Accounts of animals who travel distances — hundreds, thousands of miles — to get back home are enthralling. In 1989, Murka, a tortoiseshell cat, journeyed 325 miles back to Moscow from a relative’s house in Voronezh. In 1997, a cat named Ninja found her way to Farmington, Utah, a year after she had moved away from there with her family to Mill Creek, Washington. An indoor Persian cat, Howie, traveled even farther in Australia, making a 1,000 mile trek from the relatives his vacationing family had left him with back to his own home.
After being separated from her owners at an RV rally in Daytona Beach in November, an indoor house cat, Holly, made her way over about 200 miles of unfamiliar terrain to end up, emaciated and very worn, on New Year’s Eve in a yard about a mile away from the home of her family, the Richters, in West Palm Beach.
We actually hear more stories about dogs making epic journeys home than cats, perhaps because the former have a ”magnetic sensing ability like that of wolves,” according to John Bradshaw, director of the University of Bristol’s Anthrozoology Institute, in the New York Times. Birds, turtles, insects and other migratory animals also use magnetic fields to navigate their way, as well olfactory clues and the position of the sun.
Cats “navigate well around familiar landscapes, memorizing locations by sight and smell, and easily figuring out shortcuts,” Bradshaw notes. It’s less clear how they manage over greater distances; one can’t just study cat navigation by plopping some cats down somewhere and seeing if they’re able to find their way back to a remote location.
A 1954 study in Germany placed cats in an enclosed circular maze with exits at every 15 degrees. The cats were found to exit most often in the direction of their homes, though with the most accuracy if their homes were less than three miles away. More recently, the National Geographic and University of Georgia’s Kitty Cams Project, has delved into the unknown lives of cats by placing video cameras on 55 cats’ collars. The project has found that a minority of suburban cats hunt wildlife. The cats were also found to visit other people’s houses and get meals there, enter storm drain systems and crawl spaces (putting themselves at risk of getting trapped) and cross roads.
The Richters knew Holly (who only weighed 7 pounds — down from 13.5 — when she came home) was indeed herself thanks to a microchip implanted in her. They also think she must have traveled at least most of the 200 miles by foot as, when she came home, the pads on her paws were bleeding and her front claws were very sharp but the back ones worn down. According to scientists, “that is consistent with a long walk, since back feet provide propulsion, while front claws engage in activities like tearing.”
Like the mythic Odysseus in Ancient Greek poetry, Holly and many other cats and dogs exhibit an unyielding determination to return home.
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