Brandy for Breakfast
The Story of an African Caracal Cat
By Iris Hunt
On a beautiful morning in March, the 15th to be precise – 2007; Peter Fundi called from the animal orphanage: “Mama Duma, the big Caracal Mama has two kittens, please come.”
I found our young female African lynx at the orphanage with two minute furry copies. Her record as a mother had been disastrous the first time.
Almost before our eyes, she had eaten both her young before we could rescue them.
Nobody knows for sure if this happens in the wild. Very little is known about the African Lynx in the bush at all. Shy and elusive these magnificent cats move mostly at night. They frequently change “dens,” especially when young are involved.
This time we watched the nervous mother with binoculars from a distance giving her ultimate privacy to minimize any stress, but ready to interfere if she attempted to hurt the young.
By mid morning she had carried away one kitten to a new location.
We observed anxiously, hoping that she would collect her second kitten as well but in the next 48 hours she did not come back for it.
While she nurtured the favorite the second kitten was left cold and uncared for in the spot it had been dropped at birth.
Together with Don and Fundi we made the decision: The abandoned kitten had to be taken away in order to survive.
And so, overnight, I suddenly found myself back in the baby business.
Bob Zmuda of Comic Relief fame – The HBO telethon Charity show;
happened to be visiting us at the Orphanage and was with me when I went in to the enclosure to relieve the caracal mother of her neglected baby. I quickly handed the tiny bundle of fur to Bob to hold.
It gave me time to do a quick check on the other favored kitten that was with “mom” huddled on the other side of the pen.
The mother did not take kindly to such an attempt to interfere with her chosen one. While she had completely forgotten her second born she defended her precious one fiercely.
The thought did occur to me that I could probably switch them if need be. I wanted to establish the sex of the kittens in order to make sure we saved a female if there were a choice.
I hastily grabbed the warm kitten from behind the snarling mother while we kept her occupied with a bone. Immediately the lively young started screeching. It was a male.
I hurried to return it to the mother who has started to panic and was ready to kill the “catnapper” (me). In a flash she came flying to the spot I had just vacated as I slammed the door from the den behind me.
I took the near-lifeless, already cold little kitten home, holding it close to my body for the warmth it badly needed. I started it on a little warm milk from an eye dropper and much to my relief he took it without a fight.
This I repeated every two hours so that the new unusual food could be digested slowly and would not cause the system too much of a shock.
The main concern of course was that more than likely the kitten had received no nourishment at all from the mother since birth, depriving it of the much needed colostrums so necessary to protect the young from any diseases in infancy.
I could have done with a little “brandy for breakfast” myself for all those sleepless nights.
Eventually the listless little tyke came to life, suddenly as if reborn. The first thing he did was hiss at me even though his eyes were still closed.
A few days later when he did open his eyes the hiss became a snarl. As if he was horrified: “A human mother with yellow hair!!”
Finally, nature stirred the little creature to accept his only chance for survival. The rufus little bundle of fur accepted its fate and sealed the deal with a lick to my face. When he passed her first stool successfully I felt he had been given a chance at life and I named him “Brandy.”
There had been another Brandy in my life…
Many years before, the first, rescued from poachers in Somalia, was forcefully smuggled aboard a banana boat in my basket when we were evacuated from Somalia in what seems ages ago. She was so small that I could not leave her behind.
William “Bill” Holden joined us on safari in Somalia, here capturing the rare and endangered Somali wild ass.
At the time we had also loaded crates containing some rare animals we had gathered to form survival groups: Rare Dibatag Antelope, Speke’s Gazelle, Soemmerring’s Gazelle, Guenther’s Dik Dik and a few rescued formerly mistreated wild animals.
All were destined for our Game Ranch back in Kenya when a sudden border dispute made it impossible for us to transport the animals to safety. Somalia was getting more unstable by the day. When air traffic ceased altogether we took the hint and hitched a ride on a Banana boat bound for Naples, Italy.
Reluctantly, but sufficiently “motivated,” the portly Italian Captain agreed to let his boat double as a little Noah’s Ark in the name of conservation.
We hurriedly cabled Dr. Franco Cunio of the Naples Zoo, an old friend and supporter of our work. He agreed to give a new home to the animals at sea.
The Banana boat did not dock, rather the crates of Bananas were ferried out to sea on an unstable barge and then lifted by crane into the sea going vessel.
While Don was busy dealing with the authorities to put their stamp on the various documents required for legal translocation of the animals, I raced around the surrounding countryside to line up what little fodder I could find in the parched Somali desert. We needed food for a 21 day journey for the 27 animals we planned to take along.
