mon 27/05/2019

Cat Watch 2014: The New Horizon Experiment, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Cat Watch 2014: The New Horizon Experiment, BBC Two

Cat Watch 2014: The New Horizon Experiment, BBC Two

Latest attempt by boffins to unravel the mysteries of 'Felis catus'

Dr John Bradshaw, Liz Bonnin and a ginger farm cat

Cats have had a harder time adapting to humans than humans to cats, as this remarkable examination of contemporary feline habits points out. It is not always easy changing from wild animal to feline friend, as the programme put it. Nocturnal hunters now have a life in the daytime, but they are still solo rather than pack animals. While a dog will cling to his pack – his human family – the cat susses out the physical territory on its own, seeing how safe it is and where to hide if necessary.

The hundred cats under observation in this three-part study – to come are hunters at night, and the ways in which cats communicate with each other and us – were fitted with sophisticated tracking cameras, adapted for those invented for lions and cheetahs. Fixed cameras were positioned in owners' homes, gardens and farmyards to plot their movements by night and day. Cats were observed in the crowded terraces of Brighton, in the more spacious countryside around Rottingdean, and as working cats on the farm.

We were almost entirely spared anthropomorphism, in favour of extended examination of feline sensory perception of the feline world. The data coming through on computer screens in what looked like a souped-up shed, known as Cat HQ, was analysed and explained by Professor Alan Wilson, Royal Veterinary College, vet Richard Harvey, biologist John Bradshaw and animal behaviourist Dr Sarah Ellis. The very pregnant Sarah Ellis explained that cats absolutely do not like change or anything they feel as a threat. Rottingdean Diggy indeed had left home in favour of wandering as much as five miles a day to avoid the intrusion of his family’s new human baby, who liked nothing more than pummelling the family pet. Dr Ellis however was preparing high rise refuges for her own two cats on top of bookcases – cats like heights, whence they can safely survey their kingdom – which small babies could certainly not reach, and rubbing the cats’ own scent onto baby paraphernalia from buggy to cot, to make it part of the feline furniture.

Cat Watch examined cats’ own perceptions in detail and explained the difference between human sight, hearing, sense of smell, and balance. Along the way we took in the extraordinary role of the mobility of cats’ ears – so they can hear from any direction – and whiskers, sensing how much room there is in narrow spaces, and also exactly where the prey is at the point of capture (Tigger wearing a CatCam, pictured below).

Cats’ vision is blurry and they only see a washed out world with little colour, but we were able to see how this apparent deprivation became an advantage at the optimum hunting times of dusk and dawn. Diagrams showed us how having five times as many rods (whatever they may be) in their eyes than humans means their lowlight vision is 40 per cent better than ours, and as nocturnal animals, cats only need one-sixth of the light we do. Their hearing is perhaps the most acute of any mammal, and 10 times better than ours. Cats hear 11 octaves, two more than humans, and the researchers had the equipment to prove it, hidden under sofas and chairs in the feline homes.

The real mystery though is how the researchers got so much feline co-operation; the collars were not displaced, and they were easily seduced into playtime. It was nonetheless reassuring to see that no cat came when called. And with all their prowess it is also a mystery as to why they do not rule the world; but perhaps they do.

Rottingdean Diggy had left home in favour of wandering five miles a day to avoid the intrusion of his family’s new human baby


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