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Cat Defender

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Scottish Wildcat Born in Captivity May Hold the Key to Saving Critically Endangered Species from Extinction

"It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities of Meroe and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle's lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten."
-- H. P. Lovecraft, "The Cats of Ulthar"

A male kitten was born in captivity last month to two purebred Scottish wildcats known as Flora and Hamish. (See photos above and below of Flora and her kitten.)

The event, which occurred at Wildwood Discovery Park near Canterbury in Kent, is considered to be a milestone in England's belated attempt to save its rarest mammal from extinction. Although there are a number of the wildcats living in captivity, it is not clear if this was the first time that any of them had successfully reproduced.

What is known, however, is that there are only around four-hundred purebreds remaining in the wild and these are confined pretty much to the Scottish Highlands. Another five-thousand of them exist but they are the products of interbreeding with Felis catus.

The wildcats are so critically endangered in fact that some experts are predicting that they will become extinct within ten years. "The kitten's birth will help boost the increasingly important captive population in the United Kingdom, which could save the species from future extinction," Peter Smith of the Wildwood Trust told This Is London on May 25th. (See "The Scottish Wildcat Kitten Saving Its Species from Extinction.")

Both Flora and her newborn are said to be doing well. For the time being the kitten will remain nameless until the results of the Wildwood Trust's naming contest are tabulated.

Felis sylvestris grampia are about fifty per cent larger than domestic cats and they feed upon rodents, small mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and insects. They lead solitary existences except for mating once a year in either January or February.

Amazingly enough, Scottish wildcats have lived in the British Isles for more than two-million years. During their salad days, they shared the land with the woolly mammoth, cave bears, and cave lions.

At the close of the last Ice Age, about nine-thousand years ago, rising sea levels led to the formation of the the English Channel which divorced England from continental Europe. Just as similar climatological events separated the Iriomote wildcat from its cousins in mainland China and thus led to its emergence as a distinct species, so too did the Scottish wildcat diverge from other European wildcats. (See Cat Defender post of November 27, 2006 entitled "After Surviving on Its Own for at Least Two-Million Years, Rare Japanese Wildcat Faces Toughest Battle Yet.")

Similar events also separated the clouded leopards of Sumatra and Borneo from their relatives in southeast Asia and led to their development into a distinct species. (See Cat Defender post of April 17, 2007 entitled "Clouded Leopards of Sumatra and Borneo Are Discovered to Be a Distinct Species from Their Cousins in Mainland Southeast Asia.")

The Roman conquest began a process that over the next centuries would see the English systematically exterminate lynxes, aurochs, bears, boars, beavers, wolves, and other mammals. It also marked the beginning of two-thousand years of unremitting vilification, abuse, and slaughter of the wildcats that continues to this very day.

Initially, the cats were hunted for their valuable pelts. Later, they were branded as vermin by farmers, sheepherders, and chicken producers who shot them on sight. Bounties were placed on their heads and they were even accused of attacking and killing people. The influx of more and more people coupled with the expansion of economic activities also led to deforestation and a severe reduction in their habitat.

It was, however, the emergence of hunting as a sport during the Victorian Age that had, arguably, the greatest detrimental impact upon the cats' fortunes. Not only did game farms encroach upon their turf but the sportsmen falsely accused them of preying upon their precious game birds. Consequently, the cats found themselves hunted almost to extinction.

This miscarriage of justice was perpetrated in spite of the fact that the hunters knew that the wildcats preferred rabbits over pheasants and other game birds. Of course, the English have long been the world's most prolific practitioners of the belief that two (or is it two million?) wrongs constitute a right.

Taxidermists also did a thriving business supplying England's burgeoning number of museums with stuffed Scottish wildcats. References even can be found in Dickens concerning the emergence of taxidermy as a thriving business.

Throughout thousands of years of extermination campaigns directed against the wildcats, other mammals, and birds, the killers always received the imprimatur of the Anglican Church. This is not surprising considering that its ecclesiastical big brother, the Roman Catholic Church, also slaughtered domestic cats en masse during the Middle Ages under the pretext that they were the familiars of witches.

Both churches have long relied upon the dominion mandate found in the Book of Genesis in order to defend their atrocious animal rights records. (See Cat Defender post of May 22, 2006 entitled "Belgian Ritual of Tossing Stuffed Cats from Belfry Makes Jest of Hideous Crimes of Capitalists and Catholics.")

By the time World War I rolled around the wildcats had been eliminated from England and Wales and probably would have disappeared from their last redoubt in the Highlands had not the ranks of the sportsmen been thinned out by the carnage that took place in Flanders Fields. For once, at least, some good came out of man's antipathy toward his fellows.

The 1986 meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl is another example of a human tragedy benefiting the animals. The depopulated area in and around the reactor is now teeming with wildlife but since most animals live such short existences it is not yet known what the long-term consequences of their exposure to such high levels of radiation are going to be.

If the plight of the three-thousand or so individuals who elected to remain in the contaminated area is anything to go by, the animals will at the very least experience diminished life expectancies. Only about three-hundred of the humans are still alive today.

Nevertheless, man always has been the animals' number one enemy and more people usually equates with fewer animals. (See Associated Press, June 8, 2007, "Contaminated Zone Near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Becomes Wildlife Haven, Intriguing Biologists.")

Interbreeding with Felis catus is also contributing to the demise of Scottish wildcats by depleting their available gene pool. Although it is not clear what action is being taken against the feral cats, saving the wildcats should not be used as a convenient excuse in order to trap and kill the ferals.

If the ferals and strays must be removed, they should be humanely trapped and relocated elsewhere. They are every bit as much the victims of man's cruelty and neglect as the wildcats. More importantly, they also have an inalienable right to life and freedom.

From the limited amount of information available, it appears that conservation efforts are being focused on captive breeding programs, such as those in place at Wildwood Discovery Park and Howlett's Wildlife Park in Bekesbourne, Kent, and the establishment reserves for the wildcats.

England's record on animal rights is pretty horrific. In fact, it amounts to little more than two-thousand years of naked exploitation and extermination. (See Robert Lovegrove's "Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation's Wildlife" reviewed by Daniel Butler of The Guardian on May 26, 2007 under the title, "The Killing Fields.")

Wildcats all over the world face similar threats to those bedeviling the Scottish wildcats. (See Cat Defender post of September 6, 2005 entitled "Clones of Endangered African Wildcats Give Birth to Eight Naturally-Bred Healthy Kittens in New Orleans.") While there can be no doubt that captive breeding programs are an integral part of many conservation efforts, the cats above all need to be left alone in legally protected habitats.

England still has a fleeting opportunity to atone for its past crimes against the wildcats but time is running out fast. It would be a tragedy if these cats who have survived for so long are allowed to perish now, especially when the resources and expertise to save them are readily available.

Photos: This Is London.