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Killers and Company

A Guest Article by Graeme Harris

There is a fascinating creature living amongst us; a violent vicious hunter which kills with impunity. There are millions living in and around the world's cities and their numbers are growing at an exponential rate. Pound for pound they are one of the most efficient predators on the planet, and even now they are prowling the streets of your neighbourhood searching out prey to add to their long list of victims.

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They are cats, the closest most people will ever come to living with a real wild animal. But how well do we actually know our feline friends?

Only by studying their design and observing their habits and mannerisms can we get some inkling into their often secret lives.

The first tamed cats were used for pest control in Egypt around 3000 BC and were a species known as the North African Wildcat-a hardy member of the cat family, which later became loved as a household companion and worshipped as a god. Domesticated cats later spread to Italy and then to the rest of Europe where they became highly prized possessions.

The cat's fortunes changed, however, during the Middle Ages as the Christian church, aware of the animal's connection with paganism and witchcraft, often killed cats by burning them alive. The myth that the black cat solely was considered the witches familiar is wrong, and cats of all colours were killed.

The cat became popular again only when its usefulness for reducing vermin populations became recognised; a popularity and respect which has remained to the present day.

The domestic feline is a physiological marvel of nature, a creature known to be endowed with lightning speed and reflexes. As a hunter the parts of the cat's brain associated with movement and the senses are very well developed. The spine is extremely flexible also, allowing it to squeeze through the tiniest of gaps and for the same reason it lacks a collarbone which would broaden the chest. As runners they are short distance specialists; when a cat runs, all its legs are in the air for a time allowing it to accelerate up to 30mph for short bursts. The strong hind quarters and back provide amazing jumping capabilities - 6 feet of fence or tree proves little problem and the human equivalent would be a person capable of jumping onto the roof of a house.

They have a better sense of balance than humans, mainly because they have a tail which they use in the same way that a tightrope walker uses a pole. Contrary to many people's belief, cats cannot see in the dark any better than we can, but their eyes are more specialised and are useful for gathering every scrap of light. Their vision works best at dawn and dusk, perhaps because this is the time when their prey are either waking up or retiring and so are not at their most alert. In addition cats have a wider field of vision than man and so are able to see more movement on their periphery.

Hearing, too, is an advanced design of the cat allowing it to hear sounds up to two octaves higher than the highest note we can hear and surprisingly it hears higher notes than its arch enemy, the dog.

So with these features in their arsenal domestic cats are built as natural hunters but unlike their wild "cousins" like tigers and cheetahs they don't often hunt to satisfy hunger, although they do occasionally eat their catch. Basically they are in it for the sport, perhaps instinctively seeing it as entertainment or a form of exercise. The way a cat toys with its prey may seem quit cruel to us, as the victim is rarely killed immediately. this is simply another way for a cat to polish its hunting skills. If it can bounce a sparrow into the air and catch it in its claws it has a better chance of success when it must pluck one of the air to satisfy hunger. Similarly, kittens usually start with household spiders and flies, honing their own skills before progressing to feather and fur.


The domestic cat's hunting style is made up of several distinct stages. Stalking is used as soon as the prey has been located. It begins to approach cautiously using all available cover. The cat then travels forward rapidly in a movement known as the slink run with its belly pressed low to the ground. The second stage is the pause, during which the slink run is interrupted so the cat can observe the target. The pause and slink run may be repeated several times until the distance to the target is reduced for the next stage which is the ambush. During the ambush stage the cats feet begin to make trading motions and the tail tip twitches in anticipation. The attack stage is quick. It leaves its cover and shoots forward leaping on the prey with the front paws in the air and the mouse, bird or whatever is then pinned to the ground. The final stage is the death bite which may or may not be immediate depending on whether or not the cat wishes to toy with the victim.

Despite its gruesome habits, the cat is quite a social animal, and if it goes outside regularly will become part of a feline community in the neighbourhood.

A kind of association with a built in heirachy, rules and rituals where all cats are allocated their own positions in the group. New members must fight in order to be accepted, females included; but it is the "toms" who are more often subjected to trial by strength.

In a neighbourhood cat community there is, rather like the mafia, a godfather or "top cat" who has shown by example that he is the roughest and toughest. His position remains at the top of the ladder until he is overthrown by perhaps a stronger junior. Such switches in power are occasional however and a strong leader can remain at the top for years. Unlike many other types of social animal the cat leader is not neccesarily entitled to the choicest females and priority may well be given to a tom cat well down the heirachy pyramid. Neutered toms have no place in this association and will generally descend the social ladder rung by rung until they reach the bottom.

Outdoors, every cat, whatever its position in the community, will possess some territory. Females and neutered toms have only a small patch but will usually defend the little they have more fiercely than a tom with vast territory. A dominant tom cat may have 50 acres or more in an area with a low cat population, this would include several gardens including its own, tracts of wasteland, farmland and the tops of fences and sheds.

But all cats are allowed the use of communal walkways where they can pass freely through another cat's territory with no risk of attack or confrontation.

And then of course there are communal meeting areas where they can get together under the cover of darkness to choose a mate.

After all this excitement it is little wonder that a cat will snuggle up on a chair or human lap and sleep for most of the day. Cats take great delight in rest and relaxation, sleeping through half their lives. A warm, cosy place is preferred where they will usually spend 70 percent in light sleep (cat napping) and the remainder in a deeper sleep which is similar to our own. Even in deep sleep however, they are still taking in external sounds and would be awake in a split second if any danger was detected.

So the next time your cat comes in from a "night on the tiles" try to remember that it is not just a friendly, purring, ball of fluff; it is also a four legged killing machine of the highest order; one of natures design classics which would put most other predators on the planet to shame.


©Copyright 2001, Graeme Harris.
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