Holly was reunited with her owners, Jacob and Bonnie Richter, after two months of being lost.

Barbara P. Fernandez, New York Times

Thought to be a goner, the cat came back

  • Article by: PAM BELLUCK
  • New York Times
  • January 26, 2013 - 4:31 PM


Nobody knows how it happened: an indoor house cat who got lost on a family excursion managing, after two months and about 200 miles, to return to her hometown.

Scientists are baffled by how Holly, a 4-year-old tortoiseshell who in early November became separated from Jacob and Bonnie Richter at an RV rally in Daytona Beach, Fla., appeared on New Year's Eve -- staggering, weak and emaciated -- in a back yard about a mile from the Richters' West Palm Beach house.

"Are you sure it's the same cat?" wondered John Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England. In other cases, he has suspected, "the cats are just strays, and the people have got kind of a mental justification for expecting it to be the same cat."

But Holly not only had distinctive black-and-brown harlequin patterns on her fur, but an implanted microchip.

"I really believe these stories, but they're just hard to explain," said Marc Bekoff, a University of Colorado behavioral ecologist. "Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars ... I have no data for this."

There is, in fact, little scientific dogma on cat navigation. Migratory animals like birds, turtles and insects have been studied more closely and use magnetic fields, olfactory cues or orientation by the sun.

The most recent science on the subject, said Roger Tabor, a British cat biologist, may have been a 1954 study in Germany, in which cats placed in a covered circular maze with exits every 15 degrees most often exited in the direction of their homes, especially if their homes were less than 3.1 miles away.

New research by the National Geographic and University of Georgia's Kitty Cams Project, using video footage from 55 pet cats wearing video cameras on their collars, suggests cat behavior is exceedingly complex.

For example, the Kitty Cams study found that four of the cats were two-timing their owners, visiting other homes for food and affection. Kitty Cams also showed most of the cats engaging in risky behavior, including crossing roads and "eating and drinking substances away from home," risks Holly undoubtedly experienced.

But other cats have made unexpected comebacks.

"It's actually happened to me," said Jackson Galaxy, a cat behaviorist who hosts "My Cat From Hell" on Animal Planet. From Boulder, Colo., he moved across town, whereupon his indoor cat, Rabbi, fled and appeared 10 days later at the previous house, "walking 5 miles through an area he had never been before," he said.

Tabor cited longer-distance reports he considered credible: Murka, a tortoiseshell in Russia, traveling 325 miles home to Moscow from her owner's mother's house in Voronezh in 1989; Ninja, who returned to Farmington, Utah, in 1997, a year after her family moved from there to Mill Creek, Wash.; and Howie, an indoor Persian cat in Australia who in 1978 ran away from the relatives his vacationing family left him with and eventually traveled 1,000 miles to his family's home.

The Richters -- Bonnie, 63, a retired nurse, and Jacob, 70, a retired airline mechanics' supervisor -- began traveling with Holly only last year, and she easily tolerated a hotel, a cabin or the RV.

But during the Good Sam RV Rally in Daytona, Holly bolted when Bonnie Richter's mother opened the door one night. Fireworks may have further spooked her, and, after searching for days, alerting animal agencies and posting fliers, the Richters returned home catless.

Two weeks later, an animal rescue worker called the Richters to say a cat resembling Holly had been spotted eating behind the Daytona franchise of Hooters, where employees put out food for feral cats.

Then, on New Year's Eve, Barb Mazzola noticed a cat "barely standing" in her back yard in West Palm Beach. Over six days, Mazzola and her children cared for the cat, putting out food, including special milk for cats, and eventually the cat came inside.

They named her Cosette after the orphan in "Les Miserables" and took her to a veterinarian, Dr. Sara Beg at Paws2Help. Beg said the cat was underweight and dehydrated, had "back claws and nail beds worn down, probably from all that walking on pavement," but was "bright and alert" and had no parasites or viruses. "She was hesitant and scared around people she didn't know, so I don't think she went up to people and got a lift," she said. "I think she made the journey on her own."

At Paws2Help, Mazzola said, "I almost didn't want to ask, because I wanted to keep her, but I said, 'Just check and make sure she doesn't have a microchip.'" When told the cat did, "I just cried."

The Richters cried, too, upon seeing Holly, who instantly relaxed when placed on Jacob Richter's shoulder. Re-entry is proceeding well, but the mystery persists.

"We haven't the slightest idea how they do this," Galaxy said. "Anybody who says they do is lying, and, if you find it, please God, tell me what it is."

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