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Why the cat outside your door might be feral

Is it a domestic cat first becoming a stray and then progressing to feral?

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
March 28, 2021 6:40:08 am
cats, domestic cats, stray cats, feral, animals, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsCat Me If You Can: A feral cat (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

We complete our roll call of small wildcats with these four: The leopard cat is a beautiful somewhat elongated looking little wildcat (about the size of a domestic cat), with a golden-yellow coat (may vary from reddish brown to sandy, depending on where it hails from) splotched with black. This one is to be found all over the country (and the entire Southeast Asia) in diverse habitats: rainforests, plantations, the Himalayan foothills and even up to 4,000 m above sea level, deciduous and conifer forests.

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Apparently, it is one of the most tolerant of human habitation and our environmentally destructive ways. In fact, kittens are often found in outlying rural gardens. The little things are ferocious and difficult to tame. However, EP Gee, who in the 1950s-’60s wrote extensively on Indian wildlife, noted that if raised properly, leopard cats could make for wonderful pets, and, could even be taught how to use the toilet properly (infra dig for any wildcat)! This little spitfire was apparently the first cat to be domesticated in China 2000 years ago. Mostly it’s a nocturnal hunter and loves stalking up in the canopy, gunning for small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. Unlike its crueler compatriots, the leopard cat does not play cat-and-mouse with its prey, no tossing and torturing, but killing instantly with a single bite. Its domestic-cat-like mew may mislead people into believing it is easily tameable. The poultry thief has allegedly been kept by villagers for rodent control! In China, it is hunted for its beautiful coat. Between 1984-’89, skins of as many as 200,000 were exported, and Japan imported 50,000 skins in 1989. In spite of this, it’s listed as “Of Least Concern” in the IUCN Red List.

The medium-sized golden cat (the size of a Golden Retriever) found in north-east India, southern China and Southeast Asia is considered “near threatened”, with a declining population. The reason: hunting and habitat destruction, pet trade and poaching for its coat. China and Myanmar are the chief culprits behind this and now the golden cat is being captive-bred in European zoos. Considered a delicacy, it is eaten by tribesmen in Bangladesh and it is believed that carrying a single golden cat hair will keep you safe from tigers! The handsome cat may be reddish-brown, fawn or tan, is a good climber. Thought to be nocturnal, it takes down birds, hares, reptiles and even small mammals as the muntjac, baby sambhar and goral. It’s killing goats, sheep and calves would’ve made it unpopular with herdsmen, notes Gee.

Gee fondly mentions a tiny golden cat kitten he once rescued from a market in Garo Assam. The kitten, called Tishi, grew very tame and would come to him when called after spending the day out in the surrounding jungle. It was gentle with him while remaining a ferocious wildcat when out hunting. Eventually, Gee had to give Tishi to the London Zoo as he feared villagers would kill it as it grew bigger and more ferocious, and there was no way to rehabilitate it in the wild in India in those days. In captivity, golden cats can live to 20 years.

In spite of, or because of, the fact that the caracal specialises in leaping vertically 10-12 ft in the air from a standing position to bat down flying birds, this one is my personal favourite. Though considered of “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red Book, it’s been recently declared as critically endangered in India, with less than 200 animals in Kutch and Rajasthan. It’s doing well enough elsewhere in the world — chiefly Africa. It’s a medium-sized chunky, sand-coloured wildcat, whose powerful hind legs are longer than its forelegs (to power that prodigious leap) and its triangular tufted ears do more than just hear. Beautifully camouflaged in its sandy or rocky habitat, the caracal will creep up to a waterhole where partridge or sand grouse will have come to drink. The 20 muscles in each ear enable them to twist and turn independently (to pinpoint the target), and, along with it, the tufts of hair on the top, twirl and turn. This attracts the curiosity of the birds who come closer and then the caracal leaps, batting its target down with its front paws. The caracal will also take small mammals, reptiles and even livestock. In the days of the maharajas, it was used for coursing and a betting game evolved around how many pigeons the caracal could take down in a single strike. Hence, the phrase — “cat among the pigeons”! Nocturnal and secretive, the caracal breeds throughout the year (one to six kittens) and, in captivity, may live for 16 years.

A lot of controversy swirls around what exactly is a feral cat: a domestic cat first becoming a stray and then progressing to feral? They are basically domestic cats that usually will have nothing to do with human beings (some might accept regular feeding). They hunt independently, killing 1-2 billion birds and 6-22 billion small animals every year in the US alone and are considered a major threat to urban wildlife by conservationists. Cats introduced to new places (either as stowaways or taken deliberately) especially to islands have often been responsible for the extinction of local (and usually endemic) fauna.

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)

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