Acquired: Worked with pet (didn’t own)
0216, South Africa
Posted Apr 03, 2015
Military assignments can be fun, and deeply rewarding. Those who have spent time in the military establishments of their countries may or may not agree, as the case may be, but I had one such deeply rewarding experience during my time as second-in-command of an infantry training base within South Africa during the mid-1980's.
This unit (now disbanded) had as an emblem the African caracal, or Rooikat, as they are known in the Afrikaans language. The name derives from the striking brick-red color of the coat, but there is much more to a caracal than the color of its coat, believe me. Caracals are the biggest of Africa's small felines, and Suzie weighed in at a hefty 36 pounds, which made her among the biggest females ever recorded.
Any way, this story should properly have started with the fact that this unit had aquired by somewhat nefarious means, I should add, a real live caracal as a mascot, or collective pet. Caracals are protected, and just how this was accomplished was never discussed openly, but upon arrival to take up my duties, I had the great good fortune to be assigned the additional burden of taking care of Suzie, the caracal, and soon to be unit mascot.
My boss was not a cat person, but he acepted the fact that the presence of the cat had a positive influence on unit morale, so he kept Suzie on when his predecessor, who brought her to the unit, was suddenly promoted to the giddy heights of brigade command. By the time I took custody of Suzie she was a year old, and had already received some harness training, but she was shy, and not good with the general rank and file. She would hiss and spit at people she did not know, and at first it was a real struggle to keep her under control. My vision at the time was that she should be confident enough to attend unit parades, which is something I accomplished more than a year later.
There was nothing for it- I had to accustom Suzie to the rank and file, and I did this by taking her with me (on her leash), when I did my weekly inspection of the barracks. I also issued strict instructions that nobody but me was to touch her, upon pain of banishment to the motor pool, and this paid huge dividends it terms of Suzie's self-confidence. Within a few weeks, Suzie stopped hissing and spitting when strangers approached her, and she also stopped trying to strangle herself with her leash when we entered unfamiliar terrain, and it seemed that she was well on her way to becoming a well-adjusted, confident animal. However, she was somewhat demanding and needed constant affirmation and contact with me, so she moved into my office from her previous lodgings behind the guard room.
But there was a problem; the unit also had a resident population of tame pigeons, and Suzie never passed up an oppurtunity to swat them from the sky when they were within her reach. This is behaviour is characteristic of caracals, but the Regimental Sergeant-major did not quite see it that way. The pigeons were his, and he did not take kindly to Suzie killing them, but the issue was settled amicably when he rescued his few remaining pigeons, and built them a coop behind the mess hall with pilfered military property -all without as much as a "By your leave. Sir." But we let it go to preserve the peace.
Keeping Suzie fed however, did present a few problems, but nothing that some rank pulling and threats of banishment to the motor pool could not resolve. She would only eat fresh meat, mostly chicken and lamb, and refused point blank to eat anything else. I once even read her an article in a newspaper about the strides the Johannesburg Zoo had made in developing a dry pellet food for their lions, but she would have none of it. She just did not believe it, and there was no way out other than slightly "adjusting" the chicken ration allotment for the officer's mess. No one ever complained, and Suzie was happy, which was all that mattered.
I had the deeply satisfying pleasure of Suzie's company for three years, during the last year of which she was confident enough to go on unit parades with me while on her leash. The ocasional hiccup in military marching was overlooked by all (even the Regimental Sergeant-major, whose personal fiefdom extended to all corners of the parade ground), since the positive effect on unit morale far outweighed a few missed steps. He also confided in me soon after that his pigeon breeding program had replaced all those my Suzie had so willfully murdered- this happened after a particularly important parade, at which Suzie was present, went of rather well considering it was led by cat on a leash.
Suzie had by this time also learned to enjoy being touched and handled by the rank and file, and she would set up a loud purr when the soldiers hit upon the right spot behind her ears on which to tickle her. She was loved and respected by all (especially me), but all good military assignments come to an end sooner rather than later, and despite all my entreaties, I was refused permission to take her to Namibia with me, whence I was headed for a third tour of duty. During a period of leave, I once visited her, and she remembered me, but she was happy, and in a period of adaptation to a new handler. So rather than upset his efforts, I took my leave of her, and never saw her again.
All things considered, I would not recommend keeping caracals as pets: they are big, strong, and willful cats that need a firm hand; they are not just a bigger version of domestic cats. A bigger problem is the fact that once they have bonded with you, they are not at all happy without your constant company, and Suzie never let me out of her sight. I cannot say if it happens to all caracals, but Suzie suffered from serious bouts of depression when she was alone for any length of time, which to my mind, makes them unsuitable as pets if you cannot provide constant companionship and affirmation.