Fantastic Little Beasts

House panthers and tiny tigers, these are some of the names we give to our beloved house cats. The domestic cat has retained a close relation to their wild relatives and so much so that we often find ourselves drawn to breeds that exhibit the physical characteristics of the larger wildcats and, once such breed, the Maine Coon, comes as close as you can get to having a Lynx in your home

They are considered to be one of the oldest natural breeds in North America and are the official Maine ‘State Cat’. Their origins range from the mythical and ridiculous (domestic cats mating with raccoons) to the more plausible, they resulted from matings between long-haired type cats sent over by Marie Antoinette, or the Vikings. The Maine Coon is closest to, and resembles the Norwegian Forest Cat, which gives some credence to the idea that the Vikings may have been the ones to introduce the breed. Even if their origins are up for debate what we can agree on is that they are stunningly beautiful, fantastical little beasts.

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All Images – Robert Sijka of Felis Gallery

Photographer, and breeder, Robert Sijka has had a long time passion for Maine Coons and has combined that passion to capture the very essence of what makes these cats so appealing. Robert’s use of a black background, to photograph his two beautiful black cats named Dolce Vita and De La Loo, helped him create his signature style that showcases the breed in an elegant and almost otherworldly manner.

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Robert tells the Cat Behaviorist that the two black sisters, Dolce Vita and De La Loo are his personal favorites (he loves black cats) and are always up for a photo shoot.

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Robert also says that it took some experimentation to come up with his signature style, about several thousand photos worth, and playing with the cats before hand is key to capturing their wonderful expression.

 

For more of Robert’s photos be sure to check him out on Instagram and Facebook as Felis Gallery.

Heart of A Lion – A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America

On June 11, 2011 a mountain lion was struck and killed by a car in Connecticut, for most his death would go unnoticed, a cat that was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, another causality of urbanization. For scientists his death would eventually reveal an incredible and ultimately tragic journey, while giving hope to the idea that mountain lions could one day reclaim their former territory in the Eastern U.S. where they have been considered officially extinct for decades. For wildlife journalist and author William Stolzenburg this young male mountain lion would become the extraordinary and unlikely hero of his book Heart of A Lion.

Heart of a Lion A Lone Cat's Walk Across America, William Stolzenburg, Mountain Lions, Pumas, Eastern Cougar, Book Review, Heart of a Lion, big cats of north america, American Lion, save pumas, Mountain Lions journey to find love,The mountain lion, who has been nicknamed Walker, was discovered to have journeyed almost 2,000 miles from South Dakota’s Black Hills all the way to Connecticut, not that far from New York City. Through DNA analysis, physical evidence left behind, eyewitness accounts and camera traps, biologists were able to trace his origin back to the Black Hills. His journey, which is the longest documented of any mountain lion, would come to an end in a place where his species had not been seen in almost a century.

Heart of A Lion pieces together Walkers short but extraordinary life as he made his way across dangerous and challenging territory complete with urban sprawl, busy roads, and, people who would want him dead simply for existing. The reason for his journey can be found coded in his DNA, the deep biological need to seek out and establish his own territory and, to find a mate. This search would take him east across six U.S. states, and at one point north into Canada and my home province of Ontario. What he couldn’t have known is that he would never encounter a female. With no established mountain lion populations in the east and the fact that females do not undertake long distance journey’s, instead sticking close to their home range (there has been one documented exception), Walker’s search would sadly prove futile.

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“The first photographic evidence of a cougar in Wisconsin that would eventually travel all the way to Connecticut. This photo was taken by an automatic camera in a cornfield in Dunn county, Wis. on December 22, 2009.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via LiveScience

The saying To walk a mile in someone’s shoes, comes to mind when reading Heart of A Lion and I don’t think it makes a difference that in this case the someone happens to be a mountain lion, especially if his story helps readers identify with and feel empathy for him and the plight of his species.  Despite traversing his way through highly populated areas he would rarely come into contact with humans, revealing himself only to a lucky few, a testament to the elusive nature of his species. He did not bring harm to nor was he a threat to humans, and he was most definitely not the blood-thirsty killer that mountain lions are so often wrongly labeled as. Walker’s story sends us a message and it’s one that we have heard before – that co-existing with these cats is possible and in some places we are already doing that.

