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The 200 mile mystery

May 2013

Here's a real feline mystery story. Take a cat - actually, take that cat two hundred miles (321km) - to near the Daytona Speedway. Assume this cat is a mostly indoor cat, who goes into the garden to chase the occasional lizard. Then, once that cat gets lost, return home to West Palm Beach in Florida. The cat has never been to Daytona before, has little experience at fending for itself, and has no idea where it is, or where home is. Two months later, that cat makes it home anyway. How did the cat do it? How did she navigate? How did she survive? Only the cat knows the answer to the mystery, and she's not talking.

Here are the facts of the case. Holly, a four-year-old female torty (tortoiseshell) cat went with her people - the Richter family - on a camping holiday to Daytona. Holly had been off on such jaunts before, but that day something spooked her. When the door of the family RV (recreational vehicle) was opened, Holly made a dash out of the door and was lost in the large campsite. She stayed away all day, and matters might have been made worse by a firework display which could have driven the frightened cat even further away from her humans.

The Richters made strenuous efforts to trace their missing pet. They spent several days looking, and put up posters, but eventually they had to return home. For a fortnight there was no trace of Holly, but then there was a flash of hope. An animal rescue worker called to say that a cat resembling Holly had been spotted scavenging behind a local restaurant. But if that was indeed the missing Holly she vanished once again.

New Year's Eve, eight weeks after Holly's disappearance. A torty appears in the garden of 52-year-old university executive assistant, Barb Mazzola. Though evidently exhausted and in distress, the cat is wary of humans. The Mazzolas put out food for the cat, which was apparently too weak even to meow. For six days the cat hung around the garden, eating the food which was put out for her. At the end of that time she evidently decided that the Mazzolas could be trusted, and ventured inside the house. There she was promptly captured and taken to the vet.

The vet discovered that the cat was bright and alert, but both underweight and dehydrated. Oddly enough her back paw pads and claws were severely worn down, but she was otherwise healthy. The vet also did a routine scan for an embedded microchip. The Mazzolas had taken to calling their stray Cosette, after the orphan in Les Miserables, but the microchip revealed the catís true identity. It was Holly, and she had made it to within one mile of her West Palm Beach home.

How did Holly do it? There have been stories of cats making such journeys before, but scientists have been sceptical. There is, after all, a human tendency to want to believe that a stray resembling a lost cat is in fact that lost cat itself. But in Holly's case, her torty markings are almost as distinct as a fingerprint, and it's hard to argue with a microchip. Also, a cat uses her back legs for propulsion while walking, and the state of Holly's bleeding back paws with the claws almost worn away suggests that she had been walking - a lot. So somehow this mostly indoor cat seems to have managed to walk home, from a place she had never been, two hundred miles away.

One factor which might have helped is that the journey was along the coast. Holly may have known that she was north of home - perhaps from a familiar scent of pines, or some other smell carried by from the south by the wind. Then she had only to keep the sea on her left, and keep walking. Given total determination, if Holly kept walking south, she would eventually reach the beachfront of West Palm Beach. So even if we know how Holly might have done it, there remains the question of 'why'? Recent studies have shown that even cats with settled homes often two-time their humans - that is, there are often two separate households which believe that they 'own' a particular cat, unaware that their kitty is dividing her time between them.

So Holly could have found a home somewhere along the way - indeed the Mazzolas were keen to adopt her if no other home could be found. But for Holly, it had to be the Richters; and it seems she was prepared to keep walking until she found them.

For the Richters, seeing Holly again was one of the best days of their lives. Holly also appreciated being reunited with her family. She instantly relaxed when placed in Mr Richter's arms. She was home. All it cost her was eight weeks, half of her body weight, and probably several of her nine lives.

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