Jan. 20: Nobody knows how it happened: an indoor housecat who got lost on a family excursion managing, after two months and about 200 miles, to return to her hometown.
Even scientists are baffled by how Holly, a 4-year-old tortoiseshell who in early November became separated from Jacob and Bonnie Richter at an RV (recreation vehicle) rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, appeared on New Year’s Eve — staggering, weak and emaciated — in a backyard about a mile from the Richter house in West Palm Beach.
“Are you sure it’s the same cat?” wondered John Bradshaw, director of the University of Bristol’s Anthrozoology Institute. In other cases, he has suspected, “the cats are just strays, and the people have got kind of a mental justification for expecting it to be the same cat”.
But Holly not only had distinctive black-and-brown harlequin patterns on her fur, but also an implanted microchip to identify her.
“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said Marc Bekoff, a behavioural ecologist at the University of Colorado. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.”
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, 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, memorising locations by sight and smell, and easily figuring out shortcuts, Bradshaw said.
Strange, faraway locations would seem problematic, although he and Patrick Bateson, a behavioural 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,” Bateson said.
Peter Borchelt, a New York animal behaviourist, 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”.
There have been other cats who made unexpected comebacks. 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 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,” Bonnie 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.