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“A cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota prowls forest land in Clark County, Wis., Automatic trail camera snapped this early-morning shot on January 18, 2010. In June 2011, the same cougar was hit by a car and killed in Connecticut, DNA tests showed. The cougar’s  journey from South Dakota to Connecticut blew previous cougar travel records out of the water.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via LiveScience

Heart of A Lion doesn’t rely on portraying these cats as the stereotypical ‘beast’ to tell an intriguing story. Instead, it shows us a side of these animals that rarely makes headlines, the side that research and science is discovering is the norm rather than the exception – mountain lions are shy cats who avoid humans when given the space and opportunity to do so.

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Walker’s journey came to an abrupt end on Wilbur Cross Parkway, Milford in June, 2011. (Courtesy Connecticut State Police)

In addition to the main story the book also explores the history of the mountain lion, including how they were treated as vermin, right up to present day and the pressures they face from current day hunting policies. The book is guaranteed to stir up emotions, which may be a good thing especially if gets people thinking and pushes us towards changing outdated attitudes towards North America’s lion. It’s OK to celebrate Walker’s journey and mourn his passing, I know I did.

Whether you already love mountain lions or you are just starting to learn about them, the book is an important read and a new way of looking at these amazing animals, one that I hope becomes a trend. Heart of a Lion can be purchased at various online retailers including Amazon and is part of my Recommended Reading List.

An interesting note is the story of a GPS collard female mountain lion named Sandy who was being studied by biologists in British Columbia. Sandy had made a never before documented journey for a female walking 450 miles from BC to Montana before her life was taken by a trophy hunter in December of 2015. Just how far she would have gone and where she would have ended up, will never be known.

What Cougars Do on Highways

What do cougars do when they reach the highway? Sometimes they cross it right away and other times they like to sit on it for a while. This video taken by a thermal camera on Highway 3 in British Columbia near Elko shows that occasionally the cats like to take in their surroundings before moving on. Knowing the potential hazard that exists when wildlife makes its way onto roads, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in British Columbia (TranBC) installed two Wildlife Detection Systems between Cranbrook and the Alberta border to help reduce collisions, human injury and animal fatalities.

The video, which is sped up, revealed that the cat actually sat in the middle of the road for over three minutes. The thermal cameras pick up on the heat signatures coming from the animals and work with radar sensors which then alert drivers to the presence of wildlife with flashing roadside signs. The flashing signs, which continue to flash for several minutes after detecting an animal, give the driver enough advance warning to slow down in time thus averting a potential tragedy. TranBC says it is not uncommon for drivers to see the flashing signs, but no wildlife which may be gone by the time the driver approaches.

The system has been in use for about three months now and is installed at two sites covering nine kilometers where large populations of wildlife are known to be. It was tested before being officially put into use for travelers and will continue to be monitored by TranBC to determine how effective it is at reducing vehicle collisions with wildlife. If proven successful they will consider installing more at other wildlife hot spots around the province.

It would be great to see this type of technology become standard practice, along with wildlife crossing or bridges, at wildlife hot spots all over North America and, especially in areas where cougars face a high mortality rate from vehicles. Hopefully transportation departments will consider these tools as the norm one day soon and include them as standard practice when planning for roads and highways.

Be The Creature

During my recent visit to LA I stopped by the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum again and this time I made sure to take in the Ice Age Encounters stage show where the audience is transported back to the prehistoric past to meet one of its most fierce and well-known predators – a life-size adult Saber-Toothed Cat.

The Natural History Museum (NHM) and The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, worked together with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to recreate and bring to life this long extinct animal. The result is an entertaining and educational live performance that is great for people of all ages and, I will admit to being as excited as some of the youngest members in the audience upon seeing the Saber-toothed Cat (Smilodon Fatalis) puppet, or creature, for the first time.

The puppet is undoubtedly the star of the show so it could be very easy to overlook the fact that it takes a team of people to bring her (in case you were wondering the creature is a ‘she’ and her nickname is Cali) to life.

To find out more about what goes into the show what is it like to be the creature I interviewed puppeteer and member of the performing arts team Betsy Zajko, who literally walks in the paws of the cat. Betsy has been puppeteering the cat for just over six years and is part of a team of performers who work at both LA’s NHM and the La Brea Tar Pits.

Q How did you end up puppeteering Saber-Toothed Cat for the Ice Age Encounters show?

