An abandoned or lost cat peers out from its cage in a Cedar Rapids animal shelter. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Who doesn't like a good cat story?
A few months ago, during a vacation to Daytona, Florida, Holly the cat slipped away from her owners. In despair, Jacob and Bonnie Richter searched. They returned home sans kitty, assuming they'd never see their pet again. Two months later, an emaciated Holly turned up in a field about a half mile away from her home, 190 miles to the south, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
There is no explanation for this. Cats aren't known to be equipped with long-term direction-finding capabilities, and don't seem to have the mental mapping faculties of species like bats and penguins. How could Holly, tiny little ball of fur, an unsentient animal, possibly know where to go?
All the articles about Holly suggest that some invisible bond between the cat and her owners endowed the animal with scientifically inexplicable powers. She "returned" home. Or she "found her way" home. Or she "went" home.
Assuming no significant breakthroughs in feline physiology, it's safe to say that we will not know how Holly came home.
Now, what happens to the 5,000,000 other cats who are lost every year? Some are found, some return very short distances home, but the large majority simply disappears. It stands to reason that a lost scared cat will move somewhere. A cat might well choose, randomly, the direction that puts her on a straight-line course to her destination. The odds are tiny, but there is a reason why these stories tend to be news: They are so rare.
One factor that may have helped Holly choose her direction: Daytona Beach and West Palm Beach are connected by a long road, along which many tourists and commercial vehicles travel each day. It is not inconceivable that her weakness and emaciation resulted not from a 200-mile journey but from her inability to find a home after jumping aboard a pick-up truck that seemed inviting on a chilly night. It is also much easier to conceive of an animal's ability to maneuver around the obstacles of civilization to travel roughly in a straight line. Cat whiskers are fairly amazing collectors of geographic intelligence.
I hope I don't sound hard-hearted. I'm glad cat and owner are reunited. But how does a parent explain this story to a kid whose cat didn't come home? Patches didn't love her as much? A little of bit of creative exposition can go a long way, and there's no need to resort to magical thinking.
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