The Domestic Wild – When An Orphaned Kitten Turned Striped, Spotted and Big
Returning home from a village pond, a farmer from Bengal’s Midnapore district hears the call of an animal in distress. Stopping to investigate, he discovers an orphaned kitten that he takes home and nurtures. But what happens when the kitten grows far beyond the dimensions of any domestic cat?
Photo: Sanctuary Asia Photo Library.
An Addition to the Family
It was mid January and the farmer was making his way back from the pond, a small fishing line dangling from his shoulders. A little freshwater shrimp and a couple of fish was all he had managed to catch that evening. As he made his way through the foggy darkness along the dirt road, he hummed an evergreen Bengali song to himself.
Suddenly, his pace slowed. He thought he heard a faint purr. He stopped. Yes, there it was again... there must be a kitten somewhere. This man had an ardent love for all life forms and had fostered orphaned baby animals from his childhood. True to his old habits, he put his paraphernalia down and went looking for the kitten.
Slowly, he moved closer and closer to the source of the sound and then he saw it – a furry ball, a famished weakling. Instinctively, he picked it up, held it close to his chest and trudged back to his house. He had done this many a times before; fostered kittens and puppies. This meek thing was thus in the best hands – it would surely survive.
Golu, as the kitten came to be known, found a new mother in the farmer’s wife. At first he refused to eat or drink. The wife and the children stayed up and tried innumerable tricks to feed the littlest family member, but to no avail till the farmer dipped his index finger into milk and put it inside Golu’s mouth. Instantly, Golu started sucking. His feeding problems were at last over. By and by, Golu started eating meat and seemed to get especially excited when fish was served.
Within six months, Golu had grown surprisingly large and was up to all kinds of impish antics. One evening, he casually strolled into a neighbour’s yard and came upon his hen coop. As the chicken clucked their alarm, their owner came rushing out of the house armed with a sturdy stick. Confronted by the enraged neighbour, Golu fluffed his body and bared his teeth. In the fading light of day, his shadow elongated by the man’s lamp, he presented a monstrous vision that sent the neighbouring screaming blue murder. Golu made a smart exit and nonchalantly assumed his usual pose on the porch of his house, the very picture of innocence.
Another day, he chased a little Black Bengal goat while its mother pitifully bleated her agony. However, this time he was seen by people in broad daylight. Golu had been caught red-handed. The neighbours decided to pay his owner a visit to ask him to contain this leopard cub or tiger cub or whatever it was... because it certainly wasn’t a house cat! But the moment they stepped into the compound of the house, Golu expressed his disapproval. He arched his back, his fur stood on end and his teeth gleamed as he surveyed the intruders to his territory.
Not until his mother reprimanded him did Golu reluctantly settle down. He was like a Doberman, a one-master cat who had made it very clear to the neighbours that he neither liked them nor did he consider them fit to be listened to. As the laundry list of complaints against the cat grew, a verdict was passed. Strong iron chains were ordered for Golu and henceforth, he was to be tied and kept inside the boundaries of his house. The neighbours were content. They could sleep peacefully now, the hens could be let loose in the backyards and the goats could bleat and frolic, without the fear of a mischievous cat prowling the vicinity.
Photo: Sanctuary Asia Photo Library.
As Golu continued to grow, his owner realised there was something amiss. He was as big as a domestic dog now... no common cat could possibly grow this large! When the mating season approached, Golu became uncontrollable. His yowls filled the night air and sent chills down the villagers’ backs. But at the same time, he was also a much loved curio, and on the weekends the village children would make a beeline to visit the striped, spotted cat.
One day, Golu was taken to the banks of a nearby pond for a stroll and then chained to a tree by his foster father. A birdwatcher scoping the lake happened to catch sight of the strange duo and could not believe his eyes! There on the banks of the pond was a fisherman lovingly petting the head of a huge, male fishing cat as calmly as if he were a house bred Persian!
The birdwatcher posted a record shot on Facebook and forever changed Golu’s fate. In a matter of weeks, word of a pet fishing cat somewhere in Midnapore district in West Bengal got out. The media got a whiff of the story and one fine morning half a dozen journalists showed up to the perplexed fisherman’s house to find, sure enough, a fishing cat casually chained to the front door.
Alerted by the media storm, the Forest Department sprung into action, confiscating Golu and pressing grave charges against the cat’s poor foster father.
Confiscation, Incarceration and Conservation
In a survey conducted by us in a neighbouring district in Howrah, West Bengal, we found that 27 fishing cats were killed over a period of 16 months and this was attributed to retaliation against goat and poultry predation. Yet, this man in Midnapore helped save a member of this endangered species. How could the charges levied against him be the same as what would have been levelled against a poacher? The department did its duty but in its wake, I could not help but wonder where we, as conservationists, were lagging. If only the well-meaning farmer had known that this was the endangered fishing cat, the state animal of West Bengal, and had informed the department, perhaps today he would have won accolades for his selfless act. Perhaps Golu would also not have had to bear the shock and pain of a sudden alienation from what he had known to be his home.
A week after he was confiscated, we went to Jhargram zoo in Midnapore district where Golu was taken. He had not eaten for the first five days and we were concerned about his health. As soon as we entered the gates, there he was, kept in a small cage for treating wounds and administering medicines. The zoo authorities turned out to be very friendly and interested, and as soon as we told them to put a little hay inside his cage, they arranged for it. However, this disturbance shook Golu out of his drowsy state and he rammed against the bars of his cage. We backed off a little and sat observing, determined that we would not leave until we had seen him eat. Although the zoo officers assured us that Golu had started eating, we had to see so with our own eyes. True to the official’s words, he started eating chicken in the evening and we breathed a sigh of relief.
We felt it would be great if he was allowed to roam around in an open enclosure for the general public to see. Could Golu be a mascot for the conservation of his species, which is otherwise notoriously elusive, and thus help sensitise the public to fishing cats? We are discussing the possibilities and are hopeful that something positive should happen for the sake of both Golu and the wonderful, endangered species to which he belongs.
And, before you ask, Golu’s kind hearted foster father was let off with a simple warning.
Tiasa is a post-graduate student in Wildlife Biology and Conservation, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and also a member of the International Fishing Cat Working Group (www.fishing-cat.wild-cat.org).
Read More: The Coringa Mangroves – Realm Of The Fishing Cat.
Author: Tiasa Adhya