Beautiful People | Environment

The fishing cats of Colombo

Fishing cats are twice the size of domestic cats.   | Photo Credit: Devan Sewell

A monster under the bed changed Anya Ratnayaka’s destiny. A pair of orange-yellow eyes glowered from the dark as she slowly settled into a corner of the room in a colleague’s house in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Minutes later, the beast sprang out with a “dead” purple sock dangling from its mouth. The young orphaned fishing cat resembled a tabby on steroids, wide face, broad chest and stout legs. Since a wildfire killed its family, the colleague had taken in the singed kitten. Ratnayaka threw the sock and the playful cat bounded after it, its short tail waving in the air. She was “gobsmacked” that such an adorable animal even existed.

Three hours later, she returned home and deleted the file outlining her plans to study leopards. The fishing cat had captured her imagination. Not much was known about the species then, in 2012. By reading as much as she could, she discovered another endearing quality. Fishing cats don’t meow like domestic cats, nor do they have the muffled roar of jungle cats. They “quack like ducks,” says Ratnayaka.

Koi culprit

Twice the size of domestic cats, these animals have made Colombo their home, probably the only city they have extended such an honour. She didn’t have to go far to find them. In fact, one walked into her office. The owner of the building had stocked the garden pond with large, expensive Japanese koi carp. When these colourful fish disappeared, he suspected someone had stolen them, and set up security cameras.

Two days later, Ratnayaka was still groggy from sleep when she received images of a fishing cat on a messaging service. The pond looked familiar. When realisation hit, she shot out of bed with a scream. The thief now identified, the owner moved the remaining koi to safety.

Ratnayaka applied for permission to collar the feline with a radio transmitter. As the paperwork took time, she worried the cat might leave the area if the pond was empty of fish. She stocked it with 10 ordinary carp that cost a lot less than the koi. Surveillance footage showed the animal leaping down from the perimeter wall, hooking a fish with its paw, retreating to the far corner of the roof to crunch it down, and returning for more. It ate seven in one sitting. She named it Mizuchi, after the Japanese water dragon.

Before she went bankrupt buying carp, the Wildlife Department called her to collar a young male fishing cat it had trapped. She recognised Mizuchi from the unique pattern on his fur. The transmitter’s data showed he was as much a resident of the city as its human citizens. On the opening night of Monkey Kingdom, he stopped by the busy parking lot of the Savoy Cinema at 10 p.m.. At 1 a.m., he prowled through a posh garden.

During the day, Ratnayaka and her team visited the spots where he had been a few hours earlier. People working the night shift, such as security guards, knew these cats. One person described a cat fishing for pet gourami in another garden pond. Before leaving, Ratnayaka asked the man to alert her if he saw it again.

Within a couple of minutes, she received a photo of Mizuchi crouched on a garage roof. She hightailed it back to the property. To her amazement, he was out on that hot afternoon, watching the humans with sleepy eyes from his vantage spot. Bored with the attention, the cat stretched and yawned, before leaping down and disappearing under a culvert.

Settled urbanites

Books say the survival of the species is tied to wetlands such as mangroves, streams, and swamps, where it lives on a diet of fish. But Mizuchi had never visited a natural wetland. He padded on walls and rooftops, and waded through canals and storm drains that crisscrossed the city. He was at home in affluent residences with large gardens dense with vegetation and ponds filled with slow showy fish. He wasn’t the only one to prowl the city; other fishing cats did too. Although some citizens are hostile to these wild cats, others are easygoing.

A landless family who lived in a hut on the edge of a marsh lost three house cats and a dozen chickens — grounds for most to do away with the predators. But these people empathised with them: “They have to live as well.” The comment moved Ratnayaka.

Ratnayaka isn’t sure if urban fishing cats like Mizuchi are exceptions. Perhaps the city is no place for them. Although she would love to learn more, the exercise is fraught with problems. How would people react if they came upon a trapped animal before the researcher can reach it? Until she can solve this conundrum, she restricts her research to fishing cats in the city’s parks and wetlands.

At Diyasaru Park, within sight of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, Ratnayaka and her team encountered a fishing cat sitting at water’s edge. The humans and feline stared at each other. And then the cat quacked.

The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 1:03:54 AM |

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