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Bright lights, smart kitty: How cat went so far

However she arrived, Willow the cat turned up in New York City, about 1,800 miles from the Boulder, Colo., home from which she had escaped nearly five years before. Her old family is overjoyed. Animal experts are curious.
/ Source: The New York Times

Maybe she came on foot, charming strangers along the nation’s plains like a character out of Mark Twain.

Perhaps she hitched a ride, with or without permission, from a kindly driver going east from the Rocky Mountains.

Or maybe she was so irresistible to a New York family on a ski vacation that they simply had to sneak her back home once the trip was up.

However she arrived, Willow, a calico cat with a rich speckled coat and eyes that burn green, turned up about 1,800 miles from the Boulder, Colo., home from which she had escaped nearly five years before. Someone turned the cat in to Animal Care and Control of New York City last week, saying she was found on a nondescript block of East 20th Street. At the shelter, a microchip implanted between her shoulder blades when she was a kitten led to her address in Colorado and her identity.Her old family is overjoyed. Animal experts are curious.

“How can a cat get from Colorado to New York?” said Peter L. Borchelt, an animal behavior consultant in Brooklyn. “Count the ways.”

Doctors, trainers and officials from Animal Care and Control have settled on three hypotheses, ranging from plausible to semimiraculous, to explain the cat’s journey.

The most cinematic option holds that Willow made the cross-country trip on her own. The five-year span allowed plenty of time for Willow to have traveled on foot, Dr. Paul Maza, veterinary consultant for the Feline Health Center at Cornell University, said.

“Cats are very adaptable,” Dr. Maza said. “It could have survived by catching rodents along the way, or getting into garbage. If it’s friendly, it could mooch food off of people.”

The problem with this explanation, Dr. Maza said, is motive. He said he had encountered occasional cases of cats traveling long distances, governed by instinct, to return home. But why, he wondered, would a cat choose to venture so far without a destination?

Dr. Borchelt presented another impediment to this theory: the Mississippi River.

“It’s going to have a hard time getting across there,” he said. “It’s also going to have a hard time not getting eaten by wolves or hit by a car.”

Julie Bank, executive director of Animal Care and Control, suggested the cat might have burrowed inside a vehicle bound for Manhattan.

“That’s very possible,” said Dr. Jay Kuhlman, of the Gramercy Park Animal Hospital. “A cat’s agile enough to get into the back of a truck and hitchhike.”

The only obstacle to this narrative, he added, would be extreme weather conditions during the drive.

Dr. Maza said train travel was also a possibility, although this premise might have required either a breach of protocol or a travel-savvy kitten.

Cliff Cole, a spokesman for Amtrak, said any stray animals found on trains were promptly turned over to Amtrak police, who are instructed to contact local animal control centers. Willow could not have ridden Amtrak to Manhattan, Mr. Cole concluded, “unless she knew which stop to get off.”

A more likely sequence of events, many agreed, would be that a person found Willow in Colorado, then moved with her to the Northeast and lost her.

“Somebody going from Colorado to New York?” Dr. Borchelt mused. “That happens all the time.”

About five times a day, actually. On average, according to the Department of City Planning, 1,715 Coloradans per year moved to New York City from 2007 to 2009.

Since being identified, Willow has stayed at the city’s Manhattan shelter in East Harlem. She was expected to be transported to a “foster family,” the home of a volunteer, on Thursday, and remain there for two weeks, Ms. Bank said, while the agency ensures she did not contract any infectious diseases since leaving home.

Because Willow appeared clean and well fed — a little chunky, in fact — when she was found, experts said it was unlikely she had spent much time fending for herself on New York’s streets.

But Dr. Kuhlman warned against underestimating the guile of a cat in the city. Years ago, he said, a client’s domestic shorthair disappeared in the West Village and turned up, pregnant, on the Upper West Side.

“I don’t know how she made it across 42nd Street,” he said.

This article, "," first appeared in the New York Times.