Report from George Markie
FROM ANCIENT times, cats have had the power to inspire, fascinate and amaze. Now, for the first time ever, feline fans will be able to see all of the world's cat species together in an exhibition at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.
The man charged with setting up this cat extravaganza is 42-year-old Andrew Kitchener. As the museum's curator of mammals and birds he has spent 13 years tracking down wild cat specimens from across the world.
Before the exhibition opens on February 13, Andrew took time out to tell Iain Harrison The Honest Truth about Cats . . . The ultimate predators.
WHAT'S IN the exhibition?
It's the first time all 37 species of cat have been brought together, which is an exciting coup. And visitors can feel how rough a tiger's tongue is and smell various scents, such as jaguar's urine!
HOW DID you get the exhibits?
Most were natural casualties originating from zoos and universities in Britain and Europe. Other cats just happened to be in a freezer of a zoo or university when I contacted them - pure luck. Our taxidermists have been to Chile, Borneo, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, the Netherlands, America and the Isle of Wight.
MOST DIFFICULT species to get?
There are only two species we don't have new specimens of - the Andean mountain cat and Chinese mountain cat. Both are extremely rare so we borrowed from other museums. Most difficult to track down was the North American bobcat, which is ironic because it's one of the most common wild cats in the world. We eventually got a specimen from the University of Kansas.
HAS IT all gone smoothly?
Stupidly we didn't habitat samples at the same time so we've been asking contacts to gather leaves, rocks, sand and the like. Packages have been coming in from as far afield as Dubai, Argentina, Thailand, India and Belize. About the only country not represented is Australia, because no species of cat originates from there.
HOW DID you transport the cats?
If it's a big animal it has to be skinned, then the skeleton is reduced to a manageable size. It's then frozen and placed in a cool box. There's a heck of a lot of paperwork and we have to ensure we have the correct export permits.
ANY FUNNY stories?
We picked up a Sumatran tiger from Bristol Zoo and at the airport check-in I was asked what was in the box.
I said it was a tiger, but the man just laughed. The guy at the X-ray machine didn't find it so funny. When he saw the bones on screen he just about jumped out of his skin, shouting, "What on earth is that?" I said it was a tiger. He asked if it was alive!
MOST UNUSUAL exhibit?
Five face-masks from the Sundarbans region in India, which has the largest population of tigers anywhere in the world. Locals go into the forest to collect wood and honey. Unfortunately, the tigers tend to sneak up from behind and eat them. The folk reckon if the tigers think they're being watched they won't attack, so they put a face-mask on the back of their head. It proved quite successful at first, attacks decreased. But the tigers now seem to have cottoned on!
MOST VALUABLE exhibit?
We rarely put commercial values on exhibits. Some specimens have enormous scientific value, like our rare bay cat from Borneo. We were able to study the cat's internal anatomy, which had never been done. It's really important we use these animals to contribute to the conservation of the species in the wild.
ANY EXHIBITS with particular stories behind them?
We have an Iberian lynx, called Pablo. There are probably only 120 in the wild. The reason for their decline is because wine merchants in Spain and Portugal now tend to use plastic bottle tops rather than corks. Iberian lynx live amongst cork trees, but because this habitat is disappearing their numbers are falling. So to save the Iberian lynx everyone has an obligation to drink more wine with traditional corks!
And, about two years ago Boris, our Amur Siberian tiger, became caught in a poacher's snare. He escaped, but one of his claws became stuck in his footpad, meaning he couldn't catch his natural prey. When he went into a village to prey on the hunters' dogs he was shot.
This sums up some of the problems faced by cats in the wild.
DOES BRITAIN have wild cats?
They've been present for 10,000 years but in decline for the past few hundred because of persecution and habitat loss. Our research suggests there are only a few hundred left, in little pockets of the Highlands.
A male Scottish wildcat is about 25 per cent heavier than a male domestic cat and has a distinctive bushy tail with a white tip.
CAN WILD cats be tamed?
It's possible. The problem is when something like a tiger decides to throw its weight around. That's what happened in October to magician Roy Horn who was almost killed by a tiger during his Las Vegas show. Interestingly, the only cat I've never heard of being properly trained is the Scottish wildcat. It seems to be utterly ferocious. ARE REPORTS of big cat sightings in this country likely to be accurate?
If there are, they must be few in number. I think many people genuinely believe they've seen something when they probably haven't. Hard evidence I've seen, such as footprints, have always been inconclusive. However, many types of cat could survive in our climate and there's plenty of food out there.
WHERE DOES our domestic cat originate?
From the African wildcat. It's very different to the Scottish wildcat - more slender, doesn't have stripes and has a very thin tail. It also lives in much drier habitats. It was first domesticated in Egypt about 4000 years ago.
A lot of domestic cat behaviour patterns can be found in tigers, lions and the like. Hunting and communication are very similar. Domestic cats rub themselves against your legs to say hello and leave their scent. Wild cats do the same to each other.
ARE ANY old wives' tales true?
Cats do have an amazing ability to land on their feet. But their sense of balance isn't in their whiskers - they're for feeling. And cats don't only purr when they're happy - I've heard big cats purr very aggressively. And as far as I'm aware they don't have nine lives!
One cliche featured in the exhibition is "to put a cat amongst the pigeons". This originates from India where people threw a lynx into an arena full of feeding doves after placing bets on how many it could grab before the flock flew away!
ANY INTERESTING cat facts?
There are 37 species and more than 250 breeds of domestic cat. The biggest cat, the African lion, is 200 times heavier than the smallest, the rusty spotted. It's thought 100,000 tigers once roamed the Earth, today there may only be about 5000. Cheetahs have been recorded running at 63 miles per hour and are the fastest mammals on earth.
They tend to run 50 to 500 metres - any further they could overheat and damage their brains.
Sunday Post, 1 st February 2004.
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