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The Wildcats

Why, you may ask, do I include a chapter on wildcats in a book on a
domesticated animal? The answer is both obvious and not so obvious. First
of all, your little house pet is a part of a very important and large family of
thirty-eight cats. Second, many of the characteristics physical as well as
temperamental that you find in your pet are also found in many of the
wild varieties. Third, we carry with us a fascination with the wilderness,
and the domestic cat derives from that environment. It has adapted to
domesticity, but in gait, silhouette, and habits, it reminds us constantly of
those others who have remained outside of man's world.

Of the thirty-seven other varieties, the lion, tiger, cougar (puma),cheetah, jaguar, and leopard are perhaps the best known in the West. Weknow many of these from zoos or from television specials. Yet who are the
others? Where do they come from? How do they mate and lead their lives?
What are their generalas well as specific characteristics? What do theyeat especially those that live in forbidding places? How long does it takeeach species to be born, how long does it live, how does it die? What arethe qualities that bring them together
into one family, despite the diversityamong them? And why have some captured man's imagination
for thou-sands of years?
To seek some of these answers is to dig among the archaeological and psychological roots not only of animal life but of man's beginnings
as well.*
We begin with East Africa, a huge land mass, far more immense than
all of Western Europe combined. It is itself a land of immense heat, con-
*For many of my observations, I am indebted to the work of C. A. W. Guggisberg, the well-known naturalist.
siderable desolation, and overwhelming mystery. It seems inhospitable to both man and beast. Vast yellow meadowlike fields stretch out as far as the eye can measure them. But there is water, from rivers, and there is vegeta- tion; and that means the presence of abundant wildlife: zebras, gazelles, wildebeests, impalas. Each animal fits itself into the rhythm of existence: need for food and water, and ever-present danger from the big cats. The three big cats that endanger other wildlife in this region are the lion, the cheetah, and the leopard. They follow a very different pattern from the herds of zebras and wildebeests that inhabit the same grounds. In the late afternoon, a pride of lions (the only wildcats to travel in family groups) gets up slowly, the first part of a methodical encounter with the grazing animals in the distance. The whole pride females, adult and young males, and cubs stand, as though to announce their presence. The lionesses make the first move. They begin a slow trot toward a herd of zebras in the distance. They lower themselves until except for the tips of their ears they have vanished in the high grass. The males and cubs follow slowly. There is complete silence, although the zebras by way of some pro- tective system of their own have become alerted. They begin to move slowly, then more rapidly into a trot. Suddenly, a lioness's tail stands straight up and she charges the herd, to drive it in the opposite direction. The zebras, facing a frontal assault, do exactly what is expected of them. They turn and gallop away from the lioness and fall into the oldest of traps, the ambush. As the zebras move swiftly away from the first lioness, they run di- rectly into the path of the other two or three. The strategy has worked, as it has for thousands of years. The lionesses have placed themselves so as to cut off all chance of retreat. As the zebras crash by, the lionesses launch themselves in a rush of nearly 30 miles an hour, usually bringing down at least one zebra by jumping on its back and breaking its neck. All it takes is one correctly placed smash of a paw. The females have worked together, planned the strategy, and made the kill, all without the male. Off in the distance, perhaps a mile or two away, a lone "spotted sphinx," as the cheetah has been called, is watching still another herd. She doesn't move, but watches intently over her cubs playing nearby. Sud- denly, she signals to her cubs in some strange "birdlike calls" as much a language as our words of caution and heads for cover. She has spotted a herd of Thomson's gazelles, her favorite food and a challenge for her hunt- ing ability. The gazelle is the fastest animal on four feet on a sustained run, but the cheetah in short bursts is capable of over 60 miles an hour. Down she goes into the reeds and rushes lining the river. As she emerges from her cover, the gazelles suspect nothing, because the cheetah has been moving downwind from the herd. Then she does something that no other wildcat does. She doesn't crouch and she doesn't stalk slowly and methodically like all the other cats, but moves forward in a standing posi- tion until she is about 100 yards from the gazelles. Then she literally takes off like a bolt straight for her prey, running it down and choking it to death. She drags the gazelle, which is several times her own weight, back to the cubs. She does this alone, without any backup aid from either males or other females. In still another scene, we see through binoculars a peaceful, utterly relaxed spotted cat, most likely asleep, on a large tree branch. But as late afternoon turns into dusk and then into night, its part of the day is begin- ning. The leopard moves in the dark, and it uses trees as none of the other large cats does. From its perch in the branches, it sees antelope in the dis- tance as they move toward water. The leopard watches patiently, coolly. It is one of the surest of the wildcats, perhaps the most intelligent as well as the most elegant in line and muscular development. If patience is the sure way to reach heaven, the leopard is bound to as- cend, for it will watch for hours motionless, waiting until the moment is ex- actly right for the kill Only the tip of its tail moves ever so slightly. The moment arrives. Using its cover in the high grass, it begins the well-known stalk of the cat, body just brushing the ground, limbs and body harmoni- ous. The popular image of a cat stalking its prey in the jungle is taken from the leopard and its prey a typical behavior of wildlife in the human imagi- nation. Every move is economical and cautious. The closer the leopard approaches to its prey, the more slowly it moves. To the casual eye, it might seem absolutely motionless, suspended in time and space. To the trained eye, an elegant and aesthetically lovely animal is about to make its kill. When it senses that its prey has been dis- tracted and that it's close enough for the kill (perhaps 10 to 25 yards away), it dashes and springs on the antelope's back. It kills swiftly, most often by strangulation and breaking of the victim's neck. If the antelope suspects something and begins to run, the leopard must make the catch rapidly, for its great speed can be sustained only in a short chase. In a real run, the antelope will outdistance it. I have chosen these well-known examples of the great cats of East Africa because they represent three different species of the cat family. Let's look, first, at the lion and the cheetah, who are outsiders in many ways, for they play the game differently from most of the other great cats.
