Animal Conservation

Lessons from rehabilitating the world’s smallest wildcat

  • The rust-spotted cat population thrives outside protected forest areas, in human-dominated spaces such as agricultural landscapes.
  • In this commentary, the author recounts the journey of a rusty cat who was the first to be captive-bred and released to the wild in India.
  • Countless wild animals are found in zoos and rescue centers with limited resources and space. There is a need to rehabilitate and release individual animals that will benefit from a second chance at survival, writes the author of this comment.
  • The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

A few minutes before her release, standing above the cage hatch, I decided to take one last look at a rust-spotted cat, ‘Uno number as I mentioned in my head. He was on the verge of becoming India’s first rust spotted cat to be captive-bred, rehabilitated, and released to its natural habitat. If everything went according to plan, this would also be the last time I would see him.

He returned my gaze as he took two steps back, baring his teeth and letting out a fiery growl, totally unaware that I was about to release him forever. I let out a quiet little laugh as he hissed back at me from the release cage. My mere proximity and my direct gaze on him was enough to irritate him to want to stay away. At that moment, I felt complete calm as he had just reassured me that the ferocious wild cat in him was completely alive and that he was ready to go.

This rusty was an individual I rescued over a year ago when he was found abandoned in a sugar cane field near Pune. All attempts to reunite him with his mother had failed as this field and everyone around it was completely harvested, far too exposed for an elusive little wildcat mother to show up. This kitten was about to be sent to a zoo when I made an intensive rehabilitation plan and presented it to the authorities. This involved multiple phases, setups, and an exhaustive list of developmental and behavioral milestones to be achieved that ultimately resulted in the decision to attempt a different outcome for this animal. I was determined to demonstrate that wildlife can have the potential to be released into their natural habitat at the right time, if done correctly.

Author Neha Panchamia with the rescued wildcat Numero Uno. Photo courtesy of RESQ CT (Faune) Pune.

Numero Uno has been exposed to all weather elements and times of food and water scarcity. His intestinal strength has been tested with different qualities of food and water, and his courage by his formidable ability to camouflage or hide when something, human or animal, was brought to approach his ex-situ enclosure. . He was forced to work for his meals and was aggressive in the minimal manipulations to which he was subjected. He reached over 85% of his final adult weight when we deemed him fit for release, which we planned once we knew his hormones were triggered to survive a territorial fight he would likely face. once back. We wanted to make sure we could give him the best possible second chance at survival.

A portrait of the rust spotted cat

Known as the world’s smallest wildcat, the rust spotted cat is considered a rare sight. Found exclusively in the Indian peninsula and the island country of Sri Lanka, for years and even today the population of this species is believed to be sparse. But is the population sparse or is it rarely spotted due to its elusive nature? The rust-spotted cat is often indistinguishable from domestic cats to the untrained eye. Current studies in India have focused on documenting its occurrence in forest protected areas, but what we assume from our findings over the past four years is that their population thrives outside forest protected areas. , in agricultural landscapes dominated by the man where they obtain reproduction. They appear to inhabit shrub and agricultural areas near human settlements, seek shelter for their offspring in sugarcane fields, and live off small rodents or poultry carcass waste that is dumped around rural settlements.

Locals discovered rust-spotted cat kittens in their farm fields during the sugar cane harvest.  Photo courtesy of RESQ.
Locals discovered rust-spotted cat kittens in their farm fields when the sugarcane was harvested. Photo courtesy of RESQ CT (Faune) Pune.

Our assumption stems from the number of meetings for which our team has been called. Each of them was in response to the discovery of red-spotted cat kittens by the locals at the time of the sugar cane harvest. In addition to trying to reunite the kittens with their mothers, our efforts include educating residents about the cat’s presence in their fields. Once aware, they often feel pride in the presence of these rare, elusive and tiny little cats who pose no threat to their lives.

In one of these recent cases, we documented in detail the process of reuniting two rust-spotted cat kittens with their mother. The rare video footage we captured through our camouflaged live camera feed is an incredible source of information about these little felines. Within an hour, the meeting site was visited by a domestic cat as well as an Indian jungle cat, who glanced at the kittens curiously, but left quickly without hurting young people. This behavior is contrary to the popular belief that cats are very territorial. Potentially, they have adapted to sharing space due to sufficient resources for all. Shortly after the other cats left, the mother of the rust spotted cats kittens arrived, rushed into the opening of the basket, and pulled a kitten out of the basket. She took her kitten and probably hid it in a safer place and returned an hour later to pick up the second.

Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation

While rescuing and rehabilitating individual animals sometimes costs the kind of money and time that can arguably be spent on habitat protection and other conservation initiatives, there are several other variables to consider. , especially in the Indian context. Innumerable wild animals are found in zoos or Indian rescue centers, which, with few exceptions, have limited resources and are spaces where these animals languish in poor conditions of captivity, without enrichment or specific care for the wildlife throughout their life.

It is essential to keep in mind that wildlife does not need to be rescued unless it is in distress due to some form of direct human-wildlife conflict. For example, if an animal was injured due to territorial combat in a forest area, I don’t think that warrants an intervention involving rescue or treatment.

From my perspective, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation and everything I do comes from my experiences of witnessing countless human-wildlife conflict scenarios and arriving at the best potential outcome for wildlife and humans struggling to share their living space.

My backyard, the district of Pune and its surroundings, is home to a multitude of wild animals whose landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade. Growing urban development, changes in agricultural patterns and climate change have led to an increasing number of conflicting wildlife which are then rescued after being reported to the 24-hour emergency helpline. of my organization, the RESQ.

For example, when a leopard has fallen into an open well, I think it can be safely rescued and released quickly after a health check. A strategic plan involving a safe rescue followed by veterinary treatment and rehabilitation can result in faster release of wildlife, whether it is a member of a hyena caught in a hunting trap. or dozens of birds whose wings are injured while flying a kite. manja string of characters.

There are two questions I get asked often: “Don’t you get attached to the wildlife you are rehabilitating?” And “why are they so afraid of you? A wildlife rescuer or rehabilitator will keep minimal contact with wildlife and never bond with them the way people do with their pets. They understand that a wild animal that is reclusive or shows aggression towards them is a sign of successful rehabilitation. Their survival in the wild depends on their ability to fend for themselves and avoid human contact. Wildlife rehabilitation consists of keeping wildlife.

Although the proportion of rehabilitated animals that survive, join wild populations, or successfully breed after being released is minimal or nonexistent, at present I believe there is a proactive need to rehabilitate and release. individual animals – better to have a second chance at survival than to spend their lives in captivity and clutter up an already collapsing departmental system.

Numero Uno, the Rust Spotted Cat, represents dozens of wild animals who are rescued daily – seized from wildlife trafficking, the illegal pet trade or caught in distress situations entrusted to them intentionally or not by humans. While some have no choice but to remain in captivity, many still have hope.

Rescued wild animals often come to us in critical conditions. Sadly, many do not survive – but life and death are contingencies; you learn to embrace both when it’s time. But if I can help them, my hope is to make sure they go through as little suffering as possible. At the end of the day, all life matters, cash is no barrier.


The author is the founder and chairman of RESQ Charitable Trust, Pune, a nonprofit organization that aims to minimize human-animal conflict and help animals in distress.


Read more: Two gaurs and a lesson in urban wildlife management


Banner image: Rust spotted cat. Photo courtesy of RESQ CT (Faune) Pune.