The West Palm Beach, Fla., owners of a cat that went missing in November on a family trip nearly 200 miles away from home were beyond surprised when the feline turned up on a neighbor’s doorstep a couple months later. But the “Homeward Bound”-like tale has scientists baffled too.
The Richter family’s cat, Holly, ran off in Daytona after being spooked by fireworks at an R.V. rally and then turned up two months later on New Years Eve in her hometown 190 miles away, the New York Times reported. When she was found only a mile from the Richter’s home, she was emaciated and weak, but tell-tale markings on the tortoiseshell and a microchip showed it was in fact the very same cat.
Watch this local news report about the 4-year-old cat’s return:
“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado, said to the Times. “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.”
Stereotypically, dogs are portrayed as being able to get themselves back home from a strange location, but the Times reported scientists saying this is still only in rare cases.
The jury is still out on whether Holly was able to make her way home by associating smells with certain directions or if she navigated based on what she saw. The Times also reports scientists thinking that Holly might have also hitched a ride based on the state of her paws, although evidence still suggested she had journeyed far on pads.
Feline behavior more generally has been studied but the animal’s ability to find their way back home is still largely not understood, as noted by the Times:
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. Not every cat, it seems, shares Holly’s loyalty.
KittyCams 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 and seems lucky to have survived.
Still, when it comes to cat’s navigational skills, Peter Borchelt, an animal behaviorist in New York, told the Times it is unlikely anyone will ever conduct a study in which they would drop cats off in different locations and see if they make it back home. So, for now, just how Holly and other animals are able to make such impressive trips remains a mystery.