Caturday felid: Moggie defies science to find its way home on epic 200-mile journey; and bonus CAT RESEARCH

January 26, 2013 • 5:58 am

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.

Barbara P. Fernandez for The New York Times Jacob Richter, 70, left, and Bonnie Richter, 63, flank Holly, the cat that traveled 190 miles to find her way home.
Jacob Richter, 70, left, and Bonnie Richter, 63, flank Holly, the cat that traveled 190 miles to find her way home. Photo by Barbara P. Hernandez for the New York Times

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:

Picture 2

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:

Nomming opportunities
Nomming opportunities

35 thoughts on “Caturday felid: Moggie defies science to find its way home on epic 200-mile journey; and bonus CAT RESEARCH

    1. This means that if cats were killing people, every year they would wipe out 41% of the human population.

      Wrong on several counts.

      Humans outweigh mice and other cat prey by a factor of several thousand. So in terms of equivalent biomass, the human body count would be three or four orders of magnitude smaller.

      Not to mention the fact that the casualties on the cat side would be much higher. Human-killing house cats would very quickly be selected out.

      And for cats to hunt humans successfully, they’d have to cooperate. Not gonna happen.

      I’m sympathetic to the idea that cats should be kept indoors to minimize the impact on local wildlife. But to my mind the cartoonist undermines his own message by resorting to bogus comparisons designed to stir up emotions rather than enlighten.

      1. He also mentions that cats “kill for fun.”
        That is a bit of anthropomorphizing. I believe Homo sapiens are the only species to have earned that distinction.

        The cam project is interesting, but I couldn’t help wondering if any of the fur balls were injured or killed in the course of recording. That would be a video I would not want to see. My heart sinks and my stomach turns whenever I see an innocent Kittie or any critter left for dead in the middle of the street. I have stopped more than once to move a body from the road just to offer it some respect.
        Sorry, that is a bit of rain.

        1. While it’s difficult to tell if an animal is deliberately trying to kill another one just for fun, there are numerous documented instances of predatory animals engaging in play behavior with another animal that resulted in its death. The playing animal may, in fact, lack sufficient sapience realize that its actions will result in the death of its “toy,” but that doesn’t change the end result after the “toy” is broken and gets discarded in favor of a new toy. The cat might not be trying to kill a mouse or lizard deliberately, but the size difference and the fact that cats are evolved to prey on animals of that size mean that if it plays with the mouse for any length of time the odds of inflicting a fatal wound are significant.

          1. Nobody denies that cats play with their prey or that the prey often ends up dead as a result. No doubt the cats get some sort of instinctive buzz of satisfaction from such play.

            But it’s a pretty big leap from there to the conclusion that there’s a deliberate, gleeful sadism behind such behavior, as depicted in the cartoon. Getting pleasure from another creature’s suffering requires a theory of mind that is probably well beyond a cat’s mental ability. My guess is that cats don’t perceive their prey as feeling creatures at all, but just as fascinating moving targets, not much different from the jiggling red spot of a laser pointer.

            So again, by characterizing cats as sociopathic murderers, the cartoonist is engaging in propaganda, not education.

  1. I’d love to put a camera on my cat. She was a stray brought in as a youngster and impossible to keep as an indoor cat. Even so, I would guess 80% of her day is spent enjoying the amenities of home life. The other 20% is probably split between reclining in the sun in the garden and harassing the brown anoles, but I can’t help feeling she has a secret life out there. I don’t want to derail this into a debate about the morals of keeping cats (I love cats) but I have also done some research in Australia and it makes me wince to see the evidence of destruction that cats (and foxes, which was our main focus) do to indigenous wildlife. But enough of that. Also, that dog looks like mine, but he has learnt the hard way not to get THAT close to cats!

  2. I hope groundhogs can’t do this. If they can, I’m wasting my time with the ones I trap, repatriating them to the other side of the other side of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill ~2mi distant.

  3. “Then—a miracle (I’m using the word metaphorically)”
    This is not a metaphorical usage, it’s the only correct one. Bob Beamon’s world record of 1968 was a miracle and that little car driving on the surface of Mars is one too.

    1. The problem is that christians intend the word by the first definition and attribute it to their god. So when you use it without reservation how are the christian going to not be reassured that you are invoking an instance of their god?

  4. ” One of the most surprising things we witnessed was cats adopting a second set of owners. ”

    This should not surprise any cat “owner” (quotes intended). Cats are downright promiscuous.

  5. Fitted with cameras? They look more like cell-phones!!! Stupid Humans…this is just what the cats want!!!
    Pretty soon, they’re texting each other – plotting their little heads off…end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it. Moving in with dogs, Charlton Heston – back from the dead, camped out in your living room refusing to give up the remote!
    It’s a madhouse! – a madhouse!!!

  6. But how could this cat navigate? That’s more of a mystery, one discussed at length in the NYT piece.

    The “basic answer” my friends (and I suspect many other people) will eagerly provide is of course that cats navigate through ESP.