As a family animal, the lion moves in a pride, which is a society and something of a sex system. A pride may consist of from five to thirty lions, usually four adult males, two to three subadults (juveniles), and a few cubs, with females making up the rest. The females will stay together, and the males will mix only with each other. The male, incidentally, is the only cat with a mane. Both males and females have dark tufts at the end of their tails, also something no other cat has. The cheetah is long-legged, often sits like a dog, and cannot retract its nails, which all other cats can do. It is also a courser. That is, rather than stalking its prey, as the other cats do, it openly shows itself and runs down its prey. The cheetah is a unique species, making up the genus Acinonyx by itself. Strangely enough, cheetahs have been domesticated and led around, like a large dog, on a chain. The practice was common with ancient Egyptian royalty; and in recent times, the Lion of Judah, Haile Selassie of Abyssinia, was often pictured with a cheetah on a chain. It can also be used for hunting, kept hooded until it is released to run down its prey. When we turn to the leopard, we find a cat that has the silhouette and profile of our house cat, only blown up to twenty-five times the size. It is also a night cat, and it comes down to us as a stealthy animal moving by moonlight. The panther is simply a black leopard, and it is probably the panther we think of as the quintessential jungle model for our small black house cat. The leopard is a loner, is nocturnal, uses trees, and is unpredict- able. The head is roundish and rather short in proportion to the rest of the body, which is lithe, very muscular, and powerful. The tail is long, to help with movement in the trees. The claws are sharp enough to shred a man. The teeth are constructed not for crushing or crunching but for tearing and cutting. Anatomically, we know a great deal about the big cats, but we still know relatively little about them otherwise. I will take them up in order in this chapter and tell you many of the essential facts about them, but what we do not know that core of mystery is equal to what we do know. And when we come to the smaller wildcats a good number of the thirty-eight species we know even less, for many of them cannot be tracked. They are night animals, or else because of their small size they elude discovery; some move in virtually inaccessible places. Perhaps half of the cat family, eighteen or twenty of those thirty-eight species, are almost completely un- known to mankind, and even to most specialists. How many of us have heard of the sand-dune cat, the marble cat, the Chinese Sesat cat, and An- dean highland cat? Part of the problem is logistical and tactical. Since the cats are small-many species are smaller than the average house cat fast, and nocturnal,
they cannot be followed into their jungle or mountain habitats. No practical
way to study them has been found. When skeletons of the smaller cats have
been discovered, it is interesting to note that they do not in any significant
way differ from the fossils scientists have dug up dating back more than a
million years. The present-day cat is probably very much what its ancient
ancestor was.
Possibly, part of the "mystery" we associate with the cat is connected
to one fact: that it is a link with the very deepest aspects of nature, that it is
attached to that most mysterious of all creatures, the panther (the black
leopard), and that varieties of the feline species have trod all parts of the
earth almost since the beginning of time. The self-sufficiency of the house
cat, which attracts a particular type of owner, extends out to the smaller
varieties of the wildcat and to the great cats themselves. They are a law
unto themselves. Balzac's classic story "A Passion in the Desert" connects a
French soldier's experience of a desert panther with "passion," with both a
sexual and a religious experience. The equation is apt,
if exaggerated. The
sense of awe, however, is religious, for the soldier senses that he is in the
presence of something in and yet beyond nature.
Somehow to know our ancestors is to know something about ourselves.
To learn something about the cat's long history and related species
is to be
astonished at what goes into even nature's smaller creatures. My observa-
tion of cat owners is that their devotion to their pet is fiercer and perhaps
more absolute than that of any other kind of owner. For the person who
wants to understand more about his or her cat, the following information
boils down what we know to the essentials. I will tell you who the other
cats are and what they are like the ways in which they pit their senses
against a world that in many instances is pushing them into oblivion.