Nuts about cats

Posted on March 29, 2019

“The smallest feline is a masterpiece” – Leonardo da Vinci
To say that Elmar Bothma of the UP Feral Cat Project is mad about cats, is an understatement. It is difficult to get him to stop talking about his furry friends on campus. Once you start a conversation with him and you are a cat lover yourself, he will send you several WhatsApp messages with interesting information about cats.  

Bothma is camera shy, so he did not want Tukkievaria to publish his picture. Instead he sent me a drawing of a mathematical equation representing a smiley face. He is a lab administrator at the Prinshof IT Laboratory and is part of a group of about 10 UP staff members who take care of the 140 feral cats on campuses, including Hatfield, Prinshof, Hillcrest, Onderstepoort, the Sports Complex, and at residences. He explains that the UP Feral Cat Project started several years ago and is managed by Ilze Ueckermann. “The cats are important in terms of rodent control. They are our insurance policy against rats and mice, and they do a good job on campus,” he says.

People sometimes dump cats on the campus, or homeless cats seek refuge there. The university accommodates them. “We have the cats trapped by an organisation called CatPals.” The project entails a Trap-Neuter-Return system.
Bothma explains that they get the cats sterilised “as we don’t want them to have kittens”. 

He is complimentary about the dedication of staff who are involved in this successful project. They come from the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and the Faculty of Health Sciences, while there are also student volunteers.  If there are incidents involving the cats, Bothma is notified immediately. 

For Bothma who has a BSc in Maths and Physics, “Cats are elegant, intelligent and hardly stuck up. They recognise me.” He greets every cat. “People think I am nuts because I greet every cat formally with many rituals like eye contact, hand signs, body language, voice tone, and words.  Where dogs can read people’s facial expressions, cats can read your voice tone and they are very sensitive.”
Tiger, for example, is at the Children’s Cancer Unit behind the HW Snyman Building on the Prinshof campus. Bothma visits him once a week.  “We say hello by head butting, then he gets a cuddle, then food, then a brushing. I carry a brush with me for the cats with long hair. Two kisses on the back means I have to leave to feed the other cats like Munchie and Sagmoedige Neelsie.”
He often has long conversations with Munchie on “life, the universe and Douglas Adams (a writer); Henri (the cat philosopher); Leonard Cohen (the famous song writer) crossed with Christopher Hitchens (a journalist and debater). At Hatfield, he walks back cats that are away from their homes. Bothma used to call the cats at the Musaion by playing an audio clip from Brahms Symphony No 1.
He explains that his knowledge of cats “is just empirical – nothing specialised – just from taking care of them”.

A voracious reader, he rattles off synonyms for cat lover: ailurophile, aerophile, feliophile, phiofelist, phiologalist and suggests I look up Archy’s Life of Mehitabel. “Archy was a cockroach and Mehitabel was a cat who believed she was once Cleopatra. Archy could not uppercase letters as he was too light for the shift key on the typewriter…,” says Bothma, sending me book titles on animal behaviour to check out.
“The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has cats keeping the documents safe from rats and mice –  a tradition that is 300 years old, ” he muses.

Bothma does not have pet cats of his own, but a rescued Chow Chow, Benji that detests cats. I tell him, “I meow at my cat Eddie, who meows back. But he gets annoyed when I touch his whiskers.”  
“Do you do the eye thing? A slow blink is a formal greeting,” Bothma responds. 

- Author Primarashni Gower

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