It’s Big Cat Week on Nat Geo Wild once again. And this year, the big cats are coming home.
Well, kind of. They’re actually already here.
As National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert reveal in their latest film, Soul of the Cat (airing Wednesday, February 22, 2017, at 10 p.m. EST), our sweet little domesticated cat companions don’t differ much in spirit from their ancient ancestors or giant living relatives.
“If the domestic cat was as big as a lion,” says Dereck in the narration, “we’d be in real trouble.”
Who’s in Trouble Now?
Of course, while our own ancient ancestors would certainly have been the ones in trouble trekking naked through the jungle with leopards stalking them in the branches overhead, in today’s world it’s the big cats who are in trouble.
We’ve hunted their prey, conquered their territory, and killed them for revenge, for fear, for fashion, and for fun.
And yet the little cats we just can’t get enough of. (Learn about the Jouberts’ conservation efforts through the Big Cats Initiative.)
There are between 75 and 96 million house cats in the U.S. alone. Combine pets, strays, and feral cats around the world and the number could reach 600 million. Current estimates of the entire worldwide population of big cats on the other hand are less than a million. That’s lions, leopards, jaguars, tigers, and others combined.
And that’s not just a difference in number—it also holds for sheer biomass. If you’re up for it, here’s a strange thought experiment:
Imagine you could somehow roll house cats into a ball and shape them into big cats. Adorable right? No? Too weird? Just stick with me.
A small house cat weighs about eight pounds, and a large male Siberian tiger can come in around 640 pounds. That means it would take about 80 kitties to make a single king of the taiga. So using the substance of all the world’s domestic cats, you could sculpt about 7.5 million of these tigers—the largest cats on Earth—far more than the 250 actual such animals that remain, or even the total population of one million big cats worldwide.
So many little cats met with so much love and sacrifice. So few big cats, feared and driven to the brink of extinction.
It was this incredible discrepancy in number and in emotional connection that inspired the Jouberts to make this film. “Six hundred million domestic cats are thriving,” Dereck said during a recent Q&A following a screening of Soul of the Cat here at National Geographic headquarters. “So let’s have little cats meowing for big cats. That’s how the idea [for the film] was born.”
Put Your Money Where Cats’ Mouths Are
Beyond the film, the idea is also about funding real-world protection and research.
Those hundreds of millions of house cats are being loved. And they’re being fed. Even a small fraction of the money spent on feeding feline pets could fund a game-changing amount of the habitat protection big cats need to survive in the wild.
After decades of effort to garner financial support for such conservation, this realization that there’s already a large amount of money being spent out of love for cats gets Dereck incredibly excited. You can tell because the corners of his leonine goatee suddenly reach his ears.
Movie and the Beast
The Jouberts have been filming big cats in the wild in Botswana for more than 35 years. They spend nearly all their time in the bush, on the trail of the animals that have come to accept their quiet presence just like they do any other part of their natural environment.
To establish that trust while avoiding altering their subjects’ wild attitudes and behaviors, they’ve had to maintain an at times difficult physical distance from their closest neighbors and oldest acquaintances—especially during times of danger or distress: watching helplessly an hours-long attack by lions on a young elephant, waiting for the not-by-any-means-guaranteed return of a lioness to her significantly injured cub, or seeing a wizened old male lion retreating bloodied and broken from what could certainly have been his last sparring match with a young challenger.
The simplest form of the rule they’ve followed is “do not touch.”
That requirement wasn’t necessary one day recently though, when back in civilization their neighbor’s house cat wandered into their editing room. Green-eyed, long-haired, and not bothered by much, Smokey instantly took up part-time residence with the explorers, cuddling and caressing just like any other cat in any other house.
“It was so unusual to have a tactile relationship,” Beverly said. “It was like my heart opened—all of a sudden—and I could touch this creature. I mean, it was just incredible.”
This from a woman who spends her days taking photos like this:
Using all their observational and photographic skills, the Jouberts proceeded to film Smokey in their home the same way they’ve filmed lions and leopards in the wild. They got far away and used long lenses. Dereck shot in slow motion to capture every ripple of muscle and fur. The biggest difference they found was that in the wild it’s hard to get close without scaring off the cats. In their yard it was hard to get close without Smokey playing with the camera.
“She totally seduced us,” Beverly says of Smokey. “And she pretty much has everyone in the edit room wrapped around her paw. And every time she sees us, which is obviously not a lot (except when we were making the film), she tells us that we’re in trouble.”
This last bit of information might come as a surprise to people who think that three and a half decades of experience with big cats in the wild would make a couple immune to the silent siren song of the domestic cat.
It comes as no surprise to me though. I work on the Internet.
I’m aware of the power of feline wiles.
I’ve viewed the videos.
I’ve seen the memes.
I’m addicted to the Instagram adventures of a cat who ran for president.
So the Jouberts are clearly on to something. Or maybe this was all just Smokey’s master plan. But the passion and affection humans have for house cats has great potential to translate into a passionate dedication to saving big cats in the wild.
You can learn more about the Big Cats Initiative.