The year was 1976, and Dr AJT Johnsingh was returning home from work at the university in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, when a farmer-friend presented him with a tiny kitten. It was a jungle cat, “so small, its eyes had not yet opened”, so he took it home, fed it a mixture of milk and beaten egg, and gave it a spot in his little household.
Dr Johnsingh is now a distinguished wildlife biologist and former Dean of the prestigious Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, who has published over 200 scientific papers and studied species ranging from elephants and tigers to the Nilgiri langurs and Himalayan ibex. But at the time, he was simply a curious teacher of zoology, with a particular fondness for cats. “At night, it would come and play with our toes,” he said in a phone interview. “So finally, I had to leave it outside the house at night so that we could sleep.”
Dr Johnsingh’s story is unusual because jungle cats are wild felines, diminutive in size, but stealthy, fierce, and skilled predators. According to the International Society for Endangered Cats, they have “a broad but patchy distribution, from the Nile River Valley in Africa to India and southern Asia, and throughout tropical China and Southeast Asia.”
In India, jungle cats are more popularly known for snatching poultry than socialising with humans. In Dr Johnsingh’s case, both were true. “My son was about eleven months old when we had the jungle cat, and they were roughly the same size,” he recalls. “The cat used to wrestle with him, and he would hold the cat by its tail and swing it around. My son had lots of small scratches on his back, but he never drew blood.” Dr Johnsingh also remembers that while playing ball badminton the cat would run after the ball every time it rolled on the ground, just like a pet cat.
One day, when the cat was about seven months old, the zoology teacher woke up to pandemonium on the street. “When I opened the door, I saw the cat with a chicken by the neck,” he said, “Another time, it picked up some baby chicks from my department head’s house, and I had to pay him ten rupees as compensation.”
Shortly after the chick incident, Dr Johnsingh left the cat in the care of his friend while he was travelling and returned to learn that it had escaped. That was the last he heard of his little jungle cat, but he still remembers their time together with fondness. “Such a beautiful creature,” he said. “I wish I could have captured those moments, but I didn’t have a camera at the time.”