Brandy the little baby lynx came along everywhere, strapped to me mostly. There was no time to waste. The boat was sailing in two days – with or without us.
Loading of the animals in their crates was scheduled for the last day, after the Bananas had been hoisted onto the boat, stashed below, and the holds closed.
That day the usually balmy calm of the Indian Ocean turned unruly as dark storm clouds gathered. I will never forget the agonizing moments as each crate waved uncontrolled in the air between the barge and the Banana boat, only held by the uncertain ropes dangling from the boat’s own crane. As the vessel rolled in the rough seas the arm of the crane bobbed up and down and even the heavier crates became three dimensional swings fluttering like paper in the wind.
My heart stood still every time a crate landed with such a thump on the boat. We were certain there had to be broken legs or worse.
Don and I were lifted aboard last. Immediately the ships engines were started, the ships horn sounded and our journey began with a very difficult first day.
It was late night by the time we had checked, fed, watered and cared for all the animals in their crates. Luckily none were for the worse physically. All seemed exhausted from the stress of such an undertaking and the rocking of the boat soon lulled them to sleep for a much needed rest.
Brandy the Lynx was, of course, installed in our cabin and soon made herself at home there. She delighted in the new playground where you could slide from one end of the small cabin to the other on the polished wooden floor and then back again as the boat rolled the other way. When the weather calmed towards dawn, all of us were fast asleep and finally on the way to the safety of Italy, although in the wrong direction geographically!
I had only been able to bring a little milk and meat for Brandy. With my limited knowledge of the Italian language I set off, clutching the tiny beautiful Lynx, to go beg her food from the ship’s Italian cook. Whether he was an animal lover or not, Brandy could melt anyone’s heart, I was sure.
Mama mia… and how it worked! Soon the captain’s own special filet steak was ground up (without his knowledge of course) and Brandy lived like a queen.
While the kitten thrived to everyone’s delight, there were other unusual activities going on – also without the Captain’s knowledge!
We had made friends with the ship’s First Officer who could speak a little English. He allowed us to build some makeshift pens so that we could routinely exercise the animals out of their crates as long as the ocean was calm.
But the food I had gathered in a hurry proved not enough for all, nor of sufficient variety. But wait… this was a banana boat! Banana skins have a very high nutritional value, and most animals like them.
So, in cahoots with the first officer, we made sure the Captain had plenty of vino at Dinner and as soon as he retired the first Officer led us to the closest hold we could raid for bananas. Night after night we hauled crates of them up on deck and peeled the fruits, discarded the bananas into the ocean, and fed the skins to the grateful hungry animals. Soon the crew joined in helping us and everyone except the drunken Captain knew of our thievery in the night.
Finally on arrival in Sicily where most of the bananas were to be offloaded the Captain discovered a huge shortage. “Bastards” he said, You can’t trust these Sicilians!”
Right, he was from the north, Brindisi, where people were honorable. The 3 thieves agreed hastily.
In the end all our animals reached the port of Naples in top condition. The banana skins had done their magic. Even Brandy had grown a lot in the 21 days we were at sea, thanks to the Captain’s steak.
Dr. Franco Cunio greeted us at the dockside to enthusiastically receive the small collection of unique animals he would host for a while. He cooed over the rare Dibitag and lively Gazelles.
But Brandy stole his heart at once and he said he would foster her until we could make arrangements to fly her to Kenya.
I felt safe leaving Brandy in his qualified care for a while.
Unfortunately soon after we had left Naples he informed us that, despite all the best care at his own home, Brandy had been found dead of unknown cause one morning. I was heart broken.
A year later mutual friends told us that the famed Dr. Cunio was these days always seen in the company of a beautiful young strong adult African Lynx that followed him everywhere. The Lynx, they said, was called Brandy.
I did not have the heart to call him on his white lie. After all, hadn’t we stolen more than 100 crates of Bananas for the love of some animals? It was good enough that my little lynx had found such a happy home.
Once the Four-Hourly Feeds Became Routine
… and the eye dropper had been exchanged for a small nipple on a doll bottle, Brandy II was growing fast.
He recognized my voice instantly and became lively whenever I was around. The moment I left the room, he would crawl back to his basket and onto the hot water bottle where he fell instantly asleep.
There must have been instant “growing periods” when I wasn’t looking, it seemed he was bigger every time I picked him up. With each bottle he seemed to grow stronger and more energetic. Soon I had to find him a “buddy” to snuggle up to.
There were choices. Jack Hanna, when he last visited us, had left behind a suitcase full of stuffed toy animals for the less privileged children that often visit the Animal Orphanage. I had greedily kept behind a few of those toys, just for cases like this.