BZ I saw the job listing on-line where a lot of performers go to look for work and the job posting had a list of skill sets that fit everything I could do. They needed someone who could host, work with kids, operate heavy machinery without much visibility, and who doesn’t have a problem with claustrophobia. With a background in circus arts, theater, hosting, writing for NPR and CBS I had all the skills that matched to the job description, so I put together an audition.

Q What was the audition like for this role?

BZ At that time we were asked to write a short show under five minutes and they gave us less than a day to put it together and to demonstrate physical stamina. I did a presentation on centrifugal force, because at that time I was doing fire dancing in LA on the side, and I used this tool called poi to demonstrate centrifugal force and spinning cups of water around in the air without water falling out. It was a short presentation and then the physical skill set was mainly strength and flexibility. This is the first puppet I ever operated but with my training and background, which included trapeze, fire dancing and stilt walking, I thought I could handle her. I got the job and then learned how to puppeteer.

Q With limited visibility how did you learn to operate the creature?

BZ  The space we perform in is a small stage and like any performance space you learn blocking. We can vary the blocking but the basic points are set and once I learned my space, I could probably do the show with my eyes closed because I know so well how many steps it takes to get to certain places on stage… as long as the set pieces are in the same place. There is some visibility though, imagine crawling on all fours on the two front legs of the cat (which are my hands) I can see in between the paws on the floor and, about a foot more in front.

Q Did you study big cat movements in order to make the performance more realistic?

BZ Yes, we took several trips to the zoo to study big cats, took video, used YouTube as resource to watch animal movement and also practiced with people who specialize in creature performing. There is actually a person in town who taught the full suit creature performers in films at one time and also people on staff like Eli Presser our Technical Coordinator who is also a creature performer.

Q What was the greatest challenge learning to perform as the cat?

BZ The greatest challenge is when you are new to the creature, but after 6 years I am comfortable inside of her. Initially the hardest part was trying to figure out what that creature is capable of and what your body can sustain. The first time I climbed inside before she had skin we were trying to figure out what type of stilts would work on the arms because they were still working out how to design the arms. They had a couple of prototypes but we eventually ended up with ones that were most ergonomically easy to work with. We work together with the person (Remote Control Operator) who operates the animatronics in her face, I do the body and the second puppeteer operates her face, this is different from other creatures that we operate at the NHM where the person inside operates everything.

For me learning to operate the animatronics in her face was another challenge and since I had no experience in gaming or using remote controls, as many of my colleagues do, I had to learn that along the way.

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Remote Control Operator Jamie Lozano (Left) Quadruped (Saber-Toothed Cat) Performer Betsy Zajko (Right) with the Creature

Q Was the creature designed around your body?

BZ  They have to make a mold in order to create the creature and my body was used to make the mold. Although I am partial to her, as I also love cats, I can’t claim her as my own,  but I have seen a mold of my body at the Jim Henson Creature Shop! When the cat was being built getting the mold of my body took a long time, and the plaster heats up around your body so it gets really hot, but you couldn’t move or you would crack the plaster.

Q Why do you think they picked a Saber-Toothed Cat to represent Ice Age animals?

BZ She is the star of the Ice Age, the most ferocious creature and when you think of the Ice Age she is pretty iconic. Although kids refer to her as a Saber-Toothed Tiger there where in fact no actual Tigers back then, so one of our teaching points that we try to reiterate here at the Tar Pits is that she is a Saber-Toothed Cat.

Q Was it important to educate yourself about the science behind the subject?

BZ  It’s important when you are a performer at an institution like a natural history museum as you want to be able to answer the questions people have. So I got a list of what the basic questions might be like her scientific name Smilodon Fatalis, the fact that the saber teeth were eight inches long and how fossils are preserved, and made sure to study them. With the cats appearance, and since we have no idea if they were spotted or stripped, we do comparative anatomy with creatures that are similar phenotypes today and we make a best guess based on foliage of that time of what she may have looked like

Q Why do you think the Ice Age Encounters show is a good way to educate people on prehistoric animals?

BZ Whenever we do a show you can always tell there is an impact based on how the audience reacts with surprise when they see the cat for the first time and also when they hear scientific information that the host presents. I remember seeing a puppet show in elementary school as a child and can still recall that show, the puppet and the name of it. Art is a great way to teach and it lasts and, art forms that teach kids about science stick.

