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Originally published Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 9:01 PM

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Cat navigation — it’s a mystery to scientists

Cats navigate well around familiar landscapes, memorizing locations by sight and smell, and easily figuring out shortcuts. But strange, faraway locations would seem problematic.

The New York Times

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

Even scientists are baffled by how Holly, a 4-year-old tortoiseshell cat 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 backyard about a mile from the Richters’ house in West Palm Beach.

“Are you sure it’s the same cat?” said 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 had distinctive black-and-brown harlequin patterns on her fur and an implanted microchip.

“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said Marc Bekoff, a behavioral 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.”

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

Scientists say it is more common, although still rare, to hear of dogs returning home, perhaps suggesting, Bradshaw said, that they have inherited wolves’ ability to navigate using magnetic clues. But it is also possible that dogs get taken on more family trips, and that lost dogs are more easily noticed or helped by people along the way.

Cats navigate well around familiar landscapes, memorizing locations by sight and smell, and easily figuring out shortcuts, Bradshaw said.

Strange, faraway locations would seem problematic, although he and Patrick Bateson, a behavioral biologist at Cambridge University, say cats can sense smells across long distances. “Let’s say they associate the smell of pine with wind coming from the north, so they move in a southerly direction,” Bateson said.

Peter Borchelt, a New York animal behaviorist, wondered if Holly followed the Florida coast by sight or sound, tracking Interstate 95 and deciding to “keep that to the right and keep the ocean to the left.”

But, he said, “nobody’s going to do an experiment and take a bunch of cats in different directions and see which ones get home.”

The closest, 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. They did so more reliably if their homes were less than about 3 miles away.

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. While living in Boulder, Colo., he moved across town, whereupon his indoor cat, Rabbi, fled and appeared 10 days later at the previous house, “walking five miles through an area he had never been before,” Galaxy 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.

Explaining such journeys is easy.

In the Florida case, one glimpse through the factual fog comes on the little cat’s feet. While Bradshaw speculated Holly might have gotten a lift, perhaps sneaking under the hood of a truck heading down Interstate 95, her paws suggest she was not driven all the way.

“Her pads on her feet were bleeding,” Bonnie Richter said. “Her claws are worn weird. The front ones are really sharp, the back ones worn down to nothing.”

Scientists say that is consistent with a long walk, since back feet provide propulsion, while front claws engage in activities such as tearing.

The Richters — Bonnie, 63, a retired nurse, and Jacob, 70, a retired airline mechanics’ supervisor and accomplished bowler — 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 the next day 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 seen eating behind the Daytona franchise of Hooters, where employees put out food for feral cats.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, Barb Mazzola, a university executive assistant, noticed a cat “barely standing” in her backyard in West Palm Beach, struggling even to meow. Over six days, Mazzola and her children cared for the cat, putting out food, and eventually the cat came inside.

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.

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