I am not shy to admit that I am a cat lady. Since I was a little girl, although we have always had dogs around, and I love my dogs dearly, I have always been a cat person. Possibly one of the hardest parts of being a guide, in an isolated environment like this, is the fact that it is not appropriate to have pets. In the lodge environment and with wild animals around, it just isn’t done, so when I am at work, one thing I really do miss, is my cat.
But this is a feeling I’m sure I share with many guests who have travelled from their homes on the other side of the world to visit our amazing piece of paradise to see the animals we spend our time with. They too have left their beloved pets at home, and something that helps when the nostalgia hits is to be able to get your feline fix, from a different source.
As a person who grew up with cats, watching big cats going about their business on safari is like a spitting image of a domestic cat, just on a much larger scale. You can read their body language and anticipate their reactions because you know exactly what your domestic tabby would do in the situation. Puddles on the road, you better believe that cats will find a dry path to avoid getting their toes too wet. Waking up from a nap, best make time for some grooming and stretching, because the morning routine is the same whether you weigh 5 kg, or 125kg.
Currently, on leave, I have watched our cat sleep for most of the day, as we have done many a time with a pride of lions. Yet the moment there is a noise or something out of the ordinary, the ears prick up and although the rest of the body doesn’t move, you know he is alert. And of course, if the noise is that of a bird landing in the garden, he goes from fast asleep to hunting mode within a matter of seconds, just as we have seen when a lonely impala makes the mistake of walking toward a sleeping cheetah.
After waking up, following the grooming and yawning ritual, the next step is sharpening claws. Now for cats, with their interdigital glands, sharpening claws not only removes the worn outer sheath of the claw and expose the sharp, new layer below but also to leave their scent behind. With many animals, olfactory communication, or the use of smells for communicating with others, is one of the most important forms because it is long-lasting.
VocaIising is also common, however, the effect is not as long-lived as when the animal stops calling, it is no longer having an effect, however a scent-mark on a tree can be smelt for days to follow.
Another means of marking, often exhibited by our cats, both big and small, is head-rubbing. An interaction between individuals within a social group, such as lions or leopard with her cubs, or against vegetation as they walk past. Much the same as between our domestic cats and their surroundings and companions. It is yet another way for their scent to be left behind, deposited by their cheek glands, not only indicating something familiar for them, but also to let any other felines in the area know, that they are here, and this is their domain.
Stretching out and rolling on the floor is another behaviour we see all too often, whether there is an interesting smell already there, that they feel the need to add their scent to, or perhaps just to have a good scratch of those hard-to-reach places, we never really know. Sometimes this rolling behaviour involves some buffalo dung, which seems to be of great interest to our wild felines, yet the exact reason why is still unknown, the theories include the masking of their own scent, or adding a scent of their own. Rolling about on their backs is always done very playfully and is often over just as quickly as it began, with the cats strutting off as if nothing happened.
This exposing of the very vulnerable belly has in some instances been believed to encourage friendly social interaction, as is often seen between members of social groups, like lioness or between a female leopard and the male with whom she is mating. The much paler colour of the belly is in stark contrast with the tan-brown upper coat, is believed to reduce or appease aggression or tension. So, between individuals in a social group such as lion, or us in the household with our cats, it can show trust and comfort, but not really asking for a belly rub, as I am sure many cat-lovers know all too well.
Watching young cubs playing can be a very special reminder that although these are vicious predators, and yes, the play they exhibit is often an important form of developing their predatory skills, it is all too familiar to watch. We had the privilege of watching a young male cheetah attacking a stick that had been lying on the ground for a while before it caught the cub’s interest. And after playing with it in his paws he decided to move over to attack his mother, which turned into a much more entertaining game, as she soon felt over-stimulated and got up to run away, which just added to the fun of chasing her.
So, for any cat-lovers, being out here can really help with your feline fix… and although any attempt to cuddle these felines would not end well, it is still amazing to watch them do exactly what you could imagine your little companion doing. And next time your cat attacks that mouse toy it loves so much, just imagine a cat ten times their size using those same techniques to take down an antelope in the African bushveld, and you really can appreciate the predatory instinct our little companions still possess.