Quick facts about the puppet:

  • The person, puppeteer or Quadruped Performer, inside takes up about two-thirds of the cat. The final third, the neck and head, are the animatronics part which are operated by the Remote Control operator
  • Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created the cat but mechanical repairs are now done by the museum’s Technical Coordinator Eli Presser and, the pelt is maintained by Quadruped Performer Betsy Zajko
  • While it is called a ‘puppet’ it is a very technically sophisticated piece of engineering. The remote servos inside are military grade, the same type which operate drones
  • The man who designed the technical part of the puppet was recruited by the military, but he preferred making creatures
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Making friends with the star of show

A big thank you goes out to The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum for granting behind the scenes access at the Ice Age Encounters show; to puppeteer and Quadruped Performer Betsy Zajko for taking time to talk to me; and, Supervisor Brian Meredith for helping to arrange the interview.

As mentioned there is a whole team of performers that work to bring the Ice Age Encounters show to life, upfront and behind the scenes which is worth noting. Each member of the performing arts team listed here play different roles at both the Tar Pits and at the NHM.

  • Ilana Gustafson – Manager
  • Brian Meredith – Supervisor (T.rex performer)
  • Eli Presser – Technical Coordinator (T.rex performer)
  • Jamie Lozano – Remote Control Operator (T.rex performer)
  • Quadruped Performers – Betsy Zajko, Jonathan C. K. Williams, Brittaney Wyszynski, Lisa McNeely, Baxley Andresen, Shannon Fitzpatrick,Tara Spadaro, Mark Whitten, Jaquita Ta’le; (T.rex Performers) Robert George, Brett Horn, Carlos Jackson, Andrew Eldredge

CatConLA The Return!

I just got back from a short vacation in LA and CatCon! Last year, the first year of Cat Con, was an experience not soon to be forgotten and completely overwhelming in the best possible way. This year I was better prepared – with a plan of how to calmly and productively make my way through the two floors of everything cat.

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The event was held again in downtown LA at The Reef but the set up was much better, more vendors spread out over two floors (last year it was on one!) which made it much easier to navigate. I found you could actually see the tables and the merchandise better as well as have plenty of room to stop and chat with friends both new and old. I made sure to arrive at the venue before noon, thankfully the line up around the building moved fast however, by late afternoon the Fire Marshall barred people from entering for a time due to capacity issues. The attendance was at about 15,000 up from last years 10,000.

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Stopping by Polydactyl Cats to pick up some fun catnip toys!

Meet and greets with some famous internet cats were available with LiL Bub, Nala Cat and Pudge the Cat. Portions from the sale of these special tickets went to support FIxNation, Kitten Rescue or Lil Bub’s Big Fund, and a $1 from the sale of all regular CatCon tickets also went to FixNation.

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Lil Bub so cool you have to wear shades

For the person who loves to shop for themselves or their cat, it was a dream come true. Many vendors from last year returned and there were quit a few new ones.

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Cat beds – are all the rage and this one came with hand made cat quilts! You could purchase single or bunk style for your cats.

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One piece cat suit by Pretty Snake

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Picked up this bright colored pouch by Olive & Rye Cat Art

Many famous internet cats also have their own merchandise, like Cheese and Olive two Abyssinian cats who are featured in clothing, home decor and accessories.

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Cheese and Olive Catzilla shall destroy your city!

There were many cat themed items for home and human use like like the classic pillow cases of Xenotees, which I picked up, or these Japanese tattoo inspired creations by Momon Cats.

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Beautiful cat shaped pillows by Monmon Cats

Of course there were plenty of options in the cool for your cat and looks great in the house category, like these colorful and modular Kitty Kasa designs by Arni Says. 100% of profits go back into the ARNI foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the rescue of animals at local kill shelters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

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Kitty Modular design by ArniSays

On the really tiny side, there were these delicate cat figurines by Long Live Porcelain, who also make items such as ring bowls and cat adorned salt and pepper shakers.

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Cat figurines by Long Live Porcelain

If you wanted cat beds there were lots of styles to choose from, including these whimsical and colorful designs by Dharma Dog Karma Cat.

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Super fun and cozy hide outs for your cat

Once you were all shopped out just walking around to admire the many of the cat costumed humans was a great way to spend your time.

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Amazing Calico Cat – fully detailed with claws and moving mouth by Dragon Squared

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Fierce looking Stabby Tabby

Among the extravagant outfits one couple stood out for having subtle yet detailed matching cat printed Kimonos. They had purchased the fabric in Japan and had the outfits made to order.

