5 Cool Cats in the Wild


The Iberian Lynx is critically endangered (the most threatened wild feline in the planet) and Sierra de Andujar in Andalusia is one of the only two places where Iberian Lynx sightings are still remotely possible. Arturo de Frias photography/Getty Images

It's well known that your typical in-shape house cat can survive a fall from a high-rise, sometimes with minimal injuries. A cat in Boston, for instance, fell 19 stories from her owner's apartment window and walked away with nothing more than a bruised chest. Cats are extraordinary survivors — not just physically agile and resilient, but also mentally tough.

To illustrate, here's a true story: One winter night a woman living in Minneapolis couldn't find her cat, Cuddles. She was distraught. As its name implied, the cat was a ball of affection who usually curled up at the foot of its owner's bed to keep it warm. After a panic-stricken day, the woman got a call from her neighbor who had just driven six hours to Chicago. After parking downtown, he heard a pitiful meowing from under the hood. When he opened it up, there was Cuddles, clinging to the battery. He'd been outside the night before, crawled up inside the car engine and taken a nap, only to wake up inside a deafening machine racing down the highway. There was nothing to do but hold on. When the woman got her cat back, she renamed it Scratch, because Cuddles wasn't cuddly again for a very long time.

Crazy cat-survival tales — we've all heard them. But our coddled little pets have nothing on the true survivors — the felines that tough it out in the wild. Here are five amazing big cat cousins of your feline friend.

5
Himalayan Snow Leopard
Snow leopards are perfectly suited to their environment: The white and gray spotted coat offers camouflage, and fur on the pads of their feet provide warmth and grip. Public Domain

If you don't mind seeing carnage in the wilderness, check out this video of a Himalayan snow leopard (Panthera uncia) hunting a mountain sheep called a bharal (Pseudois nayaur). The thing about it is that the cat actually survives a 400-foot (121-meter) tumble down a sheer mountain slope featuring several cliff-drops that should have killed it. The bharal dies and the snow leopard feasts for days.

Snow leopards are uniquely suited to their environment, with a white and gray spotted coat for perfect camouflage and fur on the pads of their feet for warmth and grip. Our favorite feature is the thick tail that contains fat reserves and does double-duty as a stabilizer for balance when the cat is leaping about on icy rocks and a scarf to keep his neck warm at night.

Himalayan snow leopards are found, as the name suggests, throughout Northern India and Nepal. But snow leopards in general are widely distributed throughout the region with significant numbers of them found in Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

An organization called the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program unites all these countries in an effort to protect the big cat's habitat. The current goal is to set aside enough land to protect 20 healthy populations of snow leopards by 2020.

4
Black-Footed Cat
They may look sweet and innocent, but with a 60 percent kill rate, the black-footed cat is the deadliest cat on the planet. Public Domain

When you think of African cats, you immediately picture one of those huge, tawny, black-maned creatures striding across the plains in search of a wildebeest to slay. But consider this, when hunting on its own, a lion has an average success rate of around 15 percent. Hunting in groups can double this to about 30. One problem for these supposed lords of the plains: They apparently fail to take wind direction into account, giving away their approach as often as not.

Now contrast these stats with a little fluffball on the other end of the spectrum — the adorable black-footed cat (Felis nigripes). It's known as southern Africa's smallest wild kitty. But in this case, size really doesn't matter because with a 60 percent kill rate, this tiny hunter is the deadliest cat on the planet. They're such finely-tuned predators they can actually snatch birds right out of the air.

Unlike most cats, black-footed cats don't climb trees, but keep cozy in underground burrows from which they emerge at night to prowl for food. Besides birds, they'll eat just about anything with legs, including rodents and insects. Their preferred habitat is a dry grassy scrubland full of gerbils. Besides northern sections of South Africa, they can be found in Namibia and Botswana. Their status: vulnerable.

3
Iberian Lynx
The Iberian Lynx is the most threatened wild feline in the planet because of habitat loss and food shortages. Fotografia de paisajes y naturaleza/Getty Images

If you're a fan of "Ferdinand" (the book, not the movie), we regret to inform you that wine corks don't grow on trees, they're made from the bark of cork trees. In southern Spain and Portugal there are ancient cork forests, which were once home to roughly 100,000 wild lynx (Lynx pardinus). Then the 20th century came along and wrecked everything.

First, the usual villain — habitat reduction due to human activity. But the really serious problem arose in the 1950s when a French bacteriologist released a virus called Myxomatosis on his estate. The virus didn't kill lynx, it killed rabbits. And it killed them with frightening efficiency. Myxomatosis quickly spread through Europe and nearly wiped out the entire continent's rabbit population. This was extremely bad news for the Iberian lynx, which had specialized in hunting rabbits for so long it was unable to survive without them. By the beginning of the 21st century, fewer than a hundred of them were left.

Then a group of dedicated activists and scientists decided to turn things around. They began breeding Iberian lynx in captivity and releasing them back into the wild. The program is considered to be one of the most successful in the world and there are now an estimated 500 lynx roaming those cork forests once again.

2
Fishing Cat
The fishing cat is the only cat in the wild that, well, goes fishing and actually enjoys it. Lillian King/Getty Images

It's well known that cats hate water. Consider the fastidious disgust with which your common house cat reacts to rain or puddles. But house cats are descended from a very specific ancestor: the African wildcat (Felis lybica lybica). Head to Southeast Asia and, if you're very lucky, you might spot a remarkable feline that not only loves water, it practically lives in it.

As the name implies, the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) goes after scaly critters with fins. To do so, it'll even dive and swim underwater to grab its prey. Not limiting itself to fish, these unusual cats will slip under waterfowl and give them a nasty surprise by yanking them down by the legs.

This kind of lifestyle requires some special adaptations. To stay warm in sometimes chilly water, the fishing cat has two layers of fur, one close to its body, and a longer coat for added warmth. Amazingly, the under-layer of fur is completely waterproof. And as one would expect from a quasi-amphibious beast, the fishing cat has webbed paws.

Like many, if not most, wild cats, the fishing cat is listed as vulnerable. The biggest threats, as usual, are human. Relatively little is known about these creatures, as serious study of them only began in 2009.

1
Margay
Margays spend so much of their time in the trees, they've been dubbed "the monkey cat.” Purestock/Getty Images

You've heard of ocelots, no doubt, even if you're not quite sure what they are. To help you remember, keep this in mind — they look like margays, only bigger. If that's not helpful, let's review margays, which are a little smaller than an ocelot and a little bigger than an oncilla. If none of these are ringing a bell, then clearly you need to brush up on your knowledge of South American wild cats.

None of the above-mentioned critters are particularly large. A margay (Leopardus wiedii) is about the size of a house cat but is spotted like a leopard and lives almost its entire life in trees. In fact, it's easily the most arboreal of all cats and consequently bears the nickname, "the monkey cat." Going monkeys one better, it has the incredible ability to rotate its hind legs 180 degrees, which allows it to walk straight down a tree trunk like a squirrel. Additionally, it can dangle from a branch by a single hind leg like a furry, wingless bat. It eats other tree-dwellers like rats, opossums, porcupines, capuchins, birds and three-toed sloths.

Unfortunately, that spotty coat is popular in the fur trade and margays are under threat from illegal hunting. Loss of habitat due to deforestation is the most pressing problem. That together with the fact that margays only have litters of one, puts this species in a very vulnerable position.