My first day of actual real field work had arrived and I was nervous as hell. I wasn’t worried about bugs, mud, snakes, or even the heat (well, not too much), it was more a nervousness that I would be of no use what so ever. I’d worked my arse off during 4 years of uni and left with a good degree and a Master’s. Unfortunately both were taught theory courses so, with the exception of a month’s field work in South Africa, I felt I had no practical field experience. I was excited about learning a whole new set of skills but desperately didn’t want to be dead weight.
I stepped out the hostel and looked round for a tuk-tuk, this was my first time getting somewhere on my own. I knew I’d have no problem hailing one, I was, after all a 5 foot 7 ½ inch pale Voldermort-esque female, hardly difficult to miss. A bright blue tuk-tuk zipped around the corner and stopped in front of me. Its seat was decorated with a blue tartan pattern interspersed with the faces of some very bemused looking cats, somehow I knew this vehicle was for me. Before getting in I gave the driver the address and enquired about the price. 200 rupees, the same as my Sri Lankan friend had paid the previous day when picking me up, things were looking good. Within a few minutes the driver kept asking to re-look at the address, my confidence began to fade. He then proceeded to pull over twice to ask people for directions. Was I ever going to get to my destination? I didn’t recognise anything from yesterday –I’d been too preoccupied jabbering away like a crazed subway-living person to look around. After a few classic Sri Lankan U-ies I finally recognised a side street and frantically, with the odd Sinhalese word that I may have made up, directed him down it. With great relief I tipped the driver for the trouble and then tried to find the office. After wandering up and down the same 40-foot stretch of road I eventually found a building with the corresponding address I held. I didn’t recognise it. I did, however, recognise a man walking around outside. Unfortunately, none of the Sinhalese I knew (‘Hello, how are you?’ ‘My name is Fiona’, and ‘How old are you?’) was going to help me. After a few confused looks and some hand gestures, I realised that I was early and had beaten everyone else to the office. After a few minutes people began to arrive and I found out that my tuk-tuk driver had fleeced me. I’d been picked up en-route on a much longer journey the day before, hence my friend’s price of 200 rupees. I didn’t mind too much, after all, I had reached my destination and it was only an extra 50p to me. You live and you learn.
The field work began with the planning and undertaking of some habitat surveys. I think I may have undertaken 2 in my lifetime and had possibly done some slightly relevant bits and bobs for my MSc thesis, but never anything urban based. Anya knew what she needed to look for and I managed to come up with the odd suggestion. Maybe I wouldn’t be completely useless.
The next few hours consisted of wandering up and down streets known to have been frequented by one of the project’s collared cats. Factors such as vegetation cover, storm drain size, foot and vehicle traffic frequency, wall height, presence of pet or feral dogs in the area and garden size were all noted down. It was roasting! I must’ve looked like a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork a few hours after the air-con had broken. Despite this, it was so interesting. The more I talked to Anya, and as we chatted to night security guards, the more I was learning about the behaviour of these urban fishing cats. Everywhere I looked was a potential pathway or microhabitat for these bold cheeky bastards. As our time sweating out every ounce of liquid our bodies possessed came to an end, we arrived at a street our cat had frequented Based on the latest GPS point, he had been in a garden in this area within the last 10 hours. From talking to a local, it transpired that a cat had been trampling some of the plants in his garden in order to dine at his fishpond. After he described seeing a large spotted cat wearing a ‘belt’ around its throat, Anya knew it was her collared cat, Muzuchi. He’d recently been seen walking along walls and rooftops. The home owner didn’t seem to appreciate our enthusiasm. After explaining the situation and reassuring him that the cats were nocturnal and he was in no danger, contact details were left so he could notify us should he see the cat again. We bounced back to the office, like children high on sugar, to share our excitement with anyone that had ears, whether they wanted to listen or not.
Within 10 minutes of our departure Anya received an e-mail with a photo attached and the words ‘Cat on roof, now’. We zoomed out of the office, leapt into the waiting tuk-tuk and returned to the house at break neck speed. What was the likelihood of him still being there, 10%? 0? We crept through the open gates and saw the cheeky little sod just chilling on the roof under the branches of a tree. Had he been there the whole time we were talking earlier? We hadn’t bothered looking, after all, it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Was he deliberately trying to make us look stupid? As much as I love them, cats are known for being jackasses so he probably was. I snapped away with the camera with tears in my eyes and Anya squeaked with uncontrollable joy. Some people won’t understand our reactions, “It’s just a cat! What’s so special?” For us it is our absolute passion! Sure, I’ve worked with them in captivity for over 3 years but I never thought I’d see a wild small cat, of any species, in their natural state: the buggers are so unhelpfully elusive. As for Anya, she never thought she’d see one of her collared cats again. Sure, the GPS points show us where the cat has been, but that doesn’t mean it will still be there waiting patiently in the open for us when we turn up.
Mizuchi was unimpressed with us and after a few minutes decided our adoring faces were too much. He calmly stood up, strolled through the branches across the roof, nimbly walked along a narrow pole, jumped down an 8-foot wall and disappeared into a storm drain. He may have made us look slightly stupid but the cocky arse was AWESOME!