Magazine article The Spectator

Do the Wild Cats of Kerguelen Dream of Cat-Flaps and Whiskas with Rabbit?

Magazine article The Spectator

Do the Wild Cats of Kerguelen Dream of Cat-Flaps and Whiskas with Rabbit?

Article excerpt

Kerguelen, Cap Ratmanoff

In the imagination of the tame, the call of the wild strikes a chord. We know, or think we know, what it was like to exist in a state of nature. Brought to heel, we still feel the tug. We suppose that other domesticated creatures must too.

Pets, for instance. If Mary's little lamb lifts a woolly head to the distant bleatings from the moor, we sympathise. As the caged canary sings out his heart, we hear in his song some inchoate bird-knowledge of skies beyond the cage. And when Tom's or Tabitha's whiskers twitch to the noises of the night, we smile: the dark, furry unconscious beckons. Cat history calls.

So much for the call of the wild. But what about the call of the tame? Can the wild hear it? The possibility springs less readily to mind. Since the Dark Ages at least, man has been coming in from the cold and bringing his pets with him. The wolf has no ancestral hearth to remember, the desert rat hardly pines for his exercise wheel, and budgerigars in Australia do not daydream of bells or mirrors.

Or so we presume. That is why there is something at the same time touching and strange in the behaviour of the wild cats of Kerguelen. I have been following this remarkable tribe on two long journeys into the island, accompanying the man whose special job it is to track these reclusive creatures.

Sub-Antarctic islands were left without resident predatory mammals (without any mammals at all) by the last ice age. But near the end of the century before last some did make a landing here - as survivors of shipwrecks, or with whalers and sealers who called. Though humans left, cats stayed, eating ground-nesting baby birds and the shipwrecked rabbits that were beginning to thrive. In the end, though, this feline colony perished, probably in a formidable winter.

But half a century ago a second wave of cat colonists set paw to shore. These came as companions to the Frenchmen who in the early 1950s established the island's only human settlement, the base at Port-auxFrangais where I have been staying. There were half-a-dozen cats or more, of which the more successful breeders were black, white, or black and white. These roamed, following the scent of rabbits.

The base is at the gentlest end of the island, where the mountains to the west provide shelter from the worst of the Roaring Forties and the vegetation supports countless rabbits. The cats spread. Pioneer offspring pushed the feline frontier north and west. Fifty years later (though natural barriers such as altitude, rivers, glaciers and vile weather keep the west coast and all the smaller islands cat-free) other coasts and valleys have become the new territories of the cat settlers' advance. Go west, young Tom, go west. It is odd to watch a beach-cat slipping through a crowd of king penguins and sidling past recumbent elephant seals, uninterested. Each shows a complete disregard for the other, each with so different a world, so unconnected a hinterland and history.

The domestic cat here is living in an environment fairly close to the edge of what its race can survive. Cat fleas, for example, can't live. Each winter's cold and rain take their toll, as the gales and the all-enveloping damp (and maybe the see-sawing rabbit population, too) punish the cat community. But Felix is more than hanging on in there: he is on the march, and is now a serious danger to many varieties of defenceless nesting birds on Kerguelen. A huge and sustained attempt to eradicate all cats during the 1970s failed completely, though thousands were shot. …

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