Many readers sent me a piece from last Saturday’s New York Times describing the incredible journey of Holly, a 4-year-old calico cat owned by Bonnie and Jacob Richter of West Palm Beach, Florida. In early November, they all traveled in a recreational vehicle (R.V.) to Daytona Beach, Florida, a distance of about 200 miles, to attend a R.V. rally, Holly got spooked (perhaps by fireworks) and fled the motor home. Distraught, the Richters put out fliers and canvassed local shelters and animal agencies. Nothing.
Then—a miracle (I’m using the word metaphorically). . .
Two weeks later, an animal rescue worker called the Richters to say a cat resembling Holly had been spotted eating behind the Daytona franchise of Hooters, where employees put out food for feral cats.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, Barb Mazzola, a 52-year-old university executive assistant, noticed a cat “barely standing” in her backyard in West Palm Beach, struggling even to meow. Over six days, Ms. Mazzola and her children cared for the cat, putting out food, including special milk for cats, and eventually the cat came inside.
They named her Cosette after the orphan in Les Misérables, and took her to a veterinarian, Dr. Sara Beg at Paws2Help. Dr. Beg said the cat was underweight and dehydrated, had “back claws and nail beds worn down, probably from all that walking on pavement,” but was “bright and alert” and had no parasites, heartworm or viruses. “She was hesitant and scared around people she didn’t know, so I don’t think she went up to people and got a lift,” Dr. Beg said. “I think she made the journey on her own.”
At Paws2Help, Ms. Mazzola said, “I almost didn’t want to ask, because I wanted to keep her, but I said, ‘Just check and make sure she doesn’t have a microchip.’” When told the cat did, “I just cried.”
The Richters cried, too upon seeing Holly, who instantly relaxed when placed on Mr. Richter’s shoulder. Re-entry is proceeding well, but the mystery persists.
Holly had travelled 200 miles in two months! But how? First of all, it’s likely that she walked a lot of the way:
Still, explaining such journeys is not black and white.
In the Florida case, one glimpse through the factual fog comes on the little cat’s feet. While Dr. Bradshaw speculated Holly might have gotten a lift, perhaps sneaking under the hood of a truck heading down I-95, her paws suggest she was not driven all the way, nor did Holly go lightly.
“Her pads on her feet were bleeding,” Ms. Richter said. “Her claws are worn weird. The front ones are really sharp, the back ones worn down to nothing.”
Scientists say that is consistent with a long walk, since back feet provide propulsion, while front claws engage in activities like tearing. The Richters also said Holly had gone from 13.5 to 7 pounds.
But how could this cat navigate? That’s more of a mystery, one discussed at length in the NYT piece. The basic answer is provided by Jackson Galaxy, the “cat whisperer” who host the t.v. show “My Cat from Hell”:
“We haven’t the slightest idea how they do this,” Mr. Galaxy said. “Anybody who says they do is lying, and, if you find it, please God, tell me what it is.”
Holly didn’t go lightly
There’s a YouTube video, of course:
There’s of course a lot of speculation in the piece by animal behaviorists:
There is, in fact, little scientific dogma on cat navigation. Migratory animals like birds, turtles and insects have been studied more closely, and use magnetic fields, olfactory cues, or orientation by the sun.
Scientists say it is more common, although still rare, to hear of dogs returning home, perhaps suggesting, Dr. Bradshaw said, that they have inherited wolves’ ability to navigate using magnetic clues. But it’s also possible that dogs get taken on more family trips, and that lost dogs are more easily noticed or helped by people along the way.
Cats navigate well around familiar landscapes, memorizing locations by sight and smell, and easily figuring out shortcuts, Dr. Bradshaw said.
Strange, faraway locations would seem problematic, although he and Patrick Bateson, a behavioral biologist at Cambridge University, say that cats can sense smells across long distances. “Let’s say they associate the smell of pine with wind coming from the north, so they move in a southerly direction,” Dr. Bateson said.
Peter Borchelt, a New York animal behaviorist, wondered if Holly followed the Florida coast by sight or sound, tracking Interstate 95 and deciding to “keep that to the right and keep the ocean to the left.”
But, he said, “nobody’s going to do an experiment and take a bunch of cats in different directions and see which ones get home.” [JAC: yeah, and I'll strangle anyone who does!]
The closest, said Roger Tabor, a British cat biologist, may have been a 1954 study in Germany in which cats placed in a covered circular maze with exits every 15 degrees most often exited in the direction of their homes, but more reliably if their homes were less than five kilometers away.
Finally, the Times piece refers to a cool project and website, that of the National Geographic and University of Georgia Kitty Cams Project, in which 55 pet cats were fitted with tiny videocams on their collars as a way of learning about their outdoor behavior. The page makes for some fascinating reading, and I especially recommend the page of photos and videos (recommended videos: “Making a cat friend,” “Catching a frog,” and “Finding tasty Chex mix” (really, do watch some of these, as they give a great cat’s-eye view of the world).
Kitty Cams has some nice photos taken by the cats as well; here are two:
and this from a brave and inquisitive cat:
This cheezburger not ripe yet!
The SCIENCE (there is a “research page” with the latest data)
Kitty Cams are lightweight, waterproof units with LED lights to record activity at night. They are mounted on a break-away collar and outfitted with a radio-tracking device so we can locate any lost cameras. High quality video is recorded on mini SD memory cards for easy download and viewing.
Sixty pet kitties in Athens-Clarke County wore cameras while roaming outdoors for 7-10 days. We have footage from a variety of different habitats and throughout all four seasons.
That camera looks onerous, but I guess the cats were game:
One of the findings, which probably won’t surprise cat owners:
We had enough footage from 55 of our participating cats to analyze. Thanks to our diligent volunteers, we had an average of 37 hours of footage per roaming kitty. One of the most surprising things we witnessed was cats adopting a second set of owners. Four of our project kitties were recorded entering another household for food and/or affection!
Those who want to investigate this phenomenon further could do worse than read the children’s book Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore, about a moogie who mooched to the max. Seriously, this is one delightful book, and if you have kids and cats it’s a must-have.
Finally, a bit more CAT SCIENCE. The pie chart speaks for itself: