Much has been written as to the aptitude of the domestic cat at catching fish. If this be so, are fish necessarily a part of the food of the native wild cat? Numerous instances are adduced of our "household cat" plunging into water in pursuit of and capture of fish. Although I have spent much time in watching cats that were roaming beside streams and about ponds, there has never been even an attempt at "fishing." Frogs they will take and kill, often greedily devouring the small ones. Yet doubtless they will hunt, catch, and eat fish, for the fact has become proverbial.
Wild Cat, British Museum
A writer in "Menageries" states: "There is no doubt that wild cats will seize on fish, and the passionate longing of the domestic cat after this food is an evidence of the natural desire. We have seen a cat overcome her natural reluctance to wet her feet, and take an eel out of a pail of water." Dr. Darwin alludes to this propensity: "Mr. Leonard, a very intelligent friend of mine, saw a cat catch a trout by darting on it in deep, clear water, at the Mill, Wexford, near Lichfield. The cat belonged to Mr. Stanley, who had often seen it catch fish."
Cases have also been known of cats catching fish in shallow water, springing on them from the banks of streams and ponds; but I take this as not the habit of the domestic cat, though it is not unusual.
Gray, in a poem, tells of a cat's death through drowning, while attempting to take gold-fish from a vase filled with water.
Of Dr. Samuel Johnson it is related, that his cat having fallen sick and refused all food, he became aware that cats are fond of fish. With this knowledge before him he went to the fishmonger's and bought an oyster for the sick creature, wrapped it in paper and brought the appetising morsel home. The cat relished the dainty food, and the Doctor was seen going on the same kindly errand every day until his suffering feline friend was restored to health.
Still this is no proof that the wild cat, in a pure state of nature, feeds on fish. Again, it is nothing unusual for domestic cats to catch and eat cockroaches, crickets, cockchafers, also large and small moths, but not so all. In domesticity some are almost omnivorous. But is the wild cat? Taking its anatomical structure into consideration, there is doubtless a wide distinction, both as regards food and habit.
In Daniel's "Rural Sports," a.d. 1813, the wild cat is stated to be "now scarce in England, inhabiting the mountainous and woody parts. Mr. Pennant describes it as four times the size of the house cat, but the head larger, that it multiplies as fast, and may be called the British tiger, being the fiercest and most destructive beast we have. When only wounded with shot they will attack the person who injured them, and often have strength enough to be no despicable enemy."
Through the kind courtesy of that painstaking, excellent, observant, and eminent naturalist, Mr. J. E. Harting, I am enabled to reprint a portion of his lecture on the origin of the domestic cat, and which afterwards appeared in The Field. Although many of the statements are known to naturalists, still I prefer giving them in the order in which they are so skilfully arranged, presenting, as they do, a very garland of facts connected with the British wild cat (Felts catus) up to the present, and which I deem valuable from many points of view, but the more particularly as a record of an animal once abundant in England, where it has now apparently almost, if not quite, ceased to exist.
"In England in former days, the wild cat was included amongst the beasts of chase, and is often mentioned in royal grants giving liberty to inclose forest land and licence to hunt there (extracts from several such grants will be found in the Zoologist for 1878, p. 251, and 1880, p. 251). Nor was it for diversion alone that the wild cat was hunted. Its fur was much used as trimming for dresses, and in this way was worn even by nuns at one time. Thus, in Archbishop Corboyle's ' Canons,'anno 1127, it is ordained 'that no abbess or nun use more costly apparel than such as is made of lambs' or cats' skins,' and as no other part of the animal but the skin was of any use here, it grew into a proverb that 'You can have nothing of a cat but her skin.'
"The wild cat is believed to be now extinct, not only in England and Wales, but in a great part of the south of Scotland. About five years ago a Scottish naturalist resident in Stirlingshire (Mr. J. A. Harvie Brown) took a great deal of trouble, by means of printed circulars addressed to the principal landowners throughout Scotland and the Isles, to ascertain the existing haunts of the wild cat in that part of the United Kingdom. The result of his inquiries, embodying some very interesting information, was published in the Zoologist for January, 1881. The replies which he received indicated pretty clearly, although perhaps unexpectedly, that there are now no wild cats in Scotland south of a line drawn from Oban on the west coast up the Brander Pass to Dalmally, and thence following the borders of Perthshire to the junction of the three counties of Perth, Forfar and Aberdeen, northward to Tomintoul, and so to the city of Inverness. We are assured that it is only to the northward and westward of this line that the animal still keeps a footing in suitable localities, finding its principal shelter in the great deer forests. Thus we see that the wild cat is being gradually driven northward before advancing civilisation and the increased supervision of moors and forests.
Just as the reindeer in the twelfth century was driven northward from England and found its last home in Caithness, and as the wolf followed it a few centuries later, so we may expect one day that the wild cat will come to be numbered amongst the ' extinct British animals.'
"A recent writer in the new edition of the' Encyclopaedia Britannica' (art. Cat) expresses the opinion that the wild cat still exists in Wales and in the north of England, but gives no proof of its recent occurrence there. From time to time we see reports in the newspapers to the effect that a wild cat has been shot or trapped in some out-of-the-way part of the country; but it usually turns out to be a large example of the domestic cat, coloured like the wild form. It is remarkable that when cats in England are allowed to return to a feral state, their offspring, in the course of generations, show a tendency to revert to the wild type of the country; partly, no doubt, in consequence of former interbreeding with the wild species when the latter was common throughout all the wooded portions of the country, and partly because the light-coloured varieties of escaped cats, being more readily seen and destroyed, are gradually eliminated, while the darker wild type is perpetuated. The great increase in size observable in the offspring of escaped domestic cats is no doubt due to continuous living on freshly-killed, warm-blooded animals, and to the greater use of the muscles which their new mode of life requires.