Life on the streets

Feature Where do they come from? How do they survive? M looks at Abu Dhabi's cats and explains why we should look at these tough little creatures with a bit more respect.

Photographed this cat dumpster diving on my way home.  Apparently many of these stray cats have learned that there is food to be found in the many dumpters that are in residential areas of Abu Dhabi.  ( Delores Johnson )

Where do they come from? How do they survive? Jerry Langton looks at Abu Dhabi's cats and explains why we should look at these tough little creatures with a bit more respect. Elizabeth Herstead thought she knew a lot about the UAE when she arrived as a tourist last year. The young Briton was travelling to Australia, and decided to make a stop in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. "I was prepared for everything - except the cats," she says. "They were everywhere - I'd honestly call it an infestation." Of course, if you live here, you get used to them after a while. You see them strolling around the streets at night or crowded under anything that provides shade during the day. You may even get to the point when you don't even notice them any more. But have you ever thought of where they came from? Or how they survive?

There are two biologically distinct types of street cats in the UAE. Many of them are wildcats that have been drawn away from their native desert habitat to urban areas for the same reason as many other animals - wherever there are humans, there's food, water, shade and shelter. This behaviour is called commensal - from the Latin con mensa, which means to share a table - because they live alongside us and benefit from that which we throw away or that keep a close eye on. But they don't really give us anything (as in a symbiotic relationship), though nor do they harm us (as in a parasitic relationship).

The remainder are feral, which means their ancestors were formerly kept as pets. Mainly originating from the homes of European and North American expats, the feral cats of the UAE are the descendants of escaped or abandoned pets. It takes an expert to tell the difference between feral cats and wildcats, and the two groups interbreed, so the lines get less distinct all the time. All street cats in the UAE come from the same ancestor - the wildcat or felis sylvestris. The similar sand cat - felis margarita - also occurs here but prefers the deep desert and does its best to avoid human contact.

It is believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate cats about 4,000 years ago, but in 2004 an excavation of a burial site in Cyprus revealed the remains of a pet cat dating back at least 10,000 years. Since they were originally semi-desert animals, cats are well suited to the UAE climate. They are highly adaptable as a species - as evidenced by how many breeds have been developed in a relatively short time, and in a few generations, they begin to show physical changes to adapt to the environment. Experts say they have seen changes in newer generations, such as bigger, heat-dissipating ears and furrier feet to protect sensitive toe pads from hot sand and rocks. And life on the streets can give these animals something of a lived-in look. "Stray city cats can be more scruffy than those found in remote areas, and this could be perhaps due to the food source (scavenging), competition from other ferals in the city, abuse or any other multitude of issues," says Declan O'Donovan, the director of wildlife services at the Wadi Al Safa Wildlife Centre in Dubai. "Cats found further out would obviously have adapted to the area and would be those fittest enough to survive the harsh conditions of desert life."

All cats maintain a higher body temperature than humans and are more tolerant of the extreme summer temperatures. That's why they do not like to be immersed in water. The resulting, immediate drop in body temperature can have a profound effect. But the long sunny days of the UAE can be too hot, even for them, so they are much more active at night when the temperatures drop. Much of that activity involves the search for food. Street cats - like their wild cousins - hunt rodents, shrews, birds, reptiles and other small animals. Opportunists, they seek the easiest prey and have played havoc on the red-billed tropicbirds, which have never been exposed to predation before and have developed no defences.

"There are no local studies completed to suggest that they have caused any damage, but if one extrapolates from other studies internationally, then one would be safe in suggesting they have a huge impact," says O'Donovan. "One study in the US suggested that, although exact numbers are unknown, cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks, each year."

Street cats are particularly fond of house mice, which are attracted to human residences because of rubbish, and represent a major control on the pest population. Unfortunately, this benefit doesn't always extend to rats, which can be too large and aggressive for cats to attack. Sometimes cats prey on creatures humans would rather they didn't. "Locally, breeders of pigeons and other birds kept outside do suffer from an economic loss when stray or feral cats get into their coops," says O'Donovan. But he emphasises that not all the damage is done by feral cats. "There is a slight misconception here. All cats will hunt if hungry and many, including your little house pet, will hunt opportunistically. Family pets can cause as much damage to wildlife as stray feral cats that hunt to survive."

Of course, hunting for mice around bins often reveals some tasty treats within the rubbish, and a street cat is not too proud to eat from it. Another major source of food for the cats is the well-meaning people who leave food out for them. While the overall wisdom of this habit is debatable, as it keeps cats from hunting pests to survive, it represents a significant portion of the overall amount of food taken in by street cats and has had an effect on their behaviour. Cats who become dependent on such handouts lose the desire or even ability to hunt for themselves. And it can also result in an unnatural lack of fear of humans.

Although street cats rarely have disputes over food, they do fight. Almost all altercations are between male cats fighting over a female, and it's rare to see an adult male street cat who doesn't have a series of scars on his face, or a few chunks out of his ears. In the wild, male cats have strictly determined territories, while female cats are generally tolerated - if not always welcome - in any territory. But in urban conditions, that breaks down, especially in areas where humans provide food, either intentionally or not. In these situations, cats can form colonies where kittens are raised more or less communally. Male cats can be uneasy in these environments, and sharing the same territory leads them to fight far more frequently.

Fighting and mating can be raucous activities, and the nocturnal howls and shrieks of street cats are a major source of consternation for their human neighbours. All non-domestic cats in the UAE are careful around humans, but city cats - who presumably see hundreds of people every day - have a different way of dealing with them. "The only difference [between feral and wildcats] that would be immediately obvious would be the wariness of the cats," says O'Donovan.

Wildcats dig burrows to give birth, but street cats generally find refuge in remote areas of human habitations or commercial properties. In most years, female street cats produce an average of two litters with about four to six offspring each. Since the average lifespan of street cats has been calculated at about 4.7 years, that puts a lot of new cats on the street. In the wild, cat populations are kept down by natural predators such as wild dogs, eagles and even bigger species of cats. But street cats have little to fear from predation. Most unnatural deaths occur from traffic accidents, though their alertness makes even that a fairly rare occurrence. Tough, resourceful - you've got to admire creatures with such a capacity to survive.

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