Legends about cats and vampires

A black-footed cat captured in a net. Photo by Holly Ganz.

A black-footed cat captured in a net (photo by Holly Ganz).

I had the good fortunate to spend this Halloween in the field collecting samples from black-footed cats in the Karoo region of South Africa. As part of a study that Jonathan Eisen and I are conducting on the coevolution between bacteria and cats, we are collecting samples from as many different cat species as possible. The black-footed cat is the smallest cat in Africa and is endemic to Southern Africa. They are solitary and rarely seen and, fortunately for them, they do not prey upon chickens like some wild cats, so they are not a target of predator control by farmers.

The moon on Halloween

The moon on Halloween (photo by Holly Ganz).

Studying black-footed cats requires spending much of the night looking for them using spotlights. In addition we spent the middle part of the day tracking down cats with radio collars so we could change the batteries (and collect a few samples). After a week of sleep deprivation under a waning full moon, including the night of Halloween, my mind turned to thoughts of vampires and cats. These small cats are quite fierce and have lovely fangs and bright green eyes that shine yellow in the spotlights. Like vampires, they are predators who drink blood and go underground during the day. And they seem similarly upset when you dig them out of the burrow and bring them out into the daylight. The only way to do this is to sedate them first.

A black-footed cat looking quite peeved by our intrusion. Photo by Beryl Wilson, Black-Footed Cat Working Group.

A black-footed cat looking quite peeved by our intrusion (photo by Beryl Wilson, Black-Footed Cat Working Group).

According to Wikipedia, cats are included among the animals linked to historical tales of vampires. From Mesopotamia comes the mythical Lilitu or Lilith, a demon who preyed on men and subsists on the blood of babies. In tales from the European Jews of medieval Rhineland, Lilith was the first wife of Adam who was banished. She became a demon who transformed herself into a cat and charmed her victims into believing that she was benevolent and irresistible. In other sources, Lilith is also depicted as a terrifying blood-sucking creature with a lion’s head and the body of a donkey.

A black-footed cat sedated and fitted with a radio collar (photo by Holly Ganz).

A black-footed cat sedated and fitted with a radio collar (photo by Holly Ganz).

When they are sedated, you can see that the black-footed cats have lovely black spots and stripes and yellow-green eyes. You might be tempted to think that such a lovely small cat would make a nice pet. But in actuality they are fierce little cats who must contend with a lot to survive. Despite their mesmerizing beauty, the black-footed cats are not demons. But for fun, next year I suggest that one of the black-footed cats who is collared is also given the name Lilith.

Categories: black-footed cats, sampling | Tags: | Leave a comment

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