NEW YORK: Nobody knows how it happened: an indoor house cat that got lost on a family excursion managing, after two months and about 320 kilometres, to return to her home town.
Even scientists are baffled by how Holly, a four-year-old tortoiseshell who in early November became separated from Jacob and Bonnie Richter at a recreation vehicle rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, appeared on New Year's Eve - staggering, weak and emaciated - in a back yard about a kilometre from the Richters' house in West Palm Beach.
''Are you sure it's the same cat?'' wondered John Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, in England.
In other cases, he has suspected, ''the cats are just strays, and the people have got kind of a mental justification for expecting it to be the same cat''.
But Holly had an implanted microchip to identify her.
Scientists say it is more common, although still rare, to hear of dogs returning home, perhaps suggesting, Dr Bradshaw said, that they have inherited wolves' ability to navigate using magnetic clues.
He and Patrick Bateson, a behavioural biologist at Cambridge University, say that cats can sense smells across long distances.
''Let's say they associate the smell of pine with wind coming from the north, so they move in a southerly direction,'' Professor Bateson said.
Peter Borchelt, a New York animal behaviourist, wondered if Holly followed the Florida coast by sight or sound, tracking Interstate 95 and deciding to ''keep that to the right and keep the ocean to the left''. But, he said, ''nobody's going to do an experiment and take a bunch of cats in different directions and see which ones get home''.
The closest, said Roger Tabor, a British cat biologist, may have been a 1954 study in Germany, in which cats placed in a covered circular maze with exits every 15 degrees most often exited in the direction of their homes. They did so more reliably if their homes were less than five kilometres away.
''It's actually happened to me,'' said Jackson Galaxy, a cat behaviourist who hosts the TV show My Cat From Hell.
While living in Boulder, Colorado, he moved across town, whereupon his indoor cat, Rabbi, fled and appeared 10 days later at the previous house, ''walking five miles [eight kilometres] through an area he had never been before''.
Tabor cited longer-distance reports he considered credible: Murka, a tortoiseshell in Russia, travelling 520 kilometres home to Moscow from her owner's mother's house in Voronezh in 1989; and Howie, an indoor Persian cat in Australia who in 1978 ran away from the relatives his vacationing family left him with and eventually travelled 1600 kilometres to his family's home.
While Dr Bradshaw speculated Holly might have had a lift, her paws suggest she was not driven all the way.
''Her pads on her feet were bleeding,'' Bonnie Richter said. ''We haven't the slightest idea how they do this,'' Galaxy said. ''Anybody who says they do is lying, and, if you find it, please God, tell me what it is.''
The New York Times