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The Secret Life of Cats

30 Jan 2020
Secret Cats

About 10 thousand years ago they arrived unrequested, with no contract, no obligations. Attracted, possibly, by rats in our bone piles or mice in our grain stores, they were useful. Eventually we needed them, but they didn’t need us. They warmed themselves by our hearth fires, but kept their silent paws firmly in the wild.

They were superb hunters – and beautiful. We admired them and credited them with many lives. They always landed on their feet. In Siam, they guarded our sacred places. In Egypt, we worshipped them. We feared them as witches’ familiars and worried when they crossed our path. Occasionally we ate them. We called them silly names, which they deigned to answer. They seldom came when we called. They purred when we stroked them and when they’d had enough of that they bit us without restraint.

Dogs are pack animals and can be trained to do our bidding. Don’t try that with a cat. For this reason, debates have raged about whether cats are too dumb or too smart to take our instructions. But to be caught in the intense, green-eyed gaze of a cat leaves you in no doubt of the latter. The truth is they do what they damn well like, whenever they like and with whomever they please. They accept our food and shelter, but can live perfectly well without it, from the frozen latitudes to the hottest deserts. They use us for their purposes and have done so for thousands of years. And mostly we adore them. If that’s not being smart, then intelligence needs a new definition.

The cats to whom I will introduce you have the sort of misguided names of which no self-respecting felis would approve. They include Truffles, Stompie, Bengie, Lulu-Belle, Smudge, Peanut, Scamp and, heaven forbid, Drooler. They were induced to take part in a study by University of Cape Town researcher Sharon George of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute.

What she found was a testament to how little we know about our moggies. Take Scamp of Vredehoek, an inner-city Cape Town suburb. He was fitted with a small GPS recorder and tracked for 168 hours. He covered an astounding 42 hectares, roaming many kilometres a day. Truffles, Bengie and Stompie weren’t far behind. Drooler outdid them all in straight-line stakes, having been logged nearly a kilometre from home. Speeds were nearly a kilometre an hour, so what you’re looking at is seriously dedicated prowling.

What were they doing out there unseen? Apart from yowling, sniffing and checking the neighbourhood, they were killing. With deadly efficiency. It turns out that in sheer numbers of prey captured, Truffles, Lulu-Belle, Drooler and co – Felis catus to be precise – are among the most successful killers on Earth. They’re recreational hunters.

Okay, don’t shoot the messenger. I love cats. But just in case you’d like to know, according to the Chinese who eat around four million a year, they taste a bit like rabbit. It takes about 24 of them to make a fur coat.

About the Author:


Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.

His other books include:

Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
The Brotherhoods,
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Natural Selections,
African Journeys,
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,
He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.

He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Wilderness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.

His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.