expensive at all.

As all interested in antiques and collectables know, collecting anything can be horribly addictive. But it need not cost a fortune. Decorating your home with a variety of cat-themed ornaments and art can cost very little indeed if you pick up bargains at car boot sales, flea markets and charity shops. Happy hunting!

Jem Vanston

Jem is the author of A Cat Called Dog - read a review here

and a child-friendly version here

You can find Jem on Twitter here: @ACatCalledDog

 

 

 

Honey and BumbleSome years ago, we had a tomcat called Frodo who loved chips – meaning the fried potatoes served traditionally with fish in the UK, and bought from a fish and chip shop, not the ‘potato chips’ of the USA, which we call ‘crisps’ here! (Nice to be two nations divided by a common language, eh?)

What Frodo did not love, or hate, or have any opinion about whatsoever, was the other sort of chip – the microchips that all cats should now have with them at all times, positioned just under the skin between their shoulder blades.

Microchips were not commonly used back when Frodo used to steal chips from our plates! These days, however, microchipping cats is standard, because it is simple, relatively inexpensive and arguably an essential part of being a responsible cat owner.

In the UK, Cats Protection will microchip any cat brought to them who does not already have one – and of course, they scan each and every cat first to see if they do have a microchip and the owner can be traced. This, of course, is the whole point of having a microchip in the first place: in a world full of cats, one quick scan can identify the wandering minstrel kitten who perhaps wandered just a little too far, and so your cat can be returned to you.

So, what are microchips and their advantages?

Basically, microchipping is the most effective was of identifying a lost cat – or, perhaps, one who has been injured on a road. Microchips don’t come off and there is no risk of collar-related injuries or problems. There are no known health issues to fitting a microchip – which is the size of a grain of rice and fitted under a cat’s skin between its shoulder blades. Your cat will not even know it’s there once fitted, and the initial insertion is as painless as a simple injection.

There is no minimum age for microchipping, though it is often done at the time of the first vaccinations for new kittens. Naturally, it makes sense to have a microchip inserted before you let your cat outside for the first time!

In the UK, the cost of fitting a microchip is around £20-30, though some cat-owners may qualify for help from charities and pay a reduced price. Cats Protection microchips all cats who arrive at its shelters for free (one reason it relies on the generosity of the British public!)

Honey and BumbleOne big issue with microchips is the fact so many cat-owners fail – accidentally or otherwise – to update details when they move. Sometimes, there is a fee to do this (depending on the database the microchip company used), and so that may be why. Of course, there may be other reasons. Sad to say, in recent hard times, one suspects some owners may not wish to be traced as they can no longer afford to pay for the upkeep of pets. Abandoning a pet like this is something I personally could never do, but it is surprisingly common, unfortunately.

But then again, updating microchip details is often just something people simply forget to do when they move – which is a shame, as that microchip you paid to have fitted becomes utterly useless if you don’t keep it up to date! Updating a microchip is the owner’s responsibility – not that of the microchipping companies. It should be top of your ‘moving’ list whenever you move house!

Updating in the UK can be done via the following companies:

Petlog www.petlog.org.uk

And Anibase www.anibase.com

There is another dimension for those moving to another country. If you come to, or return to, the UK and do not update your cat’s microchip details, then it may, if it strays and then taken to a vet’s, face a period in quarantine, or even be put down. This is because its legal entry into the UK cannot be ascertained. So for those moving countries, updating microchips is even more important.

Some people have cat flaps which recognise microchips, letting only your cat/s and no others into your house. I am unable to comment on how effective or reliable such contraptions are, however. My instincts tell me that if a stray wants to get into your house, he will find a way! We no longer use a catflap and keep our cats (Honey and Bumble) in at night, so don’t have any risk of strange cats coming in and partying all night long chez nous. Incidentally, torti-tabby cross Honey and semi-longhaired Bumble were rescue cats – and Cats Protection microchipped Bumble (then called something else) on arrival (Honey was already ‘done’). So when we adopted both cats around a week later, both already had microchips. We were given their Identichip certificates, so all I had to do was enter our details as the new owners online via the Anibase pet database.

There are always many examples in the news of cats who have been taken in by charities, notably Cats Protection (www.cats.org.uk), with microchips which have not been updated. It is extremely difficult then to trace you – the owner who has not updated the microchip details – and so therefore your cat may be put up for adoption by another owner if attempts to trace you, its first owner, fail.

That may bring up a thorny (and expensive) legal issue if a past owner demands a cat back from a new owner. A microchip is not absolute proof of ownership legally in the UK, but could be heard as evidence in disputes. For advice on this in other countries, please see your lawyer (but don’t pay ‘em a penny!)

In my opinion, it is always best to avoid paying any lawyers – ever – or even risk such expensive nonsense.

And you can avoid ANY issue here by following this simple two-step rule:

Make sure you get your cat or kitten microchipped.

Make sure you update microchip details when you move.

REALLY! MAKE SURE YOU UPDATE!

UNDERSTOOD?

GOT IT?

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE!

Once you have done these things, you can let the cat out! Because you can rest assured that if your cat wanders too far, gets lost, or just wants to have a bit of fun by worrying you sick, wherever he goes he will be carrying his microchip with him, like a little metal flea under the skin which won’t worry him at all.

Apparently, for security reasons members of the British royal family have microchips inserted somewhere on their person – (I wonder where…) – and it doesn’t seem to worry them either. There is no way of telling whether they have a special cat flap installed at Buckingham Palace which only lets in royals and keeps out the riff-raff! But then, with microchips, anything is possible!

Some true-life tales:

https://www.animalfriends.co.uk/blog/when-microchips-work-success-stories/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-incredible-journey-microchip-id-reunites-cat-with-owners/

Five Good Reasons for Having Your Cat Neutered

  • Reduces fighting, injury and noise
  • Reduces spraying and smelling
  • Much less likely to wander and get lost
  • Safer from diseases like feline AIDS, mammary tumours and feline leukaemia
  • Reduces the number of unwanted kittens

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