An incredible journey and the driving force

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Article Date: 
Feb 04 2013, 2130

Nobody knows how it happened: an indoor house cat, who got lost on a family excursion, managed to return to her hometown covering a distance of more than 300 kilometres in two months’ time, reported The New York Times on January 19.
Bonnie Richeters, 63, is a retired nurse and Jacob Richters, 70, a retired airline mechanics’ supervisor. They began to travel with Holly, their house cat, only a year ago. She easily tolerated a hotel, a cabin or a ride in a vehicle. But during the Good Sam Recreational Vehicle Rally in Daytona in early November 2012, involving more than 3,500 vehicles and 7,000 people, Holly managed to walk out and she could not be traced. After searching for her and alerting animal agencies and posting fliers, the Richters returned home without their favourite cat. After travelling for more than two months and 200 miles, the 4-year-old cat appeared on New Year’s Eve — staggering, weak and emaciated — in a back yard near Richters’ house.
John Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England, said that in many cases of returned cats, “they are just strays, and the people have got kind of a mental justification for expecting it to be the same cat.” What is remarkable in this case is that the identity of the cat is certain. Holly had distinctive black-and-brown harlequin patterns and also an implanted microchip to identify her. Scientists are baffled as to how the cat managed the arduous journey and reached home. “I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” admitted Marc Bekoff, a behavioural ecologist at the University of Colorado. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.” It is generally known that cats navigate well around familiar landscapes, memorising locations by sight and smell, and easily figuring out shortcuts, Bradshaw noted. Migratory animals like birds, turtles and insects have been studied more closely. They use magnetic fields, olfactory cues or orientation by the sun to return home. Scientists say it is common to hear of dogs returning home, which according to Bradshaw, suggests that “they have inherited wolves’ ability to navigate using magnetic clues.” Since dogs are taken often on family trips, the lost ones are more easily noticed and helped by people along the way.
But in the case of a house cat, the journey is almost incredible. Bradshaw added that being an indoor cat would not extinguish its survivalist behaviours, like hunting mice or being aware of the sun’s orientation. “We haven’t the slightest idea how they do this,” Jackson Galaxy, a cat behaviourist who hosts My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet, said. “Anybody who says they do is lying, and, if you find it, please god, tell me what it is.”
What this incident reminds us is the truly incredible journey that we are ourselves making. Our collective remarkable journey began 13.77 billion years ago. By forces, events and circumstances — partially known and mostly unknown to us —we have currently reached at this point of our life-journey. The journey continues with and later without us in different forms. During this journey, we experience bliss and tragedies. The driving force that guides our individual and collective journey is largely unknown to us. But we can confidently assume that we can trust this driving force that has brought us forth, without our asking for it. Throughout our long, arduous, adventurous and at times aimless journey, can we really keep our eyes focused on our home, as Holly did?

(The writer is a professor of science and religion)