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By end of CatCon on Sunday, people went home with cool cat stuff and some went home with a new family member courtesy of the SPCA LA’s cat adoption center. About 90 + cats and kittens found homes and, since they were only allowing serious and potential adopters in the cat cuddling areas, which was a good thing, I had to snap a few pictures through the glass.

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A view into the cat adoption rooms where potential adopter got to meet the cats.

Actress and original cat woman Julie Newmar met with fans, signed books and autographs and, Kat Von D showcased her make-up line providing free cat eye make up applications. There were speakers on various topics and even the first Furr-ocious Fashion Face of contest. Once again there was something for everyone and then some!

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Saying hello to I Have Cat’s Tamar Arslanian

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A visit with SauerKraut in the RV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sauerkraut’s Humom and Pops

It was another fun year at Cat Con, with lots of like minded people sharing their passion for all things cat and if you missed it, not to worry the event is guaranteed to be back again for a third year.

Modernizing Canada’s Animal Protection Laws

Canada’s animal protection laws are horribly outdated – they were first introduced in 1892 but no significant updates to the law have been made since 1954. Many people will be surprised to learn that among developed countries, we have some of the worst animal protection laws.

Attempts to change the law have been made in the past but, they have always been met with resistance from the public, industry and even members of the government. This has resulted in the defeat of any previous Bills. Recently a new private members Bill was introduced by Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith,  called Bill C-246, the Modernizing Animal Protection Act. If it is passed it will essentially become the first ever change to Canada’s animal protection laws in over a century.

While it is no surprise that this Bill is again meeting with opposition from hunters, sport fisherman, the fur industry and agriculture, it was deeply disappointing and shocking to know that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked his cabinet to vote against Bill C-246. Yes, the Prime Minister of Canada wants to stop this bill from being passed. This cannot happen – all Canadians must speak up and tell our government that it is unacceptable to further delay passing laws that would protect animals.

Among other thing Bill C-246 would do 4 things
  • Ban the import of shark fins
  • Close loopholes and strengthen the Criminal Code’s animal protection provisions; and
  • Ban the sale of cat and dog fur within Canada and require labeling of source fur
  • Update the definition of bestiality to include all sexual acts between humans and animals (the current legal definition, as decided by the Supreme Court of Canada on June 9, 2016, must include penetration)

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How to help

For Canadians visit Animal Cruelty Legislation Advocates Canada

  • Please contact your MP  and ask them to support BIll C-246, you can find your MP by entering your postal code here
  • Write them a letter, or use this form letter, call, email  or ask for an in person meeting
  • Take the 1 minute survey here to ask PM Justin Trudeau that he must support Bill C-246 (Modernizing Animal Protections Act) and ask his cabinet to do so as well
  • Considering supporting Animal Alliance of Canada’s work to help pass this Bill

Petitions that anyone can sign:

For more information on Bill C-246 please visit:

Finally, please share this whether you live in Canada or elsewhere, we need to let the Canadian government know that the world is watching and that people everywhere support Modernizing Canada’s Animal Protection Act Bill C-246.

Paw Prints From The Past

South America recently revealed a fossil that is the first ever documented paw prints made by the long extinct saber-toothed cat also known as Smilodon.

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Paw prints from the past  – Image – Science – Daniel Boh/Museo Municipal de Miramar

The announcement was made by Paleontologists in Punta Hermengo, Argentina where they are calling the find a “small revelation”. Researchers said that the tracks were likely made by the largest of the three saber-toothed cats Smilodon populator whose paws were about 20 percent larger than that of a Bengal Tiger.

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Of the three species of Saber-tooth cat Smilodon populator is similar to but larger than the it’s well-known relative Smilodon fatalis, whose remains have been found at La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles – Image Wikipedia

Approximately 50,000 years ago the big cat took a walk through the area and left behind impressions of both the front and hind paws which would end up being preserved in the “fine, grainy sediment”. The prints measure 17.6 centimeters (6.9 inches) in length and 19.1 centimeters (7.5) in width, with the front paw being the larger of the two.

Smilodon populator is thought to have lived only in South America during the Lujanian age, a geologic time period spanning the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene, and while researchers have said that the paw prints do have very similar morphological features to that of its smaller relative Smilodon fatalis they can’t be 100 % sure which cat they belong to. Due to the difficulty in connecting fossil footprints to the actual animals that made them the tracks will get their own name, based on where they were found in the Miramar region of Punta Hermengo, and be called Smilodon miramensis.