At first it was the stuffed hyena that Brandy fancied. Something about the spots seemed to fascinate him. But that love soon gave way to the black seal – that was the toy that the kitten found most accommodating for wrestling matches and simulated attacks. The seal could be killed over and over.
But the one toy that finally won Brandy’s heart was the furry monkey. He became the “doll” in his fantasy. Like a child he seems to see the toy as a live creature. There are periods of play and periods of nurturing when he will thoroughly “groom” the monkey and lovingly cuddle up to him.
Brandy does not like to be left alone… whether it is a short while or longer, we are always greeted with great enthusiasm and even tail wagging!! Indeed this cat wags his tail like a dog whenever he is very happy, much to our delight.
The he tears off down the hallway and disappears, a signal that he wishes to be chased. He can hide himself without a trace and often will only reveal his location when called. Tail wagging, he will come scampering out at the sound of his name. All very un-cat-like!
Brandy, for now has his own garden that he can access through a small gated hole in the wall. He loves exploring the outdoors, but instinct forbids him to venture far unless I stand guard to protect the young life against dangers such as predator bird.
We are fascinated in watching this little wild predator grow up before our eyes. Never have I learned so much about an animal without actually observing it in the wild.
Caracal cats have rarely been studied and are almost never seen in the wild by the casual visitor. Most are strictly nocturnal (except in very cool regions). They are shy and elusive and move their quarters almost nightly. Adults live as solitary animals and meet only for mating.
A mother will nurture her young for up to but no more than one year, at which time they become adults and will start living on their own.
The name “Caracal” came from the Turkish word “karakulak” meaning “black ear.”
One source states that the Caracal was once “tamed and trained for bird hunting” in the Middle East and India! Brandy is proof that you’d hardly need to train a caracal for any kind of hunting.
His body and legs are beginning to take on a slender shape, with the hind legs noticeably longer than the front legs. This, as he demonstrates to us daily, comes in handy for giant leaps up into the air.
Later she will utilize these leaps to jump up to 10 feet to catch even large birds that have just become airborne after the cat’s chase.
Caracals are the largest of the small cats. They are intelligent efficient hunters and the fastest runners of all the smaller cats as well. They are agile tree climbers but only do so to escape danger or hide a kill, in the same manner as a leopard.
When we watch Brandy, he does indeed remind us of a leopard. He has begun to walk the typical leopard walk. His front legs still un-proportionally large for his slender frame, almost bent outward at the shoulder, head held low, his body takes on an upward slope caused by the longer back legs.
The tufted black ears are equipped with a number of special muscles to enable them to move separately in every direction to detect minute noises and movement, they seem in constant motion as he concentrates.
His paws though are the most fascinating tools. In play I get plenty of opportunity to examine their function. They are perfect tools for life in the bush. From velvety tubby soft paws that enable him to move silently they can suddenly extend to double their size. With claws extended they are strong and can injure badly, and their grip becomes iron clad.
And yet, with claws withdrawn the paw serves as a touching tool for everything new. With the claws only lightly extended they become “magnets” for anything porous he wants to pick up. Brandy can hold and caress his monkey toy friend lovingly. Even I have learned to trust his touching my face with those lethal weapons – turned gentle touch!
There will of course come a time in his life when he will have to fight for his survival. Without a mother to teach him, instinct already directs him to exercise those powers by fiercely defending a favorite treat such as a chewing bone.
Suddenly our cuddly kitten turns into a nightmare of an attack cat. She snarls and growls and threatens attack, so much that we have joked of getting her counseling for “anger management.” But the reality is that this is a wild animal and his natural behavior demonstrates that no one should mistake him for a “pet.”
Brandy is only 3 months old now. Already he has demonstrated that he can and will make it in the wild, even without a mother “teaching” him how to hunt or survive.
We plan to let him grow up in the relative safety of our own immediate surroundings but at the same time let him fully develop his instinct.
All that’s left for the missing mother to teach would be how to find the prey and when to kill. I am confident that his very healthy appetite will direct his brain to work that out as well when the time comes that we begin to feed him less.
Right now, and for some time he will need the balanced diet and supplements we supply to make that body strong enough to take on the challenges that await him down the road.
Brandy’s brother that was left with the mother did survive. She continues to raise him and both are now calm. He has grown strong and is already considerably heavier than Brandy. Remember when we rescued Brandy I took a minute to sex the kittens?
You may have guessed: our Brandy of course is a girl!!! That is why it became so important to save her life as a future breeder.
But with “her” frisky mischievous and prankish behavior, and particularly “her” strength and bravery, we automatically referred to Brandy as “he” and it stuck!
But she can also be highly intelligent, gentle, cunning but caring and she has a great sense of survival, so she’s a doll after all….