    Stories like Holly’s which “defy science” are confirmation of the paranormal! Attempts to explore other ideas are silly, pointless, and indicate just how desperate some people are to avoid the obvious. ESP exists.

    Whenever I start asking questions about this particular theory (such as why such a beneficial trait would not have been so strongly selected for that its existence wouldn’t be confined to rare occurrences), it turns out that I’m too embedded into a materialist scientistic paradigm. I can’t just accept what’s plainly true.

    1. Just realizing that, irrationally, even ESP wackos are more acceptable to me than goddists. Tho of course there’s huge overlap.

  7. The experiment could be carried out without the need for strangulation, if the cats in question were fitted with a small gps tracking unit (you can buy watches with them for kids now) and only ‘left’ for a day or so to see if there was a pattern of movement or environmental clues, eg. cloudy vs. starry nights, do cats from the same area travel similar routes toward home, smell cues, effects of distance from home, differences between how they were transported to the location, etc.

    Certainly an interesting lines of research, which could be explored without subjecting the cats to undue distress or hardship.

  8. Article in Slate from 3 days ago: Cats Are Evil Why New Zealand is right to consider banning them in order to save its wildlife

    Regrets if this has already received attention here.

    1. It seems there’s no interest in this conflict between science and felidion.

      Shall I conclude that the host and his readers believe the two compatible, even non-overlapping?

    2. New Zealand is NOT considering banning them.

      One moderately well-known economist (!) wrote an article advocating banning cats, and copped the predictable shedloads of flak. I doubt anybody has the political will to do anything about cats, least of all our current government whose sole interest in the environment is how much $$$ they can extract from NZ’s increasingly phony ‘clean green’ image and how much of it they can sell off to overseas interests. [/rant]

      1. and copped the predictable shedloads of flak. I doubt anybody has the political will to do anything about cats

        “Hush”, cry the accomodationists, “It’s no use offending the felidious”!

        One should not conflate a culture war’s early salvos and their reaction, with how the conflict may play out in 5 or 20 years.

      2. I would have thought that all the movies they film in New Zealand (because it is beautiful there) contributed a great deal to the economy. They are just about out of Tolkien works now, but there are other works that would need similar settings. And it should be time for the remakes to start in less than a decade. I hope that works ‘for’ NZ, not ‘against’ it.
        Just to show my vast geographical ignorance, is or was there an Old Zealand?

          1. Thank you. Between the old Soviet Block crumbling, power shifts in Mid to Northern Asia and the at that time (more than a bit after I studied any geography other than how to get to New Orleans from here), newly emerging African nations, etc, I can’t keep an up to date globe. I will admit that I don’t try very hard; national borders seem to shift with the tide.
            And I do truly hope any filming in NZ helps the economy and does not harm the ecology.

        1. NZ was discovered by Abel Tasman, who was Dutch. Zeeland is a large island in Holland, while Zealand is, as Microraptor said, in Denmark. I’d bet on the Dutch connection, myself.

          The movies, and even more tourism, do contribute to the economy. Generally the more scenic areas (which are of prime interest to movie makers) are likely to be less polluted, it’s cities, and rivers in farming areas, that are more likely to suffer from pollution. There was controversy recently between academics who pointed out that pollution was happening and commercial tourism promoters who thought they should shut up. Hence my snarky comment, which really related to internal politics and is irrelevant to this website, my apologies.

          Re cats, I’m not at all sure they’re the main threat to wildlife. The economist, a millionaire named Gareth Morgan, just upped the ante by promising to pay the SPCA $5 for every un-chipped cat they euthanised, while urging the public NOT to donate to the SPCA. I don’t like that sort of grandstanding, my personal reaction is to donate $5 to the SPCA if they’ll euthanise Gareth Morgan…

          1. I like your idea a lot better than his. Sometimes I get frustrated with the press and the scientists who fuel them. I am under the impression that the rules that govern evolution say the stronger(est) organisms will survive when the weaker that cannot adapt to the changes in their environment, will not. By this rule a species, whether ‘invasive’ or not, that can adjust the best and fastest wins the war. And as saddened as I am to see some species go extinct, is that not what gives new species the opportunity to evolve more fully? (eg dinosaurs and mammals) That is just the way nature works. I am very glad that we have resources to keep some endangered species in preserves and to freeze hopefully viable embryos. But when it all comes down to it, Mother knows best.

  9. My grandmother in town wanted us to take her cat to live at our ranch, five miles away. We took the cat, but in a day or two, it disappeared. It turned up back at grandmother’s. We tried one more time with the same result. So the cat stayed at grandmother’s.

  10. When working on a project several hundred miles away, I’d take my dog along. On our return trips home she’d sleep in the front seat almost all the way home up until the point that we’d cross a river about 15 miles from home. At that point she’d invariably sit up and start getting agitated — sniffing the air and such. As we’d usually be driving with the prevailing wind at that point maybe she was recognizing the overall scent of the environment, rather than specifically the homestead.

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