Maalu Pus

It was a Friday. A very boring, Friday. Well, at least I think it was a Friday… Either way, it was a dull day. I was doing my usual annoy the dogs routine when I got a call.

A call about a fishing cat.

At first, the call was just boring old work stuff, and I think the topic of the cat just happened to pop up. It may have been a phone call about work, but then maalu, being the sneaky devil that he was, quietly slipped into the conversation.

“Ade, guess what? We are looking after an orphaned fishing cat”

“A what now?” At the time I was researching leopards, and knew very little about fishing cats.

“A fishing cat. Your uncle did a study on them 6 years ago. Come see it.”

Of course at this point the only thing that I could think of was OHMYGOODNESSIHAVETOSEETHISTHINGNOW!!! But I calmly said yup would love to, and got off the phone – I couldn’t really start squealing like a little kid who was promised a puppy, could I?

The next day I was ready. With my camera in hand, I set out to see this fishing cat. When I got to the location, which the cat called home at the time, I proceeded to tiptoe into the room, and then I saw him.

There he was sitting on the ground, with a soggy fuchsia sock in his mouth. Eyes wide. Paws tucked under. Stubby tail twitching. The only thing that could remotely explain what I thought at that point is perfectly depicted by Agnes from Despicable Me, when she sees the pink and white unicorn at the carnival. Only difference was that I couldn’t grab him and run off.

He was adorable. Stockily built even for his age (he was about 6 months at the time), with heavy set legs and a broad muscular head. Running my fingers through his fur made me think of running through clouds, tossing my hair around like those people in shampoo ads. We were told that he was found abandoned with his sibling after a terrible forest fire, and when Wildlife Department vets got hold of them, they were badly burned. Unfortunately his sibling died, leaving Maalu (fish in Sinhala) alone. But, he recovered well. He looked the picture of health, except for his curly little whiskers which after being burned grew back all funny. He was also a real rascal, and had already eaten his way through his soft toys and was adept at opening taps in the bathroom, often flooding the place while he pranced around in his newly created pond.

Since I was able to understand what a job really meant, I knew I wanted to work with wildlife, especially with big cats. And after just a few glorious hours playing with Maalu, all of that changed. I felt like I had entered a secret little world that very few people knew about, and even fewer talked about. Why was I not told about these cats? Why had they been hidden from me? I knew my wildlife… Or so I thought… But then I got to thinking. In the media, in books, in movies, everything is about the big animals, and in this case, big cats. Growing up, I read about lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars. There was never anything about fishing cats, rusty-spotted cats, oncillas, leopard cats and any of the other 36 species of small wild cats. Why weren’t these cats talked about? What makes it worse was that, almost all of them were either threatened or endangered.

After graduating from university I had big plans on working with the Sri Lankan Leopard, that formidable spotted beast that everyone is just dying to be near. But after seeing that spotted little cat with his singed whiskers, I knew that the leopards could wait – they had a whole planet looking out for them, after all. I turned my focus to fishing cats, and with them, small wild cats. I learned that Sri Lanka had three of the 36 species, and not only that, we had the smallest species in the world! Not much is known about either of the three, so I thought I’d start with the largest. The fishing cat. Prionailurus viverrinus.

Months of background work showed me that there was no literature or research done on fishing cats in the wild. Except for Namfon Cutter’s research in Thailand, no one else seemed to really focus on these cats. There was absolutely nothing done in Sri Lanka, save for one unpublished study which focused on camera trapping fishing cats in Colombo’s wetlands. So I buckled down, and hours of proposal writing later, I had the perfect project. I would study fishing cats in urban wetlands. I would see how these elusive cats scuttle around right under our noses, right in the heart of Colombo. I was excited. Everyone was excited. I mean for crying out loud, where else in the world would you find fishing cats crossing a main road at 9pm in the middle of a busy city? But that story is for another day.

For now, here’s to you, Maalu Pus, you who in your short little life (he died from the Feline Panleukopenia virus (FPV) right before he was to be released) made me realise that there are bigger things out there than the big cats. You who, after hours of cuddles, scratches, scrapes, and stalking of fingers, made me want to dedicate my life to protecting the rest of your species, and others like it.


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